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Critical Encounters: Writing for Street Arts, Circus and Spectacle, Irish World Academy, Limerick, 8th - 9th November, 2016


National Circus Festival Ireland, Tralee, 11th  - 13th November 2016

What is it about things that come in threes? A gaggle of thrill seekers shouting cross-the-road at a pop up street rave, after being shut down; or the holy trinity of public-place-performance when critically appraising street arts, as described by Floriane Gaber. She instructed us to write three words as an instant response to a show, to measure our feelings in the immediate aftermath. In the five days of DELVE-ing, thanks to ISACS and the Arts Council, I have learned multitudes, experienced much and connected with many. As we left Tralee in the dusky twilight on a cool November Sunday, I said to Claire, my fellow DELVE-er – ‘I could have lived a month in the last five days’.


We first put on our critical lenses during two days in the Irish World Dance Academy. Seminars and discussions facilitated by the MA in Festive Arts in the University of Limerick gave us tools with which to measure our view, and examine what went on around us over the brief but exultant days of the National Circus Festival in Tralee. There are many things I took away from these classes, but some stood out more than others. If we want to critique or appraise a piece of work, we must first understand an artist’s process. Now this doesn’t mean researching everything they’ve ever done, in fact it is in fact preferable from some critics to see a show ‘cold’, that is without any background research. But that author will bring the wealth of their experience and knowledge to the table when reviewing a show, and this will inform their critique.

With Floriane we reviewed some articles that had been published about street arts in Ireland. They were summarily (for the most part) deemed nondescript, they used words that showed wonder but told us nothing about the show. It was ‘amazing, spectacular, brilliant’! But what does that tell us? About the artist’s motivations, their practise in how they perform, why their costumes were particularly chosen. Nothing of the why, and why not, and how. The seven questions as she told us, who, what, where, when, why, and to whom are you writing? For whom is the performance intended? And the how, the different elements of the performance in choreography, costume and what has informed the work – the history of the art form.

We then read a piece about Periplum’s production, 451 - a piece of work that ‘combines immersive sound and sensory theatre to depict a dystopic society where literature is outlawed and acts of violence are rewarded’[1] which was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel, performed in Bethnal Green in London. This put the others to shame – the words transported us so you could feel the rhythm of the performance in your belly and smell the air. When writing about an outdoor show, this is a goal to strive for. To put your reader there, in the audience so they can taste the smoke and hear the performers first hand makes up a piece well written that will inspire and drive readers to experience that show or something similar. But also not to give too much away, no spoilers please for the artist! So striving for impressions, responses, feelings and atmosphere are ideas that we can aim to emulate through words, and of course pictures. This was another lesson of note in both Floriane’s tutelage and the presentation by Cristín Leach on writing critically about the arts - both that an image can make or break a piece of writing and how street artists are often uncredited by both photographers and journalists in the sector.

Where it can be an ultimate goal to place your reader in the thick of an event, giving a wider context to a piece can also be a valuable way to frame it. With Cristín Leach we watch a five minute performance, then had 30 minutes to write 300 words. We sent out work to her, or read it aloud and she provided critique. The performance was part of the Occupy Chicago protest movement, and here is the piece I wrote:

The Occupy movement heralded a people power that inspired many. Swept away by the mass protest voices, it was easy to be lifted with them. Similarly in 2001, many people around the world protested before the invasion of Iraq. On one day millions mobilised to make their voices heard - but the invasion happened anyway.


The movement is here personified by an electric contorted protest poem by the Occupy Chicago street theatre group. The Occupy movement had wonderful ideas, and energised many. But they too dissipated, were broken up and dismantled by the authorities. This self-described 'hybrid performance' piece, with the vibrant use of red in their clothes and the push pull choreography by Marc David Pinate, exemplifies being in the centre of a system that betrays and enrages, but one that also absorbs their discontent.


It is easy to become disheartened when we see protest movements continually absorbed into popular consciousness , even become commodified and part of the system. But when we watch these again, in the light of the now it is important to remember and to REMEMBER. We hear these performer's calls to recognise the control that the media has on how we perceive the world, the way big business in pharma and food have their own interests first at the expense of the everyday citizen. The performers moved and pulled each other as they yelled their frustrations, folding a heart that could signify hope - handing this to an audience member, wanting to spread their message. That standing up to be counted does mean something. Even if you're stamped down, you can stand again, and again until things begin to change.


The ensemble performance from students from the Theatre School at De Paul University served to excite the crowd then, and the viewer now with a message that will hopefully not be forgotten.



Making lists can be a thing that is very satisfying – chronicling and recording, or planning ahead. For the shows we experienced as part of the National Circus Festival I most certainly needed them, both to plan and to recall all that we had seen and done. For some I got my three words out – Silver Linings in the Siamsa Tire National Folk Theatre on Friday were a mash up, ensemble, and had memorable and well thought out mise en scene. And universally agreed by performers and festival attendees as the standout performance was L.J. Kalyn Marles on the tensions straps, a new acrobatic discipline that he has created. According to Marles, ‘it’s kind of a mixture between rope, silks, shiny pole, Chinese pole; it has a whole kind of other way of moving’ [2]. Several practitioners agreed after the show that this was indeed something new and exciting. We were later treated to a 5 X 5, where five artists gave us something new in five minutes. In the basement of what was our HQ in the Grand Hotel Tralee, artists got to try out new work in a space that would support them.

Saturday brought more shows, in the shape of the Gala performance, Circa Siamsa. We were welcomed by Evangelina and Nancy, who were quite suitably decked in Irish Flags, forty shades of green and claiming to be our long lost American cousins. The gala was an excellent variety show, but my three words were noted for two shows in particular. CircoPitanga’s words were mime, wiggle, powerful to describe their doubles acrobatics; Jay Gilligan’s juggling was tender, mesmerising, responsive. In a corner, in the bar, Floriane pointed to each of the writing students in turn and instructed, take one of your words and make it a sentence. I chose tender – Jay Gilligan’s finale, juggling balls of yarn that tangled with him and the audience, a tensile poignant dancing melody of movement that brought tears to my eyes. Gilligan was supported by the musical mastery of Brian Crabtree, who’s mixing of both throbbing and fanciful beats worked in tandem with Gilligan’s juggling, like a conversation without words between the two.

After the variety show, we moved en masse to the town square, where artist Hannes Jung had been building a mechanical wonder in the days leading up to the festival. It was The Falcon, a sculpture installation that re-engineered car body parts into a majestic bird. Although the show was postponed from Friday because of the rain, it was entirely worth the wait. The birds wings were aflame and the eyes glowed fiercely, with flame throwers on either side that erupted in time with musical crescendos at the hands of the artist. Built into the bird structure was a platform, with slanted sides that allowed a succession of circus artists to perform alone or in tandem. Culminating in a display of fire poi and hula hoop that was aflame, the crescendo came with firework staff magic - in the words of Mo, festival attendee and performer. Here a performer manipulated and twirled a staff that shot fireworks and smoke, that called to mind a catherine wheel that could dance. Then letting out a communal breath of release, the crowd dispersed and milled about, moving to the next appointed spot, waiting for more magic.

The spot was close by, an alleyway near to our hotel. The magic was being handed to us by the Lords of Strut, a comedy duo that mix doubles acrobatics, physical comedy and general mayhem in their shows. The rave that we were waiting for was 30 unbridled minutes of intense music and dance, with bodies and stuffed unicorns floating past, carried by the crowd. When the euphoric pleasure of dancing illegally off a side street to Donna Summer, Die Antwood and others was cut off, the power pulled, we groaned and cried. But then one more tune - The Sultans of Ping danced us home, or rather back to HQ for more underground merrymaking. This came in the form of the Renegade in the basement of the hotel, which was an open mic for circus where anyone can try their tricks for the crowd and they are allowed the freedom to try, to fail and fail better.

That late night brought an early morning and the last day of the festival. The DELVE-ers ran to catch some classes in the aerial hall. I warmed up with a number of class groups and tried a few moves - on the trapeze, rope and aerial hoop. It was just a taste, and though I had attended aerial silks classes in the past it was apparent that my body had quite forgotten the little bit of strength I had built. However, I was happy to bounce about on the full size gymnastics trampoline with my fellow DELVE-er, which was invigorating and excellent fun. Like the rest of the weekend, I was happy just to get a taste, a flavour of the vigour and rigour that’s needed to train in the circus arts. I was happy to absorb the atmosphere and witness the prowess of the serious athletic strength being demonstrated around me.

Later the last day of the festival brought the Ballygofeck Marching Band to the streets of Tralee, who describe themselves as unloyal, disobedient and lost. Having marched their anarchic humour around Belfast on Culture Night earlier this year, they brought with them a host of stilt walkers, clowns and other performers. With drumbeats that thrummed in your chest, whistles that pierced and sang, and a cowbell resonating it’s singular note it was a cacophony of exuberance. Then lastly, finally and closing out a weird and wonderful weekend was Kamchàtka, a beautiful and heartfelt piece of street theatre that about migration and the kindness of strangers. My three words were silence, improvisation and tears. In the fading afternoon light of the town square the collective of performers brought us on an emotional journey with them, evoking such poignancy and loss that we were many, and were moved to tears.


Being lucky enough to attend the festival as part of the DELVE programme meant an insiders view of the circus world in Ireland. I shared food, ideas, laughs and tears with other festival attendees. This is an annual affair which is a reunion in many respects. It is also a meeting place for performers and practitioners, and an opportunity for new bonds and creative partnerships to be formed. This was evident in all aspects of the festival. In the juggling and aerial hall performers learned and practised together, both in workshops and more casual practise.


The performers and practitioners recognise each other by circus group t-shirts and badges, whilst some are old friends that have not met in many years. Old friendships are rekindled after intensive practise on the mats in the cold and draughty halls. This of course does not matter as five minutes of intense jumping jacks will put paid to any chills. In an intensive handstand alignment workshop in the aerial hall, the students were suspended and balanced, trying and failing, and trying and triumphing, correcting their postures and alignments in infinitesimal degrees. They have warmed up, stretching and flexing and raising their heart rates, getting ready to learn from and support each other.

Another kind of connection and sharing was through the Arts Council funding clinic and the ISACS Share Forum on the Saturday of the Festival. The funding clinic allowed for practitioners to better understand the funding application process and for Arts Council staff to publicise their new funding programme specifically aimed at the circus, street arts and spectacle sector. The ISACS Share forum invited speakers to start discussion on topics as diverse as professionalism when working in the sector, programming for street arts and the serious but necessary subject of insurance. ISACS is of significance in the realm of street arts in Ireland, as they enable cross pollination of ideas and people that will inspire new partnerships and work. One speaker was Niamh Ní Raghallaigh who is a circus artist with Silver Lining, and performed in Friday’s show Throwback. She detailed her growth as a performer, and how a secondary connection set her on the path to working in Jacksons Lane Theatre in London, and in turn to perform in Tralee.

Its these kinds of connections, referrals and mentions that drive how people work and develop. In fact, the very reason I was in Tralee at all, with Claire as part of the DELVE programme was due to an uncanny coincidence. At an ISACS event I met someone who led me to my dissertation topic, which l sent back to ISACS which inspired my application to DELVE - and Claire was told about the programme by the same instigators other half. We met again in Tralee and discovered this connection to our great delight. But at the heart of it is ISACS, a vibrant and growing advocacy organisation that I am proud to be a member of. So thanks, and thanks again to ISACS and the Arts Council for opening my eyes and heart, and leading my dancing feet through a sublime experience, and inviting me into their world of circus, street arts and spectacle in Ireland.



[1] http://www.periplum.co.uk/content/451/

[2] Kalyn ‘Lj’ Marles, aerial straps artist, Silver Lining, Interview from http://thewidowstanton.com/post/147791137433/ljmarles

Irish Street Arts Circus and Spectacle Network

Irish Theatre Institute, 17 Eustace St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2, Ireland
00 353 (0)87 0541812 info@isacs.ie
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