Thursday, 28 April 2016

Chapter 140: Metta Theatre's Jungle Book

Nathalie Nicole James as Mowgli
Photo: Richard Davenport
Metta Theatre's urban Jungle Book is now on tour in a production that fuses circus and street dance to drive home the bare necessities at the heart of Kipling's story, adapted and directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan, and I went to see it last weekend in Windsor at The Theatre Royal with my daughter. 

Nathalie Alison as Kaa with Monkey Gang
Photo: Richard Davenport
The set, designed by William Reynolds, is superb. Minimalistic and striking, as we took our seats the streetscape on stage was silhouetted against an illuminating red backdrop. Lamp-posts leaned nonchalantly at angles, wires hanging. Street railings were dotted around. This was not a real street, but Street, underscored through the music and urban noises, from traffic to the hiss of graffiti spray, conjured up by Filipe Gomes. A street cleaner crossed the stage, Stefan Buxon's Baloo the Beat-Boxing narrator, who, with a mic at the top of his broom, declared  "this ain't real life/Just a story that we tell for a few hours".  This was Metta theatre after all, theatre aware of its own theatricality. As such there weren't any (pretences to being) real animals in the show either. These were performers, who walked across the stage normally at the beginning, simply "bodies in space" until called into character by Baloo. Once summoned they assumed a human identity inflected with animal traits, and the coloured backdrop changed as though reflecting their aura - fiery red signified Mowgli, cool green for Kaa, orange for Shere Khan and so forth. 

Dean Stewart as Shere Khan
Photo: Richard Davenport
In a flashback at the beginning, baby Mowgli was cleverly represented by a red snowsuit of a puppet, operated by several performers. She was seen delighting the skateboarding wolf pack, led by Akela (Matt Knight) and Raksha (Ellen Wolf), as she began to learn rudimentary handshakes that distinguished one tribe from another. Then seamlessly she morphed into the fireball of energy that was Natalie Nicole James, wonder-full, fun, energetic, acrobatic, jumping on Baloo from behind like a young cub. My daughter nudged me, beaming, "She's really cheeky, isn't she Mum?!", even more when Mowgli balanced on the railings like a tight-wire artist. Counter-balancing Baloo's air of a loveable bumbling bear, Kloé Dean's Bagheera had the edge of the uber-cool mysterious street ninja and graffiti artist, sleek and powerful. These two surrogate parents were overpowered by the outcasts on the fringes, the grime-chattering monkeys who stole away Mowgli in a supermarket trolley, and turned to Nathalie Alison's Kaa for help, leading to the first circus solo of the show. There is no other word than mesmerising to describe the spell Kaa cast from her Chinese pole of a lamp-post, which in a sleight of hand turned from static to spinning, as she held her audience, both on stage and off, in rapt attention. Each time she plunged headfirst in a drop there were gasps in the audience, and a huge round of applause at the end of the sequence. Of course the subtext was clear to adults, as was the subversive power she held over gangsta rapper Shere Khan when he tried to intimidate her. Dean Stewart's Shere Khan in turn was satisfyingly menacing, dangerously so. Krumping is a new one on me (thank you Metta theatre for the A-Z of urban artforms - click here), and yes, I know this was a kids show, but in his dancing there was something for the mummies too!

At the end of the first act there was a show-stopping aerial solo from Mowgli, on fire as she scared off Shere Khan with her weapon "the red flower". The piece could easily have been conceived as an aerial silks piece, but in a more innovative interpretation Mowgli was on a dance trapeze with red rippons hanging down that blurred as she spun round faster and faster at the end. 

Nathalie Alison as Vee the vulture and
Natalie Nicole James as Mowgli
Photo credit: Richard Davenport
In the second half ailing Akela was getting pushed out by a fickle wolf pack egged on by Shere Khan. Disillusioned by this lack of respect and honour Mowgli, after a poignant farewell, left the streets for the world of the suits and angular elbowing. Out of the frying pan into the fire, as my daughter observed: "these people are really mean, aren't they Mummy?" Welcomed in by her birth mother, Mesua, less so by her partner Buldeo, played by the performers of Bagheera and Baloo respectively, one of my favourite parts was the scene where Mesua tried to redress the past by dressing up her daughter. Each outfit she put on had a corresponding dance and music, from Charleston to ballet, but each time Mowgli's own rhythm and movement broke free of the (strait)jacket and she was wheeled off, rebellious, suspended in a toe hang on the clothes rail. After a disaster of a posh lunch, with smoothly synchronised choreography from the waiters, Mowgli abandoned this world too and found refuge with the homeless Vee, the vulture, wearing an old raincoat with pigeon feathers woven into the back. After beggars' change had been thrown to them in pity, they ascended the aerial hoop like two sides of the same coin of social ostracisation. The beautiful sequence showed their vulnerability and pain, but also the underlying strength and refuge found in compassion for each other. I found their reciprocal vulture handshake very moving as well, a respectful solidarity between two souls treading a lonely path.

The chase sequence that followed as Shere Khan picked up the scent of Mowgli was initially a bit scary for my daughter, who grabbed my hand while I whispered soothing reassurances, but soon the thrill of the chase took over and she leapt up and down with excitement as Mowgli slipped away each time, thanks to deft parkour manoeuvres and acrobatics. One of the lamp-posts she used had a trapeze bar without the ropes, another innovative twist in design. I loved the energy and momentum generated by Kendra J. Horsburgh's choreography, particularly the police hunt (see inside rehearsals - click here), with body searches in quick-time and torches flashing. When Shere Khan was eventually captured and "caged", while his brutality was not excused, there was a certain sense that he embodied the sins of society. "I have never known love/Full of hate for the state that failed me/Derailed me" he said, and there was a touching moment when he realised he was past the stage of possible redemption "I found my way too late/Ground down." With Mowgli victorious over Shere Khan, finding security and her own voice, she had the final word urging others to speak up and be counted. On which note, I asked my daughter how she enjoyed the show:

"I didn't enjoy that Mum... I absolutely loved it!"

Dean Steward as Shere Khan and Natalie Nicole James as Mowgli
Photo: Richard Davenport
Jungle Book comes to London Wonderground this summer 13-28 August. See (click here) for a list of all the tour dates. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Chapter 139: Finnish Circus in London

Agit-Cirk's Sceno
Photo: Jussi Eskola

Life is full of twists and turns. Legging it up back up to London from West Sussex last week to get to Jacksons Lane, traffic was brought to a standstill on a detour through Guildford. Poor kids, I thought, this is all thanks to me and my bloody passion for circus. Where is this all leading?!  Then the kids suddenly shouted out with delight, and pointed. There on the left was a large tent with Zippos emblazoned across it. I had my answer. 

Why was it so important to me to get back to London? Because there was a reception at Jacksons Lane, in conjunction with the Finnish Institute and Circus Info Finland, celebrating Finnish circus, with excerpts from two shows I wanted to see very much. Finnish circus has been very much on my radar thanks to Jacksons Lane. I first saw the aerialist Ilona Jäntti in a piece in Highgate woods (see Chapter 52: click here), and then again in Postcards Festival last year (see Chapter 92: click here), and she still remains for me one of the most exciting performers I’ve ever seen. Since then I have come into contact with a number of other Finnish companies and solo artists - Agit-Cirk via Sakari Männisto, (also known via Gandini Juggling - click here), Circus Uusi Mailmas (see Chapter 69: click here), Hanna Moisala, Wise Fools - all producing work that intrigues me.

From left: Hanna Moisala, Sampo Kurppa,
Saku Mäkelä, Sasu Peistola and Jenni Lehtinen
I made it back just in time for the presentation by Ade Berry, Artistic Director of Jacksons Lane, welcoming Lotta Vaulo and Lotta Nevalainen from Circus Info Finland. It was fascinating to hear from them about the investment that goes into Finnish circus performers and the development of their work. The statistics were impressive. The contemporary circus scene in Finland kicked off in the early 90s with the introduction of a circus school, and since then has flourished. Finland now has over 7000 amateurs, 44 youth circus schools, 250 circus professionals, 20 professional companies and around 30-40 circus premieres every year. The centre providing this information, Circus Info Finland, was established in 2006. Promoting circus as an art it is funded by Ministry of Culture and Education as well as having EU and private funding for specific projects. The centre produces newsletters, statistics, workshops, seminars, mentoring and “long-term co-operation with journalists and writers on writing about circus arts”. We toasted with selmiak, a lethal liquorice molasses to cheers of “kippis” (with an echo of "keep pissed") then followed the presentations.

Hanna Moisala in WireDo
Photo: Mia Bergius
The first was Hanna Moisala’s WireDo twisting the art of shibari into tightwire. Shibari is a knot-tying technique that has morphed from a form of torture for prisioners into an erotic bondage art - kinbaku-bi meaning literally “the beauty of tight binding”. Now, despite having spent an evening years ago in the company of the deliciousy ribald and attractive Midori, one of the leading experts in this subject, and having a personally signed copy of her most instructive book on rope bondage, I’ve never tried it out myself. I can see the erotic beauty of Midori in a kimono, next to the milky white Dita Von Teese, trussed up like a swan (the book’s cover photo), but the only knots I’ve ever made have been on the beginners aerial course at National Circus. Which, for the record, was definitely not a sexy affair. 

Still, watching Hanna in action for even five minutes was mesmerising, sensual, and I can appreciate what exquisite bedfellows shibari and tightwire make. Both are ascetic as much as aesthetic practices requiring precision and a zen-like focus. I didn’t actually see Hanna balancing on the tightrope as such (you did in the full show), but rather saw her swishing the ropes out towards the audience in a ritual fashion before tying herself into a harness which then attached and suspended her from the tightwire. It gave a Hanna a range of motions in relation to the tightwire that created a new and innovative language, and what I loved above all was that every single movement, executed slowly and deliberately, purposefully expressed mastery of, and surrender to, the discipline. 

The full show of WireDo was part of a double-bill with Salla Hakkanpää in Zero Gravity & WHS's Pinta. I would have loved to see Pinta as well, a "visual poem" using an innovative lightscape in a duet with the solo aerialist. See (click here).

Next up was Agit Cirk’s Sceno. First there was the clowning from Sampo Kurppa, Chaplinesque in style both in suit and humour. Reworking the familiar trope of pulling a pocket handkerchief out (and out and out) with a white cord, was amusing. It was not used for binding this time, but turned out to to be the lead to plug in his acoustic ukulele, which he then went on to play with humour and deft aplomb. Next followed a scene of human juggling where Saku Mäkelä and Sasu Peistola flung Jenni Lehtinen around like a skipping rope, her face barely inches from skimming the floor. Shudder. Their mononchrome outfits, reflected  the light and dark of their routines, the joy and daring, the yin and yang. I am looking forward to catching more next time round.

As well as putting faces to familiar names, I also enjoyed hearing about completely new ones. would like to hear more of Metsä, The Forest Project by Sade Kampala and Viivi Roiha, because I like the idea of woman in nature, as first seen with Ilona Jäntti. Meanwhile the sound of Sirkus Aikamoinen's The Land of the Happy, looking at the heart of circus through a contemporary lens, hooked me through citing Federico Fellini's landmark "I Clowns" as an inspiration. 

Later that evening I saw the Finnish Race Horse Company’s show Super Sunday, which had taken the Roundhouse by storm. Ten guys recreated the thrill of the fair through acrobatics that got the adrenalin pumping as if I’d been on a rollercoaster ride myself. Catapaulting bodies through the air via a trebuchet, cellophane-wrapping themselves to the wheel of death, sending giant teddybears into the stratosphere, it was crazy, madcap, hilarious and quite brilliant. The spectacle of ten Finnish wild stallions who defy gravity and every physical limit imaginable was possibly not the most tactful of date nights to suggest to my husband with a broken leg, but whenever I sneaked a peak at him he was chuckling away. Staying on afterwards to join the party and talk circus as invited, while tempting, would have been pushing it though.  Boundaries and bonds. Whether bonds of rope or bonds of trust, sometimes acknowledging your limits, and what ties you, sets you free. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Chapter 138: Inside rehearsals for Metta Theatre's "Jungle Book"

Mowgli (Natalie Nicole James) and Homeless Vulture Vee (Nathalie Alison) in Aerial Hoop duet
Credit: Richard Davenport

There was a fascinating article in Exeunt Magazine recently ( - click here) by Poppy Burton-Morgan, exploring the possibilities that circus offers to unlock a narrative. I particularly liked the distinction she made between the more low-key acrobatics that drive the action forward and the show-stopping tricks that serve to underline moments of crisis or heightened emotion. Director of Metta Theatre an innovative theatre company, Poppy Burton-Morgan has been incorporating circus elements into productions for the past five years. Now Jungle Book is about to go on tour using a fusion of circus, street dance and hip hop to transpose the story to the contemporary urban jungle. Skateboarding, beat-boxing, aerial hoop, chinese pole, krumping, hula-hooping, acrobatics, locking and popping… the language of the street in all its vitality will blow open this classic tale about pack mentality, who’s in and who’s out,  that is socially and politically relevant now more than ever.

Kaa (Nathalie Alison) on Chinese Pole
Credit: Richard Davenport
I was delighted therefore to talk to Poppy Burton-Morgan at a rehearsal on Friday, both to hear more about how she puts theory into practice and because it sounds like a terrific family show, and I have three little monkeys to entertain. Not so little, Mum. Ok, noted. In the show, there is a very creative use of circus apparatus, camouflaged into the streetscape and I arrived just as a spectacular aerial sequence conjuring up the fire scene had just finished. When I heard this was towards the end of Act 1, I was confused. Hang on, Act 1? Surely that should be the end when Mowgli, having seen off a flaming terrified Shere Khan, then follows the doe-eyed girl back to the village to live happily ever after.  The scene was firmly imprinted in my mind, The Jungle Book being first film I ever saw at the cinema. But Poppy Burton-Morgan, also the adaptor, has taken her cue from Kipling, rather than the cartoon. Her version is faithful to the original that continues to chart Mowgli’s integration into the “civilised” world, while in a neat twist, and in a further two fingers up at Disney*, has female leads and gives them a (street)credible voice. Mowgli herself, played by National Circus graduate Natalie Nicole James, is given the final word at the end. 

Rather than being animals, the other main characters have their own street identities informed by their signature animal traits, and while being multi-talented they each have their trademark street art as well. So, for instance, the sinuous and seductive Kaa is on the game, wrapped round a lamp-post (chinese pole), Bageera is a shadowy parkour ninja and graffiti artist, Baloo is a beat-boxing street cleaner, Shere Khan the menacing Gangsta rapper, the wolves Akela and Raksha are skateboarding/breaking, and there is also a chorus of wolves and monkeys using those skills. The dynamics between the characters and their respective tribes all are mirrored in their counterparts in the “civilised” world of suits. 

Left to right: Ellen Wolf (Raksha), Stefan Puxon (Baloo), Kloé Dean (Bagheera),
Matt Knight (Akela), Dean Stewart (Shere Khan), Nathalie Alison (Kaa)
Credit: Richard Davenport
The scene I saw was a dance sequence, and I was struck immediately by the energy generated by the dancers and the music, an original score composed for the play. It’s vibrant, dynamic, and crucially will hold the attention of children and ensure the narrative will take them along for the ride. There is so much in there as well for the adults to reflect on: this a parable about negotiating spaces in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society, exploring power imbalances at play, the place of the individual and the power of artistic expression to transform lives. 

“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky; And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it may die.”
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

“Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys always have the advantage and that is too much to bear.”
Alvaro Enrique, author of Sudden Death

In the hands of Metta Theatre, Jungle Book is is an opportunity to rewrite the script. 

Metta Theatre's Jungle Book is on tour in the UK from Thursday 21 April, beginning in Windsor. It comes to London as part of Wonderground on the SouthBank from 13-28 August. For listings see - click here.

Credit: Richard Davenport
Left to right: Ellen Wolf, Natalie Nicole James, Kloé Dean, Matt Knight

*Ah, the magic of Disney. While there is the illusion of female protagonists from Little Mermaid to Frozen being more and more prevalent nowadays, a recent linguistic study has shown they actually far fewer words than supporting male characters ( - click here). 

Gender in circus is a hot topic at the moment. On Twitter recently @ellie_dubois, creator of Ringside (see previous post) screamed out: WHERE ARE ALL THE AMAZING CIRCUS SHOWS FILLED WITH WOMEN? WHY DO I SEE SHOW AFTER SHOW AFTER SHOW WITH MALE ONLY CASTS OR ONE TOKEN WOMEN? The fact that it has been observed that three of the main shows in Circus Fest at the moment are entirely men will, I’m sure, come up in discussion at the Circus Fest Salon on Gender on Tuesday, 12 April at the Roundhouse ( - click here) - tickets still available if you want to join the discussion and raise your voice. 

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Chapter 137: Ringside

Traditionally in Big Top circus the female aerialist is an object of desire, her distance as much a part of the other-worldly allure as her skimpy sequinned costume and her spectacular tricks. She is meant to be both sexy and unattainable, and that’s what keeps the audience coming back for more. What happens when you remove that distance and strip away the mystique? Ringside, devised by Ellie DuBois and performed by Francesca Hyde, shines a revealing spotlight on the world of circus through an intimate one-to-one encounter with a female trapeze artist. The show, which lasts around 10 minutes, was shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and is currently showing at the Roundhouse as part of CircusFest 2016, where it will appeal to all who enjoy the thrill of being immersed in another world – and who appreciate having it all to themselves.
Led by an usher to the outer shell of the auditorium, the audience member is left to make their way in the dark to a beam of white light on the floor in front of the stage. As the eyes readjust to this twilight zone of circus, they take in the vast space, the empty seats, the invisible public. Looking ahead to the stage there is a trapeze in the spotlight, and various other pieces of circus equipment lurk in the shadows, ghostly overlays of other shows. After a minute or two footsteps are heard, and a girl comes into peripheral vision from the wings. She is petite, her hair is swept into a bun, and she is wearing a signature circus leotard, which in the dusky lighting has a faded glamour about it. She stands next to the audience member, her breathing audible, and for a moment they share the same perspective, looking ahead, anticipating the performance. She takes their hand in her chalky palm, and gently leads them on.
What follows is a personal encounter in a public space, built on the intense rapport established between performer and audience through a frank and reciprocal gaze. At first being looked at so directly is unsettling, but this is a two-way exchange, less a challenging game of blink, more an encouraging invitation to trust. By the time the performer takes to the trapeze – with deftly executed, studied manoeuvres – the engagement is such that the audience feels an integral part of the performance. At such close range, the contraction and release of muscles is visible, as are the welts, sweat and bruises that bear witness to the terrific energy going into every suspension of movement and release into a swing.
Far from being some remote celestial being, Ringside reveals the female trapeze artist to be a living, breathing, vital woman, and the empowering celebration of that reality creates its own magic. The charge of the connection, that feels so genuine, both lasts forever and is gone in a flash. Ringside is that potent blend of being both deeply satisfying and hauntingly elusive. It will have you turning it over in your mind afterwards, and it will have you coming back for more.
This is a copy of the review I wrote for This is Cabaret. Click here -
Ringside is showing at The Roundhouse until Saturday 16 April. Click here for booking details -

Monday, 4 April 2016

Chapter 136: Akhnaten and Gandini Juggling at the ENO

Photo: (click here)

Hypnotic, mesmerising, extraordinary, I had the privilege to see Akhnaten at the English National Opera, the day after the Calder exhibition at the Tate Modern, and the timing was providential, both celebrating a vision of the world that was ahead of its time. Akhnaten describes the story of the eponymous pharaoh, who, with his mother Queen Tye and his wife Nefertiti, sought to instigate sole worship of the sun god Aten, the first instance of monotheism in history. He was eventually overthrown by the priests of the old religion and ultimately replaced by Tutankhamun. Both the opera and the history came onto my radar thanks to the involvement of Gandini Juggling and a tangential project with the ENO community at the British Museum (See Chapter 133 ). I had gone for the juggling and been ambushed by the music. In the days that followed I was restless, edgy, the music was on repeat play, until a friend popped by one day. "That's Philip Glass, isn't it?" she asked, identifying in a (heart)beat her all-time favourite composer. I then showed Carolyn the tantalising tease of the ENO's minute-long trailer (click here). We found seats at the front of the gods for the very last night, not quite together, but trusting in the fates to rearrange. Which they did, placing us next to a very gracious Chinese student, a musical-loving opera virgin, cutting his teeth on Glass. What brought you here? I asked, after our round of musical chairs. Phantom, he replied. You? Me? Barnum. We spoke the same language.

As the strings tuned up, there was a hum of excitement and anticipation in the air. The vibrations deepened as the opera began, the strings conveying a sense of wonder and urgency, and a certain melancholy mysticism. Amenhotep III had died and Egypt was transitioning.  A delicate balance was seen as the pharaoh's heart was weighed up against a feather, therein deciding his passage to the afterlife. The moment reminded me of the tip of one of Calder's mobiles (see previous chapter), and recalled the ceremonial delicacy of the Sanddorn act (see Cirque Rigolo - click here), where the balance again hung in the weight of a feather. In a parallel time, in the underbelly of the staging on three levels, Amenhotep's mummified corpse was unwrapped by a team of modern scientists in labcoats and his figure emerged naked, ready to don a golden mantle and assume the authority of aeons, as he morphed into the body of the narrator scribe:

"Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts."

The memory of those words of the dead spoken, rather than sung, in Zachary James' bass boom, still reverberate in my memory. They invoked the dawn of a new era, and the soul-searing chorus that followed was terrific. In the upper echelons of the stage, the jugglers, like mobile hieroglyphs, were scoring the air with balls of musical notations, their identikit amorphous hooded bodysuits, patterned liked rocks, blending into the very fabric of the opera's architecture. Calder came to mind again, with his love of collaboration in theatrical projects, emphatic that his work should not be seen as window dressing but integral to the performance, in the work in Chef d'orchestre (click here) the movement of his mobile "conducted" the music, and it was precisely this cross-fertilization of art forms that excited me about seeing Gandini Juggling in action.

There was something silkily oneiric about the staging of Akhnaten, resplendent in the worship of the sun that illuminated the set design. The juggling created a certain tension initially. What if there was a drop? There wasn't. But I wondered for a moment at the concentration that must be required for jugglers to function under sort of that pressure, and was nervous on their behalf, until the grace of the mesmerising, repetitive motion gradually drew me under, into a state of consciousness that was both aware, receptive, and yet detached. Together with the visual, the tubular bells and percussive instruments had a meditative quality. The other-worldly siren voice of counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanza's Akhnaten that hypnotised at the British Museum and drew me here, now harmonised with Rebecca Bottone's Queen Tye and Emma Carrington's Nefertiti to haunting effect. The lyrics, for the main sung in a combination of Hebrew, Egyptian and Akkadian, resisted interpretation due to the absence of subtitling. As a result, I found myself prevented from decoding the language and unlocking a clear narrative, struck instead by the impression of a series of tableaus, representing an age-old conflict that once was, and is still being lived out today.

I wonder what Einstein would have made of it? After all he spent 45 minutes, the length of each of Akhnaten's three acts, spellbound in front of Calder's Universe (see previous post). I imagine he would have delighted in the arcs of juggling and loops of music weaving in time. Einstein is the subject of another Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach that together with Akhnaten and Satyagraha (about Ghandi) celebrate visionaries in the field of science, religion and politics respectively, so no wonder he strikes a chord. First to our feet at the end, Carolyn and I, and our musical friend, were delighted to see the rest of the audience follow suit in thunderous rapture. I took a snapshot for posterity, inadvertently capturing Philip Glass on stage in the process - how wonderful that he was there to witness such a triumphant production. A very special night indeed. Bravo!

Interested in finding out more?

- The recording of Akhnaten is available on BBC iPlayer until the end of April (at (click here).

- Director Phelim McDermott is taking the production to Los Angeles, and you can see it at the LA Opera in November. 

The Circus Diaries has a fascinating and comprehensive review of the opera, including the juggling elements: (click here).