Tag Archives: circus

Letting the Disorderly Speak: Petit Mal (Race Horse Company)

(Video Credit: Race Horse Company’s promotional video.)

Petit Mal by Race Horse Company is a one hour-and-fifteen minutes circus performance featuring superb skills on the trampoline and Chinese pole. Here I wrote about how two performers set-up a half-an-hour circus show in a street performance in Gothenburg. In Petit Mal, we get clowning, acrobatics, and break dancing spread out amongst merely three performers. During one of the last tricks, the trampoline artist Rauli Kosonen lost his balance standing on eleven rubber tires (yes, I counted as I held my breath), but got back on after two attempts. He closed his eyes hard before bowing to the audience at the end of the show. The three of them looked absolutely knackered. It’s a performance about the chaotic and the bizarre held together by energy, strength, and perseverance to carry it through.

I really enjoyed the element of “losing control.” The breakdancer Kalle Lehto eventually cuts one of the wires holding the Chinese Pole. When he took out the pair of gigantic scissors a teenage girl behind me said, “Oh, no you don’t,” then gasped loudly when he cut the wire. Blue fitness balls hang in an orange net from the ceiling. These fitness balls are released from the net during the middle of the performance, and create further spontaneity as they roam freely, some of them even rolling off the stage. All this happens on a stage that resembles an outdoor factory workshop where the performers throw wood planks carelessly here and there, or move rubber tires around in a random fashion.

Kosonen is superb, showcasing his trampolining skills on the trampoline and a huge red fitness ball. The flashing lights at the end was a new experience for me, as I realized that flashing lights give the illusion of stillness, prolonging the shapes in the air by a split of a second because of the way our eyes capture light. Petri Trominen is breathtaking on the Chinese pole, making the big drops and turns in the air look effortless and seamless. Lehto’s breakdancing is enhanced by sound devices underneath the wood planks so we can “hear” his body movements as well as see them.

What didn’t work quite well for me was how they incorporated the element of bizarreness into the show. We got not one but two Elvis Presleys, Donald Duck, a Canadian mountaineer, and a horse with sexy legs. There were too many images and characters to process in one go, and by this point I lost a bit of concentration. I couldn’t see–and still can’t–the connection between Donald Duck and Elvis Presley. Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense. The show is called Petit Mal after all, referring to “absence seizure.” This section of the performance uses pink, orange, and green lighting to create a distorted, perhaps a hallucinated view of the world. But I think there could be a stronger connection established between these images and characters to hold the spectator’s attention.

Overall it was a very enjoyable evening. But be prepared to keep an open mind, as this is not a show about grace and beauty in an orderly world, but about letting the disorderly speak.

EADF photos and video released!

The photos and video for this year’s EADF (European Aerial Dance Festival) have been released! I’ve been looking forward to these and was happy to find they’ve finally uploaded them. Browsing through the photos reminded me of what a great week it was. The weather was unusually warm even for July-August in Southeast England, so it finally felt like a proper summer. The workshop also helped dispel my post-viva trauma blues. I did the workshop with a couple of friends. We train together on a regular basis so it was great fun to do the workshop together.

The EADF is a week-long aerial workshop that takes place in Brighton, UK in the beautiful Brighton Dome every August. These classes include counter-weight, static trapeze, corde lisse, silks, and harness. I haven’t tried the counter-weight or the harness classes yet because I don’t have the equipment to practice with afterwards, but I’ve heard they’re a lot of fun.

When I did the beginners/improvers corde lisse workshop last year, I already had one year of aerial experience, but I still found it very challenging. I’d never trained for five days consecutively, so by Wednesday my muscles were incredibly sore and tight. It was the first time I dreaded doing aerial. I felt weak in the air and I was afraid I’d lose grip. Luckily my friend Michael was in the same class so he kept spotting me.

This year I decided to go for the beginner/improvers dance trapeze and intermediate/advanced corde lisse workshop. It was still very tough, but I managed to keep up. Since they scheduled the corde lisse workshop over the weekend, by the time we started the corde lisse class I’d already done five days of trapeze. I didn’t realize how tired my body was until Saturday. I know this is a piece of cake for circus students, but it’s the first time in my life that I’ve done physical training for a whole week and managed to survive. I did get injured and I had to go for a couple of sports massage sessions afterwards, but it was a huge improvement from last year so I was very proud of myself.

If you’ve been doing aerial for a while and are thinking of adding new vocabulary to your routine, learning technique from a different teacher, or wonder what it’s like to train intensely, I’d recommend trying the EADF. The teachers are patient, generous, and know how to teach.

Besides, it’s Brighton and the seaside in the summer, what can go wrong?

Conditioning for a Stronger Aerial Body

My silks teacher was ill on Tuesday, so I booked in for an aerial conditioning class instead.

I’m used to conditioning at the beginning of a class when I’ve still got energy. This involves two to three sets of exercise, such as beating and sit-crunches on the trapeze bar, or pencil-pike on the silks. But this Tuesday was the first time I’ve done an hour-and-fifteen minutes class just pure conditioning. I tried going through the fifteen or so exercises on rope that were on the exercise sheet, but most of the times I couldn’t hold on for as long as required, like a single arm and toe hang for 30 secs.. Other times I could only get through one set instead of two sets of exercise. In the middle of panting, bewilderment, and staring blankly at the ropes I asked myself why I was doing this.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one with the same question. Towards the end of the class a girl said to me, “Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself?? I could’ve stayed at home in this rainy weather…”

Well, I already bought my train ticket so I HAD to come… Basically I’d gone all the way to London for self-inflicted torture.

But of course I know why we do conditioning. We do conditioning so we can execute more cool stuff in the air, to stay in the air for longer, and to enjoy that temporary moment of freedom. It’s the feeling of being at awe with ourselves (kind of narcissistic) that makes us go back for more.

But conditioning is pretty boring. It’s repetitive and I find it more self-defeating than learning a new move because there isn’t a reward in itself, like a pretty pose or a flashy move. But as with many boring things, it’s necessary. The repetition of conditioning helps strengthen the muscles and build muscle memory, and that’s the reward on the long run. When you’re stronger, you feel more confident and it reduces the chances of injuries or panicking in the air when you end up in a funny wrap. You train the muscles when you learn new moves, but when you’re stronger it makes the process of learning new moves easier.

I'd love to rig a trapeze under the tree one day.

I’d love to rig my own trapeze under the tree one day.

(Photo Credit: Martin Thomas under Creative Commons.)

The exercise that made the biggest difference for me was beating on the trapeze. By this I mean hanging on the trapeze bar in long arms, drawing my shoulder blades down, and beating with straight legs to the bar for a couple of times. My teacher told me that I don’t need to think too much about swinging my legs forward, but concentrate on swinging back, as the momentum will bring my legs to the bar. It’s important to try to keep your body in a straight line with an open chest, knees and ankles together side by side. (Please note that this is one way of beating. I’ve heard of another one called “flat beating” which I’m not very familiar with.)

I felt very anxious and nervous the first couple of times I tried beating because I was scared of losing my grip (plus it was really hard to swing my legs to the bar!). But when I got used to it I found that it really works the muscle group under the arm near the shoulder blade. Gradually I was able to hold myself longer with more stability in the air. Now that I can enjoy swinging beating has become one of my favourite conditioning exercises.

What do you do for a stronger aerial body?

How Aerial Kept Me Sane

I’ve started doing a silks evening course at London’s Circus Space this term. If you want to do evening classes at the Circus Space but didn’t start at their Circus Level 1, you’re required to take an assessment. I did my assessment in July, and was lucky to be offered a place as their waiting list can be very long. I was hoping to book a rope class, so when they called me to say they had a cancellation in silks I was hesitant to take the place. The student canceled her booking two weeks before the course started, so the woman who called me wouldn’t let me think it over night as they needed to confirm places as soon as possible. If I didn’t take the place she’d had to move on to the next person on the list.

“Can I at least have ten minutes to think about it?” I asked.

“OK, how about I give you twenty minutes, and I’ll call you back.”

I was taken aback by the situation because the woman was a bit pushy. But I decided to take the place since I might not have this opportunity again. There aren’t any aerial classes open to the public where I come from, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can.

The evening course is a two-hour class that takes place once a week and includes a warm-up session. The Circus Space is almost militant about asking students to arrive on time to warm-up. If you arrive late, you’re not allowed to join the class. I guess this arrive-on-time policy is implemented with the good intention to lessen the students’ chances of getting injured and minimize disruption to a class, but it makes me a bit nervous because it takes me an hour on the train to reach London and the trains are often delayed.

Inside the Circus Space

Inside the Circus Space

(Photo above from Alan Parish.)

You also have the choice of booking inclusive supportive classes that comes with the evening course such as stretching and aerial conditioning. It’s a shame that I don’t have time to go to London twice a week so I haven’t been to these.

Before I started doing the course, I thought going to London once a week would be no hassle, but now I realize I hadn’t taken into account the time it takes me to get to the train station, which is already about half an hour. I need another half an hour from London Bridge to get to the Circus Space (even though it’s only six minutes on the tube). I surprised a girl in my class when I told her I was taking the train back the same evening. “I know, it’s a bit crazy,” I said. “We’re all a bit crazy,” she sighed. Turns out she’s doing three courses at the Circus Space this term.

I’ve been doing aerial for a couple of years now, and I’m still hungry for more. My friends have been surprised at my enthusiasm and dedication. I’ve always enjoyed sports but I’m not athletic, so I think they don’t exactly associate me with holding my body weight in the air. In fact, I love being in the air to explore the possibilities of body movement that seem to defy gravity. I also love the expression of body language. Different people favour different movements and tricks, so when you see a routine you can usually infer something about the performer’s personality through his/her choice of music and choreography.

Me in an angel on rope.

Me in an angel on rope.

Training has also helped me become more self-aware about my body in general. I need to sleep and eat well in order to have a good training session. This doesn’t always happen, especially not when I wake-up at three o’clock in the morning in cold sweat worrying about my thesis, but I know where my fitness level needs to be in order to execute a routine. I’ve become stronger and for the first time in my life, I have shy abs.

Even though training leaves me sore and tired, aerial is my highlight of the week and I rarely miss a class. It has kept me sane through the multiple setbacks of the Ph.D. When I get depressed thinking about my thesis corrections, aerial gives me something to look forward to. I struggle with finding self-confidence in the stuffy academic environment these days, but last week a girl in my class (the same one doing three courses at the Circus Space this term) asked me, “You have beautiful lines, were you a gymnast?” I secretly thanked for helping me feel better about myself.

Since I’ve been training consistently, I know most of the aerialists in the city I live in. I regard myself as a friendly outsider learning about the difficulties they face balancing training and working, performing and paying the bills. The economic recession has been cutting to the arts sector, so the work of performing artists has really suffered from the lack of funding. I’ve learned that being in circus is not only about a profession, but also a lifestyle and attitude. Most aerialists I know hold a couple of part-time jobs, but they love aerial and circus so they stick with it.

I don’t know how far I’ll go with aerial, but at the moment I still get very excited when I see a move I want to learn, or put a routine together to the music I like.

I only wish I’d done it sooner.

Pole Dancing at the Gothenburg Museum of Art

IMG_0195

Art, statement, and display.

The Gothenburg Museum of Art had a huge rotating sculpture of a girl pole dancing at the entrance. This was the other nice surprise during my trip to Gothenburg.  I should’ve stood next to it to show how big it was.  I think this is one of the indicators that pole dancing is really becoming mainstream. The fact that this sculpture was placed at the entrance of an art museum challenges the perception of pole dancing being “low brow” art performance.  Academically, from the angle of cultural studies, the dichotomy of low brow vs. high brow has pretty much been dismantled, as almost any form of art and cultural activity can be studied and is worthy  of analysis.  But pole dancing has a stigma of being a crass and sexually provoking performance.  That side of the spectrum does exist, but the sexual and gender politics of pole dancing in modern life are much more complex to conveniently label it as such.

I love the body lines.

I love the body lines.  

I learned a lot about pole dancing while doing online research on aerial.  I don’t know if pole dancing is normally categorized as circus or aerial performance, but there are a lot of similarities between pole dancing and aerial performance as you need to engage upper body muscles to lift yourself up in the air.  Plus, the amazing Felix Cane (twice pole world champion) performs for Cirque du Soleil, showing that pole dancing can be incorporated into circus performances.

Personally I’ve tried pole only once, and it was during our university’s Fresher’s week when the student clubs come out to promote.  A guy (yes, a guy) from the pole dancing club showed me how to do a move locking your left armpit on the pole, placing the right arm lower on the pole to lift yourself up horizontally.  (I’m not familiar with pole dancing moves at all, so if you know what this move is called do drop me a line.)  I thought to myself: hey, I do aerial, I have a pretty strong upper body, this should be a piece of cake.

I was wrong.  Even though I did manage to lift myself off the ground, I couldn’t do it horizontally.  This is when I realised that even though you’re using the same muscles groups, due to the difference in equipment you probably have to engage them in slightly different ways.

I used to think… and forgive me for having thought so, that pole was easier because the pole is solid and therefore it seemed that you have more to grip on.  I know, I know, I was WRONG. The more I read about it and the more videos I watched (that’s how I came across Felix Cane, Jenyne Butterfly, Natasha Wang and other super women), my perception towards pole dancing changed completely.  There is a sexual aspect to pole dancing, but to over-emphasise it is to overlook the training and hard work these performers put into it.  Performing pole outdoors in the summer is also a big challenge.  I watched an interview where a performer from Taiwan (temperatures can get as high as 35 degrees in the summer) said the pole heats up so much, sometimes she can smell her skin burning slightly from the friction on the pole.

I also learned about the danger of pole when I became friends with a certified pole fitness instructor. She wore tracksuits to a gig rehearsal that had flashing lights… looking back she has no idea why she wore tracksuits to rehearse.  She missed her grip when she got distracted by the lights, and the fall resulted in 13 stitches on her face.  After three months of rest she got back on the pole and continued to teach and perform.  Now she also trains on the silks and rope.

How can you not love aerial when you meet people like these?