Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Chapter 135: Calder's Universe and the Art of Circus

Calder's Universe

It was Einstein’s birthday the other day, and I felt like shouting Eureka! Here is something to celebrate! For if ever there is a figure who incarnates circus as a state of mind it is Einstein, in the flexibility of his thinking and generosity of a spirit open to the wonder of life and the limitless possibilities. I was struck again by this connection a few days later when at the Tate Modern, standing in front of “Calder’s Universe” a mechanical mobile, in front of whose cycle of 90 rotations Einstein once spent 45 minutes standing and observing. The art that derives from the motion is "kinetic", though sadly I am unable to appreciate that dimemsion as the piece is now too fragile to be allowed to move. But although the two balls threaded through the wire are now static, suspended in time and space, still I am transported by the wonder of Einstein’s perspective. Did the motion of the spheres that held his gaze still for so long inspire a deeply complex philosophical reverie, or encourage his mind simply to play? Isn’t it a combination of the two that leads to the most exciting discoveries? I experience a frisson.  Relatively speaking, Einstein and I are inhabiting the same space for a moment and it feels like a portal to another realm has opened up. Unheimlich. Uncanny. Another example of the circus zeitgeist

Aerialist. c.1926-31
Photo: Alexander Calder Performing Sculpture p.98

Alexander Calder was a sculptor with a passion for the mechanics of circus. Born to artist parents, he was fascinated by the way things worked and originally went into engineering before a spectacular sunset called him to study art instead. After graduation, he paid the bills drawing sketches for circus giants Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, but “it wasn’t the daringness of the performers nor the trick and gimmick, it was the fantastic balance in motion that the performer exhibited” that fascinated him, along with the workings of the rigging and pullies that made the impossible possible. Calder began fashioning his vision out of wires. The simplicity of Calder’s sculptures is what grabs me, and Room 3 is where the circus is at, marrying his love of sawdust and mechanics. The way Calder can use a wiggle to suggest a hand or the impression of a limb captures the essence of circus. “Embodying the vitality of dancers or acrobat Calder’s sculptures were performers in their own right”.  I admire the bawdy as well as the beauty in his work, like the family of acrobats "The Brass Family" displaying their naked frame along with their naked strength, the cheeky impressions of the father's pubic hair, and the mother's breasts arguing with gravity, making me chuckle. And then there is the ebullient  Josephine Baker (mentioned in the previous post on clowning), designed to wiggle and jiggle with conical breasts that, as the guide points out, prefigure Madonna's own fashion, herself not adverse to a spot of clowning around (again, see previous post). I loved the detail, like the umbrella of the tightwire walkers, the animals and the scenes set, and returned later to sketch out my own impression (pictured below). There is also a video screened of "Cirque Calder", which established his reputation, a miniature circus that Calder used to carry around and would show to small groups, in performances that could last up to a couple of hours. 

But the circus thread, albeit a metal one, is not limited to Room 3, instead running through the whole exhibition. Fascinated by the abstract art of the likes of Piet Mondrian, Calder brought shapes into a play of balance and motion that just shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Marcel Duchamps called this "mobile" art, a French word that denotes "motive" as much as "motion". And what is the motive? Making the impossible possible, no? How very circus. 

The delicate balance of reed-like shapes with a feather at the bottom in "Snow Flurry 2" reminded me of the legendary Sandhorn act performed by Marula in Cirque Rigolo (see post on "Wings In My Heart" at the Edinburgh Fringe - click here) and more recently by her elder sister Lara Rigolo in Cirque de Soleil's Amaluna. I see red balls suspended like clown noses, ready to bounce into other objects when you are least expecting it - at least they would have originally - and Calder loved the randomness and unpredictability of the movement. A moment of slapstick is captured on the audio guide when Sartre describes how one of the shimmering sculptures that had stopped moving, sprung to life in a breeze and caught him unawares, rather like a clown's clout. Calder would often engineer the breezes, leaving doors ajar if the inherent draughtiness of his studio wasn't doing the trick. Calder worked with sound that resulted from these collisions, incorporating gongs into certain pieces, and was able to transcribe, improvise and actually stage orchestral music that responded to the chance movements in his mobile art. Like Picasso, he designed for theatre on occasion, not as a backdrop or window-dressing, but rather, ideally, as a central component of the performance. Ahead of his time. Ultimately the sheer optimism and joy in Calder's work, ever responsive to its environment and a vision of modernity, conjures up a sense of wonder and thrill that for me is what circus as a state of mind is all about. 

"Britain's happiest exhibition*" is now in its final weeks, until 3 April, catch it while you can.

"Gamma" 1947 - Postcard from Tate Modern

* As per poster advertisement on tube, quoting the Financial Times.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Chapter 134: The Gift of Clowning

"Clowning is a radical reinterpretation of the world: to chose joy and dare to hope in the face of despair"

Sonia Norris in "Women and Circus"

The gift arrived in the post in the nick of time. A grey sweatshirt with the words in black "Winging It". Well, that made me laugh, because that is how life works sometimes, isn't it? Take a running leap, catch that thermal and then glide. But sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I take that leap and fall flat on my face. The secret to clowning, as I learned in the workshop a couple of weeks ago, lies in going with that spiral and then, crucially, picking yourself up again. 

Photo: Butzi the Lion Tamer
The workshop was a full-time five day course at The Poor School in Kings Cross, a continuation and deepening of our three evening workshop with Ira Seidenstein back in November, exploring Ira's methodology to release creativity through improv and clowning (click here for Chapter 114 - Clowning Around). This time it was led by Johannes Alinnhac, aka "Butzi", Ira's Parisian protégé.  I had my work cut out from the start. I hadn't done the homework prior to the course, I had to miss the first two days to boot, and am well aware of the awkwardness ahead having a body that works, but no clue how to use it. Let's call the whole thing off, I thought, and willed the organiser Christopher Howell, and Butzi, to take me up on that offer. But these guys are magicians by trade, they know all the tricks, and I'm a lousy escapologist. So it was that on Wednesday morning I was squashed onto the Northern Line at rush hour, watching the video of Butzi explaining to me the core mechanics we would be doing, which is a sequence, around 10-15 minutes long, of very physical exercises that we practiced twice a day to get into the flow. It was a "serious" video, yet I was laughing because Butzi has that way about him, and some of the manoeuvres he was demonstrating would be pure comedy when I attempt them. Here's to "winging it"!

The class dynamics were similar to last time round and it was easy to slip into place. We warmed up moving to music. I loved that. I heard echoes of Paris in the strains of Django Reinhardt, but then the playlist moved on and that accent slipped away. 

Photo: Core mechanics exercises with Butzi
After our warm ups came our exercises where improv arose from shape, movement and sounds that emerged organically, through different prompts. Many of the exercises were new and I quickly learned, after daydreaming my way through listening to the instructions at one point, that "winging it" was not an option. Funnily enough, it turned out when your teacher's profession is to read other people, they are quite wise to bullshitters, however much you think you have covered your tracks by hiding behind others! 

What was becoming more and more apparent to me was how all these exercises were designed to teach precision and purpose in physical language, and draw particular focus to the use of hands and knees. The exercises were straightforward in theory, but for me they were a real challenge and outside of my comfort zone. As my English teacher at school once explained to a friend, if there was a lake with people playing a game in the centre, she would be the one with the ball, and I would be on shore, observing the rules before jumping in. Twenty years on and I still squirmed when catapulted onto centre stage. Throw in a sea of faces watching (a whole half a dozen, imagine that!) and I, for one, was then pitching around in a tsunami of self-consciousness. Still, it's credit to Butzi as a teacher, and the supportive dynamics of the group as a whole, that soon I was actually volunteering to go first. 

Some exercises go surprisingly well. Highlights for me included acting out a scene from Waiting For Godot, and a piece of free-clowning where we ended up burying a hamster...?! Both were with a partner, and there was a sense of reciprocal play that I enjoyed. I liked the exercise when we were invited to imitate a clown we have seen, and were allowed to talk as well. I leapt to my feet and relived Tweedy the Clown's latest (mis)adventures in Cirque Beserk (see Chapter 131 - click here), although, it has to be said, I relied more on my storytelling skills rather than physical impersonation to communicate. Still, I felt alive and was having fun, and that's what the audience picked up on. My favourite moment though, was the practice of handstands and cartwheels across the room. In my preparation I had the air of a seasoned gymnast, and then proceed to bunnyhop my way across the floor, inadvertently the best bit of comedy I served up on the course! 

Photo: Madonna via adamwithane/Instagram
The lowlights and struggles brought up plenty of questions. Was I listening? Not just to instructions, but to cues my partners were giving, or to situations that my own movements were opening up. And if you handed a gift to your partner - whether an imaginary glass of water or a custard pie - did you make it clear what it is before passing it over? Another question I found myself asking was: am I likeable? Ouch! You see, there is this sense that if the audience "likes" you, they will follow you anywhere. Of course, first you need to have a good conceit of yourself, and utter faith in what you are doing. It forced me to confront how insecure I am on a number of levels, as a woman, as a mother, feeling like each day I am dropping balls, and that's tough. Mums clowning around, now there's a zeitgeist, as featured recently in On parrots, gorillas and women's day, and incarnated by Madonna riding in on a tricycle in her "Tears of a Clown" concert in Melbourne last night (click here for article at A few times, flying solo, instead of soaring, I looked down, lost heart and bombed. I self-sabotaged. I gave up, too caught up in the fear of not completely getting the rules of the game to enjoy the gift of clowning around in the moment. But the joy was that I was in a safe and supportive environment where I was allowed to fail, and then try again. Butzi asked us at one point to write three 
words on our arm, words that would be our mantra going forward. Mine read: Commit To Play. Therein lies the real present. 

Butzi, Christopher, Stella, Robert, Angelo, Amanda and Ira, thank you all.

Further links:

On The Seidenstein Method:
For more information on The Seidenstein Method of creativity through clowning see Ira has posted a wealth of videos on YouTube, ranging from demonstrations of practical exercises, discussion of theory and videos of the late and greats to study.

The February event is on Facebook as "Creativity, Improv and Clown Workshop: The Seidenstein Method" where you will find the wonderful video Butzi made that captures the energy and essence of the week.
If you are interested in the next workshop, contact Christopher Howell and join the ISAAC London Group on Facebook.

On Female Clowns:
Back in January, I managed to slip into the second half of La Soirée, the cabaret on Southbank. One of my prime motivations was to see the female clown Mooky Cornish, because, quite frankly, I don't see many around. While I missed Mooky's main act, I caught enough of her vibe and humour to want to see more. Funnily enough, in her article on "Women and Circus" Sonia Norris cites Mooky as her all time favourite female clown. You can read the full article at (click here).

As highlighted in the comments at the bottom, Ira discusses women clowning as well as contemporary clowning and the crossover between clowning and acting in his video "The Three Illusions". Click here to access video.

Also check out the 102 videos uploaded featuring performances from women clowns at (click here for direct link)

You can see actress, clown and musician Flloyd Kennedy in a one-woman show directed by Ira Seidenstein called Yes, Because: "a journey through the seven ages of woman, through sonnets, songs and stories". The show will be at The Lantern Theatre, in Liverpool, on 1st April, auspicious timing! Click here for more details:

On Magic:
Butzi's website:
Christopher Howell:
The Magic Circle:

Monday, 7 March 2016

Chapter 133: Mother's Day, Gandini Juggling and Circus Everywhere

Well, it was Mother's Day yesterday and I started the morning fighting back the tears. I've been feeling rotten recently. Thrown by a lurgy of shakes and shivers, the fever broke last week while watching in bed Complicite's Simon McBurney in "The Encounter" (click here), streamed live from the Barbican. It was such a surreally vivid experience I wondered if I hadn't inadvertently taken half a ton of peyote and was on some sort of Carlos Castenada transformative journey. I'm not ill now, just worn out by it all and have dropped a number of balls in the process. A card to my own mother, in her 80s, being one of them. Lucky you're one of six, isn't it? She pointed out to me, with typical Scots pragmatism. My son was first out of bed in our house, surprising me with a beautiful handmade card featuring a Big Top, and a rainbow of juggling balls, the highest one golden, a nod to the children's book "The Clown of God". This (originally French) folktale, rewritten and stunningly illustrated by Tomie de Paolo, tells the story of a juggler in medieval Italy who's ultimate gift to the Christ child is his final performance, and thinking of it always sets me off. Meanwhile my own clown was off out the door at 8.30am for the second full day of rehearsals in his school play, understandably reluctant, as all he wanted was to be at home with us.

You are my sunshine
Later that morning, my youngest curled up in my arms and sang a song from nursery - a rif of "You are my sunshine" where I become the best Mum in the world, and her sister seconded that. I welled up as my heart broke again with love for these children, for my mother, for the mother-in-law I never knew, for all those who have loved and lost or, worse, never known... and then notes of Spanish guitar music and a bolognese cooking wafted up from downstairs, thanks to my husband, and I came to, dried my cheeks and joined the party. Clearing the kitchen table for lunch a package fell down. My youngest was on it in an instant and opening it up - her 4th birthday is coming up on Wednesday, everything is a potential present! - and it turned out to be a red nose. I'd bought it as a fall-back if we ran short at the clowning workshop a couple of weeks before (post to follow!), but in the clutter hadn't noticed it arrive. Put it on Mummy! So there we were, after a deliciously comforting lunch, sitting on the rug, clowning around, and having fun. A while later, our energy spent and all ready for a nap, I log on quickly to Facebook to answer a couple of messages, and register an event at the British Museum that gets my heart pumping and mind buzzing again. 

It is Gandini Juggling. I have been reading recently about their participation in the current ENO production of Philip Glass opera Akhnaten*, and there are some wonderfully atmospheric photos circulating on their timeline and Twitter feed. I have been desperately trying to find an evening to see the opera, but this is the fortnight of school plays, spring concerts and other commitments, so I'm resigned to the fact that until JK Rowling magics up a genuine Hourglass TimeTurner, it is not possible to be in two places at once. This half hour performance was a matinee at the civilised time of 4pm though, and we could just about make it, if we got our skates on. It was not an excerpt from the opera itself but Millions of Years**, an ENO-led community project combining professionals and volunteers, that uses the music in an interpretative response to the themes of the opera: the passage of time, the legacies of what has been left and what we leave behind. What an appropriate reflection on Mother's Day, I thought, when we are meant to be celebrating the double-helices connecting generations.

We made it with five minutes to spare and found the place was packed. The great thing about having kids in tow though, is that you can weave your way through the crowd and sit on the floor at the front. The cardboard heads of an assortment of majestic Egyptian animals delighted my 7 year old daughter as she identified each in turn. Then came on the jugglers - I hadn't expected so many! In a piece, beautifully choreographed by juggler José Triguero, that underscored Egpytian ritual, the juggling counts draw out the beat of the music in a way that made me think back to McBurney's "The Encounter", where the Mayoruna tribe have their own rites to rewind time. I loved the lighting as well, accentuating the presence of the Sun God Ra, from the dawn of days. 

The choir were wonderful, in modern greys, sands and Nile blues, providing the People, the social commentary, carrying reverence through their voice to their hands. A trumpeter sounded from the balcony. Heavenly. As for Anthony Roth Costanzo (pictured), the countertenor who plays the title role in Akhnaten, his voice has such a sweet delicacy and power that I was moved beyond words, and he has all the centred grace and true authority of Pharaoh. As the choir crescendoed, an expanding nest of yellow balloons, each with a tiny light inside, was raised up and then released, spilling out over the crowd. My daughter, delighting in the juggling of blue plastic bags in the background, then excitedly recognised Bibi and Bichu take centre stage - last seen at Giffords Circus in summer - and whispered "So Mum, they are part of Gandini too? I knew they were the best!" Joined by more familiar faces, including the original Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala, time in this age of plastic whirred by to the spin of the red clubs, while infinity was invoked with the refrain "Thou shalt exist for millions of millions of years". It was a stunning spectacle, and what a setting in the British Museum. We left on a high, floating with all the joy of a yellow balloon, and as we walked back to the tube I clocked a restaurant called "Malabar Junction". Malabares means juggling in Spanish, and it did indeed feel like we had witnessed a crossroads where music, juggling and time itself came together in a heartbeat. I chuckled at the unexpected wonder of the day, and took a picture for posterity. 

*Akhnaten is running at the ENO until 18 March. Tickets are rapidly disappearing into the quicksands of time, for more information click here -

**For further information on the performance of Millions of Years at The British Museum click here - The information includes the extract below:
This performance is the culmination of a large-scale community project developed by English National Opera in collaboration with Improbable Theatre, Gandini, Brixton Youth Theatre, Raw Material, Streetwise Opera, The Sorrell Foundation, London Metropolitain University, University College London’s Petrie Museum and the British Museum.