Monday, 26 January 2015

Writing About Circus

In place of a post about my third week of aerial lessons*, I decided it might be time to unleash my attempt at a review of a circus/dance/physical theatre performance, right here, straight into your eyeballs, pow! BUT...  then I changed my mind.

On Saturday night I went to see the premiere of 'Stateless' by a small Hampshire-based company called Joli Vyann, at the excellent Jackson's Lane  - a venue which specialises in contemporary circus and one which I hope to visit many more times in the future, despite the really steep steps up to it from the tube station (it's likely I only resented these because we were late and running up them like mad things, don't let it put you off!).

Stateless looked something like this:

Jackson's Lane describe it on their website as exploring the subject of refugees, immigration and journeys, with powerful stories of upheaval and crossing borders, intense physicality, and moments of sadness, courage and friendship.
There were. And what's more it was stunning. I was literally on the edge of my seat the whole way through and close to tears at one point, so emotionally charged was the performance. I emerged more convinced than ever that I have basically wasted my life up to this point, and should be spending every minute possible doing circus skills, yoga, dance - anything to be able to experience just a tiny fraction of the soaring freedom and creative/physical fulfillment that those performers must feel on a daily basis. Which is to say, I was moved and inspired in equal measure.

But review it? I don't think I can. I'm not sure the videos even do it justice, let alone some words of mine on a computer screen.  All I have in my head is the old quote 'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture' (in this case music = circus...just humour me).  No matter how many superlatives and similes and artful descriptions I could try to come up with, I don't believe I can recreate the experience of watching a show like that for a reader. It would be like trying to translate a heart-rending piece of orchestral music into braille, or paint a picture of a smell that reminds you of walking home from school on a rainy day in 1993.

No, I will leave such alchemy to the accomplished circus review bloggers already out there conjuring wonders with their words (great examples can be found here and here) and instead just bluntly encourage anyone who stumbles across this to:

Go and see some for yourself!

Watching circus is like seeing a live music performance.  Yes, you can watch a video at home for free, or listen to a recording on your ipod sitting on the bus, the notes as perfectly preserved as a butterfly under glass, but nothing compares to the real thing.

Nothing compares to seeing real human beings, in the flesh, accomplishing crazy-beautiful things with incredible talent and pushing intense emotions out into the same air that you are breathing.  You can't help but absorb a little bit of it, can't prevent the very cells of your body recalibrating in response to the vibrations from the stage. With all our amazing technology, and ability to summon almost any viewing experience at the touch of a button, it's easy to forget about the sheer electric feeling of seeing someone accomplish wonders in front of you.

But I think it's worth paying a bit more money, making a bit of a journey, to be able to remind yourself that there IS real magic in the world, and sometimes you can almost reach out and touch it.

* I didn't make it to class, sob! But I predict the post would only have been along the lines of : 'we did Spider and Amazon' anyway, so the world is probably not that much emptier without it... 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Aerial Lesson #2

My second aerial lesson at NCCA was A-MA-ZIIING and I really wish I'd written about it straight afterwards when I was still buzzing on the endorphins, instead of now, when I'm ill in bed feeling slightly sorry for myself.  But hey, at least I finally have the chance to catch up!

So, first extremely enjoyable thing about last week's lesson was being handed this baby:

Please excuse the horrific pic quality, I'm still getting used to this newfangled 'smart-phone' thing
You may just about to be able to make it out if you squint really hard? Yes, that's right, it's a security pass!!! With my name on it!!!

I can't tell you how excited I was about getting it - but obviously only internally. Because to do a little dance in front of 50 other people, who were also being given passes and looked kind of bored about it, would not have been at all dignified. I did one when I got home though, to make up for it.

The second extremely enjoyable thing was that we had a different teacher this time and ohhh boy, she whipped our soft little asses into shape.  The whole session was like a military operation with lots of repetition and correction etc. It sounds awful, but it turns out I really enjoy this kind of coaching! I could feel myself improving exponentially, especially after she told me this:
'You can totally do all of these exercises, your muscles are strong enough, you're just sending a completely new message from your brain to your limbs and they need to get used to it.  You are burning new neural pathways.  BURN THEM, BURN THOSE NEW PATHWAYS INTO YOUR BRAIN'
(Or something along those lines anyway.  I accept no responsibility for gross exaggeration).

At the time she was gently shouting this at me, I was dangling from the bar of the trapeze trying to make one of my hands let go.  The instinct for self-preservation runs suprisingly deep, but I did manage to do it in the end, yay.

There was nothing wrong at all with Teacher No. 1, but I loved new lady.  I like to be pushed!

After thoroughly practising getting on and off plus last weeks positions, new things learned were:


Pic borrowed from:

This looks easy but felt like the icy breath of the grim reaper on my neck - wobbly and precarious, but eventually possible.

Splits under the bar

Pic borrowed from
So much fun, even if you can't even dream of doing the splits like me.  One day I'll be able to do it, even if it takes another 30 years dammit!

Incidentally, if these pictures look like people doing basically nothing to you, check out the videos at, they are much more illustrative.

The class finished with a horrifically difficult set of conditioning circuits which included
  • press-ups
  • pull-ups
  • sit-ups from hock hang (hanging off by your legs)
  • hanging off the bar with one hand
  • straddle mounts (getting on with your legs apart - less rude than it sounds).
Third extremely enjoyable thing - I managed to make it into my free supporting class, rather than arriving late and not allowed to join because I missed the warm-up (I can neither confirm or deny that happened in the first week).  Well done me! I went to the Flexibility class on Thursday and ohhhhhhh it felt SO good to stretch out all my newly-traumatised muscles.  I was skeptical beforehand about the real benefit you can get from one little flexibility class, which I thought would be essentially an hour of pointless warm down.  But those stretches were the best things ever.  It was like having a giant internal muscle massage, mmmmmm.

I am now fully addicted again, I've even started going to multiple yoga classes  in an effort to cross-train myself to aerial amazingness! However I feel like ten kinds of crap today and will probably have to miss tonight's class - gutted.

If there's no 'Lesson #3' post I'll make it up to you, promise!

*shuffles off in dressing-gown*

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Aerial Lesson #1

If you've been paying attention (it's okay if you haven't, I forgive you), you will know that I started my Aerial Level 1 course at the National Centre for Circus Arts this week, YAYYYY! So I thought I'd  write a bit about it, mostly to prove that I'm actually going. 

The National Centre for Circus Arts (NCCA) is a circus school in Hoxton which runs kids and adult amateur classes, as well as accredited BTEC, BA and Post-grad courses. It says on its website that it is considered one of the top three schools in Europe, and it certainly seems pretty heavily oversubscribed as far as the adult classes go. I was on the waiting list from August to November and had to book my slot on the Aerial 1 course the very same day they went on sale to be sure of getting on.

It's a pretty cool place. I knew this before I turned up on Wednesday, because I went for a admin-y job interview there in the summer and got a magical personal tour of the building (I didn't get the job, sad face. I'm pretty sure it wasn't for lack of circus enthusiasm so it can only have been my complete inability to remember a time when I'd worked well as part of a team/invented a new filing system, or some such rubbish. Pffff).

It's housed in an old Victorian electric light station, so it has this whole red-brick, industrial vibe going on, overlaid with lovely glass and wooden modernity everywhere inside.  There are some big, open sports-type halls with all the aerial equipment, office and meeting spaces, studios etc, a library (So much good stuff!! I had to strongly control myself in there, especially around the DVD shelves when my tour guide was like 'yeah there's loads there that you can't find on YouTube'. Nnnngggggg lemme at it. I've since seen rumour of them opening this library to the public. YES PLEASE!!) and best of all, a weird long, narrow, bouncy, spongy, padded-wall room where they do acrobatics training.

Ohhh I wanted that job so bad after they showed me the acrobatics room! It did smell of socks though. 

Anyway, the way the aerial course works is; students rotate through Static Trapeze, Flying Trapeze and Rope, 3-4 weeks on each, and you can choose which to start with.  I went for Static Trapeze first, as part of a cunning strategy to save Rope until I have built up some upper-body strength (that shit is HARD man), so I was well within my comfort zone for this class.  I would even venture to say it was a little too easy, since I'm not a complete beginner. I was glad about that when I could still move my arms the next day though!

Apart from the obvious mount and dismount, which I fear I will never be able to do properly, we covered the three most basic positions. These are as follows:-


Doing this feels a lot scarier than it looks.


A move so simple I can't even find a picture of it on the internet. In essence it consists of standing on the bar of the trapeze, holding on to the ropes high and leaning forward/backward with one leg held out elegantly. Good for getting used to balancing on only your tippy toes (or parrot claws as I like to think of them) and being up hiiiigh.

Bird's Nest

This is one of my favourites, feels like a Proper Real move but it's not scary at all and you get to have a nice back stretch. 

In conclusion then - a successful first week in which I didn't fall off or hit anyone in the face, as has happened in previous lessons, and only embarrassed myself in the sense that I went with Trapeze Outfit No.1: hot pants over leggings paired with knee-length stripey socks. I swear to you that this has been fairly average clothing of students in past classes I've attended, but on this occasion I was THE ONLY ONE in such garb and I therefore felt like a bit of twat. May reconsider this for next week... 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Getting A Leg Up With Circus

Did you know that Cirque du Soleil runs a social circus program, Cirque du Monde, for at-risk youth in over 80 communities worldwide?

I didn't, until I read this recent article on CircusTalk, but I have since been delving into the subject of 'social circus' on them there internets and feeling seriously inspired. Circus arts outreach might seem a bit wishy-washy. It's not like it's financial aid, healthcare, trauma counseling or any of those other vital things, right? No, but it's effects do sound incredible.

Cirque du Monde combines the teaching of circus skills with social intervention; providing a safe and fun space for young people, and encouraging the development of things like self-confidence, perseverance and discipline, getting/staying healthy (for instance in South Africa, it's used to motivate kids with HIV to follow their treatments) and feelings of trust and community. Just watch this:

Don't get me wrong, aside from my obvious predisposition to love anything that spreads circus, I'm as suspicious and numb to do-gooding as the next over-media-ed 21st century drone. But I have to say it's pretty convincing. The clincher for me was this quote from a Cirque du Soleil 'Community Worker's Guide' book:
'Circus arts have traditionally been linked with certain forms of marginality (nomadic existence, balancing acts, exuberance, artistic creativity, disguises, etc.) that are naturally attractive to young people. Those who live in situations excluded from society find in it a positive and constructive mirror of their own marginality, as well as a means of doing it justice...Social circus does not seek to standardize or water down the marginal side of the participants or try to force them to conform at any price, but rather aims at providing young people with the tools to learn to communicate with the community from the fringes.'
Yes.  Yes! That can only be a force for good in the world, surely? I'm sold.

It's not just the Cirque du Monde projects either, there are other smaller schemes and groups quietly dotting the globe. Closer to home (for me), there are organisations like the quite frankly wonderful-sounding Mimbre, who are based in East London.

I haven't had the opportunity to see any of their shows yet, but Mimbre's website says that they create acrobatic theatre, performing in unconventional settings and 'reclaiming some beauty in the urban environment...through strong imagery, visual poetry and emotional content'.  They also run a participation programme that allows kids from low-income households in Hackney to learn acrobatics and take part in creative projects.

Although I wasn't previously aware of 'social circus' or circus therapy as a thing, as someone who has had (tedious, irritating) body image issues since teenage, I did know about the therapeutic effects of circus skills classes - just from the few I've taken.  You don't have to be from a socially excluded / disadvantaged sector of society, young, or have gone through a horrific experience, to feel the benefits - although of course these groups can benefit the most, and deserve to do so. You can just be any old human and have it change your whole view of things.

Trapeze classes weren't just fun and fitness for me, they allowed me to start seeing myself in a different way.  To see that my body could be good because it was strong, brave and clever (something that I'd previously felt was restricted to my brain, while my physical form was just a lumpish, oaf-y thing dragging around behind it). Learning trapeze made me feel like, maybe at some point, my body could be beautiful even though it isn't perfect. Not through having exactly the right proportions, being super-toned, magically obtaining perfect skin, or any of those stupid things I've been failing to acheive with it since I was 14, but beautiful because of the things I could teach it to do, the shapes I could train it to make.  When I was taking those classes I felt connected with not just my head and my heart, but the rest of me too.

(Given all that, you probably won't be surprised that I'm looking forward to starting trapeze again!)

It's hard to experience that kind of thing without wanting to share it with others.  I'm a lifetime away from being able to teach anything aerial, but I CAN tell people about how great the benefits of learning circus skills are and fully intend to do so at every given opportunity.  Brace yourselves!