Sunday, 21 February 2016

Chapter 132: Turning 40 - Lucy Loves Passion

I was going to slip surreptitiously into my 40s, would you believe. No, seriously! All I asked for originally was a quiet lunch at home with Mum and Dad to myself (being the youngest of six), and my dear friend Kirsty, and then to cosy up with Xavier and the kids after school in the evening. But with a love of circus and street performance, laughter and passion, there have been a couple adventures on the way that having a big birthday has enabled, and turning 40 has gained its own momentum. The first you know about: my trip up to Bristol to ask Ken Dodd for a pie in the face at the Slapstick Festival (see Chapter 128: An Audience with Ken Dodd - click here), a clown’s pilgrimage that was the direct result of a workshop in November when his name cropped up, invoked in hallowed terms. 

The Mangoré Duo album: Latin Melodies
 ( - click here) 

The second was a party. You see, just before Christmas, dropping off my son at a choir rehearsal for a carol concert, I came across a couple of buskers playing Spanish classical guitar on the Kings Road. They were coming to the end of the set, their fingers numbed to the bone, too cold to play on, but I’d heard enough and my heart went out to them. Such music, you see, was a particular passion of mine in my 20s. Fresh from living in Spain, a regular at the annual flamenco festival at Sadlers Wells (still going), I had even bought a guitar from Macaris on Charing Cross Road, with the express desire to learn, but had to return it the following day when a wise friend pointed out I could ill-afford it. We were studying accountancy at the time, but she was much more adept at balancing the books, still a work in progress for me. Anyway, hearing this pair, Will and Benjamin from The Mangoré Duo, conjured up the spirit of Lorca, the blood red Andalusian moon, black lace mantillas, wild stallions*, dusky, oppressive heat, longing and lovers. Search them out - they have the most beautiful CD as well. On the spur of the moment I asked them if they would play at a party, they agreed, and an idea began to form. With Valentine’s hot on the heels of my birthday, I wanted to share on the love and stir things up. “Are you crazy?” said my son, when he heard the logistics I had in mind. But where better than our kitchen to pack in family and friends like cattle, with lashings of alcohol and paella to soak up the atmosphere, and enough space for a few improvised sevillanas to let rip the duende

The first Friday in Lent is possibly not the most auspicious day for such a fiesta, but then it also happened to be the feast day of St Julian, patron of circus performers and carnival. Who could ask for anything more?! Well, I did! The stage set, the guests were now invited to tread the boards in their own interpretation of the Latin Lover theme, and many were unrecognisable. We had masked moustachioed matadors, foxy Zorros, medieval troubadors with alluring codpieces, mysterious black widows, los cornudos, tourists off the Costa del Sol, my daughters in flamenco dress, my son in a Spanish football kit, Xavier resplendent in a translucent (and somewhat transparent!) golden traje de luces, yours truly in a burlesque steampunk gypsy affair… and even a flaming flamingo, olé! After such a night, the following day could have been a little flat, but on two hours sleep we were soon on our way to a tiny spa town in the Alps where my husband’s sister, and her Swiss family, have been going for years. Xavier on crutches *before* a ski holiday got a few laughs at the airport - as well as his fair share of admiration when we explained how it happened (see Chapter 117: Clowning on Ice - click here). For holiday reads, I took Enid Blyton’s Circus Collection for the kids, and Toni Morrison’s Jazz for me, a huge fan of Morrison’s Beloved, which we studied at school. Already on the plane journey Morrison's forward had my mind buzzing about jazz, as much as circus, being an avant-garde state of mind. I thought back to the trip with the kids to Matisse, who embraced both in his art (see Chapter 30: Matisse and the Art of Circus - click here), so you can imagine my amusement when we arrived at the hotel to find the picture (above right) hanging in the corridor right outside our room. What a welcome! I was glad I'd brought my juggling balls as well, when the latest challenge from Jon Udry came through, one that I am still working on...

Circus everywhere
Leukebad is a small, family resort and where snow had been dumping down and the pistes were relatively empty. We booked our littlest into ski school, my son into lessons with his cousins, and with my husband out of action, my daughter and I booked in with a replacement instructor. Xavier told us he’d booked us in with a woman (not intentionally!) called Roma. I was surprised, for having read Enid Blyton the night before, we’d been introduced to Roma the Tiger Tamer, and he was most definitely a man. As we walked down the steps from the telecabine a poster boy for the Red Carpet ski school (literally, as it happens), greeted us with a broad smile. Marco, ah, the boys teacher, I thought relieved. Ah no, Madame, I’ve swapped with Roma and you’re with me. My son was delighted, even if Roma, a guy, was not a tiger tamer. He is a breakdancer too. Marco, as it turns out, was the owner of the ski school, where the byword is passion, and we were honoured. When not skiing, Marco spends half the year as a sailing instructor. As someone whose husband grew up on skis in the same mountains, and is himself a keen sailor, I found they had certain elements in common, in particular as both are following their dreams, they are very encouraging of others doing the same, however divergent the path.

Clowning everywhere
On the flight over I read newspaper columnist Melanie Reid on the four stages of learning - unconscious incompetence, when you are unaware how bad you are, conscious incompetence, when it is all too clear to you, conscious competence, when you start to make genuine progress, and unconscious competence, when you have worked so hard and practiced, it becomes second nature. I’m on the border of level two to three, in circus as much as skiing. In terms of technique, I learned from Marco to align my breathing with the flexion in the turns and appreciate the zen of skiing. I learned also that skiing has a lot in common with pole-dancing - at my level anyway. That is to say that I invariably feel more elegant and glamorous than I appear on video, and then I squirm with embarrassment. I learned that there is a time and a place to look ridiculous in snow plough, namely on a steep narrow black when your über-confident niece has skied off the edge of a cliff into the nets. Lying face down on the snow, hanging onto her for dear life with my sister-in-law, our sons having thrown themselves on our legs for counter-balance, was beyond terrifying. For my part, faith in my upper body strength, thanks to circus training, made the world of difference, and between us we managed to pull her up and out. All in one piece, the only pratfall was when I managed to trip over my own poles while slowing to a stop. Good preparation for the full-time clown course I am on for a week from tomorrow.

Back at the hotel that evening I learned that insanity is not necessarily doing something once, out of curiosity, but going back for more. So it happened that when with a hardy Canadian friend in the sauna, I found myself honour bound to follow her into the plunge pool in the snow outside, where hitherto I had only splashed on the steps, and plunge head first into the depths. So cold, I wondered for a moment if I could make it back to the steps and clamber out, but something else I’m learning, from skiing and circus alike, is that there are times when if you stop to think, the fear may literally paralyse you. You just have to go for it.

The last lesson learned was that if I fall asleep reading to my children Enid Blyton’s tales of Jimmy and Lotta’s adventures in Mr Galliano’s Big Top, of the wonder dog Lucky walking the tightrope and the horses marking time to the band’s music, I will wake up believing Giffords Circus (click here) has a place for us. Well, we can all dream! 

*Note: Speaking of flamenco stallions, check out the equestrian theatre of Bartabas coming to Sadlers Wells with his show Golgota 14-21 March ( - click here)

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Chapter 131: Cirque Beserk

Roll up, roll up! The Big Top has arrived in the West End! Ever since seeing Zippos at Christmas at the Winter Wonderland with the kids (click here), I have been counting down the days to seeing the Zippos adult show. No, not that sort of adult show, love. There is an element of exotic dancing to be sure, complete with ripped torsos, sequins and feathers, but it's on at Sadlers Wells, not Madame Jojos! Cirque Beserk, as the tagline goes, is great for kids, and even better for grown ups. I went last night with my husband. After our clowning on ice episode before Christmas (click here), he has been laid up with a broken leg, but, while still on crutches, the cast came off last week and this was our first date night of the new year. It was rather romantic, my funny valentine to him, and great to see that Cirque Beserk rolled the red carpet out in our honour. OK, so it wasn't for us, it happened to be opening night and if I saw less circus and watched more television, I could tell you who's who. But there were plenty of paparazzi and VIPs enjoying having their photo taken with the buff, young performers, and I was enjoying the spectacle before the show had even begun! 

Sitting up in the dress circle, we had a wonderful view of the stage. Social media and photography are actively encouraged and we have some great footage to share, though nothing beats seeing the show live. With 35 performers and 30 circus skills on offer, listing them all risks sounding like a shopping list, but my goodness, we were totally swept away by the thrills and skills on offer. I loved the buccaneer vibe of the Timbuktu Tumblers from Kenya, their joy and humour shining through their acrobatics and flaming limbo. The latina in me loved the "bolas argentinas", the weights on the ends of the chords traditionally used by Argentine cowboys, the rhythm of the beat they crack on the floor reminding me of a flamenco dancer conjuring up the duende. And I was in awe again (after seeing them in Zippos) watching the spectacular Tropicana Troupe from Cuba, flying off a teeterboard through the air with staggering dexterity and aplomb.

As I'm learning a few juggling tricks at the moment, hard enough with my hands, watching the French foot-juggler was completely mind boggling and a study in control and speed. As for the knife throwing, well the blazing knives contouring the body on a rotating wheel was something else - the fact that it was a Czech husband and wife act made me laugh (once it was safely over), for it takes trust and the concept of marital harmony to a whole new level! There were stunning hand-balance sequences, both on canes and stacks of chairs, an English aerialist in straps eliciting gasps at her spins and drops, and a Finnish duo combining extraordinary shapes and equilibrium in their handstand duet. I had been very much looking forward to the Mongolian archery act, which lived up to its exotic promise, delighting as the contortionist gracefully extricated herself from a glass jar to take aim with her feet - it was bang on target.  All this was framed by dancers and aerial ballet transitioning the main acts with grace and finesse, set to lively music with a Romany air. And what would a circus be without its clown holding it all together, despite ladders and bicycles collapsing left, right and centre.?! It was Tweedy, last seen at Giffords Circus (click here). I adore Tweedy because he has gentle comedy genius. Adults and children alike, he has us laughing with his unique blend of slapstick whether on unicycle, rolla bolla or slackline, and a variety of brilliant tricks up his sleeve, in his hat and down his trousers...

The finale was staggering, and a serious treat for my husband who loves his bikes. A motorcyclist in a globe of terror is a sight to behold. I have seen a little on Instagram via the feed of a virtual friend from Colombia, so I knew something of the form, but with a film uploaded, you know already they have survived. Watching The Lucius Team live is a different viewing experience. By the end of the first act there were two bikers in the globe, enough of a heart-attack, but for the grand finale there were four, and a girl in the centre - that's just insane!

Risk, I thought, the wonder of this show comes down to risk. Ever single element of this production contains significant risk, but it is lightly worn due to the hard work, experience and commitment clear in their preparation. This is a show that is slick, glossy, proud, but never smug. And living in multi-cultural London, I loved seeing circus folk hailing from travelling circuses all over the world, come together for one show. It's a microcosm for the way the world should work, a harmonious, exciting, vibrant exchange, full of love and welcoming all. Thank you Zippos and Cirque Beserk. Wonder-full. Bravo! Encore!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Chapter130: Svalbard: All Genius All Idiot

Photo: Ben Smith and Santi Ruiz
Kuba Jee Jelen at Jatka78 
All Genius All Idiot. Never has a show been better named. Crazy, anarchic and all over the place with high octane energy. Arriving just in time and taking one of the last seats at the very front, I felt I was at the brunt of a rollercoaster, along for the ride.

Svalbard are a young international company comprising four performers (Ben Smith, Santi Ruiz, John Simon Wiborn, Tom Brand) who met training at the DOCH, Stockholm's university of dance and circus. They’ve been together a couple of years, and when I first saw their pitch for this show at the circus marketplace Canvas (click here) in Spring, I remember wondering where on earth I’d begin if I was ever to write about them. Maybe with the start. A guy on a tiny platform atop a Chinese pole wearing a huge pair of antlers and a fur coat, playing a mandolin (not a ukelele or a banjo #amlearning). I liked the novelty, loved the music, and also the soundscape later playing with water, voice, and the squeal of a piglet lamp - surreal doesn’t quite cut it. 

It was like a piece of performance art crossed with a gig - there wasn’t a narrative, more a series of character presentations and interactions. The rutting stag, he of the antlers, was alpha dominant, letting rip under a fur coat his inner drag queen in diaphanous top, fishnets, and donning vertiginous perspex heels. The others conjured up a wolf pack, young, cute, sexy and wild, I could imagine them all spilling over into The Box afterwards and partying the night away, no holds barred, and could see how they would develop a cult following of guys and girls alike. It was like being back at uni in the grime, watching Garbage at the Corn Exchange.

One of my favourite points was the use of masks on the back of the heads, and clothes back to front to reverse the bodies, so beautifully done. The sequences on Chinese pole were mesmerising from the word go, opening with the use of a body as an elevator to give another a lift down. Later, a precarious striptease on the top of the pole released a cloud of shimmering gold confetti as the trousers whipped off to reveal a pair of pink speedos. Point? No clue, it was just pure joy. I loved the stunning, exhilarating turns on rope, experiencing the thrill of the drop and the grace of movement that translated into acrobatic dance and hand-to-hand elements, even if I still wince at the body-slamming and the abandon with which they surfed the stage, nutters. Registering a strapped ankle I reflected that it's savage what they put their bodies through, but Svalbard are clearly having fun and want to get the party started. By the end, I could hardly bear to watch as they climbed on each others shoulders, my stomach lurched, and then the one on the top reached out and tapped the neon Svalbard sign on, both pointless and brilliant at the same time. All Genius All Idiot. Indeed. 

Check out their website:

Update: Catch at Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Book tickets here:

Monday, 1 February 2016

Chapter 129: Aneckxander

On my way to trapeze class this evening, my mind buzzing with thoughts of circus, I walked passed a poster for the musical of "Mrs Henderson Presents" and registered the tagline: "For the show to go on, the clothes must come off...". Ha! I thought, that could have been written for Aneckxander, and smiled. 

I nearly missed Aneckxander at Jacksons Lane, the work of performer Alexander Vantournhout and dramaturg Bauke Lievens, part of the London International Mime Festival. The promo shot, as you can see, was the back view of a bald, naked man in boxing gloves and weighted platform shoes mid-way through an acrobatic turn. It looked brutal, uncomfortable, and abstract. There was a clear crossover with contemporary dance, and, unschooled in that language, I thought I would be in danger of switching off.  Why did I go then? Because it was recommended by someone I rate, and because anyone who lays claim to a circus spirit must, by rights, step outside their comfort zone. I shudder now to think what I would have otherwise missed - simply the most beautiful, raw, touching, sensitive reflection on the body, well, specifically Alexander’s body, in all it’s glorious limitations, vulnerabilities and possibilities. 

Alexander Vantournhout has a neck. A rather long neck, as he was once told, and from this he has drawn out a narrative that explores, through every muscle and fibre of his being, the ambivalence that any artist experiences towards exposure. Actually, it couldn't have been better timed for a blogger struggling with being increasingly on display, each post revealing a little more of my quirks, eccentricities and desires, a tall poppy blushing red. We take our seats, the performance begins and something isn't right. It's Vantournhout - he's wearing clothes! Do I experience a moment of relief? It's gone in a flash, as are the clothes, whipped off in a cheeky sleight of hand that wouldn't have been out of place in Mrs Henderson's Windmill, and now we are confronted with Vantournhout’s extraordinary body. It has an alien quality, you can imagine it uncurling from a foetal position, curious, exploratory, innocent, unselfconscious, ripe for the study. I, in turn, am fascinated, observing every twitch and ripple of this latter day Virtruvian Man (apparently Vantournhout also does cyr wheel), a face by turn radiant with joy or tinged with a tragic air of an angel whose wings have been clipped. Watching the strange forms into which Vantournhout can contort, is not dissimilar to the experience of reading Katherine Dunn's weird and wonderful Geek Love, a novel that challenges our notions of freakish and normal. 

There is a simple melody - I found the music quite haunting - that Vantournhout records on a keyboard, and then interprets through his body while it replays. Patterns repeat and Vantournhout plays with our expectations, as we anticipate painful body slams or searing drops into splits. He then alters and fine tunes the arrangement. It is exquisitely done, and there was a mathematical precision to the lines and shapes he made that reminded me of elements of Gandini’s self-reflexive Meta (click here). There were laugh-out-loud funny moments, grotesque at points, like when Vantournhout pulls out an impossibly long (fake) tongue further and further, and, in tandem, toys with his willy in a game of fort-da reciprocity. But there were points of almost unbearable poignancy too. For me, maybe because of the experience of clowning I’m accumulating, the most bittersweet moment was when Vantournhout donned a clown’s ruff. I felt a stab of pain for this naked Pierrot, drawn to his tender, elastic fragility, that both strips away and underpins his superhuman strength. There is no end to the performance, no crash bang wallop finale. Vantourhout carries on, pottering around on stage, as the audience drifts out. I would have liked to stay in gentle companionship, but the tug of family life was pulling me home. What was he without our gaze? I wondered. Did he simple cease to be? Stunning.