Monday, 30 January 2017

Chapter 173: Thom Monckton/Kallo Collective: Only Bones

"Thom Monckton just filled the whole room with super talent and energy by using just one square meter."
- Heidi Niemi (Lumo Company)


The stars were aligned the other evening for a trip to Soho Theatre. At the top of the escalators at Leicester Square, off to the Mime Festival*, I bumped into a friend bound for the Vault Festival, travelling in the opposite direction, both of us on the right track. Red lanterns festooned China Town, celebrating the Year of the Rooster, and I was on my way to see Lecoq (ze rooster?!) trained Thom Monckton in Only Bones.  I had been looking forward to seeing this show since summer, hearing about it on Twitter from those reporting back from the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was a huge hit. Actually, I think I first heard mention on Gandini Juggling's feed, which strikes me as apt, as Thom Monckton and Gemma Tweedie created the show for the Finnish Kallo Collective, and if I were to describe Europe in circus terms the Finns would be the jugglers, intelligent, curious and oddball. Gravity pulls.

It struck me, as I took my seat, that the last time I had been at Soho Theatre was to see Trygve Wakenshaw's show "Nautilus" last year. Like Thomas, Trygve a New Zealander who trained in physical theatre in France (at Gaulier). Both guys are brilliantly funny, but in different ways, as you would expect from performers whose comedy derives from their physicality - Trygve is tall and blond, Thomas is medium-height and ginger.  Actually, I had no idea what to expect. I log reviews but don't read them until afterwards if I have any intention of going to see a show. And if you haven't seen Only Bones yet, but are intending to, I'd recommend you do the same.

Hands materialised beneath a spotlight. Only hands. They flexed and rippled, sending waves through the ether as patterns morphed into storytelling. I loved the jellyfish bobbing along, and when the hands cupped it felt like watching a ball of energy materialise between them. That is the true power and the art of mime: to make visible the invisible. The soundscape was subtle, a barely perceptible undercurrent, then now and again Thom's own voice would join in creating its own special effect, but through noises, not words. The use of a spotlight was clever as with a click the stage could be plunged into darkness to cut to the next scene, and whip out a prop. A threesome of feet fought for space in the bed, until an imposter hand was revealed to be the interloper. Knobbly knees revealed their own funny bones, hands tangoed in a flirtation of red nail varnish and then found love in the beating heart of a glove. That was one of the most beautiful images I shall always carry with me. 

I wondered for a moment if we would see the rest of the body. I was curious. What did Thom have for a face?! Turned with his back to the audience, hands played with his hoodie to suggest a head, but there was nothing there. And then. Then turned round a kind, generous face and I knew he would not disappoint. Playing with a cartoonish plasticity of expressions, Thom proceeded to discombobulate. There is no other word for it. It is extraordinary the way he can disassociate parts of the body, only bones, with a life of their own. He brought the audience into play, throwing out animal impersonations and inviting us to suggest more. The way the lighting was set up it felt as though Thom could see the face of every member of the audience and the sensation reminded me, not unpleasantly, of being back in a warm-up exercise in my very first clowning improv class. Still, I swallowed my voice, not sure why as with Thom you feel in safe hands, but it was probably because all around were so vocal there was really no need for me to join in the fray (or bray!). 

Throwing, and catching, cues, to the side, was Gemma. Both a discreet presence and integral to the performance, she was the outside eye who was inside the frame, the backbone to Thom's funny bone. Read the programme afterwards, there are some brilliant anecdotes that give some insight into their humour and creative synergy, quite some double act. At the end, there is a line. Just one humble line that really was a slam-dunk in a tour de force of a performance. I'll say no more. You have until 4 February to get your body over to Only Bones at Soho Theatre ( - click here).

Click here for teaser trailer.

Performed by: Thom Monckton
Created by: Thom Monckton and Gemma Tweedie
Sound design: Tuomos Norvio
Production: Kallo Collective
Co-production: Aurora Nova

*London International Mime Festival (LIMF): (click here)

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Chapter 172: Les Antliaclastes: Here Lies Shakespeare

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare, To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."
Inscription on the tombstone of William Shakespeare
Photo: Jean-Pierre Estournet
Shakespeare's epitaph is a record set in stone that grave-robbers have ever been a nuisance historically, as I was reminded the other day watching period drama "Taboo". In the opening episode gravediggers ask for extra money from relatives of a deceased gentleman as payment to inter the body deeper in the ground as a safety precaution. It is a series set in the early 19th Century, at a time of bitter dispute over boundaries between Great Britain and the United States. A few decades later, American humorist Mark Twain would enter into another turf war in "Is Shakespeare Dead?" asserting through a number of compelling arguments that the Stratford Shakespeare did not write the literary canon ascribed to him and that the awkward words on the tombstone comprise the only poem with which he can genuinely be credited. Talk about digging up the dirt in sacrosanct ground. Taboo indeed! I caught up with Twain's short semi-autobiographical work, after learning that Les Antliaclastes, a puppet company based in France, took it as the point de départ for their show Here lies Shakespeare, part of London International Mime Festival.

The show came onto my radar just before Christmas thanks to a chance conversation with Thomas, the brother of one of the puppeteers, while we were watching our daughters take a tumble again, and again, down the bouncy slide at Aircraft Circus Winter Festival (post on the Aircraft Circus - click here). I live for those moments of random connections that lead you down a path you wouldn't have happened on otherwise, for while I am a regular at Jacksons Lane, and well aware of the diversity of their programming, I struggle to keep up with all the circus-related happenings they have there, let alone check out any of their other delights.  

Photo: Jean-Pierre Estournet
Still, this time I made an exception, and I was rewarded with one of the most triumphantly creative, fantastically surreal and exquisitely crafted, challenging shows I have ever seen. The structure paid homage to Shakespearean plays in terms of having a Prologue, three acts and an Epilogue, based on themes rather than a linear narrative. In texture it had the feel of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream in the mix of oneiric images and scatalogical humour, think Ariel meets Bottom, with cameos from Yorrick, and Hamlet's gravediggers. "Wondrous strange" pretty much covers it, by turns irreverent, cynical and moving.

I was in awe of the craftsmanship of the puppets, and the special effects that gave the piece a cinematic aesthetic. I was not surprised to find out later that Artistic Director Patrick Sims came to puppets via studies in film and animation, as the influence was clear. I fell in love with the exquisite warrior Pallas Athena, and the fish revealed to be a mermaid, experienced a fascinated revulsion at the carrion birds in Elizabethan dress, goggled at the squid and was impressed by the verisimilitude and dignity of Karloff's Frankenstein's monster. I was mesmerised by the concept and depiction of a wormhole where a filament snaked out through strobe lighting, and marvelled at the sheer ingenuity of a set full of surprises that shrunk in half the space at Jacksons Lane and caused me to lose all sense of perspective. The soundscape too was clever, ranging from extracts of familiar Shakespeare speeches and narratives on the (his)story of Shakespearean idolatry to experimental electronic Elizabethan music that gave it an other-worldly feel. 

Photo via Steph Brotchie's Instagram @thescruffian
In the Prologue an alien skeleton rooted around an excavation site digging up bones and potatoes. Simple movement fascinated me, the way the skeleton could lift up a potato for instance, or the way he scuttled across the dirt, gollum-like. The humble potato was a recurring theme. It was obviously a nod to the arrival of the potato on the scene in Elizabethan times, spoils of the New World, an emblem of the past, that was then set into a time capsule and launched into the future, along with Shakespeare's works. As a satellite transmitted Shakespeare's words out into the universe, I was struck by how the signifier "Shakespeare" is so important to the story humanity tells about itself, holding his works up as proof of our civilisation, broadcast to all and any alien nations willing to listen. But Here lies Shakespeare begged the question: have we created a monster? We met a giant with a sackcloth over his head, reciting an emotive discourse from The Elephant Man, whose deformity was revealed to be an oversized potato for a head. Uncovering that was both funny and strangely moving. Could Mr Potato Head just as well have written the sonnets? The theme of alienation continued when a pint-sized potato-head sang "Are you lonely tonight?" before reciting Jacques' soliloquy "All the world's a stage..." from As You Like It. [Citing that same speech, how could the author of such eternally beautiful words have so prosaic a tombstone, argued Twain].

Photo: Marc Mandril-Ferrario
Later Frankenstein's Monster, impossibly dwarfing the space, took tea in front of a doll's house of a replica Stratford-on-Avon, with a doll in Elizabethan dress that was revealed to be a monkey once the mask was lifted, tail peeping out from under its skirts.

It was a world where nothing was quite what it seemed. Stratford-on-Avon was not so much a real town as a monument to consumerism, drowning us in an endless cycle of commercialised shit: my stomach turned as Shakespeare's corpse was put through a mincer and squelched into sausages, and when the back end of a cow crapped almost interminably on a merry-go-round of tiny shopping trolleys, rounded off with a few sulphuric puffing farts. Sir Toby Belched, I thought. The theme of pollution was continued later in a beautiful scene conjuring up an underwater realm where a Beast rescued a Beauty of a fish-cum-mermaid floundering in netting and all manner of rubbish. It was poignant and ephemeral. 

Most eloquent was a tableau vivant where Shakespeare's portrait appeared to be writing. But who was pulling the strings? A Stratford swan peered over his shoulder, nabbed the quill and carried on writing until the text wrote itself, while potatoes rained down from the gods, like some tuberosum ex machina. In the final act, we were back at the excavation site, via an ingenious shadow play, to see the unearthing of another colossosal dinosaur, a reference to Twain's observation that piecing together Shakespeare's life was like reconstructing a dinosaur with a few bits of bones and plaster. The fraud of a brontosaurus, that was really an apatosaurus with the wrong head on, was here given Shakespeare's head to drive the point home, and wreaked all sorts of havoc. It struck me then that Les Antliaclastes have something of Monty Python about them. That Stratford player, Guillem Shakespear, he's not the Messiah, he's just a very naughty boy... 

Image: Centre Culturel Yves Fuert

Thanks to Les Antliaclastes, my son and I have been enjoying Mark Twain on Audible together (next stop Huckleberry Finn!). It did feel rather like sharing the news that Father Christmas doesn't exist, even if Horrible Histories had already paved the way, but the humour softened the blow and it gave us plenty to talk about. My son observed afterwards: "The thing is Mum, I know Mark Twain is probably right, but I'm still rooting for Shakespeare." Me too. I'm a romantic, you see, and the myth of Shakespeare is my type of humbug. And yet despite my resistance to the fact that the Stratford Shakespeare was a ham actor who's no Bacon, I found Here lies Shakespeare to be a darkly beautiful, carnal, vibrant testimony to Shakespeare's legacy, all the more so for being a provocative one. 

Here lies Shakespeare

Patrick Sims: Direction, design, puppets, performer 
Josephine Biereye: Masks, costumes, puppets 
Richard Penny: Design, puppets, performer 
Puppets and masks: Josephine Biereye and Patrick Sims
Camille Lamy: Costumes 
Oriol Vilodomiu & Karinne Dumont: Sound creation, design
Nicolas Hubert: Design, performer 
Jesse Philip Watson: Design, performer 
Raùl Berrueco: Video creation 
Olivier Francfort & Sophie Barraud: Lighting creation 
Sophie Barraud: Stage management

With: Patrick Sims, Richard Penny, Nicolas Hubert, Evandro Serodio

Monday, 23 January 2017

Chapter 171: Cul de Sac

A couple of years ago at Jacksons Lane I saw an act that piqued my curiosity during the Postcards Festival, a movement-based piece, a duet of sorts between Gandini juggler José Triguero and Chinese Pole artist Gemma Palomar. Then in September 2016 I saw an extended version of Cul de Sac in development at Jacksons Lane.

I remember at the time finding it an intriguing blend of humour underscored at points with a brutal undercurrent that explores the power relations and gender politics in a push-pull relationship - who will take centre stage?! - and subverts the stereotypical norms. Just before Christmas I met up with José and we had a chat about the show over a coffee, ending up in the library of the National Circus talking about the genesis of the show - how Daisy Drury there had encouraged him to work on a project with Gemma, and how Cul de Sac grew organically out of the dynamic between their personalities at play. We discussed how there is a sense of frustration in the idea of a "cul de sac", finding a dead end at the end of the path, no way to go forward. But it also refers to an erogenous zone, a desired dead end, what the French call "la petite morte", and a nod to Polanski's film of the same title. There is no narrative per se, rather a montage of images and interactions that lead us on a journey through pleasure and pain that begs the question as to whether you can have too much pleasure? Is there not a danger that in order to experience pleasure you risk losing yourself? Or that by surrendering yourself you expose your vulnerability and so are more susceptible to pain. And where are the boundaries? Having seen Smashed now (see post - click here), it strikes me as a very Pina Bauschian dialectic, and it also reminded me of an interview I had read with France's most famous dominatrix Catherine Robbe-Grillet, widow of writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, in "Vanity Fair" (click here).  

José has all the warmth of a natural clown, and there are some very funny moments, with elements of slapstick. José is also a brilliant juggler. Gemma is an exceptional Chinese pole artist, clearly José's muse, and they have a way of working together that is intuitive, visceral and engaging. 

Cul de Sac premiere's at Jacksons Lane on 23/24 February, and if you book by Thursday this week there is an earlybird discount available ( - click here). It will then be at  Worthing Theatre 28 February ( and  Déda Derby on 2 March 2017 ( - click here).

Creative Team

Performers: Gemma Palomar and José Triguero
Artistic Director: José Triguero
External eyes: John Nicholson and Pablo Meneu
Movement coach/co-choreographer: Fabian Wixe
Producer/manager: Flora Herberich

Chapter 170: Circus Futures 2017

Johnathan Lee Iverson

"Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don't take anything too seriously, it'll all work out in the end."
David Niven

A friend in North Carolina alerted me by text: "Ringling is closing. Come and see it before it does." Easier said than done now given the deadline is May and suddenly it's the hottest ticket in town. As Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, aka @BigTopVoice, wryly observed on Twitter: "All it took was one terrible announcement that we're done and suddenly we're "Hamilton"🙄." It was such sad news, both for what it represents - the end of an American dream 146 years in the making, a social space where people could gather together to witness the impossible made possible through hard graft and practice, and the loss of livelihood for 146 highly skilled performers. That the news was released in the last days of Obama's presidency was a double-whammy, and I imagined Barnum turning in his grave. It made me wonder what the future has in store for circus in the UK, and so it was interesting to spend yesterday (Friday, 20 January) at the national Circus Futures meeting at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's Southbank, discussing just that. 

On arrival, each delegate was invited to  pick up a marker pen from a rainbow assortment of colours and write their own name on a tag. I embellished - I mean "clown" is a stretch, but I was there to play. The morning revolved around 14 Pecha Kucha talks, a fast-paced, concise style of presentation where 20 slides are shown, each for 20 seconds, lasting precisely 6 min 40 in total. First though, facilitator Orit Azaz invited us to turn to a stranger, introduce ourselves, and own up to one thing we wanted to get out of the day. I found that very helpful. Saying out loud the fact that I was there to clarify the use and purpose of this blog gave the day focus. 

We were invited to stand up tall (or shrink small) three times over to grade our own knowledge about what is going on in the world of circus a) internationally, b) nationally c) in our own region. Being a circus community, at least one enterprising soul stood up on a chair to gain height, but missed a trick for a handstand. As you would expect, option c) had the most number of participants with their heads held high and reinforced the value of days like this for knowledge-sharing to expand horizons.

Circus makers and practitioners were there from the world of outdoor arts, contemporary circus and traditional circus big tops (Gerry Cottle). There were performers looking for help, whether in terms of mentoring, space or finance, programmers looking to commission, companies looking to share news of their projects and training spaces talking of expanding. There was huge excitement about Circus250 and talk of a number of projects planned for 2018, marking the milestone anniversary of the birth of circus in Philip Astley's sawdust ring in 1768. Circus250 is the six month long celebration of circus all its forms with a variety of partners and events planned across six designated "circus cities" to force the spotlight out of London, as Dea Birkett explained in her Pecha Kucha presentation. For more information visit

Degas' Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando
Rachael Clare, Artistic Director of Crying Out Loud made my day with three pieces of news in particular: the fact that Gandini Juggling will be creating a new show in the fountains of Somerset House, the fanfare of a Big Top tour by French musical brass acrobats Circa Tsuïca with their show "Now or Never" (click here for video), and that James Thierrée and Compagnie du Hanneton will be at Sadlers Wells in May with "The Toad Knew". Thierrée, Chaplin's grandson (he doesn't trade on that, but it's an interesting fact) stormed Edinburgh to great acclaim when the show went to the International Festival last August. I'm booking tickets for 4 May, when there is a Q&A session afterwards. I have yet to see Thierrée in Chocolat, the biopic of Cuban-born black clown Rafael, aka Chocolat, played by Omar Sy (click here for trailer), something else still on my bucket list. 

The clown Chocolat was name-checked by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield, leading authority on the history of circus, Victorian entertainment and travelling showpeople, and herself from a long-line of fairground family. She mentioned Chocolat in the same breath as Degas' Miss La La, Pablo Fanque, Britains' first non-white circus owner, and Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringling's first black ringmaster, to illustrate the diversity and inclusivity of the circus arena historically, and I was interested to hear she is currently developing a play about Fanque. Professor Vanessa also talked about the role of circus in the past providing an arena for the emancipated women to flourish, strong in body and spirit, in a way that was light years ahead of the treatment of women in society at large. 

Companies such as the all-female aerialists Skinning the Cat and Mimbre acrobats are part of that trajectory. Actually, I'd never heard of the former as they toured 1988-2002, long before I came into contact with the circus world. Through the Pecha Kucha presentation by founder Becky Truman I learned that the company is known for their pioneering use of narrative and props. I was pleased to hear that Becky has written a book about her experience and what makes an artist, launching at the Bradford Literary Festival in 2018. In honour of 2018 she and fellow speaker Dr Julia Calver, and producer Jenny Wilson have set up the Cupola 2018 Project in Yorkshire, a programme celebrating circus in the North. 

Exploded Circus -
Hearing Lina Johannsson describe Mimbre's "If I Could I Would" (Chapter 143 - click here) as "a woman turning around a shitty day through small victories" made me smile, and I enjoyed hearing more about the new show in development "Exploded Circus". Imagine a snapshot of the moment a circus explodes, frozen in time. Six performers, with clown Alison Halstead in a pivotal role, emerge and try to rebuild a new life out of the chaos, each for their own. The story looks at how we deal with change, ultimately demonstrating that the human instinct to connect is stronger that the human instinct to survive. A striking metaphor the week that it feels like the world has exploded and we wonder where to go from here. #StrongerTogether. 

As Daniela Essart of Scarabeus Aerial Theatre, later observed: "Making art is a political act in an unequal society." I was delighted to hear more about the company, having heard from circus artist Michaela O'Connor that they make beautiful work. Take their show "Depths of My Mind", an immersive piece, inspired by a U-Change study by scientists at Cambridge University mapping the development of the teenage brain that looked at  in a positive affirmation of life as a teenager, and the project in the making exploring the concept of home in the context of immigration and refugees as place makers. Scarabeus celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2018, and I'm looking forward to hearing more.  

Speaking of teenagers, Circus Works is the UK voice for youth circus and I was interested to hear Lynn Carroll speak on the importance of "physical literacy" in children's education, a fact recognised in Wales where it is government policy to ensure it is represented on the curriculum. Funnily enough I went to a talk on mindfulness at my son's school the other day where I learned that the first school to bring mindfulness into the classroom was in Bangor, the hotspot for a mindful eduction. Wales is leading the way. Lynn also talked about how important circus was to improving physical literacy, especially among girls, a fact that I have seen first hand in my 8 year old daughter who is a regular at Flying Fantastic classes. I watch her sailing across monkey bars with ease now, and climbing up any poles or ropes she can find. They are activities that challenge and stretch her, and her confidence and trust in her own strength has soared. As an adult learning aerial, I get that same kick from discovering an increase in upper body strength, though I still struggle to follow in my daughter's footsteps on the monkey bars! 

Circus Raj at Førde Festival
In terms of training spaces, it was great to see Flying Fantastic in attendance and to hear from Yam Doyev, owner/Artistic Director, and Kevin Aaron from Gravity Circus Centre about the plans for expansion, both in terms of physical space and attracting teachers, and plans for a flagship show in 2018. In Bristol, Circomedia also has a new building and an imminent move, and as well as fostering the burgeoning movement through their BA Hons, new MA in Directing Circus and recreational classes. I was glad to hear from Nic Young that they have a collaboration planned with Extraordinary Bodies (see post on "Weighting" - click here) in 2018. Also from Bristol, Kate Hartock was there to talk about the role that Circus City, launched in 2015, has sustaining the circus community there, providing a platform for circus arts, and on plans for the biennial festival this October, which will be over half-term and have a strong family strand.

Further to the South West, it was interesting to hear from Laurie Miller at Seachange Arts, the circus and street arts organisation based in Great Yarmouth about the Coasters initiative, thanks to nearly £1million grant from the Arts Council that enables them to take a touring programme to coastal towns. I loved hearing about Seachange Arts creation space "The Drill House", with accommodation on the side for up to 8 performers in vintage caravans, and can now visualise José Triguero & Gemma Palomar in situ there this week, developing their work Cul De Sac (post to follow). I would like to check out the "Out There" festival in the Autumn, an annual event which has around 50,000 people visiting the town over the space of a couple of days to see a whole host of national and international talent, and the large scale touring show for Circus250 will be full steam ahead. 

We also heard from Jade Dunbar, who runs the circus Big Top at the Glastonbury Festival, looking to use the festival's year "off" in 2018 to nurture projects that are a little bit different, and with a strong interest in works of a participatory nature that involve the audience. One company giving a Pecha Kucha talk that has been welcomed at Glastonbury in the past was Circus Raj, short for Rajistan, their agent Graham Breakwall quickly clarified, to dispel any resonances of colonial appropriation. The company has been coming over to the UK now for a couple of years now, appearing in parades, shows, and highly in demand at Indian wedding parties. The are looking now for partners and constructive criticism to take their work to the next level. I wonder if they have ever swapped notes with Circus Kathmandu (

Lina, Vicki and Tina. Photo credit @Circus250
Last, but not least, I found Jon Hicks presentation one of the most entertaining, not least because he is a comedian by trade with a very deadpan humour. He took "Kickmouse Mysterium" to the first London Clown Festival last year, described as "Kung Fu Panda meets Buster Keaton" and has plans for a silent clowning show in 2018. 

"What a wonderful smorgasboard of stories from the world of circus" observed facilitator Orit Azaz afterwards. I rather loved that. They each told a story, but, like this blog, that is only part of the whole story and post-it notes were laid out with pens and the open invitation to those there to add any items of news that is happening that we haven't heard about. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the afternoon session, which comprised a more informal series of two minute presentations, but had to leg it back for the kids' school pick up. I missed, for instance, hearing what Mimbre's Lina, Upswing's Vicki Amedume and Ockham Razor's Tina Koch have planned together for Circus250, and share Celine McKillion's excitement seeing the post-it note about the return to Bristol of Invisible Circus' immersive Carny-Ville in 2018 (

Information gathering though was only part of what the day was about for me. It was also about catching up, even if all too briefly, with people who have shared interests over a cup of coffee. Hearing from Grania Pickard about the tour for Oddly Moving's "He Ain't Heavy" (which I fell for in development Chapter 108 - click here); Mary Swan about "Pinocchio", a co-production between Proteus Theatre, Nearly There Yet, The Arc Stockton and The Albany Deptford which I must see with the kids (they still talk about "Rapunzel" - Chapter 57 - click here); chatting to Lost In Translation's Massi Rossetti about Flight of the Escales "What The Circus", a work in progress I saw at The Roundhouse last weekend, this week going up to LIT's space in Norwich; swapping notes with Dizzy O'Dare's Alana Jones on why we were blown away by "Here Lies Shakespeare" last week at Jacksons Lane (post to follow); see Heidi Niemi, who I have been learning silks with at Freedom2Fly and hear about her and Hanna Moisala's next project "Lola" for Lumo Company, at Resolution in February ( This is where I get the energy for my writing: bouncing ideas off other creators, doers, artists and meeting inspirational role models full of integrity and bursting with creativity. On the way out I snapped a shot of some of the post-its already up. "Circus needs more high profile champions and ambassadors" stated one. Maybe that is what this blog is all about, I thought, building bridges. In this crazy, crazy world right now, all we can do is to reach out to others and connect.

"Never doubt a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead, US Anthropologist

in order of appearance

1.  Laurie Miller, Creative Producer at Circus and Street Arts organisation Seachange Arts.

2. Circomedia's Artistic and Managing Director Nicholas Young

3. Lynn Carroll, from NoFit State, chair of Circus Works

4. Rachel Clare from  Crying Out Loud

5. Graham Breakwall from Circus Raj

6. Dea Birkett from Circus250

7. Yam Doyev, Manager, and Kevin Aaron from Gravity Circus Centre

8. Jon Hicks

9. Lina Johansson from Mimbre

11. Daniela Essart from Scarabeus Aerial Theatre

12. Becky Truman and Dr Julia Calver from UK Centre for Events Management at Leeds Beckett University organising the Cupola 2018 Project

13. Jade Dunbar from Glastonbury Festival

14.  Kate Hartock co-Artistic Director at Circus City, Bristol's biennial circus festival

If you are interested in hearing more or participating in future events, contact organiser Verena Cornwall:

"in Flanders, life is circus. Flemish 

Monday, 16 January 2017

Chapter 169: Gandini Juggling's "Smashed" at Sadlers Wells

Photo credit:
Smashed last night, shattered this morning after a trip to Sadlers Wells last night to see a special edition of Gandini Juggling's renowned show. The evening led to psychedelic dreams where Pina Bausch merged with Pina Colada, and pineapples housing espresso cups were juggled with liberal abandon. It has been quite a journey. Smashed started life as an outdoor show at the National Theatre's "What The Space" festival back in 2010, quickly formed (a throwaway piece?!) as a love letter to German choreographer Pina Bausch, although I read it now as an extraordinary testimony to the partnership, both artistic and romantic, between Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala. Sean and Kati met when she, a rhythmic gymnast by training, noticed him as a street performer at Covent Garden. Since then they have fused together into a unique body of work that has revisioned juggling, exploring its potential as a language in its own right as well as its ability to speak to, describe and illuminate other art forms.

Smashed was my first reference point for Gandini Juggling, chancing upon a youtube video of the finale of the show from the festival in 2010. It had uber-slick choreography ending in chaos set to the song "I've Never Waltzed in Berlin". I loved the music, the skill and the way the rug was pulled from underneath. Just a few weeks later, I came across performers from Gandini Juggling at Camp Bestival dressed in utilitarian white dungarees with LED clubs flashing to the beat of DJ Rob Da Banks. 8 Songs was another outdoor piece I saw, with a thumpingly great soundtrack. Then came a work at the Royal Opera House crossing four jugglers with four ballet dancers to draw out 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, while later in the year the experimental meta was created in honour of Jacksons Lane's 40th anniversary. I last saw Gandini Juggling at the ENO, an integral part of Philip Glass' opera Akhnaten. But not having seen Smashed I felt I was missing an intrinsic part of the Gandini experience. Then it was announced that there would be a "special edition" at Sadlers Well, and Christmas came early - I got tickets in September for the following January. 

Thomas JM Wilson's juggling trajectories
On the day itself, though, I was pretty fed up. The tube strike had brought London to a standstill, the friends we were meeting had booked the other night by accident, the babysitter cancelled so my husband would have to stay home instead of joining me, our youngest had kept us up all night and the energy was pouring out of me like water through a colander. Not going was not an option, but I was determined to find a good home for the spare ticket, even if it meant dragging someone off the street. Which is pretty much what happened. You see a fortnight previously a passerby, a fellow Mum with young kids, stopped me for directions, thinking about moving to the area. We got chatting, swapped numbers and I invited Michelle to drop in for a coffee if she was ever back in the neighbourhood house-hunting and wanted the local low-down. Out of the blue, Michelle turned up that afternoon, just as I was hitting the doldrums. Her timing was providential. While I made us some coffee, a copy of juggling trajectories lying open on the kitchen table attracted her attention. Michelle was open, interested, a lot of fun and to my delight was up for coming along that evening. The very randomness of the act generated its own energy, as though we were a couple of atoms juggling fate lines. 

Michelle and I both bumped into friends in the theatre bar, somewhat less surprisingly in my case, and, ever the people-watcher, it led me to wonder about the make-up of the audience: many Gandini aficionados, both professional and amateur jugglers, Sadlers Wells regulars and Bausch disciples, and those drawn by the fact that this was the flagship show opening the 40th anniversary of the London International Mime Festival. I would love to have the statistics to draw up a Venn diagram of overlapping cultural circles. 

I felt the usual frisson of risk and responsibility as we took our seats, as I always do when I introduce someone new to this world. What would Michelle make of it? On stage sat an impressive row of 15 empty chairs - there had been nine in the original. As though mapping out juggling trajectories, apples were laid out in lines in front; not fiery clubs, glitter sticks, flashing knives or light-changing globes, just your communal, red, garden apples. The entire show revolved around playing with these apples that by turns could read as an articulation of Bauschian iconography, a homage to Newtonian physics, or the fruit of knowledge, a tease of Eve. "Take an object, and do something to it. Do something else to it" as abstract artist Jasper Johns is quoted in juggling trajectories. So beautiful in its simplicity, right? In the question and answer session later Sean Gandini would say the best ideas are often cooked up in the kitchen and here domesticity had a retro feel, Stepford meets post-war austerity, as the jugglers paraded in a succession of suits or tank-tops and cords, tea dresses and t-bar shoes. This was undoubtedly amplified by the nostalgia inherent in the song "I've Never Waltzed in Berlin". Watching the performers file past was like watching a Who's Who of juggling. I'd only met about half the performers, but recognised a fair few more from the striking portraits that I had been admiring in Thomas Wilson's authoritative juggling trajectories only hours earlier. I was struck by the individuality and unique energy of each performer, their gait, their mannerisms, their facial expressions, by turn Marx brother zany, zen, nonchalant, dry, curious, engaging, up to something... each brought their own personality into play here.

That the show began with the same track in the video that was from the end of the show surprised me. Where could they now go from here?* Oh lordy! Where indeed! Distraction was the name of the game, whether through sexual provocation, taunts, or physically, sometimes violently, interrupting the flow of others. There were sequences of intense beauty: the spectacle of so many jugglers in synch, a row apples punctuating the air at the exact same height, describing the same patterns; the hand of one performer stealing its way into the space in motion of another and plucking out an apple from the whirl; a romance of tango between by Sean and Kati.

[* I later found out that the same track was used both to open and close the original show.]

There was a lot of laughter too. I enjoyed the slapstick of Sakari Männistö, a cross between Loki,  the trickster god, and Charlie Chaplin, as he used a stick that reminded me of a rolled up newspaper to disrupt the juggling of others one by one, and when he tried to take his seat again the others swiftly shifted chairs to prevent it, first one way, then the other.

Photo credit:
That is what I love about Gandini Juggling - the sheer mischief at play. They call the audience on what they see. You see female jugglers vastly outnumbered? Is there a whiff of sexism there? Let's have both of them crawling on all fours in front of a row of seated men, like some mobile coffee tables, surfaces to bounce off apples. Then if that doesn't push your buttons, let's do it all again, only this time let's stuff an apple in their mouth like a suckling pig, setting it to the tune of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" for good measure. In a near Freudian slip I almost wrote that the music was Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and you could say the ladies have their revenge later in a sadomasochistic game that in spirit was rather like a Bavarian slap dancing game where the women literally have the upper hand. 

That's Smashed for you, with it's dark humour, piquant, both rousing and arousing. In another instance Kim Huynh tantalisingly stretches out a leg, trying to distract the men around her, rolling apples across her body, then dropping them down her front. As she stands up, she looks pregnant with desire and then the fruits of her labour are dropped one by one as she straddles the lap of each man in turn until she reaches Tedros Girmaye, who looks expectantly, but there are none left for him. That is very much path of the course for Tedros in the show, that the joke is on him. Here again Gandini Juggling are the agents provocateurs as we see the only black member of the cast being turned down, ignored, ganged up on to the point that he is trapped while a teapot's worth of water is trickled down his head. He eventually broke free, but was wretched. It was disturbing to watch. It made me think of Malvolio being taunted in Twelfth Night, but staged in a parallel universe where National Socialism had won the day - care to waltz in Berlin? Then the masque of pathos was removed, Shakespeare's fool was in on the act, and toying with our assumptions. To quote Lucy Ribchester on the show in juggling trajectories "As an indictment on human nature it's vicious; as theatre it's brilliant."

In terms of the "special edition" there were three significant changes: the first was obvious to me, when half-way through six more female jugglers arrived on the scene. Lynn Scott took centre stage on a seat first, while the others emerged gradually. Lynn's pre-Raphelite tumble of long hair called attention to her gender, while lip-synching Charles Aznavour's "What makes a man?" (click here to watch the original). Lynn interpreted the song through an extraordinary eloquence of hand gestures, effectively juggling without balls (pun intended), and the fleeting impressions conjured up, like the parakeet on her shoulder, were so clever. The second addition was when the jugglers sang with gusto a Harry Belafonte calypso "I like bananas (because they have no bones)" seated in an outward-facing circle, extolling the virtues of the fruit. A catchy tune that I imagine has really got under their skins.

The third was the ending. Mezzo-soprano opera singer Emma Carrington rose up from below resplendent in a white shift. At the time I neither registered that she was Queen Nefertiti from Akhnaten or that she was eight months pregnant (respect!), simply transfixed by her voice. Singing a Vivaldi aria, she walked steadily backwards towards the four-strong strings Camarata Alma Viva, and then the Bachanalia commenced. Catcalls and in-jokes were chucked around, sacrilegiously drowning the beauty of the music, as each juggler in turn took the floor with a trick to show off: "Pretentious rubbish!" "Crap!" "Oooh, a laydee juggler!"  "Fancy opening the Mime Festival with a bunch of jugglers..." [Actually, the proper collective noun, dating back to the Middle Ages, is a "neverthriving" of jugglers, so even funnier to wonder] "The Arts Council gave you money for this?!" Apples were munched, spewed across the stage and soon crockery followed suit. Time for tea, Sean Gandini juggled a couple of teapots deliberately slowly, as though weighing up the audience, until he let drop. I heard from friends the following night that the butler from Downton Abbey was sitting behind them. I wondered what he made of such smashing etiquette. The pièce de résistance for me was when Malte Steinmetz managed to take side swipe bites of his apple mid-air, timing it so that when it was down to a tiny ball he simply flicked it down his throat in time with the final note of music. Bravo! En-core! 

Post-Show session

Donald Hutera and Sean Gandini
The audience was buzzing afterwards as I bumped into more and more people, faces radiant. Newbies like Michelle and devotees like me were similarly delighted. There had been a lot of laughs and that good will spilled into the generous feedback session afterwards where Donald Hutera, dance critic for The Times, took questions from the floor and riffed off them with Sean Gandini. It made for a fascinating insight into the creative process as well as great entertainment, as a quick wit volleyed between them. 

I was interested to hear about the collaborative nature of the work. How, for instance, Sean had emailed Lynn a choice of three songs ("Take Good Care of Yourself", "Josephine" and the Aznavour) but in retrospect you realise it couldn't have been anything other than "What Makes a Man". When asked how difficult it was to incorporate extra jugglers, Sean attributed the ease to Kati's ability to sketch out ideas quickly and disseminate them. 

Towards the end the two were joined on stage by Dominique Mercy, French dancer and choreographer, member of the Tanztheater Wuppertal company of Pina Bausch, who had been acting as an outside eye for the company for the past few days. Working with one of his heroes was obviously a dream come true for Sean, and the affection and mutual respect between the two men was palpable. That they both would have liked more time together ("we could have done with a week", "make that two!") made me wonder if there wouldn't be future collaborations in store. While the idea of reworking the show to feature nine women juggling oranges had a zest of jest to it, Sean was deadly serious about taking Smashed! to the Big Apple. There was talk of incorporating a Bob Fosse number into the show, so who knows, maybe next stop La La Land...

We are certainly living in a Golden Age of Juggling, as Sean pointed out, evidenced in the variety of patterns that fifty years ago may have numbered in their hundreds, now number millions. I was interested by a question from the floor as to whether there was any software model available that could map out juggling notations in advance and help speed up the creative process by enabling you to visualise immediately what would work and what wouldn't, and if they would consider using it if so. Sometimes it is better to go more slowly, observed Dominique Mercy, a sentiment echoed by Donald Hutera: "failure is good", and Sean agreed. It reminded me of the Neil Gaiman quote that ends "fail better"**. And that is at the heart of Smashed for me. We are all a little bit broken and are liable to drop the odd ball. Let's put it out there, centre stage, and make something of it. Chin-chin!

Previous posts: 
Gandini Juggling at the ENO - Akhnaten
Thomas J.M. Wilson's Juggling Trajectories is available from (click here)

"Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better." Neil Gaiman.**

Mike Antony Bell, Sean Gandini, Frederike Gerstner, Tedros Girmaye, Doreen Grossman, Kim Huynh, Antoni Klemm, Sakari Männistö, Francesca Mari, Chris Patfield, Dani Rejano, Owen Reynolds, Ben Richter, Inaki Sastre, Lynn Scott, Niels Seidel, Arron Sparks, Malte Steinmetz, José Triguero, Jon Udry, Kati Ylä-Hokkala