Thursday, 21 January 2016

Chapter 126: David Bowie: A Circus Response

"Life is a circus/It's not fair/Life is a hard road/When you're not there [...]
Friends come to see me/To see the show/When will they learn/The circus must go."
David Bowie - Life Is A Circus Lyrics (click here for full lyrics)

I remember one of the first conversations with Adrian Berry, Artistic Director of Jacksons Lane in Highgate, where we discovered a mutual appreciation of David Bowie and things have been Hunky Dory ever since. In fact, when I was having a clear out a while back, and came across my Aladdin Sane vinyl, I offered it to Ade, as I could think of no better home. Obviously he had it already, and so I've hung onto it, thank goodness, for now I wouldn't part with it for the world.  As I nicked it originally from my sister's room as a teenager, I suppose it isn't really mine to give away... But my point is that Bowie's music connects, in the same way that a love of circus does. Watch what happens when you say either word and see people's face light up instantly, or else look slightly blank.

As well as the music, there is Bowie's whole legacy in terms of fashion and the construction of identity, brought together at the V&A retrospective of his life. I juxtapose that to the Alexander McQueen exhibition I saw there, but there is a subtle difference. I felt pain for McQueen's troubled and tormented genius, with Bowie, I sense the peace of a life where the extravagancies of his on stage persona enriched his creativity rather than tore him apart, and his house was in order at the end.

Swinton and Bowie
Grayson Perry wrote a great article on Bowie Gender Maverick (click here). Being a child of the 70s, I didn't grow up in pink with barbies, but in dungarees with pudding bowl haircuts. But even so, Bowie exploded my mind on gender and sexuality long before I discovered writers like Virginia Woolf and Ana├»s Nin, and began to travel down the feminist and queer critical theory route at university. I think of Bowie crossed with Tilda Swinton in the video The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (click here), any wonder she was the lead in the film of Woolf's Orlando? Nothing is fixed, reinvention is possible and constantly renewable - how exciting is that? I cut off my hair to look like a boy, I grew it, I dyed it, I experimented and celebrated the freak of being. So I was not surprised in the week that followed to see so many outpourings from the world of circus and cabaret, and I am collecting here the lyrics, reflections and images,  that caught my eye.

Life is a Circus is very early song by David Bowie released in the late 60s, and with the London International Mime Festival in full swing at the moment ( - click here), I especially appreciate that element of the video.

Then there is Bowie the Juggler - the Goblin King Jareth in Labyrinth and his mesmerising crystal ball - only now do I know it's called contact juggling. The local cinema in our town had shut down a few years before, so I remember reading the book first, with photo pictures at the centre, wondering who in their right mind would choose a baby brother over Bowie?! But I've only recently discovered it wasn't David Bowie actually juggling - if you want to keep your illusions look away now, but I have to say, I find the footage even more endearing:

Working with puppets is also a zeitgeist. Through a chance conversation about circus in a shop, I've recently met Maia Kirkman-Richards, the artistic director of an exciting new immersive puppet theatre company called House of Stray Cats, worth keeping an eye on. And at the same time Metta Theatre ( are presenting their work in development Blown Away (click here) at the National Circus today at 4.30pm that combines live music, acrobatics and puppetry.  And did you know the baby in Labyrinth is now a puppeteer in his own right? And he really is called Toby! Here is @Toby_Froud's tribute to Bowie:

One of the most powerful eulogies I read was by Reuben Kaye, a fabulous doyen of quick-draw repartee who I've seen MC at Boylexe and Red's Cabaret, quoted in full below. One point that stands out for me is the call to create out of the vacuum of loss. Our offering in trapeze class at National Circus, thanks to the creative spirit of our teacher Layla, was to spend the whole evening choreographing movements and sequences to Bowie numbers. It was very cathartic, and a show of solidarity, as I'm sure was the tribute at Union Chapel on Sunday, or will be the Bowie evening disco skate at Alexandra Palace on 5th February, along with events all over the UK.

And I was delighted to here rumours of revival of Adrian Berry's own play From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads about how we deal with loss, and how we try to gain control, when a young man inherits his father's own destructive obsession with Bowie. As Kaye says below, create more art. Just do it.

David Bowie - Reuben R Kaye's Facebook Page, post 11 January

The tragedy is that now there will be a generation to come who will only ever think of David Bowie as a past figure. A memory or "That Guy". They won't see how he changed art and music. They won't take us seriously when we say how much he drastically altered our lives, our conception of "queer", the way we create. That makes me very sad indeed. His death will "trend" for a while and then sadly he will be gone in all but memory, and that memory will distort.
David Bowie will now be a reference point instead of a fierce, raging, beautiful, revolutionary, and tragic clown. A man who cried out to the world: "I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, "Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman." and was. Watch and see the effect he had...The undeniable adoration this world feels for Bowie. His work has made him a man worthy of an entire planet's respect and love.
I beg you, please don't commodify or compact his life and work. And please create more music, more art...Just more.
The death of Bowie is made sweeter by remembering all the brilliant, life-changing art he leaves behind and the impossible, searing future he still inspires and is yet to inspire...
"The stars look very different today."
Vale David Bowie 1947-2016

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