The ISACS Network and Dance Ireland presented Where Dance meets Circus, a cross sector gathering which took place between the 7 – 11 December 2020 in association with SpringMoves Dance Festival. Dance artists and circus artists were invited to take part in workshops and conversations that reflect on the space where these two arts forms meet. One such talk was with Alister O’Loughlin of Urban Playground Team entitled Dancer Goes On A Journey/Circus Comes To Town.
PART 1 – The Background
I called this talk ‘Dancer goes on a journey / Circus comes to town’ which is a corruption of a Leo Tolstoy quote that ‘all great literature is one of two stories – a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.’ In this context I guess I’m suggesting that the process of creating great outdoor performance must be achieved in the same way – either we go on a walk away from the familiar or the unfamiliar has to come to us.
This is a journey we have to take as part of our creation process, and it’s also a function of great street art for the audience. Either we take something unfamiliar to them or we ask them to come on some kind of a journey with us.
I started training as an actor wanting to end up on stage at the national or working for the RSC. I was a text based, voice based actor. Physically, I was a plank. That was OK though, because there was, and still is, a huge amount of work available for a plank with a good voice. In a lot of British Theatre, the body is only employed as a vehicle for moving the head around – whilst it talks with other heads – similarly moved. A glittering career awaited…
I attended dance and movement classes, but attend is a very ambiguous term… I had to attend them in order to pass my course. When I started to watch physical theatre I enjoyed it, and I committed to it. In the manner of most young men my commitment was muscular and hormonal and lacking in anything resembling finesse or control, but that seemed OK too. A lot of student physical theatre work was, and still is, angry young men hormonally enacting their anger. As for dance, I stayed in the back, behind everyone else, both in terms of where I stood and in regards to the beat. But in my second year of training a series of little epiphanies occurred.
I took workshops with Volcano theatre – which I loved; with the Odin Teatret which I adored, although I didn’t understand – and in dance we worked on a musical number in which for the first time dancing and playing a character were brought together – a real light-bulb moment for me. But most importantly of all, a graduate from the year above me – a dancer; Miranda Henderson – asked me to work with her on a Shakespeare adaptation she was choreographing for a local festival. That piece put me in the room with both release based contemporary dance and a real choreographic process for the first time and to cut a long story short I fell in love with all of it. Miranda brought home to me all the work I wasn’t doing – all the possibilities of physicality that I was utterly failing to engage with whilst indulging in the existence of a talking plank. And so that experience put me on a totally different track – away from the RSC and towards something much more unpredictable.
That was in 1995. By 1999 we’d completed our training with art degrees from Brighton Uni. Miranda had studied and taught at the Duncan Conservatoire in Prague, and I’d worked for a year and a half with a Serbian laboratory theatre company in what can be called the Grotowski/Odin tradition.
We were ready to come home and start our own company – Prodigal Theatre. We wanted to make work that brought her dance knowledge, and my laboratory theatre on the stage as equal partners in a way that would satisfy our role models -Isadora Duncan, Grotowski, Eugenio Barba – but would also, critically, make sense to our mums. This was genuinely how we articulated our aim to ourselves:
‘Satisfy the masters, entertain the mums’
PART 2 – UPGTeam & 2PK
In September 2003; Channel 4 aired the documentary ‘Jump London’ which introduced us to Parkour – or Free-running. We went straight out the next morning and threw ourselves off the skate ramps in our local park. We were awful, but we loved it, so we went out again the day after that, and the day after that, until after about 2 weeks we’d built up so much lactic acid; we had to get up the stairs into our flat backwards, sitting down and using our hands to lift our tired bodies up one step at a time…We also hurt ourselves, a lot, so eventually Miranda said:
“Either we start again, safely, and approach this as a dance form, or we stop”
So with her very much directing the process, we began again, and that’s when we really started to progress.
Now – at this time we were still very much an in-theatre company with a reputation for staging the classics. A lot of our friends and colleagues thought we were mad and they openly mocked us. But we kept going. Sure – we went out at 6am, when it was dark, and trained in hoodies so no one saw us, but we kept going. Eventually it paid off.
The Brighton & Hove Arts Commission put out a call for ideas ‘on the back of a postcard’ that could change the quality of life in the city, and we suggested a ‘playground for adults’ – asking what it might be like for kids to grow up watching adults play in public – without that involving drugs or booze or sex or anything else Brighton beach might be associated with.
We won the commission, but didn’t get quite enough to build a permanent site -ironically – this turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Instead; we went for a mobile set of frames and decks, along with a public show and a series of schools workshops. All together the project was meant to last two weeks. The council asked us to call it ‘The Urban Playground’ and because we thought it was only temporary, we said ‘Yes’. Nothing prepared us for how that show landed, or that the project would continue for the next 15 years. But almost immediately a few really significant things happened.
Firstly – Malik Diouf and Charles Perriere – two of the Yamakasi – the co-creators of Parkour – were making a documentary on how parkour had changed since different people took it on in different places. They asked us for a video of our show, but we offered them an Easyjet ticket to come and film it themselves instead. (It was cheaper, and we didn’t know any good film makers). As a result, Malik came out and spent a few days with us and he’s been a core member of the team ever since.
Secondly – Wolfgang Hoffmann got interested, and commissioned a second show for the Dublin Fringe the following year. That gave us an opportunity to work directly with Malik and Charles for the first time, which was the most significant skill-exchange imaginable. They had little interest in working with another parkour group, but were very excited by the dance sensibility we brought to ‘their’ ‘l’art du deplacement’ and that’s where the collaboration really started.
Thirdly – at around that time; Without Walls was coming together as an initiative and we got commissioned by them & the Brighton Festival to make a touring show. We called it ‘Fusion’ and it defined the UPGTeam as a company. It also defined Performance-Parkour as a choreographic language in its own right.
I’m telling you all of this because it would be easy to make out that everything we did was intended from the start – but of course chance, and timing, and being in the right place and all of that played a massive part in how things developed. And all through this time, lots of people who knew us, were telling us we were mad, and asking when we would go back to making ‘proper’ work. After all, the first UPG show came in 2006, but the year before we had completed our Tragedian Trilogy which tells the life story of 19th Century Actor Edmund Kean. The trilogy had secured us a load of international touring, and Steven Berkoff as our patron. It won best actor at the Brighton Festival and was runner up at the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2007 we would take ‘best show’ in Brighton again, with a site specific version of the Duchess of Malfi. We were serious actors! So why would we go on the street?
Edmund Kean was the greatest exponent of Shakespeare’s tragic characters ever. William Hazlitt adored him, Byron had a seizure watching him, David Garrick’s wife called him Garrick’s heir. Despite being a raging alcoholic and the blueprint for every hell-raiser since, he was the greatest actor of his day and of any day. Garrick dented the ‘classical school’ of drama – the declamatory style – but after his death it has snapped right back with the English stage full of well-bred, aristocratic looking, talking planks. Kean set fire to them.
His naturalistic style fooled people into thinking he was improvising, and his rapid transitions of energy and emotion stunned audiences. He had everything going against him too – he was the illegitimate son of a lower-than-working class London-Irish family, he was very short and he looked Italian! If Drury Lane wasn’t on the edge of collapse and desperate for audiences they would never have given him a chance… But he changed people’s ideas of what theatre could be overnight. So what was his secret?
Kean grew up around Covent Garden, with an aunt who took him to Drury Lane Theatre for singing, dancing and fencing lessons, and a mother who took him to the pubs, street corners, and boothy fairs where he recited Shakespeare for pennies and learnt bare-back riding and tumbling. His uncle was a popular impressionist – so he knew comedy too. And for ten years of touring the provinces (before ever becoming ‘An overnight success’) Kean performed the Harlequin almost every night. Fundamentally – he was a circus performer. He was a physical specialist in a world of strong voices. When he played Shakespeare, he couldn’t stand still. He was real. And once the audience saw him, they wouldn’t settle for anything less…
In making our version of Kean; we’d studied ballet, classical fencing, Regency pugilism, tumbling, ‘bel canto’ singing and anything else we could to strengthen the show.
When we started the UPGTeam, we knew we needed to bring in a diversity of skills if the show was going to be more than simply people jumping off obstacles. We brought in contemporary dancer, Annie Lok; and 3 young guys who were nonperformers, all into parkour, one of whom had some flips. The first person we brought in however, was a break-dancer, or as he would say; a B-boy; JP Omari.
JP can out-dance most people on his feet, but then takes his power to the floor, and finally, goes aerial. He is also a phenomenon of charm. I was in the show too, and Miranda choreographed.
For the second show in Dublin; Annie couldn’t do the job, so we brought in Janine Fletcher – or J9 as we call her. J9 is nominally a contemporary dancer but she has a background in burlesque, comedy, tap dance and clogging. She is a born experimenter. We also benefited from the impressive physical presence and encyclopaedic parkour knowledge of Malik and Charles; and we had a group of 6, nonprofessional, Dublin-based free-runners.
For Fusion – and this became our core team for years – Malik, JP, and Janine remained with Miranda and I. And with Fusion, we did play the National. Throughout the early years, Performance-Parkour grew as a choreographic language. We describe it as a mongrel form, and as deliberately primitive. It is a dog bred from a dozen mutts.
2PK – performance-parkour – is a mongrel, and it benefits from all the healthy characteristics we associate with that. The fragilities of pedigree have been bred out. It deals with obstacles like a traceur, brings power moves like a b-boy, the finesse of a contemporary dancer, the playfulness of a capoeirista, the rhythm of a clogger, and the humour of a clown. Because it is none of these things completely, it can talk to all of these things a bit, and where each of those forms is codified, 2PK is an open book. Audiences understand it on sight. And for the street, that is essential, because even at the most high-brow curated combined arts festival, outdoor work either speaks to everyone or it fails.
PART 3 – Boundary Processes
Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave elaborated ‘Social Learning Theory’ as a way of describing how people learn. They posit that all learning is social, since what we know, and who we are, are bound together as our identity. Critically, they discuss how competence – in any field – is socially constructed. An easy example of this is the driving test. You might think that you’re a brilliant driver, and you may believe very sincerely that you can drive; yet – until you have passed a driving test and hold a clean driving license, society will not agree with you about your level of competence.
It’s the same with all professional bodies. We got ourselves qualified with Diplomas In Dance Teaching and Learning from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, graduating(again) in 2017. Whilst we do have a belief in the importance of Continuing Professional Development, we only went to the extreme agony of three and half years of struggling up an academic mountain whilst still running our company, because a governing body for parkour had sprung up and started to tell our clients that they shouldn’t employ us – as we didn’t have their level 2 sports coaching qualification.
Maybe because we’ve worked together for so long, Miranda & I are well aware of how far we’ve come – and were conscious that a level 2 coaching certificate was underselling things. Instead we did a level 6 post graduate degree and we now wave our diploma’s at the merest suggestion of being under-qualified. Except now we have our diplomas – no one questions our competence…I’m not saying this to show off, but to illustrate Lave and Wenger’s point about competence being socially defined.
They also discuss what happens when a group of practitioners encounter someone with a different competence. What they call a ‘Boundary Process’. Let’s for example imagine a dancer who goes on a journey, or circus that comes to town. Either way, this dancer finds themselves working with a circus company.
In the first instance, the group says the individual is not competent – since they do not share the same competence – and we always first notice what makes the outsider, an outsider. Our dancer is therefore required to show some recognisable ‘circus’ or ‘performance’ competence – enough for the circus performers to open up to, rather than reject, their ideas. Once competence has been demonstrated, the dancer can start to bring in something new – something from their own field – and if this can be useful to the circus group, if it adds something to their own work – then they will accept it.
At this point, the group’s definition of competence has changed, and the performer becomes a valued member of the company – of the dance-circus company. Obviously I’m being totally arbitrary and we could as easily discuss an acrobat joining a dance group, or an actor joining a choir, or a musician joining a theatre company. The important thing is that the definition of competence expands, and the community-of-practice – the group in question – redefines its own identity as a result. That’s what it feels has happened with contemporary circus over the last decade or so. It’s what happened with outdoor arts in the UK too – with Caravan, and Without Walls and various other initiatives challenging artists who had been making work in-theatre to bring their skills on to the street.
More recently this has seen a push for dance artists, including some bigger name dance artists, to also work outdoors.
It is a clear example of an organised boundary process. Its something we’ve always done in our own work, and especially for the UPGTeam its been central to our development, but its only when we came to do the DDTAL certificate that we encountered ‘Social Learning Theory’ and gained the language to describe it in a way that the people who had thought we were crazy to work outdoors, could identify as an example of best practice…
PART 4 – Credibility & Discernibility – The Glimpsed Narrative
When we made our first show in 2006 there was still outdoor work around in England that seemed like it had simply been transplanted from a theatre stage to the street and, as a result; didn’t really work. That’s not to overlook the amazing companies who had been making outdoor work for years and who were, understandably on occasion, a bit surprised by the sudden interest in street arts that brought people like us out with them, competing for funding and the right to be programmed. Now we see work being transplanted from the street back into theatres and again, without a more developed process it can also struggle. For ourselves we realised that any attempt at a long format narrative was doomed in the context of street-arts and we started to work on what we call a ‘glimpsed narrative’.
This is what happens when we’re out on the street and from the corner of our eye we catch an interaction that arrests our attention. Maybe someone falls. Maybe someone suddenly grabs another person. We hear laughter shared by a group. We see the end of an encounter, and our mind immediately elaborates a story that leads up to it, justifying that moment. We see a hug and decide ‘this is lovers reuniting’. We discovered ‘glimpsed narratives’ for ourselves, and then like everything in theatre, realised Stanislavski had beaten us to it. In a famous episode he observed a couple he called ‘the lovers’ from his studio window, and was impressed by the absolute truthfulness of their actions, though he couldn’t discern the impulses behind those actions. He then directed his actors to faithfully repeat the actions in the studio, which they did, creating a whole story to justify them. Now, Stanislavski understood the actions – but he no longer believed them… and thus he came to view discernibility, and credibility, as 2 quite separate things…
This ability of our minds to tell stories around observed moments is truly amazing, and it’s how we’re programmed, as creatures, to interpret what we see – especially when we’re on the street. In theatres; audiences are intended; they have paid to be there, and they’re awaiting a narrative – so as makers we can take a long time to slowly disclose information, build characters, add plot twists and turns. Outdoors, none of that works. It’s only by engineering moments that arrest attention – and by continuously arresting attention, again and again throughout apiece – that we create the kind of show that speaks on a street. And which can turn passers by into audiences.
The work has to be credible and discernible in every instant – we must see it, and understand it. We can learn loads here from circus. Circus, like dance, knows all about orchestrating a spectacle – though even in a formal, traditional circus setting -inside the big top – the audience has paid to be there and is awaiting certain conventions.
On the street we can break every convention, of every form, and as artists that’s why we have continued to work there.
What we discovered in 2PK is a movement language that can talk with any other movement language. It is primitive – deliberately so – it runs, and jumps, and climbs, and rolls – and within this form I, a physical theatre actor, can share the street with b-boys, contemporary dancers, stunt and circus performers, and non-performers. Together we can jump, and play, and perform as equals. By stripping conventional trappings associated with a codified form away, we create a space in which everything is appropriate, provided it is credible. And by credible I mean Authentic. Truthful. As we often say in the context of 2PK – You cannot act your way over a wall.
Standing on the same level as us, in broad daylight, the audience knows what is real and what is not. And even if you take ballet – the most codified form of all -you can – provided you perform the heart of it without reliance on conventions -make it work on the street. The street is available to everyone. It is the place where we all meet as equals. It’s a place where we literally bump into all kinds of people we wouldn’t normally meet and that’s a useful way to think. On the street we can meet anyone – so why don’t we? As artists, it’s in these meetings that we find the core of our work, together.
PART 5. Liberation, Transformation, Audiences & Non-Performers
From our very first job as Prodigal Theatre back in 1999 we have worked with at risk communities of young people, and by extension, their families. As anyone working with young people will know, working with young people means working with the whole community in which those young people live – either by design or by inevitability. So we’ve always put our work in front of that harshest, most critical of audiences -children – and children are great precisely because they have yet to learn the formal, codified, behaviours of adult theatre audiences. If they like something they will cheer it, applaud it, and comment on it when it happens – they won’t save their applause to the end. And if they don’t like it, they’ll let you know straight away. An outdoor audience behaves in the same way because
when we encounter work on the street it makes children of us. We are delighted, and performers who can create delight will make an audience out of the toughest of us.
When we started making work on the street the word parkour alone brought a very young audience to watch and they were superbly, brilliantly, vocal. They also expected to have a go. After all – why would you put a giant climbing frame on the street if you didn’t expect kids to climb it? So we followed our shows with ‘have a go workshops’ – we still do. And what we’ve found is amazing: the audience, stays to watch.
Very quickly we opened our workshops to anyone who wanted a go – and made it clear this included adults too. What we tend to get is a sort of cross-section of the audience – a representative participant group .Our team then supports their participation, and we finish the workshops off with a game that functions as play for the participants and like an improvised performance for those watching.
SO – a transformation takes place in the course of about 90 minutes: we move from being performers, to becoming part of the crowd; and members of the crowd move from being witnesses to becoming performers. A wider audience will stay to watch and applaud the whole thing. This transformation is only possible because the work takes place on the street. It requires us, as performance makers, to take a real risk – but that’s an essential element of street performance anyway – exposing yourself to the possibility of failure. If we are prepared to take that risk, it will always pay off.
We also create spaces in our performances to bring rehearsed participant groups on stage with us. This can range from a 2 hour workshop with a group of kids who have a 3 minute scene mid show, to the 2 year long project we ran with the Chennai based Parkour Circle, up-skilling them from aspiring parkour group to professional 2PK company.
In either case, when a part of the audience stands up and invades the set, and it turns out that’s part of the show, you can guarantee it will be the favourite moment for all there. It also makes each performance of a touring show unique – another thing which the street imposes on you, but you can choose to adopt and make it your ally…And this brings us back to the ‘man goes on a journey/stranger comes to town’ premise – that we only develop, and innovate, and become genuinely inclusive when we move away from our well worn grooves and collaborate – be that with other artists or with our audience or preferably, with both.
Collaboration – real, exchanging collaboration that involves taking risks, and exposing ourselves to new influences and ideas with openness and courage – and without compromising or diluting our practice – is joyful, is liberating and is highly, brilliantly addictive.