"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!