Sunday, 27 November 2016

Chapter 163: Circus In The Pound

Alfa Marks's act Angel
Photo Credit: Chino Álvarez
"Lucy to Scratch at Cockpit, Xav to Babysit." This was an entry in the shared home calendar that needed a little explaining... The Cockpit is a theatre up in Marylebone. I was there only a couple of weeks ago to see Two Tongue Theatre in Boys Club (see post - click here). For some time now The Cockpit has been hosting a scratch night - an evening when artists come together to share work in progress and receive feedback - called Theatre In the Pound. This is a reference both to the bargain entrance fee and the fact that the space can be either a conventional auditorium or play in the round. This time The Cockpit had decided to host a circus edition, fruit of a three-way discussion between Artistic Director Dave Wybrow, The Cockpit's Victoria Umanksy, and circus producer and lead programmer, Flora Herberich, reflecting a growing recognition that contemporary circus is so much more than a bag of tricks. 

Q&A with Dave Wybrow, José Triguero & Chris Patfield
The stage was set. Six white balls on the floor and a huge pile of autumn leaves:
"This is a historic occasion. We haven't seen jugglers at the Cockpit Theatre for 17 years!", announced (warned?!) Dave, ringmaster par excellence, both in apparel and presence. No pressure then! Jugglers have been personae non grata in that space, not because they ballsed up all those years ago when Dave arrived on the scene, but because circus skills were perceived to be superficial, clever in terms of skill, but simply visual entertainment, lacking in content or conceptual depth. Since then, juggling, and contemporary circus as a whole, has been on its own trajectory - see Thomas Wilson's epic account of the evolution of the experimental Gandini company in Juggling Trajectories - click here.

It was fitting then that the evening should open with a double act from José Triguero and Chris Patfield, who I've seen both in Gandini productions, and independently. The autumnal feel created by the russet fallen leaves, was complemented by the depressed nature of Einstürzende Neubaten's  "The Garden" (click here and you can listen while you read). José, camouflaged under the leaves, emerged to unzip Chris out of a cocoon-like all-in-one. Their symmetry in movement and clothing (identical black suits with black tops underneath) signalled a play on identity. As they stood side by side, Chris juggling balls and José handfuls of leaves, the sweep of the objects set to the pendulum beat underscoring the music, was utterly mesmerising. The odd escaping leaves fluttering down like rain tied into the lyrics as well. What they did so beautifully was to communicate the urge to hibernate, while being dragged out of yourself, Chris reluctant, José teasing him out. There was clowning around and more serious moments, and the flow of balls intertwined the performers in a precise choreography of patterns that was simply beautiful.

Fresh from winning a Malcolm Hardee award at the Edinburgh Fringe for her show The Molotov Cocktail Party, next up was Becky Fury, and she was pissed off, an antagonistic whirlwind, a Fury in the classic sense, a goddess of vengeance. In her black and white striped leggings she had the aura of a clown: one who looks to provoke, and uses comedy to subvert expectations. Her was a spoken-word comedy, rather than physical mime. Becky Fury's appreciation of the power language can wield and its poetry, (together with her surname!) made me think of Kate Tempest, and Peta Lily (see post on Chastity Belt - click here). Alternating anger with "being quite nice really", and watching Becky Fury in full throttle made me laugh and reminded me of Trump's recent whimper that theatre should be a "safe space". As if. Challenging the audience, needling us to get a rise, Becky took on the meaning of life and was up for some banter.

Closing the first half of the evening was aerialist Alfa Marks on a short rope, set to Massive Attack, Angel was an act that was not so much a work in progress as ready to fly. Alfa was lithe, graceful, sinuous and I wasn't surprised afterwards to learn that she was a dancer by training, bringing that skill-set clearly into evidence in the choreography. It is clear that rope is Alfa's medium, working with the versatility of the kit, the give (as opposed to, say, a fixed pole), melding into it, as one. It was interesting to see that the rope ended a few feet above the stage, rather than with a length coiled on the floor. What that did was enable Alfa to play more with the tail, to use it to spin, and play with coming down at one point and use the floor space but keeping that within the space of an aerial narrative.  Click here to see a video of the act from a gala in Spain (cover picture above). It is beyond stunning. 

Alana Jones in Dizzy O'Dare's Rise

The second half of the evening opened with Dizzy O'Dare's Alana Jones on tightwire and Mike Imerson, sharing their project Rise which had one of the most absurdly beautiful entrances I've ever seen in a circus act. To set the scene: Mike, in a red t-shirt, was on electric guitar, playing a echoing melody that recorded and looped, allowing him to overlay more chords. Alana emerged from the wings, her hair sectioned into ponytails, each end tied to a turquoise helium balloon so that it snaked upwards, think Medusa meets Pippi Longstocking. There was huge potential for clowning as she toyed with this image, but there was also a tender romance at play. An acrobalance duet, Alana carrying Mike on her shoulders at one point, resulted in a striking image as Mike took a pair of scissors and snipped off the balloons, one at a time. A gentle severing. As the balloons floated away, so did the lightness, replaced by tension. Crossing a tightwire is such a precarious skill, sensitive to the tiniest of adjustments, and so the perfect medium to explore the whole notion of balance and trust in the relationship between the two characters, who happen to be partners in real life. As Alana deftly moved across the tightwire towards Mike, who moved up onto a platform at one end, her crossing became a serenade, reaching out to him. Would he join her out on the wire? Was it too much of a risk? There was both laughter and poignancy in the piece.  Find out more at (click here).

Claire Lenahan is a brilliant comedian cum magician, with a stage presence and likeability factor that engaged the audience immediately. Her recent performance at a cabaret at The Hive in Hackney Wick was a real hit, and Dave at The Cockpit waxed lyrical about her previous incarnation as Cassandra Mary Canary, the ballsy ex-con with a new magic show and attitude to match the mass of peroxide curls. This time, though, Claire was more herself. That is to say, still in a costume, but without the disguise of a wig. With her cropped blond hair, American accent, gamine silhouette in a slim black and white checkered trousers, showman's tails and a top hat that popped out, there was a flash of Ellen Degeneres meets the Artful Dodger meets Barnum selling my kind of humbug. She moved among the audience confidently, with tossaway one-liners, choosing the perfect stooge for an assistant to hold the hooped curtain while she performed an escapology trick. The magic was as much in the way she engaged with the random audience member, conjuring up a hilarious chemistry between them, as the way in which she slipped off the handcuffs. A class act. 

Claire has a number of nights where you can catch her coming up:
Mon 28 Nov:  headlining at the variety night at The Royal George  8-10pm see

Jonathan Bendtsen "Daddy Cool" was a diabolo demon, also a cyr wheeler which would be interesting to see, and was pure, unadulterated fun. In a sharp pink suit with a pink sequinned tie, he had that cute, smooth, crooner vibe going, to match the retro-style of "Santa's Got a Hot Rod" and, thinking back to Asher Treleavan on diabolo, I could totally see him take centre stage in La Soirée. Jonathan performed some awesome tricks, up to three diabolos on one string in impressive combinations, and removing his jacket without interrupting his flow. Apparently the shirt also comes off to in "Santa's Stocking" Christmas Cabaret directed by Empress Stah, in a tin can of a Big Top in Elephant and Castle. It's on 24 Nov - 22 Dec: see - click here. The mind boggles.

Mim Wheeler on Aerial Chains
Last up was Mim Wheeler on aerial chains, performing to the awesome track "Sail" by Awolnation. Mim entered with a furtive, restless energy in a hoodie, aerosol in hand, like some urban fox. A neat trick actually, as the spray was a sticky roisin for extra grip on her hands, but the audience read it as a graffiti can. All aerial disciplines require roisin to counteract sweat, but I know from pole days how much more unforgiving metal is in terms of the slip, which makes this act all the more hardcore. There's also no give in the metal either, as there is with silks and rope. Despite all that, Mim somehow made ascending the chains look effortless. The noise of the chain links clashing was impressive, and as Mim reached the top and played with the carabineer for one awful moment I thought maybe she was going to release the chains and let them clatter dramatically to the floor, leaving her to just hang up there from the rigging point. That would have been suicidal, of course, but with Mim, you just had a sense that there were no limits, which is what made it so exciting to watch her in action. What she was doing while up there was actually putting extra links in the carbineer to turn the chain into a loop and work more shapes. It was strong, it was fierce, it was exhilarating. 

The audience was large, but only a small percentage were circus regulars and it was interesting to hear different voices. The acts were of a very high calibre, and the Q&A session after each act, facilitated with great insight by Dave and Victoria, provided feedback that was positive, supportive and relevant. There will be more of these evenings going forward. Keep an eye out on the Circus in the Pound Facebook Page for further developments, and search out and follow the artists themselves. 

Circus in the £pound at The Cockpit
22 November 2016

Performers in order of appearance:
(with Twitter handles where available):

Chris Patfield & José Triguero @jose_triguero82
Becky Fury @beckyfury
Alfa Marks

Alana Jones & Mike Imerson @Dizzy O'Dare
Claire Lenahan @Lemonhandz
Jonathan Bendtsen 
Mim Wheeler

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Chapter 162: The Circus is Coming... NoFit State's BIANCO

NoFit State's Delia Ceruti
Photo: @Sigrid Spinnox via

The weather is a petulant lover at the moment, blowing hot and cold. But no matter how bitter it gets, inside NoFit State's Big Top it is toasty as the performers are warming up for the opening of Bianco, part of Southbank Centre's Winter Festival supported by NatWest. NoFit State is a Cardiff-based company, set up 30 years ago by a group of uni friends, and is now home to a stellar cast drawn from all over the world. The company is at the forefront of the contemporary circus movement, and Bianco blends together live music, text, dance and circus skills to create a thrilling experience, "circus like no other". 

I saw Bianco several years ago at The Roundhouse, a ground-breaking promenade show, spectacularly poetic, in which the audience was very much immersed in the action, set to the music of a cracking live band, as we were discreetly ushered around the space.  Being on our feet the whole time I felt somehow more engaged, while proximity to the performers, close enough to see the blisters and bruises from all their hard graft, really brought home that these are ordinary people who perform extraordinary feats. Watching them then, how I longed to have a go myself and within a year had signed up to classes at the National Centre for Circus Arts and started writing this blog shortly thereafter… NoFit State has a lot to answer for! 

Since then the production has been on tour to great acclaim in its "silver spaceship", a tardis of a tent, and has now landed on the Southbank. Inside, the four giant kingpins holding up the canvas stand like colossal trunks of legs, reminding me that the show originally took its cue from José Saramago’s novel “The Elephant’s Journey”, not in terms of a linear plot, but in the sense of wonder and adventure conjured up. I went there to meet performer Delia Ceruti, wanting to hear about her own circus odyssey and how it fits into the show.  

Delia is from Bergamo, just outside Milan, and while she had studied ballet for fifteen years, it was actually a business degree that brought her to London. Through her sideline in photography, Delia came into contact with aerial circus when a dancer friend invited her to take some professional pictures, and so began a love affair that swept her off her feet and up into the air. Her circus training began in 2011 at Greentop Community Circus and her meteoric rise has led to performances up to 200m in the air. My stomach heaved at the thought. Delia has taken part in an Olympic torch relay, worked in hoop, doubles trapeze, has a particular interest in clowning (you need a good sense of humour when you are one half of a camel on stilts), toured Cuba with Canadian company Cirque Fantastic and joined NoFit State early in 2015 where she now performs aerial routines on the corde lisse, a smooth rope. As we chatted about her love of rope, it struck me that Delia is someone who unlocks the secrets of her art through endless play, continually exploring possibilities and infinite combinations - she has been known to scuba-dive in flippers on rope. In Bianco, director Firenza Guidi channels this boundless passion into an act of extreme beauty (pictured above), drawing out the emotional content by working with Delia to develop movement not to the sound of music, but instead to the beat of her own heart. With a number of new performers bringing their unique skills and experiences to their acts, and with a whole new musical score by David Murray since I saw the show last, I cannot wait to see how Bianco has developed over the past few years. Like Saramago's elephant, the show has travelled widely and its epic journey is finally coming to an end. Whatever you do, don't miss it. Who knows where it will lead...

Bianco is running from 23 November 2016 - 22 January 2017. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Chapter 161: From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads

Photo: Ben Hopper

Time - He's waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me, Boy

Time, David Bowie

If you are a regular reader to this blog, or a circus geek, you will know Adrian Berry as the Artistic Director of Jacksons Lane, a theatre with an eclectic programme that sponsors contemporary circus and encourages experimentation. Ade also tours regularly as bassist with his band Alberteen, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, my favourite report back from the Edinburgh Fringe this year comparing each circus performance there to an album and a band (click here). And, like any music nerd with impeccable taste, Ade is a huge Bowie fan. Earlier this summer Jacksons Lane took the audience on a Fantastic Voyage of circus acts celebrating Bowie's music, and now Ade takes us on an altogether different and harrowing odyssey in his play From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads. A one-man show, it features Alex Walton giving a poignant and mesmerising performance as a vulnerable teenager called Martin, who receives a present on his 18th birthday that sets him on a quest for reconciliation to a past that will decide his future. 

Photo: Ben Hopper
I saw the play at Waterloo East Theatre, an intimate space, packed to the rafters. Martin entered to Sinatra's "I did it my way"... if the audience were expecting a night simply regurgitating Bowie's top tracks, they were in for a shock. The play was not so much a tribute evening, but an engaged response and exploration of the power Bowie's music had to transform the cultural landscape of so many. Take Martin, a bulimic, socially anxious teenager, product of the Larkin school of parenting (quoting "They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad..."). Living with the empty shell of his alcoholic Mum in a terraced house in the back end of nowhere in the Midlands (as flat as the Norfolk Broads), "a place where people live and die and nothing in between", Martin found an escape through Bowie's music when he discovered a chest of memorabilia left by a father long-since gone. And then on his milestone birthday, a letter from his Dad, written ahead of time, provided him with a map that would take him on a physical journey down to London, retracing his Dad's footsteps and imagining the world through his eyes as he visits landmarks from David Bowie's life.

From what I knew of the play ahead of time, I had gone prepared for a dark, depressing evening, tissues at the ready. It was a powerfully sad play, there were tears, but it was the sheer beauty of the production that also moved me. I loved the co-existence of the surreal and the spartan in the set design. The text was rich and lyrical, propelling the action forward under Ade's direction so there was never a pause or a lag. Alex Walton gave a riveting performance as Martin, with a raw energy that conveyed Martin's fresh-faced excitement when he bartered vinyls for a bus fare to London, in a wonderful exchange, his sheer joy at finding himself in Bowie's old bedroom or his bewilderment and pain after a karaoke turn doing Starman in the roughest dive in Croydon... Throughout, Bowie was there, a tangible presence, waiting in the wings, an iconic costume on either side of the stage suspended behind some gauze, visible as though through a glass darkly, the ghost of his voice evoked in voiceovers by the comedian Rob Newman. It felt as though if you concentrated hard enough, he might actually materialise.  I tried, you know. I stayed long after the rapturous applause had died down and the punters left, just contemplating the set, soaking up the atmosphere and the music still playing. The play made an impact, you see, just like Bowie's music, and in that sense it really captured his spirit. As I stepped outside, I felt my universe had shifted. And the stars look very different today. 

Photo: Ben Hopper

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is currently on tour (see
The play will be at Jacksons Lane for two performances on 4 December (see

Update: After sell-out performances and rave reviews, From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads returns to Jacksons Lane on 27 February 2017.
Click here to book tickets:

2 August 2017 update: From Ibiza... is showing at The Pleasance at the Edinburgh Fringe until 28 August. Book here:

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Chapter 160: Two Tongue Theatre's "Boys Club"

Photo: Matt Studdart

"Spot the difference" Xav said, incensed, showing me a photo he had snapped in a Carrefour supermarket in France last week. Packs of identical razors side by side, but those on the left were double the price of those on the right. The difference? They were pink. Mais oui, "vive la différence!" when there is money to be made out of sexism, and where better to explore this shafting than in The Cockpit, host to the bilingual Voilà! festival for francophiles (see - click here), and on Sunday evening to Two Tongue Theatre's gender-bending Boys Club

Photo: Matt Studdart
Two Tongue Theatre is a dynamic French duo comprising Leonor Lemee and Sharlit Deyzac. Sharlit is also the founder of the Voilà! festival. I had first seen Boys Club back in March in embryonic form, as part of Sister Mary McArthur's Big Sunday Night Show - think Dame Edna meets Mother Superior. I had gone to see Christopher Howell, who I had first met on Ira Seidenstein's workshop (see post on Clowning Around - click here) as the devilishly debonair magician Norvil, with a wicked sense of humour, and was blown away by the ferocious, raw energy of Two Tongue Theatre. We stayed in touch and Boys Club, mentored by dark clown par excellence Peta Lily (see post on Peta's show Chastity Belt - click here), has since been at the Brighton Fringe, up in Edinburgh and touring in France, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how the show had developed. As it so happened, Ira, Emily and Sang from the Book of Clown (see previous post), in London for only a few days, were able to come along and see the show as well. I love it when the world comes together. 

Jules and Jo blasted onto the scene shooting out testosterone to the tune of  Reservoir Dog's "Little Green Bag" establishing, and stoking, their masculine credentials. Not since watching Kathryn Hunter take the lead in the all-female cast of Richard III at the Globe in 2003, then again in Islington as the transgendered doctor in Whistling Psyche, or as Kafka's Monkey, have I seen women channel masculine energy to such effect. They nailed it. There were those in the audience who were convinced they were men, Jules' bun on her head taken to be a hipster accessory rather than a dead giveaway. Jules was lean, elegant, controlled, while Jo was unstoppable and fierce, and that contrast was the key to their comedy chemistry. The comédie humaine they presented had ominous undercurrents. At first, the jostling over who would play the "weaker sex" in a scene was light-hearted enough: Alpha Jo resisted the housewife's headscarf but eventually resigned to adopting it being the physically shorter of the two, and we laughed at his reluctance. The music started up, a tease of a chanson des amoureux relating the cock part of a bull's story. Then the action ramped up and we got la bite between the teeth as the lover's ballad morphed into a disturbing tale of domestic violence with a graphic ending where the abuser got what was coming to him in a grotesque, farcical way, cabaret-style. 

Photo: Matt Studdart
A striptease followed later, with a bloody big reveal about the drop in contractual pay the actors would receive now they had been inadvertently "outed" as women. With little option but to translate into a Girls Club, there was a cheeky changeover and a clever symmetry in the female equivalents to Jules and Jo, the former now a restrained glamour of gold lamé, accessorised with an elegance of long black gloves, the latter an outré Alpha Barbie mannequin, blond wig, baby-doll skirt, white hold-ups, stripper platform heels. For a moment, with their painted facial hair, they were a freak show's bearded ladies inviting a certain geek love, then came a poignant and vulnerable moment as they smeared it off to reveal fresh-faced girls, before proceeding to make-up as exaggerated women, and the transformation was complete. Fully engaging the audience, they staged a sit-in in the theatre, recording and uploading footage of crowd support onto social media to bargain up their contract with those on high. When the management appeared unresponsive, out came a petrol can splashing, matches at the ready, and a thunderous audience chanted a countdown to their ultimatum. 

Clowning around with gender stereotypes and poking cracks in the glass ceiling of a world where being a woman often sucks* Two Tongue Theatre eloquently articulated a zeitgeist and made a stand. So, Congrats guys! Chapeau les gars! You literally set the house on fire! 

Photo: Two Tongue Theatre

*Think of Emma Rice, no sooner appointed artistic director of the Globe then forced to depart again, blood boiling as she she speaks out at sexist criticism in The Stage - click here , or Lyn Gardner's recent call to arms in her article Theatres must act now about gender inequality - click here

Boys Club
 is next showing 18-20 November at Theatre Utopia in Croydon. See - click here

Update: catch Jules & Jo in Boys Club at Etcetera Theatre (click here) in Camden this weekend, 6-7 January. Bonne Année 2017!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Chapter 159: The Book of Clown

"I care nothing for any sect or party under heaven, as such I have no axes to grind, no logs to roll, no favors to ask. 
All I desire is to do what is right and prevent what is wrong."

P.T. Barnum
(Extract from "Struggles and Triumphs: 50 years of recollections of PT Barnum" as shared on Twitter by @TheBarnumMuseum)

Well, Mr Barnum sir, circus impresario turned politician, champion of universal suffrage, that is my type of humbug and it was a sweet dream to go to sleep on. The nightmare came the following morning with the news that The Donald trumped, and I imagined Barnum turning in his grave. References now abound to the appointment of a clown to the White House, a prospect that no right-thinking individual finds remotely funny, while all true clowns do their best to distance themselves from any such comparisons - take Ringling Bros. spoof of a political circus, "we take clowning very seriously indeed" (see their video "Take Back the Circus"- click here).

Another who takes the art of clowning very seriously, and is consequently one of the funniest people I know, is Ira Seidenstein, who has worked with Cirque de Soleil and Slava's Snowshow, and now runs his own school teaching The Seidenstein Method (see website To date I've been on two Seidenstein workshops, once with Ira (see Clowning Around - click here), and once with Butzi (see The Gift of Clowning - click here). Ira's stories are endless, his life brimming with tales of extraordinary encounters and adventures that rival those of the legendary Coco the Clown, whose fascinating autobiography I read recently. Ira has just been in London for a few days, delivering a storming three hour workshop on Friday instructing actors, jugglers, magicians, acrobats and circus performers in improv exercises unlocking creativity in physical performance. Unfortunately I couldn't attend the workshop itself, but heard all about it afterwards when I was able to join the group for a private sharing by Emily Burton and Sang Park of The Book of Clown co-created and directed by Ira. The show is a series of interludes that chart the odyssey of two clowns, and was born out of eight sketches from Emily and Sang, and an eureka moment when Ira noticed a thread that, rearranging some of the order, could link them together.

Walking into the theatre space, I found half a dozen chairs for the audience set up opposite a single chair and two yellow balls on the floor - an indication of the play that was to come. I took my place in my comfort zone between Christopher and Robert, classmates from previous workshops, and was fascinated by the new faces. What's your story? I wondered. In a funny kind of way, the show was about finding out.

On staggered Sang as an old-school clown, not in the sense of wearing any face-paint, but signalled by the multi-coloured chequered tie accessorising his baggyish suit, his gait, and the expert execution of pratfalls, juggling and his style of raising a laugh. He had been hit in the eye by the third yellow ball, (a neat set-up for later juggling) and played the gentle idiot, muttering incomprehensibly his frustration in a language that later turned out to be Korean. His act involved making contact with an English-speaking audience, continually crashing into the barrier of language. Moving from South Korea to Australia to study under Ira, Sang was obviously able to draw comedy from his own life experiences, and, having been an innocent abroad myself, struggling to communicate, it in turn struck a chord for me. Maybe radiating empathy explains why I seemed to have a flashing light above my head with an arrow pointing down and the words "use me"!  I was more than happy to be an audience stooge and play along with Sang, whether spelling out my name for him s-l-o-w-l-y or volunteering to be stabbed (one of those situation comedies, folks), although when he fell asleep on the chair and started groaning my name with certain accompanying hand actions, I asked myself if I had been a little too enthusiastic... ;-) 

Following his dream, Sang discovered the secret to life in the mythical Book of Clown. What was it exactly? "Bullsheet!" he declared. Leafing through the book he skipped to the chapter on how to make money, which led to a classic sketch with Emily, who with her red-hair, beauty and American accent was Lucille Ball meets Amy Adams, playing a goofball in an over-sized suit jacket, deftly tripping over own feet. The money-spinner was a 50s style advert for a pick-me-up tonic that Emily was selling. The comedy was in fact that the mixture was clearly disgusting as well as intoxicating, as take after take was repeated. It was a classic clowning conceit, hilariously done. We followed Emily's journey, directed by the Book of Answers, that would only respond if questions were asked in the style of a French snob (Emily and Sang have just come over from an intensive fortnight doing Cubist Clowning Calvacade - eh ben, dis donc! - with Ira in Paris) and guided her through a succession of props that would set her on the right path for finding her true self. It was a spiritual journey that made just as much fun of looking to the Book of Common Prayer for instruction as seeking enlightenment from Sang's clown of a Guru; in short, nothing is sacred, a philosophy that is at the heart of clowning. 

Whether acting together or separately, Emily and Sang were a joy to watch: slick, dynamic, fun and generating a tremendous energy that made you feel good to be alive. I think they really should take what they've got there, bottle it and sell it. They say that laughter is the best medicine after all, and we all could use more of it right now. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Chapter 158: A Musical Interlude

My life is like an onion. I don't enjoy peeling back the layers. I am private, introverted and risk-averse by nature. Yet there is this little devil inside that drives me on outside of my comfort zone, exposed. Social media accounts and this blog over the past couple of years bear witness to that. So when I say "I don't know what possessed me" when my friend Carolyn invited me to play the harp at the 15th anniversary show at her art gallery, Oliver Contemporary, actually I do: it was this mischievous circus sprite, full of Barnum bravado. You can pull this off, you know, she whispered. 

Learning the harp is a dream that I have had for decades, even saving up for a smaller clarsach at university (only to find lessons were beyond my budget, cue violin), but I only started a couple of years ago, when my daughter was drawn to my sister-in-law's harp. My daughter had glue ear at the time and couldn't hear very well, and I wondered if it was the sensation of the vibrations she enjoyed, as much as hearing the music. So we started learning together on a 28-string lever harp (where the key is changed with levers as opposed to foot pedals) but my practice has been inversely correlated to the amount of time spent training, writing or watching circus. Tellingly the make of my harp is "Dusty Strings". It sounds rather like a burlesque act with cobwebs, the thought of which always makes me smile. The Kiss of the Spider Woman is my game (see Chapter 7 - click here ). Or rather El Beso de la Mujer Araña, because the only melodies I play are all Latin American, notes of tango, salsa, zamba, habaneras, composed by the Paraguayan harpist Alfredo Rolando Ortiz.

Kate Boxer's "Dancing Cowboys"
If that all sounds quite dreamy, please understand that at the time of agreeing to play I really was not very good at all. Mum's reaction when she heard the news says it all. There was a long, tactful pause, and then, as gently as possible,  "But Lucy, has Carolyn actually ever heard you play? ... And does your harp teacher think this is a good idea?!" But here's the thing, I knew I could do this for Carolyn, given half a chance. I was in part banking on the fact that I was not there to give a recital, but for ambient background noise, and as long as the notes were not discordant or down right offensive, it would fine. I was also banking on the fact that people in general love a harp, and what I've learned about any performance through clowning workshops is that if you can gain an audience's goodwill, they will follow you anywhere. And learning circus skills has taught me that if you are prepared to focus and put in the hours required, anything is possible. So for the past month or so I took time, and lessons learned, out of my circus bank and deposited them into my harp, and it paid dividends. I practiced for two to three hours a day, and took up daily meditation to help steady the nerves. I'm sure it helped.

I arrived at the gallery frazzled, with only ten minutes before the proverbial curtain up, delayed by kids out late from school and traffic on the run home. I hadn't even had time to tune my harp. In fact, in the past I had always relied on my teacher for that, but Lisa was away that week. Luckily there is an app for everything, and thanks to her recommendation of the Cleartune app, I was able to work through note by slippery note. Tuning a harp was like being stuck in a pond trying to catch eels with inflatable mittens. I imagine. Well, I did feel like I was on some sort of sadomasochistic Japanese gameshow facing an impossible task ahead, with the clock ticking... Deep breath. It was then I learned something else about performance. I wanted to give up and leg it, but, well, it was too late now to back out and the show must go on. Just as the final note scored a green arrow on the app, the first clients walked through the door. "Ah, a harp! I haven't played mine since that concert in Tokyo", said one, delighted. My heart sank like a stone. So much for the art of humbug charming the crowds, here was someone who knew what to listen for. 

Pulse racing, thighs trembling, fingers fluttery, I began to play the harp gently at first, furtively, tentatively brushing the strings, releasing a whisper of a melody. But like the golden harp in Jack and the Beanstalk, the moment I touched it, it seemed to wake up, call attention to itself and shriek loudly that something was very wrong. I was horrified. This was a living nightmare. Then I realised that the Cleartune app was precise, the harp was fine and in tune, it was actually that I had been practicing on it out-of-tune recently and my over-sensitive ear had some readjusting to do. I forced myself to carry on, and relax. My harp teacher says that a glass of champagne does wonders for performance, and wasn't I lucky that on such an evening it was in no short supply. As I was brought glass after glass I felt a warm glow spread throughout my body to the very tips of my fingers, and soon I was confidently serenading the dancing gauchos (pictured), stationed opposite, and, lost in my own little world, I ended up playing pretty much for about four hours. The gallery was packed out and steamy, perfect for Latin American melodies wafting through the air, all brought together to celebrate 15 years, an amazing achievement when you think about all the independent cultural enterprises that have had to shut up shop in recent times. Kate Boxer, Gillian Beckles, Mary Ford, Liz Hough, Ursula Leach, Clare Ireland, Keith Purser, Charlie Baird, Matthew Batt, Simeon Stafford... thanks to Carolyn, these artists are now part of my cultural landscape, and have enriched my life and those of many others. People travelled in from far and wide - testimony to Carolyn and her vision - and it was a real joy to be there juggling arpeggios across the tightwires. So here's to friendship and harping on about art, and circus everywhere, cheers!