Friday, 30 June 2017

Chapter 198: Something Different: Greenwich and Docklands International Festival

"I know families who mark off GDIF and Greenwich Fair dates on their calendar in the same way they do family birthdays they wouldn't want to miss"
- Lyn Gardner

My grandfather visiting the Cutty Sark
What is GDIF? Good Dinner In Field? Great Day Impromptu Fun?! I was asked the other day by a friend who tried to decipher the acronym from what she could deduce from pictures shared on Facebook. Well yes, it is that, but it actually stands for the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, an outdoors arts festival packed with  street theatre, circus, dance and all sorts of impromptu happenings, now in its 20th year. I take it for granted that everyone has heard of it, so firmly it is embedded in my diary, and yet I only came across it a couple of years ago myself. I was in Greenwich for the wedding of friends, and meandered through the festival on the way back from the breakfast the following morning. I watched Collectif Malunes (click here) swing from trapezes that in an inadvertent trompe d'oeil appeared part of the rigging of the Cutty Sark, wishing my grandfather were there, I saw exceptional acrobatics on the Russian board from 15ft6 (click here), and caught Gandini Juggling rocking it with 8 Songs (click here). I missed the festival last year when Mum was in hospital, but was back this year, this time with the whole family in tow.

I looked through the programme in advance and highlighted a few items I wanted to see particularly, but taking kids of different ages and interests makes life unpredictable, and part of the charm of a festival is often as much the unexpected encounters and happenings...

Actual Reality Arcade
A case in point. Computer games in physical from requiring human interaction - inspired! We particularly loved Donkey Kong and I found puzzling out stacks of shapes in Tetris as satisfying as ever. The kids loved the ping-pong bat with ball attached with elastic with which they would knock down a brick wall,  threading their way through an alarm of red string, and my youngest spent ages popping her head through different holes in a box avoiding a foam mallet. Simple things amuse. 

Simple Cypher - Roll up, roll up 
Simple Cypher were one of the main draws for me, as I have heard so much about the mesh of juggling, hiphop and Cyr wheel acrobatics of Kieran Warner and Christopher Thomas for a while now, and knew they'd have the street cred vibe my son would appreciate. So Mum, is this dance or is this circus?  He was hooked. I noticed my five year old quietly imitating their hand gestures and other kids couldn't help but gravitate towards them, literally at one point when a small child legged it into their space, and was scooped up and returned to their parent by Christopher with grace and humour. Bet that didn't happen in January at The Place (the centre for contemporary dance) I thought, and wondered how the piece changed according to its environment. What is clear is that it works in both settings because these two have charisma, and, like Barely Methodical Troupe in the previous post, have a piece here that appeals to circus newbies and the circus savvy alike. Catch them next at Jacksons Lane on 26 July in an evening mashing circus and hiphop where they will be joined by guest artists for Cypher Stories

Dizzy O'Dare's  Baba Yaga
I know Dizzy O'Dare through their tightwire. Most recently having seen the beautiful show Rise, which is premiering at the Worthing Summer of Circus Festival (see post - click here). They also do street performing and I was very much looking forward to seeing Baba Yaga, the wise woman-cum devourer of Russian and Finnish folklore. She featured largely in my childhood thanks to the magical retelling of the the story, illustrated with silhouettes against backgrounds of sunsets, by Jan Pienowski (also the author of Mog & Meg!) in Kingdom Under The Sea. Others may have come across the legend through the Hellboy comic series (I hear). Either way, the witch,  gratifyingly sinister with wicked ad libs, glided across the ground like a dalek, with a hut on chicken legs in tow, and it was utterly brilliant. My 8 year old laughed with a side order of relish as she was inspected as a potential dinner and found wanting (needs fattening up!). Others let out squeals as a water pistol was aimed through the hut window. My friend Heather and I were embraced as "Sisters! When shall we three meet again?!" Hopefully sooner rather than later Baba Yaga...

PifPaf's Seed
I was delighted to catch PifPaf's show SEED after narrowly missing it at the Wandsworth Arts Fringe where I saw Hikapee Theatre's Home (see post - click here).  Seed was the tale of one man's energetic fight against slugs that threatened his crop, whether enlisting the help of his puppet pet chicken or electrocuting them. There was something of the inventiveness of a regular Caractacus Potts about Wilford's ramshackle hut. His character,  in his jean dungarees, greasing back his quiff in the mirror and fed up to the back teeth of slugging it out, had an air of an anarchic hillbilly crossed with John Travolta. I loved the moment when, with the gravelled tones of Louis Armstrong, he sang down a hosepipe about his blues at the lack of rain. The sponge slugs grew progressively larger until one took on the inflated dimensions of a bouncy castle and swallowed him whole. It was very cleverly done, and when Wilford finally got his wish there was a joyful rain dance that all joined in. 

Tom Ball
There are two things I know about Silver Lining's Tom Ball. He has a beautiful voice, and he is a superb aerialist. As well as at Jacksons Lane and National Circus I have seen him in other spaces too - at Edinburgh in the Hitchcock tribute cabaret (click here) and in Extraordinary Bodies in Dulwich Park (click here). I misread the programme though, and instead of a solo on trapeze I found him on stage with an awesome rainbow backdrop in Hawaian print doing a hula-hoop routine to Queen's Don't Stop Me Now, which had us all dancing in the street, having a good time... 

Photo credit: James Berry
Sir Ian McKellan
The crowd suddenly shifted to the other end of the street. What's going on? It's Ian McKellan, somebody shouted out. I heard the familiar booming voice long before I caught sight of a navy blue panama hat and sky blue suit, and scaled a wall to rest on a ledge to get a better view - circus training has its uses! I thought of my Cuban friend Cheddy Mendizabel, who came over to the Royal Court as a playwright for a season of readings of contemporary Cuban plays. McKellen read from Norge Espinosa's play Trio, directed by Richard Wilson, and the playwrights asked me to take a picture of them all together later when we were on the balcony chatting. I had to get the roll of film specially developed, and took the photos out to Havana the following summer. Ah, they would have appreciated this talk, I thought, and wished they were here to listen to him speak on Section 28, gay rights and how lucky we are in the UK to have freedom of speech. The speech was followed by a moving duet by a couple of young male dancers and then the crowd dispersed under a blast of pink confetti. Ever the magpie I watched my youngest scoop up piles and dance around throwing them in the air  for an encore. GDIF sparks  all sorts of spontaneity and that is the joy of it. A day well spent celebrating life and love.

Note: footage inadvertently recorded in slowmo is an interesting study in motion, sill better to catch them live...

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Chapter 197: Barely Methodical Troupe's KIN

All photos courtesy of Worthing Theatres
Charlie Wheeller 

About a year ago I went to see a brilliant one man show at Battersea Arts Centre, a tour de force retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost. I was with author Lucy Ribchester, who also reviews circus at the Edinburgh Fringe for The List, but this was our night "off" circus. It was amusing then to watch the performer at one point ascend a rope, at another do a little invisible juggling. We chatted to him afterwards about it and it turned out he had a genuine interest in circus. "Did you go to the Roundhouse Circus Fest this year?" He asked. Oh yes, I replied, and proceeded to wax lyrical on one particular highlight, which he really should catch if possible one day, a thrillingly funny show called KIN by Barely Methodical Troupe. It turned out he knew the show already. He was Ben Duke. The Director.

JD & Nikki

Jonathan Bendtsen
KIN is Barely Methodical Troupe (BMT)'s second show.   In their first show, the award-winning Bromance, which I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe, Charlier Wheeller, Beren D'Amico and Louis Gift, who met as students at the National Centre for Circus Arts, explored the tensions and comedy that underpinned the dynamics of their three-way friendship. In KIN the trio is extended to a group with the addition of Jonathan Bendtsen, Arthur Parsons, taking on Louis' role, and acro duo JD & Nikki (Jean-Daniel Broussé and Nikki Rummer). Together they explore the shift in relationships as the boys compete for the attention of, and selection by, one woman in a Britain's Got Talent-style scenario, which works both in story-telling terms and as a metaphor for the politics of the group and power play. In both shows it is clear that, aside from the stellar circus skills, these performers have the X-factor because they come across as genuine and immensely likeable.

Crossing popular culture references with contemporary circus excellence was a great choice to open Worthing Theatre's Summer of Circus festival. Amanda O'Reilly, Head of Culture, said that she wanted the circus programme to catch in summer the footfall from the pantomime-goers in winter months. Looking around at an audience largely comprised of locals and families, I could see she had captured that demographic. The oval space with its vast, high ceilings was the perfect circus setting, and a much more intimate affair, closer to the action than The Roundhouse, where I had sat on the back row of the gods. 

JD Broussé, Arthur Parsons, Charlie Wheeller, Beren D'Amico
Upbeat, energetic, dynamic, dishevelled with smatterings of what looked like flour (roisin?) on their faces, from the moment the BMT boys tumbled onto the stage like wolf cubs, the audience were with them. Excitement and fun charged the atmosphere. Nikki, in matrix style coat and dark glasses stared on impassively, taking notes on a clipboard, as the boys, identified by randomly assigned numbers on their trousers, comically vyed for her attention. Displays of physical prowess, like 19 going for a backwards tuck off, and back onto, 39's shoulders, are met with blistering indifference. Put on pedestals, literally, these demigods (tongue in cheek) with laurel wreaths on the heads, were called in turn to audition for her favour. Awkward, risible moments followed: 108 played the accordian with that certain je ne sais quoi, 19 was brought to his knees, and still lower, in a hilarious dance serenade to Purple Rain39 performed devilishly skilled diabolo juggling and  07's stroke of genius was playing The Four Seasons on a finger piano. Each was either interrupted by a buzzer or, even more humiliatingly, by their Adjudicator simply walking off the stage and leaving them to it. 52's turn on Cyr wheel was rewarded with a banana, but the Lord of the Flies rivalry that it gave way to made being singled out in that fashion something of a poisoned chalice.

Get. Me. Down!
As the show progressed the acrobatics crescendoed in terms of risk, all the more so because it was a sweltering evening and potential for slipping through sweaty grips rose exponentially. By the time it got to the teeterboard routines, bodies catapulting through the air off a wooden seesaw, I found myself registering any hint of a wobble or stumble caught in a split second, and becoming utterly tense, as though by contracting all my muscles I could secure their safety.

That's the play, get the audience teetering while the performers nonchalantly sail through the air. Circus performers really do have a different take on gravity and mindset born of talent, curiosity and hard graft.  The clowning around throughout was hilarious, and there were also gentler moments of sheer beauty. As well as single turns on the Cyr wheel, I loved the duet between Bendtsen (39) and Wheeller (52). This time round it felt as though it had been expanded with new tricks in there too. Watching JD (108) & Nikki hand-to-hand in their element gave me goosebumps, especially with a darker undercurrent opening the duet. As number 07 Arthur Parsons had, literally, giant shoes to step into, but felt a naturally integrated, fundamental part of the whole. 

Nikki Rummer and Beren D'Amico
I loved the seamless silence with which Nikki flipped across the stage, or the way she walked across steps of human heads with fluidity and ease. Here was the one in control both of her physicality and emotions; contained, so it seemed. The aura of Mystery culminated in a visually striking three high, where a long cloak hid the middle and the base underneath, so only Nikki as flyer on top was visible. The haunting Kyrie playing underscored her status, to be revered, like a statue of the Virgin Maria paraded in Holy Week. As the cloak opened and the revelation, and realisation, came that she was way up there thanks to being on the shoulders of others, her fear became apparent. She was vulnerable. Get. Me. Down! She commanded, part pleading. The tables were turned. "What are you afraid of?" led to the confession "Being alone". The spell has been broken: acknowledging that without them all she was nothing, she was now part of the pack. 

The crowd was bowled over. I enjoyed the ad libs from the eight children sitting in a row in front of me, clearly circus savvy, and the anticipation, whoops and gasps from all around at the superb stunts and the infectious, eclectic music from Bowie to Piaf to Hair! The moment the show ended everyone leapt to their feet in a standing ovation and gave a thunderous applause. It was a joy to be a part of that and witness this new wave of circus on the coast. Congrats all round, and cheers!

Nikki Rummer, 07 Arthur Parsons, 108 JD Broussé, 19 Beren D'Amico (front), 52 Charlie Wheeller (behind), 39 Jonathan Bendtsen

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Chapter 196: Worthing Theatres' Summer of Circus 2017

From left to right: Anyday, Elixr, Rise, The Wheel House

Lucy loves circus. She also loves the sea. Set on the South Coast in West Sussex, Worthing Theatres' Summer of Circus festival brings the two together for ten weeks and I went down on Friday for the launch. Worthing Theatres had come onto my radar increasingly over the past couple of years programming exciting circus companies, and for being part of the Coasters initiative, one of 11 partners that receives Arts Council funding this year to promote circus and street arts across the country in coastal regions. I wanted to find out more by meeting the Worthing team and getting a feel for the physical space and location. I also fancied a stroll along the pier that extends out from their Pavilion Theatre, which featured in a trailer for a show I had seen earlier this year (see Cul De Sac - click here for video)!

I had never been to Worthing before. In fact, as far as I knew, the last members of my family to go there were my Victorian great-grandparents, holidaying around the same time Oscar Wilde was there writing "The Importance of Being Earnest", naming his protagonist Jack Worthing in honour of the town. There was an elegance to the architecture, and I enjoyed the ten minute wander from the train station to Marine Parade, taking in the Punch & Judy  puppets and jester in a solicitor's front window, next to a statue of Laurel and Hardy, and round the corner from the poster for Barely Methodical Troupe's show Kin, in the shadow of seagulls that, I noticed later, made their mark all down the back of my blazer - clowns everywhere! 

The weather was glorious and the turquoise sea provided a stunning backdrop for the Pavilion Theatre, built in 1926. The building, described by Worthing Theatre's Head of Culture Amanda O'Reilly, "is like a brick and metal Big Top", and actually did have visiting circuses in the early days, with an in-built ramp especially for the elephants and at least one incident of an escaping seal! 

It is Amanda who is primarily responsible for bringing a new wave of circus to Worthing. Coming from a background in contemporary dance, and with a love of physical theatre that has a narrative, Amanda was drawn to circus she was seeing at Edinburgh Festival that mixed those two genres, that was both accessible and family friendly without compromising artistic integrity. Dressed in a fabulous circus print dress that evening, Amanda struck me as really good fun, and that was the vibe of the evening she and her team laid on.

Alcoholic slush puppies were served on arrival, and black and pink sunglasses (the theatre colours), on bar tables next to baskets of monogrammed slices of rock on bar tables, augmented the holiday feel. At one end was a DJ pumping out tunes, at another a graffiti artist was painting a stunning collage in celebration of the event. A photo-booth was decked out with all sorts of wigs and accessories and a happy crowd milled around drinking up the festival spirit. 

Amanda introduced the festival while a video behind her screened footage from each of the shows. The line-up is notable for the sheer variety on offer as well as the fact that what all these shows have in common is that they appeal to circus first-timers and fanatics alike. There is:  Barely Methodical Troupe's thrillingly funny Kin (post to follow); Acrojou's beautiful outdoors German wheel show The Wheelhouse that I have been trying to see for the past three years; Max Calaf Seve's touchingly gentle and life-enhancing trampolining show Anyday (I've seen extracts at Jacksons Lane and National Circus); the world premiere of Dizzy O'Dare's full-length uplifting tightwire show Rise (see post - click here); Head First Acrobats crazy zombie acrobatics and Cyr wheel antics in ElixirOckham's Razor's much-acclaimed, absolute must-see Tipping Point; Kate Lawrence Vertical Dance angelic new aerial composition in a secret location and Metta Theatre's retelling of Jungle Book (see post - click here).  

It was a terrific opening night, signalling all the fun that lies ahead this summer - check it out! In addition to the shows, there are all sorts of circus experiences and workshops on offer, including the artists above giving workshops in trampolining, tightwire, acro-balance, wheel and hoop. For dates, listings and more information see (click here).

A huge thank you for your warm welcome and congratulations to Amanda, Stephen, Pam, Alice and all at Worthing Theatres. It was my first time with you, but certainly not the last, and I'm looking forward to coming back with the family for more circus fun in the sun...

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Chapter 195: Peta Lily's Topless

Last week I went to see Peta Lily's Topless at the Hackney Attic. A masterclass in physical comedy, comic timing, the female voice and emotional honesty. It was part of a #LaughorCry17 two act programme by To The Moon, founded by Artistic Director Sharon Burrell, passionate about serving up the darker side of life with a shot of laughter, and getting women's stories heard. In an interesting juxtaposition, Lily shared the bill with Ellen Waddell, a performer in her early 30s, who revisited her people-pleasing, perfectionist, ex-Indie rocker 2012 self, stripping back the lies she told with disarming honesty. Lily, on the other hand, rewound 20 years to the original Topless, setting the show in context by way of an introduction. The show is the first in a trilogy charting different stages of life, and was followed by Midriff and then Chastity Belt (click here). I was looking forward to the evening because I had enjoyed Chastity Belt as a kind of heads up as to what lies ahead, while Topless was written when she was around my age, speaks to the here and now, and, as I told Peta later, quite frankly I was in need of a good laugh.

Lily is the pioneer in the art of Dark Clowning, where the comedy is informed by pain and suffering, so I knew the show would contain elements of black humour, though I have it on good authority from a friend who has been on one of her courses that Dark Clown work delves even deeper into tenebrious material. Clowning in this sense also refers specifically to physical comedy, but from watching Chastity Belt I knew Lily to be a gifted poet, telling her story through verbal as much as corporeal language. I expected witty, and on occasion acerbic, reflections on being a woman, life, love and sex, but my god, I was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster moving from the pain of a marriage break-up, to taking a younger lover herself (an old flame, we cheered!), to breast cancer and sticking-plaster sex, and ultimately to the death of her mother. It feels a bit strange to say then that I was laughing throughout, but that's the essence of dark clowning for you. It reaches deep into the most poignant parts without swerving into sentimentality. Life lands blows. We have to deal with it and laugh, or else we'd never get up again. There was macabre humour to be found describing the painful mangle of a mammogram ("it's like a strippergram but with a granny hug at the end!"), or when driven round the bend by her lover. Watching Lily, fed up, shaking her fist declaring "c'est foutu! c'est cassé! c'est passé! c'est oublié!" ("it's fucked! it's broken! it's over! it's forgotten!") - going round in circles on some imaginary Parisian roundabout, was simply a priceless, life-affirming moment. And that's the thing about Lily, she has élan, she has verve, she has style and she's lots of fun. Dressed initially in a scarlett trenchcoat and red beret, stripping off to a lacy black number, wiggling her derriere to distract the audience while she consults her script - in the programme it was classed as a reading but it wasn't, though every so often Lily mined the comic potential of losing her thread - she channelled Anne Bancroft whether as a regular Mrs Robinson or the dowdy book collector in "84 Charing Cross Road". A natural mimic, conjuring up a whole cast of characters from Peat Bog lady to her curly lashed dancer boy, Lily tantalised with a wicked wit that was very close to the bone, painfully, acutely funny, but never cruel. An utterly brilliant evening and a class act. 

Sometimes there comes a dark night of the soul... check out Peta Lily's blog at and contact her through her website for more information on dark clowning and upcoming courses in July and future events.

To The Moon is producing five female solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, including Ellen Waddell @ellenstarbuck.
See for more information.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Chapter 194: Alula Cyr's Hyena

"If you have never been called a defiant, incorrigible, impossible woman... have faith. There is yet time."
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves

The figure of a circus strongwoman, getting ripped and letting rip, is one that I have always admired, and so I was looking forward to seeing the all-female circus trio Alula Cyr in their show Hyena produced Underbelly Festival on the Southbank by Jacksons Lane last week. Set in the intimacy of the Spiegeltent, Jessica Ladley, Lil Rice and Fiona Thornhill, who met on the degree course at the National Centre for Circus Arts, showed their mettle and their friendship to be as strong as the steel Cyr wheels in which they revolved.

Women Who Run With the Wolves is a touchstone text for a piece that explores the power released by connecting into the archetypal Wild Woman, and Hyena is a neat twist, owing to the matriarchal organisation of that particular species, in which the female is as strong, if not stronger, than the male. Circus has all sorts of tribes, and, going with Edel, founder of the training space Flying Fantastic, it was ironic that we ended up sitting with a pack of female aerialists (birds of a feather!), including Layla Rosa, who directed the show along with Rosamund Martin. Together we whooped and cheered at the fierce skills, and, woah!, the sheer strength on display.

As the girls walked in their grace was silhouetted in the wave of long, diaphanous skirts. It was a femininity to be adopted, discarded and played with at will, like their flowing hair, at one point gently braiding each other's, at another giving it a good tug. Underneath the skirts they wore leotard shorts. I liked the understated simplicity of the design, the contouring strips on them reminding me of a surgeon's marker pen marking out the anatomy on the female body. The acoustics in the round and the music was great, by turns lyrical in tender moments, visceral when echoing tribal dynamics, and always rooted in the very essence of Alula. Ollie Clark, who wrote and recorded the music, is an extremely talented long-term collaborator of Lil. I have seen them duet on stage a number of times at the Vaults, National Circus and Jacksons Lane over the past few years and get the sense that their musical partnership has grown organically, woven into the very fabric of Lil's identity as a singer. Watching Lil sing while rotating on Cyr wheel was a joy. Watching her belt out emotion from the top of a Cyr wheel, yet keep her balance on one foot, was both nerve-wrecking and enthralling.  

Fiona is a phenomenal gymnast and carried off springs and flips with a calm, grounded confidence that was a study in physical precision. I had a soft spot for Jessica's comic turn as peace-making fulchrum between Lil and Fiona, diffusing tensions as glowering clouds gathered initially, through mischief and an irresistible sense of fun, mimicking and undercutting the dramatic posturing of synchronising prompts "And"... "Ready" ... "Change", teasing through sunshine. When they worked together as a triple it brought home the power of three, whether in acrobalance pyramids, co-ordinating impressive tricks and turns on Cyr, or lifting their wheels - hup! - in true circus strongwoman style. I also loved the way they linked the wheels together to create a Cyr ball and explored the new possibilities that afforded them. Ultimately, though, it was the show-stopping finale where the three became one vitruvian woman spinning round that left me reeling with the idea of an archetypal Wild Woman in us all.  

"I am mother, I am sister, I'm daughter, friend.
I am Venus, I am Lilith, I have no end.
I need to be loved and I need to belong.
This is my tribe, and this is our song"

Video by Remy Archer

Post-script February 2018: Since last summer on Southbank, HYENA has been in development and opens at Malden Family Theatre in Sussex. All the very best to Alula for the tour in this year celebrating 250 years of circus #circus250 - catch them when you can! 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Chapter 193: Amici Dance Theatre Company: Tightrope

Photo: Sheila Burnett

"Save our circus," the bucket read. Ringling Bros. had taken its final bow, barely a few days before, and I was now with my daughters at the Lyric Hammersmith to see the Circus Amici struggle for survival in Tightrope. 

The show was about a fictional circus getting on in years and the bucket was actually collecting donations in lieu of a fixed payment for the programme. That's the deal with the Amici philosophy: give what you can.  

The Amici Dance Company was founded in 1980 by Wolfang Stange and is renowned for incorporating performers of all abilities in one body of visionary work: to date producing more than 20 company shows, holding numerous workshops that cross-share abilities, knowledge and experience, and giving rise to the off-shoot Blink Dance Theatre Company (see post - click here). Working in partnership with Turtle Key Arts Amici brought back both it's 30th and 35th anniversary shows Tightrope and 35 Amici Drive (see post - click here) for one week in rep, both shows telling the story of a community under threat, reaching out to every body.

"Ladies and Gentlemen 
Boys and Girls
Welcome to Circus Amici...
We abandon no-one!"

Photo: Sheila Burnett 
Declared Ringmaster Rosie Leake deliberately, carefully and with authority in her scarlet top hat and tails, as a parade of showgirls and acrobats, strongmen and clowns paraded round.  The stage was set for some proper old school Big Top colourful entertainment. I was disappointed though, because right in front of the girls and I was sitting Francis Majekodunmi (from 35 Amici Drive and Blink's Four Corners) and a friend. How could they leave Francis out? Abandoned! Was he not in the show? I surreptitiously skimmed the programme to find his name. Billed as "Alternative Ringmaster" I thought maybe it was a job-share with Rosie, alternating performances. I had registered that he and his companion (Gurpreet Donsanjh) were dressed identically, somewhat theatrically in trench-coat and top hat, but assumed they had dressed ahead of time for the evening performance. It was only when the Amazing Nicholas came on with his assistant (circus artist Olivia from Joli Vyann) that all was revealed. Francis and Gurpreet were plucked from the audience for a trick involving handing over a watch to the blind, rather forgetful, magician, only for it to be placed in a velvet bag and then smashed to pieces and... that was it. It was broken. There was no come back. "Rubbish!" they heckled. "Call this a circus?!" I was reminded for a moment of similar catcalls by Gandini Juggling in Smashed! (see post - click here). Of course, the audience were on the side of Circus Amici, willing them to carry on, and quickly booed the pantomime villains. We booed again when this couple of likely lads made fun of the circus strongmen carrying a ton of foam weights, and when the voice of Wendy the soprano failed to shatter the glass held aloft by her assistant Catherine, who quickly, and hilariously, silenced  their insults with a peremptory hand gesture and stern admonishment that had us all cheering. We also laughed at the klutz clowns with their bumbling broom routine and a pie in the face for good measure, and at the highland fling of invisible blades by a regular "jock the knife" in her tam o' shanter, never entirely sure whether her aim really was to hit the target or if her clumsiness was a cover for murderous designs on her poor victims. 

Photo: Sheila Burnett 
There were touchingly lyrical moments as well, thanks to the beauty in choreography and set. So I watched David Grindley move across the stage on his knees, each step one of physical determination and courage. Behind him a group of dancers twirled white umbrellas that meshed to form a screen on which was projected an figure of a funambulist (Gandini's Chris Patfield) deftly crossing a wire, as though an image of David's limitless spirit. When David was attached to a wire and soared high into the air, it was a triumphant moment of liberation. I felt uplifted too watching the snake charmer's routine as ropes were twisted and ascended, and the aerial ballet, as tender as it was exhilarating, between Alex from Ockham's Razor, and Suzy Birchwood. In 35 Amici Drive a couple of years agao I had seen Suzy in an acrobalance trio with Joli Vyann's Jan and Olivia, when, despite not being able to bear her own weight on her legs, she had a flexibility and fluidity of movement I could only dream of. This time round, Suzy moved out of her wheelchair and up into the air with an ease, confidence and trust in Alex, executing all manner of inversions and catches, that belied the fact that barely a couple of days before she had never been on a trapeze. 

At the end, David took centre stage again, Glass-shattering Wendy hit just the right note and the company synchronised the release of dozens of red balloons into the air in a visual spectacular. I liked the fact that musician and composer Nao Masuda came down from the minstrel's gallery and joined the company as her wonderful music, with Jenny Adejayan on cello, and singers Wendy and Danny Standing, was an integral part of the performance. I was also touched when performers scooped up younger members of the audience, including my girls, to join them on stage for a final dance. The girls were delighted - they had been admiring earlier Stephanie Gallagher, a girl whose grace on stage gave their own dreams wings. Seeing them among the company, my youngest carried up the steps by a familiar clown (I later twigged it was because Colm Gallagher reminds me of Jean Reno!), I was struck again by the thought that we are all one family and "that society is a collaboration of many different people; some wonderful, some odd, some strong, some weak—all necessary. That wonder is on the prowl, like a circus caravan, coming to a town near us, waiting to break into our world." (Joseph Breslin on Ringling Bros. The Last Days of The Greatest Show On Earth - click here). Kids get that instinctively. The joy about Amici's Tightrope is that it reminds the adults too.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Chapter 192: A Farewell to Ringling Bros

Photo credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters (click here)
A few of weeks ago a friend sent me a link to a fascinating BBC article "The Circus Leaves Town" (click here) about the imminent closure of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Baileys in the United States.

I have never been to a Ringling Bros show, but I feel a certain connection. Great fans of Barnum the Musical, my children are fascinated by the thought that Barnum was a real person and I had hoped one day to take them to one of the circus spectaculars that was part of his legacy. Over these past couple of years I have virtually met Twitter with Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringmaster at Ringling Bros for the past 18 years, and Father Frank, a student himself at a Ringling Bros clown school 45 years ago, before he found his religious vocation, who now spends several days a month as a circus priest (see Washington Post article - click here). I sent a message of support to both and received replies in kind that brought home we are all one Family. 

It was important to me therefore to stay up and keep vigil watching the last ever Ringling Bros show live-streamed, which in UK time started at midnight and lasted until 3.30am in the morning. I had spent that afternoon watching Hikapee's HOME (see post - click here) and my thoughts now turned to these Ringling performers losing their family home on board the mile-long train - "the town without a zipcode". The rest of the house fast asleep, I curled up in bed and plugged in my headphones, joining a community of some 35,000 on-line viewers the world over.

The show had all the slick razzmatazz, joy and fun I would expect from such a Big Top extravaganza.   The opening number involved a piece of apparatus called "The Simet Wheel" that I can only describe as a sort of cross between a wheel of death and a tightwire traveresed in slowmo. The performers were dressed as astronauts,  which tied into the whole concept of a show that was out of this world, as did the synchronised choreography of a dozen performers in aerial globes (pictured) in orbit like mini planets. I was delighted to see Johnathan Lee Iverson's son Matthew as a regular mini-me, and that they were joined by Johnathan's wife and daughter at the very end; this really was a family affair.  I hadn't expected Johnathan to be a singing Ringmaster, although with the handle @BigTopVoice, maybe his rich baritone shouldn't have come as a surprise!

I felt ambivalent about watching the Big Cat act, because it is not part of my heritage or culture. It was interesting, though, to see such an impressive act that is woven into circus history, and to listen to trainer Alexander Lacey giving a moving speech afterwards about his family breeding generations of great cats. Highlights for me included the capering and aerial antics of the Clown Alley brigade, especially Davis Vassallo's tumbling sommersaults on the slackwire, the thrill of the acrobatics on ice with skaters doing three highs and flips into chairs held aloft, and the legendary Cossack riders. My heart went out to The Tuniziani Troupe seeking to perform the elusive quadruple sommersault launching from one flying trapeze to a catch in the other. I imagined the sweat and pressure on this the final night. Hands slipped. Without missing a beat, suavely and sagely Ringmaster Jonathan announced "We are not just the theater of the impossible, we are the theater of second chances..."

Unfortunately it appears their chances have been exhausted. As Johnathan observed in his final speech, this is more than the end of a show, "this is about the end of a culture, a community." Ringling Bros. had a size and history behind it that set it apart. Now many of the performers will be reabsorbed into other circuses - I heard Johnathan's wonderful clowning side-kick Paulo Dos Santos joined Zippos here in the UK only last week -  and those that aren't I hope will forge a new path, one brick at a time. And, if you missed the life-streaming, below is your second chance to catch it, enjoy!

"The circus embodies the risk of wonder. Like all true entertainment, it is more than just an exercise in pleasure, in mere feeding. The Show delights us, but also challenges us to recognize home truths about the human person: That freedom—the iconic freedom of the acrobat—is the product of discipline, not just whim. That man’s destiny includes the ennoblement and care of animals. That magnificence and goodness are worth the expense and hassle they bring in their wake, and that man ought to be shaken out of his cloying obsession with comfort. That human sexuality, maleness and femaleness, is good and wholesome, just as it is dangerous and beautiful. That society is a collaboration of many different people; some wonderful, some odd, some strong, some weak—all necessary. That wonder is on the prowl, like a circus caravan, coming to a town near us, waiting to break into our world."

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Chapter 191: Casus Circus' Driftwood

All photos: Angus Stewart (

London is transience. People flood in and out.  We rub shoulders on the tube. Londoners never make eye contact; tourists and dreamers might. A look, a smile, an acknowledgement, we touch, we are touched, we drift. Apart. Or sometimes in the same direction. My husband and I met on the banks of the Thames and have bobbed along for 17 years now, wondering at the deeper currents that somehow drag us together through patches of stormy waters without getting wrecked. Through physical poetry and the element of risk Casus Circus describe both those moments of connection and the fragility of all relationships.

I watched Driftwood in the evening after meeting up with Shannon Vitali and Jon Bonventura to chat about the show (see previous post - click here), and that personal connection heightened the anticipation. The hottest day of the year had given way to the balmiest of evenings and I sat outside the Spiegeltent transported in a wooden dodgem, this time in the wonderful company of Howard, founder of Burlexe and Boylexe, drinking in the circus spirit along with  tequila-infused Desperado beer. Luckily we noticed the doors opening in time to nip in and catch the last couple of free seats on the front row.

The lighting was dim inside, an intimate affair. In walked the performers and took their stations like five points of a pentagram. Shannon was directly facing us on the side and there was a flash of recognition and an immediate smile. This is the way of Driftwood, and part of their ethos - the artists are themselves and go with the flow. I had been ready for the pared down aesthetics of the show, the notes of silvers, greys and rich burgandies in the costumes, and then registered Jon owning it in a scarlett corset. Fabulous! Certain garments came and went - "circus folk bloody love taking their clothes off" after all (an observation at GDIF a couple of years ago see post - click here) - and I was sad to see the corset go, but could see how it would have been an impediment to fluid movements requiring greater flexibility in the back later. 

Threaded through the interactions was the recurring conceit of the red lampshade that would descend at points, each performer at different points drawn like a moth to its flame. By turns this could be comical with a performer contorting to reach the bulb, an echo of ET there!, then trying to restrain themselves from its siren call, or mystical in contemplation, and in the exploration of the pool of light it cast.

I loved the camaraderie between the group and the dynamics. If you have seen the "other" Driftwood (I haven't, but have heard about it) you would appreciate the subtle changes between certain acts. A charged duet between husbands Jesse Scott Lachlan Mcauley in one show is a bromance in the other, playing on the familiar, rather than sexual, chemistry between Jon and David Trappes, and the physical comedy inherent in their small versus tall physiques.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Samoan "Siva" dance between Natano Fa'anana and Kali Retallack becomes a "Bongle" reflecting Johnny Brown's indigenous Australian heritage. The piece enables Shannon to return to her beloved dance roots, especially modern style. Johnny is also a dancer by training and watching them together in their (original) element was mesmerising. I can't remember if he was wearing the soft kilt still at that point, but I do remember the folds following the flow of his limbs, as with Shannon's skirted tunic. They both had such an elegance, energy and style. In Shannon's case this translated effortlessly onto a sequence on aerial hoop, as did her background in contortion, as she transitioned the most incredible of shapes at dizzying speed. I felt it especially keenly after the aerial intensive week with Freedom2Fly (see Chapter 186 - click here) where even the slowest of spins felt like one of Torvill's triple axels on ice. 

Sarah McDougall led the way with her hula-hooping - she was clearly the pro with the more intricate tricks. Shannon and Jon had flagged to me earlier they were new to the skill, but nonetheless performed seamlessly with flair, again no mean feat as I appreciated after a workshop with NoFit State back at Underbelly last year (see Chapter 165 - click here). "Simple" tricks like the roll of the hoop across the shoulders of all three delighted me, and there was a sense of the hoop as metaphor for drawing (in) the circle family, connecting the dots. Sarah is also a natural clown, trained in trapeze and super-strong, so moments when she supported the whole cast, or based a three high, were as entertaining as they were staggeringly impressive, and turned the tables once again on gender assumptions. I love Casus for that as much as she does, clearly.

Another terrifying moment came with the arrival of the perch, which had doubled as a clothes hanger in an earlier scene. It was a study in equilibristics and connection as Jon balanced atop a perch balanced by David. Unable to communicate by language, for obvious reasons, as base, David had to subtly adjust his movements to any shifts is balance by Jon, who in turn interpreted the tremors travelling up the pole and responded accordingly. Later it was David's turn for a balance inversion, as he rested just on his head on the cushioned bar of a trapeze (the first time I have seen the Washington trapeze act performed live), swung gentle between the four performers, split and doubled up into a two-high on either side. As with other precarious feats it was tense watching, but also had the intensely lyrical quality of a lullaby, maybe it was the rocking motion that brought that to mind, or the gentlest of touches either side that set it in motion.

I was disappointed to see a rope come down finally as I knew, from conversation with Jon earlier, that, as well as being his speciality, this signalled the end of the line. I would have been content watching him perform the most beautiful drops, spins and acrobatics, but when the rope morphed into a Spanish web I realised that was the real showstopper. Normally (as I found out recently at Freedom2FlyDA) this would mean one hand is secured in a strap at the top while another holds further down and the bottom is swung round by another person to spin it. Here there wasn't a loop though, simply Jon's sheer grip holding on to both parts of the rope.  Spinning faster and faster, wave after wave.

In a world where we are "tossed, and drifting ever, On life's unresting sea", navigating our way through human relationships, the consummate circus skills at play in Driftwood concentrated the thrill of turbulent emotional tides, as well as captured the gentler, endearing moments of connections and completely swept us away. 

Like a plank of driftwood 
Tossed on the watery main, 
Another plank encountered, 
Meets, touches, parts again; 
So tossed, and drifting ever, 
On life’s unresting sea, 
Men meet, and greet, and sever, 
Parting eternally."

Edwin Arnold (1832-1904)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Chapter 190: Feathers of Daedalus' Coppélia

"The body is an endless sentence, inviting us to rearrange it so that its real meaning becomes a series of endless anagrams."

Feathers of Daedalus is a new circus company founded by Joanna Vymeris. A member of the National Centre for Circus Arts' (NCCA) London Youth Circus, performing in shows directed by Ockham's Razor and Jasmin Vardimon, in her final year at Cambridge, Joanna put on the university's first contemporary circus production, Alice, an immersive retelling of the Lewis Carroll tale, at the ADC theatre and then took it to the Edinburgh Fringe to great acclaim. On the back of this success she developed her current project Coppélia, which strips and rebuilds the ballet, setting circus alongside film, cleverly woven into the frame, and live poetry, written and read by Sophie Leseberg-Smith. Coppélia was awarded artist residency in Studio Kura in Japan last year, and Lab:time support from the Arts Council and the NCCA. 

I came across Feathers of Daedalus on Instagram recently, which is where I learned that there would be a couple of Research and Development sharings over two evenings at Jacksons Lane. I couldn't make either date, but Joanna very kindly invited me along to the dress rehearsal, which slotted neatly in between interviewing Casus Circus at Underbelly and returning to watch Driftwood in the evening. Obviously meant to be! I heard via Casus Circus that afternoon that a friend of theirs, Pascal Häring,  was in the sharing, but other than that had no idea what to expect. 

It came as a wonderful surprise therefore to arrive at Jacksons Lane and find that along with Pascal doing some beautiful turns on Cyr wheel and an oneiric juggling sequence, there was Nathalie Alison (the sinuous Kaa in Metta Theatre's Jungle Book - click here for post) as graceful dancing on the ground as airborne on hoop, Laura Moy (see post on Crashmat Collective - click here) flying on Chinese Pole and Michelle Ross, a soaring trapeze artist and acrobat I also follow on Instagram. I was sorry that I couldn't see their acts in full, as they had to conserve energy for the evening performance, but what I did see of them in action was beautiful. 

Something else I was unprepared for, given the piece was set up for an R&D sharing, was that the design and costumes would be so well developed. The set had a steam punk feel and, while this was not an immersive spectacle, there was an air of Punchdrunk laced with gothic romantic tragedy that drew me in. Rather than a linear narrative, Coppélia was split into four parts, revolving around each of the four characters in turn - Dr Coppélia, Coppélia, Franz, and Swanilda. Viewed as a whole it explored the mechanisms of desire, possession and unrequited love. 

The period of research and development now over, the production will be going to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer from 3-28 August ( - click here), with the addition of six dancers and a different cast of circus performers: JoshandTess (Joshua Blackman and Tessa Frazer - hand to hand), Pete Shirley (Cyr wheel), all NCCA graduates, and dancer and acrobat Gabbie Cook. 

For more information follow Feathers of Daedalus on Facebook and Instagram. Check out @NoelShelley1 production photographs on Instagram & Twitter.