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 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

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.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Chapter 189: With Casus Circus' Shannon Vitali and Jon Bonaventura

Australian company Casus Circus is over in the UK at the moment with their show Driftwood. I have been dying to see the show ever since hearing all the buzz from the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and last Wednesday went along to interview Shannon Vitali and Jon Bonaventura ahead of watching the evening performance at Underbelly. Walking along the Southbank, circus music floated through the air, notes from Barnum coming from the merry-go-round, the siren call of "Come follow the band". Quite. 

The first billboard I registered was even more alluring. Briefs. The infamous Australian all-male circus cabaret. I learned later that one of the poster boys is the brother of one of the founders of Casus. I threaded my way down the wooden walkways that have the familiar Coney Island carney vibe, which set me off daydreaming - Look! There's the other Wizards of Oz, Head First Acrobats, over with zombie bromance Elixir (a must see!), and kids show Arr We There Yet; another Australian, the fab Jess Love from La Soiree, with her one-woman show I saw at Jacksons Lane last year; Natalie Alison is back with family show Jungle Book;  Alula Cyr, well I'm seeing their show Hyena next week; comedian Mark Dolan, who interviewed Polefit London's Anna Milosevic on the radio a while back and... I'm stalling. I don't really want to hit the Spiegeltent. I mean, I do want to meet Shannon and Jon, but I'm a bit nervous. I have little experience doing interviews and the last thing I want to do is waste the time of performers on a blistering hot day when they could be chilling. 

I arrived to find Shannon and Jon, open faces, big smiles, very cute sitting in a wooden dodgem in front of the Spiegeltent. I clambered in to join them, momentarily distracted by another member of the company wandering close by, casually whipping off his top and stretching out in the sunshine. And to think I had passed off this afternoon as "work" to justify my husband picking the kids up from school...

Both Shannon and Jon are flyers, both in terms of being aerialists flying around and having the slender frame required for being the "flyer" on top in acrobatic tricks. 

Shannon trained in dance, all styles, and then moved on to NICA (National Institute of Circus Arts) in Melbourne, and has worked all over the world, on cruise ships, with Circa, and met Casus through the open call for auditions. In the bio I read she was billed as the aerial hoop (also known as a lyra) artist in the show, but in reality, Shannon, and all the cast, are multi-faceted and turn their hand to pretty much anything. That in part is the product of the Australian philosophy about circus training that encourages students to be excellent all-rounders rather than focussing at an earlier stage on one specific discipline, rather like the circus equivalent of the broader International Baccalaureate as opposed to the UK's A-level system. At NICA Shannon specialised in contortion, adagio (partner work), aerial acrobatics and risley. That's foot-juggling right? I asked, picturing Shannon flat on her back in a spangled leotard, twirling umbrellas with her toes. They fell about laughing. Er, not quite Lucy. It turns out that risley is human foot juggling, as in Shannon is the object being juggled by the feet. OK. Wow! 

Jon is a gymnast who developed a taste for the performing arts at 12 when he was spotted doing back flips in a friend's backyard and brought in as the stunt double in Warner Bros "Where the Wild Things Are", carrying on with his stunt training until old enough to join NICA as well, a couple of years below Shannon. There he gravitated towards aerial rope, primarily because he is small and strong and no-one else wanted to (rope burns, circus hurts), and joined the Circa family after graduation. He happened to see the Casus show one day, and in a case of being in the right place and the right time (again!), was invited on board for Driftwood.

I was surprised to hear there were only three other performers in the cast. Given how much I had heard about Driftwood, I had somehow imagined a larger cast and I was excited to hear that it would be a much more intimate affair. The family also comprises Sarah McDougall, both base, hula-hoopist and a regular clown (including workshops, for instance, with Ira Seidenstein see post - click here), the same year at NICA as Shannon; David Trappes, who I thought had something of Canadian Eric Bates (see post - click here) about him, which was funny as it turned out he is a juggler (though not in the show - he bases) and has spent time training over in École de Cirque in Quebec; and Johnny Brown, the youngest member, straight from dance school in his first ever circus show, quite extraordinary. The London crew are living together in a couple of flats in Shoreditch. Girls in one flat, boys in another? More laughter. No, it turns out they are split circus-style between bases and flyers. Of course! 

We talked about the show. Funnily enough, coming direct from the National Circus in Old Street earlier that day (down the road from where they are staying) I had seen a banner  "we are only individuals in the context of each other" and that reminded me of the flotsam and jetsam of human connections at the heart of the Driftwood philosophy. The dynamic between the performers grows organically - the choreography is not improvised per se, but there may be little quirks or energy that bounces off the audience, as much as the artists themselves, that ensures that each performance is unique. I wondered about the weather as well. So hot and sweaty on a day like today, does that make performing trickier? Then Jon and Shannon gently reminded that they do hail from Australia... Doh! More laughter. 

What do you love about doing the show, I wondered? Both Shannon and Jon love the fact that they have the opportunity to use a variety of skills, and learn new ones, like the hula-hooping or Jon's balancing on the head perch. But above all they relish the opportunity to be genuinely themselves and convey authentic moments of connection that draw the audience in. No two nights are ever the same. Some may be more intense, others up the ante in physical comedy. It just depends. 

There are actually two Driftwood casts on tour at the moment and that also influences the show's dynamics. A dance duet in one is a Bungle, reflecting Johnny's indigenous Australian heritage, while in the other it's a Siva, the Western Samoan name for dance. 

It is extraordinary when you see the show and observe the chemistry at play to think this cast have been together for only a couple of months. They were trained up in several locations in Australia by the Originals, as I like to call them (too many vampire box sets!), three friends Jesse Scott, Lachlan Mcaulay and Natano Faanana, who branched out from Circa. What would happen if both casts were to team up? I wondered. Well, actually, it turns out they are all getting together to explore ideas in Cardiff this summer at NoFit State, and let's see where they take us next...

Driftwood is on at the moment, part of the Underbelly Festival, until 4 June. 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Chapter 188: Hikapee Theatre's HOME at the Wandsworth Arts Fringe

When does a house become a home? That was the question that not-for-profit circus theatre company Hikapee were exploring this weekend as part of the mini two day festival called  Hidden Heathbrook in Heathbrook Park, part of the wider two week Wandsworth Arts Fringe. The Fringe shines the spotlight on my neck of the woods but it had pretty much passed me by this year as, somewhat ironically, all my energy over the past fortnight has been going into readying our own house to go on the market this week. 

The kids were super excited to see  Hikapee Theatre's Bryony Livesey and Edd Casey again after last seeing them at Jacksons Lane for Moonfall (see post - click here), and because Bryony has taught my 8 year old aerial skills at Flying Fantastic

Heathbrook Park is a hidden gem. We had never been there before, despite only being 15 minutes down the road. Festival banners and bunting was out, the sun was shining and there was a glorious festival vibe. 

Pete from Pif-Paf Theatre in SEED
We arrived in time to catch some of Sheffield-based PifPaf Theatre's SEED, which was a lovely surprise. The tale of one man's fight to protect the trees, it is set in a ramshackle potting shed that is a wonder of creative imagineering, has live music and the most amazing puppets, and I cannot wait to see it in full at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival when they return at the end of June. 

Talking of feats of engineering, we found Edel and Chris Wigan from Flying Fantastic with their girls in the family creation space making a flamingo out of cardboard boxes and sticky tape, and joined in to help with the Flying Fantastic Flaming Flamingo. So much fun. Mission accomplished we took our seats on the grass in front of a scaffolding skeleton of a house.  It was one of those sunshiney lazy days, and as I reclined on the grass, my five year old nestled on top of me, a guy with a continental accent next to me offered me the use of his backpack as a pillow, which I gratefully accepted. He reminded me of  the protagonist in Soho The Show (see previous post - click here) which was funny as along with Bryony, Edd and Rachel Entwistle, the cast of HOME included Rebecca Rennison, who starred in Soho, the run ending only the night before. 

HOME weaved acrobatics and aerial around the frame of  a house, set to an absolutely cracking soundtrack that gratifyingly tied in thematically. It was great fun, high energy, interactive and the physical comedy entertained as much as the stellar aerial skills, keeping the audience totally engaged from start to finish - no mean feat when outdoors with plenty of young children in the crowd!

The performance kicked of with The Drifters "Up on the roof", which reminded me of the book at bedtime I am reading with the kids, Katherine Rundell's "The Rooftoppers" where the girl finds an escape route on the rooftops of Paris with the help of a boy who walks a tightwire. Circus everywhere. Here though, up on the roof were a couple of Right Said Fred builders (Edd and Rachel) clambering all over the structure and taking time out to juggle a cuppa. An estate agent (Rebecca) turned up with a family moving in, Bryony in pigtails as the young girl which she channels so well (again, see Moonfall!), and the shenanigans began. There were great routines on Chinese pole, part of the side structure of the house, including a cheeky nod to the shirtless workman, and a rope rigged from the centre of the roof, along with all the parallel bars and a scaffolding plank that enabled all sorts of innovative aerial moves, including thrilling duo acrobatics that drew gasps from the crowd. My favourite part was watching all four performers suspended with bicycling legs set to a Paolo Nutini track - madcap, upbeat and funny. Gradually through team-work the walls went up, and the house was furnished with a working lampshade, a television set, and all the trimmings. Now it was home. 

HOME: "It's a place where people live"
HOME: "Best thing I have ever seen."

HOME was developed in conjunction with the homeless charity St Mungo's, taking in stories from the volunteers, who often have been or are homeless themselves, which informs the ethos of the piece. This became apparent after the performance as the house became an installation, the cast serving up homemade lemonade and biscuits to the children and encouraging them to reflect on what "home" means to them and write it up on the walls. Ah the kids loved that (as did the adults as well!) - the freedom to graffiti all over the place, how cool was that?! My 8 year old wanted to know what the prime minister was doing about homelessness (only ten more years til she gets the vote!), while her younger sister (aged 5) declared to Bryony that the best bit was "when the guy took his top off... that was really funny!" Don't know where she gets it from... As for me, the show, and its timing in our life right now, reinforced the fact that home is where my family is, wherever that may be.

As for the flamingo, well, we found him some temporary accommodation... 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Chapter 187: Soho The Show at The Peacock, Sadlers Wells

All photo credits:
Did you know a clownfish hatches as male, but gradually turns female depending on the environment? I learned that fact from my daughter yesterday, who was researching endangered species for her homework. I thought of Soho...

Soho The Show is currently on at The Peacock, Sadlers Wells until 20 May, and is a whistle-stop tour through a day in the life of the area, through the eyes of a Soho virgin, a continental backpacker (Alessio Motta), as he seeks to find his bearings. We pass through Soho Square itself and Chinatown, and legendary haunts like Madame Jojo's and The Colony Rooms, and are immersed in a world of Soho tropes and tarts including an underwear mannequin in a shop window, a Hare Krishna monk, a Big Issue seller, a punk rocker, a boudoir model and photographer, burlesque dancers and a glittering clownfish of a drag queen in her element. There isn't a narrative as such, rather a series of tableaux vivants that are threaded together by a sense of gradual progression from diurnal to nocturnal activities, from coffee to cocktales.

The show is the brainchild of director Abigail Yeates, who conceived the piece about seven or eight years ago and then last year worked with second year students at the National Centre for Circus Arts over two periods of Research and Development. Auditions were held the following January and the cast now comprises a dozen performers drawn from all over the world, including two artists from the original show, Danny Ash (from circus cabaret Ssshhh! - click here) and Charlee Rico De Bolla. I was also looking forward to seeing Rebecca Rennison (leading lady in Chivaree Circus' Becoming Shades - click here), and the choreography of Eleni Edipidi, co-artistic director for Levantes Dance Theatre, in London recently at Jacksons Lane and The Albany with "The Band".

The creation was a collaboration with Stufish, a team of entertainment architects - what a great job title!  If you have been to the Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A recently you will have come across their work as they are behind the design, and have been instrumental in staging Pink Floyd concerts over the years, as well as working with a number of other legends (Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Madonna, Elton John...) As you can imagine then, the graphics on set were superb. It's not often that I have seen a circus show with such a budget for the set design, and, while not eclipsing the artists, it was a performance in its own right. I am sure that Stufish' history in the music industry was brought to bear on the cracking musical score ranging from the Sex Pistols to David Bowie. 

But it wasn't all rock and roll. As the crowds spilled out of the tube and the day began, I particularly enjoyed Paolo Conte's gravelled tones ("Via con me" - It's wonderful...) framing the slick hand-to-hand acrobatics and comedy of the Bar Italia waiters Loric Fouchereau and Peter Freeman. Daft Punk thudded in a gym full of ripped guys and rippling muscles pumping irons and testostorone (deadlifting Danny Ash was a stroke of genius) and spurting... water bottles! Meanwhile Charlee Rico DeBolla's boxing turn had real punch, think Jason Statham on straps. In my gym this morning Starship blared out (Nothing's gonna stop us now...), reminding me of Mélanie Dupuis' striking turn as the aforementioned mannequin in the shop window during a Soho scene setter, and I loved Danny Ash's Mad Hatter of a tailor cutting a dapper figure in a purple top hat and matching suit with chequered trousers, in a world that got progressively curiouser and curiouser. 

Using "Mellow Yellow" to register the psychedelic saffron trappings of universal love made me smile, and even if I thought a tourist-bashing punk was more the province of Camden than Soho, albeit an agent provocateur, Rebecca Rennison nailed it. A pointed observation about the increasing gentrification of the area (Ch...Ch...Ch...Changes) ended the first act, but I was still reeling from the sinuous romance of the double trapeze act from Mélanie Dupuis and Xander Taylor. It was a real showstopper. 

The second half opened in the circus of Chinatown, complete with Chinese pole, obviously. Chinese pole is Alessio Motta's core discipline, and it was great to see him in action on it and the body popping he brought into play. There was also a beautiful interlude of Alessio's contact juggling; he had an air of Marcel Marceau with all the magic of Bowie in Labyrinth. Martial arts were drawn into the definition of Chinatown, and were deftly executed by Anton Simpson-Tidy, whose precision of movement was impressive. From there we moved onto the spa rituals involved in prepping for a night on the town, and Camille Tremblay's stellar contortion and hand balancing on the rim of a bath-tub (a bar of soap was the top of a handstand cane, so clever!), was a class act that got us all in a lather. Next stop was Madame Jojo's, rather poignant as at the time this show was conceived it would still have been going strong. It was a joy to see Rebecca Rennison's burlesque turn on dance trapeze, powerfully strong with the supple lines of a ballerina. I thought diva hip-hop dancer Kayla Lomas-Kirton in a Motown glory of technicoloured sequins was terrific, and Danny Ash was the cherry on top. Danny strutted in wearing a high-cut teal, spangled leotard, feathers  - plucked from The Peacock?! - ruffled by long blonde locks, lip synching with full sass, and letting rip on silks in staggering silver heels. Wow! Meanwhile Leah Wolff on aerial hoop threw a neat spin on the male gaze by encircling the guys, there to salivate over her, in a stunning routine of dizzying proportions, but with a giant eye in the background, who was watching whom? Moving onto The Colony Rooms captured the louche glamour of yesteryear while watching Xander Taylor return to trapeze and strip down to his briefs I found myself blushing in the dark. 

That the show should end on the conceit that Soho is a state of mind made me laugh, as I've been saying that about circus for years. It explains why the two make such natural bedfellows, as both Soho and circus communities have, historically, operated on the margins of society, welcoming in those on the fringes, whether in terms of nationality, sexuality or simply just because. It was lovely to see a show that celebrated that spirit with Pride.