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‘An ISACS “Go See” Initiative’ Experience
National Circus Festival of Ireland, 11th-13th November 2016
By Claire Sheehan | View ISACS profile
Claire Sheehan performing with Baja at Galway Community Circus
Delve is a ‘Go See’ initiative set up by ISACS and launched in 2016 for ISACS members. ISACS is Ireland’s leading support and advocacy organisation for Irish Street Arts, Circus and Spectacle. ISACS’ goal is to promote, raise the profile and advocate these art forms by creating an umbrella network to raise the level of information, education and awareness through more writing, research and records. In November 2016, I became a Delve candidate and attended the National Circus Festival of Ireland in Tralee on its 15th anniversary. I experienced this world of circus, street art, and spectacle from a newcomer’s perspective, and now in the run up to the 16th National Circus Festival in Tralee, 9th – 12th November 20127, I highly recommend seizing this opportunity if you get the chance.
People often remember circus as a distant, childhood memory, but for other’s it is a way of life. In Ireland, the art forms of Circus, Street Art and Spectacle are very much alive today and have been throughout history. Discovering aerial is what drew me back to circus as an adult. After attending weekly classes at Galway Community Circus for two years, I was very aware of the physical demands of this activity. My knowledge of circus otherwise was limited. I knew the Delve program would give me the chance to discover this world on a whole new level.
Discovering this new world has led me to new phases and opportunities. Delve enabled me to go to Limerick and Tralee, participate in a Critical Writing Course, watch shows and performances, take part in discussions and experience a world of circus, street art, and spectacle that I was unaware existed. I discovered new depths of understanding and gained insight and knowledge into the creative process, seeing firsthand, the hard work and reality behind the art of performance.
The entire Delve journey was an exploration into Street Art, Circus and Spectacle. My role was to reflect on the experiences in Limerick and Tralee and then write about them. My involvement as a Delve candidate left a creative imprint and has inspired a whole new way of life since. I see a future in these art forms that I had never envisioned before. I explored a community of ‘Creatives’ as a newcomer with fresh eyes. I was amazed not only by the skill, talent and dedication that each person displayed for their art form but also the rich history and presence of street art and spectacle that surrounds us as citizens of urban spaces. We participate as members of an urban audience, in which we get to interact with street art and spectacle on a level, which we decide.
From the very outset I was receiving a wealth of information. There was no time to stand around and think about it, I was immersed in it from the very start. As part of Delve, the first step was to complete a two-day Critical Writing course in Limerick. This step was crucial as it provided an entire educational backdrop and gave the Delve candidates the tools needed to undergo this journey.
In the Irish World Academy Building on the UL campus, I was in the presence of an extremely interesting collection of people and minds who were all there to gain a deeper understanding into everything ISACS represents. ISACS put together an incredibly rich and varied presentation that highlighted something very important. We are all advocates for Irish street art, circus and spectacle and together we must share information and resources collectively in order to give these art forms the recognition they deserve.
One of the most interesting and important lessons I learned throughout the whole experience was that despite the existence of these art forms, there is very little information about them. ISACS’ Project Manager Lucy Medlycott introduced the Critical Writing workshops with a national history of these art forms. Street art, circus, and spectacle are very much intertwined throughout Irish history, yet there are no records of them. There may be photos here and there but written accounts of the performances are extremely rare. There is no section in libraries dedicated to these events throughout history, no museums or galleries, no records of the people who were involved and no reviews of the creative process behind the art and performance.
One thing was made very clear at this stage, that it is our responsibility to take control of this issue now. We need to write, review, critique, share and spread the word in order to create an archive for new audiences. We are advocates for these art forms and if we work together to deeply inform audiences about these art practices, we will see an archive of creativity build. This new generation of information will create a new future. Together we can raise the level of information on street art, circus and spectacle - by creating more written records, reviews and research and therefore building a library of historical, academic and critical writing.
For me as a Delve participant, this was just the start. After learning another wealth of knowledge from our other speakers Floriane Gaber, Kim Tilbrook and Paschale Straiton, we finished for the evening and were taken on a tour of the Irish Aerial Creation Centre (IACC) with Chantal, the creator of Fidget Feet, a dance company who are based in the IACC.
Day two, in the University of Limerick was a journey of discovery and discussion regarding critical writing and performance arts. It was a day packed with learning techniques for writing, reviewing and critiquing. Learning ‘who we are’ as writers, who our audiences are, what we want to portray through reviewing these art forms and how we communicate what the artist is trying to get across whilst being conscious and considerate with the artist’s best interests at heart. Together, with my fellow Delve candidate Allayne, a group of UL students who were going to review the events to follow in Tralee and independent performance artists at various stages of their careers in circus, street art and spectacle - we went on this learning journey.
Our educational and learning day in Limerick drew to a close and it was time to travel to Tralee in Co. Kerry and put into practice all these newly learned techniques. It was exciting to visualise what lay in store.
The Falcon Sculpture was awaiting us when we arrived in Tralee on the rainy, dark Thursday evening. I was immediately intrigued by this creation of various metals by Hannes Jung. Incredible looking in its structure and stature I was casually told by more seasoned circus enthusiasts that this creation would be shooting fire and lighting up the small, quaint square in Tralee center. My mind began to visualise the sights and delights that awaited me as part of the Delve program. I was already in awe of this falcon and its presence. The excitement it was building for casual passers-by, they knew something was happening. The circus was in town. We took the evening to familiarise ourselves with the itinerary and prepare for the madness of the next few days.
On Friday, due to a common occurrence that everyone who has lived in Ireland can understand - the daytime outdoor events had to be rescheduled due to the rain. The lunchtime walkabouts with Charlie Chaplin, Kamikaze clowns and the Ballygofeck Clown Marching band as well as the Falcon installation display had to be moved to various times throughout the weekend. However that didn’t stop the circus having fun as a huge array of circus activities took place throughout the day from 10am – 7pm with various training and workshops available in a variety of circus skills such as acro, aerial, juggling, hula hooping, cyr wheeling, poi spinning among many more with many activities catering to all ages. The National Circus Festival was already a place the whole family could enjoy – rain or shine.
That night our first official event was happening. Our very first Delve project as newly taught critical writers – ‘Silver Lining: Throwback’ in Siamsa Tíre.
Silver Lining had me at go with their passion, energy and insane physical abilities. As an aerialist in training, I had a very realistic view of the strength and endurance needed by these performers, whilst making each movement look effortlessly flawless. It is so easy to sit on a seat and judge; it is a different thing to perform on a stage, putting yourself out there for the world to cast their opinion of you. I had nothing but respect for these performers as they put on a show that not only was full of awe-inspiring aerial and acrobatic work but a very open, honest and emotional account of their personal lives. Throwback was a tribute to their nostalgia, starting with the six performers standing in a row as selected favourite music from each of their pasts blared throughout the theatre. Each one fully embraced their personal anthems whether their fellow performers and audience members agreed with their choice of music or not. For me, it was a moment of pure joy as some of these anthems cast nostalgic moments back to my own past. Each performer had their own story to tell, which was described through their own unique performance of aerial, acrobatics and balance leaving the audience gasping and cheering for joy.
I watched these performers sing, dance and portray their own unique, nostalgic collective memories through a fascinating display of stunning physical movements that culminated in a well-deserved standing ovation. I was hopeful and inspired after this performance. The artists from all over the world, including Niamh Ní Raghallaigh from our very own shores, each displayed how far you can go when you work hard at your craft. These performers didn’t give the impression they had just arrived at their destination, but through their passion and determination, each artist became a humble human being, on their own unique journey. Each performer was a credit to ‘Silver Lining Throwback’ in a very physical and emotional performance that set the bar high for the rest of the weekend’s events.
The theme of ‘Collective Memory’ was ironic as now we, as newly trained critical writers, had to create our own ‘hook’ or ‘Critweet’ as referred to by Floriane, who was expertly teaching us on the essentials of critical writing. Honestly, my mind at that moment was blown, the child in me had run away with Silver Lining and I was now visualizing my own show, with me in the spotlight. Visualising had no bounds for me at that moment; the world of circus was new all over again. And now it felt like doing homework when I wanted to go out and play. Three words were all that she wanted from me at that moment, from all of us training reviewers. We all had the same task, sitting around a table in Siamsa Tíre as the last of the Silver Lining crowd filtered out to go home. The others were giving their expert sounding feedback. It was coming to my turn. Three words, my hook, my Critweet. I went blank – all I could fathom at that moment was - “Circus for life”.
After self-proclaiming my lifelong love for circus after only one day at the festival it was time for the first ever ‘5X5’. This mystery event (to me) was taking place at my abode for the weekend – ‘The Grand Hotel’ on Denny Street and was listed in the itinerary as part of the ‘Festival Club – “Circus Sideshow”: 10pm – “past your bedtime”’. I was excited to attend and sat right up at the front of the packed venue as audience members flooded the stage floor to get a good view.
This definitely was a fantastic event to attend. Hosted by Ken Fanning of Tumble Circus, 5X5, a new showcase initiative, presented five new pieces of work to a very enthusiastic and supportive crowd. First, we saw Gracie May Marshall perform an enticing, full body, dance number with multiple hula-hoops. I was then delighted to see some familiar faces – Moni, Marie and Julien, my Galway Community Circus friends from Romania, Belgium and France, who were embarking a year’s journey working with GCC. Their performance involved carrying Julian in like a solid plank of wood as he went about amazingly balanced handstands whilst Mari and Moni juggled and balanced around him. Niamh Creely used her entire body in a dance like no other which encompassed each beat of the music completely. Aoife Raleigh engaged the audience with her act in something that resembled an infomercial selling something ridiculous. Nevertheless, her charm, personality, charisma and humor sold itself as well as her product with an electric blue wig and impressive strength act in toe. Next up was Maleta’s Alex and Davi, also based in GCC, who put on a fantastic, fast paced display of juggling, manipulation and body movement leaving the audience cheering for more.
5X5 was a thrilling array of spectacle variety and was topped off by an epic performance by Jay Gilligan, who has been described as ‘one of the best living jugglers’. After seeing him perform I can confirm that his talent for his craft is at an insane level and even the thought of how fast his body and mind are working together makes me dizzy. His display of juggling skills, combined with the electronic beats of Brian Crabtree’s ‘Grid Controller’, created a modern day circus spectacular that needs to be witnessed in person.
Over the course of the next two days, being able to visualise was an essential part of the programme. Each of these performances has a creative process behind it. My role was now to be an advocate for these art forms, to help in creating an archive for the 15th anniversary for the National Circus Festival in Tralee, to encourage others to do the same, for each act of circus, street art and spectacle. As reviewers, we need to use the tools that tie together public, place, and performance. To review the elements of performance that relate to urban planning and sociology. To look at the social cohesion of an audience witnessing a spectacle, examining cultural habits and participation. The Delve programme encouraged us to go further by giving us a new consciousness. We had to delve deeper into the creative process by participating, taking part, watching rehearsals, engaging in discussions and creating as a result.
To engage is at the core of the Delve initiative. If you do not engage, you do not experience the Delve experience. I readily engaged with each aspect that Delve required of me, and gained a wealth of experience as a result. From each performance, to each new detail learned, engaging with the art form was of critical importance.
Delving deeper also involved an in-depth analysis of the practical processes behind the art forms themselves. As Delve candidates, we attended an ‘Arts Council Funding Clinic’ on Saturday morning, which was hosted by Davida and Verona. This information session gave us a broad understanding of the application processes and how to go about applying for funding with the Arts Council. Davida provided a number of tips to ensure successful application and highlighted common pitfalls
After this we attended the ISACS’ Open Forum ‘Share’, a gathering of creative minds of people working in various areas of the industry of circus, street art and spectacle. Among the speakers were Niamh Ní Raghallaigh of Silver Lining, Paddy Waters, professional circus performer and Kath Gorman, Artistic Director of Cork Midsummer Festival. Here I got to be a part of an active discussion regarding the current situation in the industry. Niamh Ní Raghallaigh gave her realistic account of pursuing the world of circus at a time when circus just wasn’t established in Ireland. Paddy Waters gave a valuable account of making a living whilst making your art and the importance of creating your own value and selling yourself well. Kath Gorman highlighted the immense amount of work and forward planning that goes into these events, as well as shedding light on some of the programming and technical issues that can crop up and the challenges these events can face. Afterwards, we learnt about insurance with Greg Quinn.
After an engaging workshop with Floriane, we ventured again to the beautiful Siamsa Tíre to witness ‘Circus Siamsa’, a variety show that is held each year during the National Circus Festival. Kim and Paschale were the resident ushers for the evening, dressed up as enthusiastic Americans who took their ‘Irish descent’ very seriously. Throughout the show, I could hear children in the audience laughing hysterically at both DJ OnAir’s hilarious interjections and the abrupt and very direct interactions of a comedic violinist. I watched an artist in front of me sketch the various acts, her ability to capture the atmosphere in her lines was astonishing. Circopitanga took to the stage in an animated, acrobatic performance embodying the first moments, emotions and interactions of a traditional marriage between a husband and wife. They combined hilarious comedic moments with literal jaw dropping acrobatics that left a lasting memory. Leah Wolff put on a dynamically astounding aerial hoop display, her level of skill and ability at a level so high, I can only dream of comparing one day. And then the much-anticipated Angelique, whose aerial ability literally flew through the roof. An appearance by Jay Gilligan again to my delight, with an entirely different performance to the night before, again accompanied by Brian Crabtree’s unique beats. I had been so unaware of the levels of juggling, until now, my failure to throw one hoop back to the stage was met pathetically as Lucy and Allayne jeered me - seriously juggling is a talent. These performers really did thrill, amaze and delight the audience that witnessed them. Circus Siamsa really was a spectacular variety of acts to truly entertain people of all ages.
I honestly cannot remember what came next – the pop up rave, hosted by Lords of Strut in a laneway or the shooting fires of the Falcon installation display, all I know is I attended both. The rave in the laneway was among one of the most entertaining, random events I have ever attended. After being kicked out of the first laneway in less than ten minutes, the Lords of Strut transferred the pop up party to a laneway opposite to the original one. It was much more spacious and roomy and the challenge was to rave at full on volume and gusto for a full duration of 30 minutes without being shut down. And so we raved, for the rest of the duration, uninterrupted by any exterior force, with bodies constantly crowd surfing over us. Passers by were baffled but hugely entertained and many people watched from their hotel room windows as we gave the last song ‘Where’s me jumper’ every ounce of energy we had left. The Falcon display went ahead in a fantastic display of fire and acrobatics followed by a crazy circus style party and ‘open Mic Night’ entitled the ‘Renegade Stage’.
After an active morning at an Aerial workshop with none other than the amazing Leah Wolff it was back to Tralee centre to witness some circus and street performance. Sunday brought to life many of the aspects I had learnt about over the course of my Delve experience - discovering, exploring, learning, visualising and engaging. Here each of the elements were brought together – place, performance, and public. This parade was where the magic of street performance truly came alive for all to see. I took on the role of photographer and followed the lunchtime walkabout spectacle, which was made up of the Kamikaze clowns, Charlie Chaplin and Ballygofeck Marching Band. The streets were alive with a jovial and celebratory atmosphere as the performers marched their way towards the main square in Tralee.
The crowds came out in force to witness this unique event; stilt walkers strutted up and down the streets gracefully, yet dramatic in their presence. Many circus performers took to the streets to show their ever-improving skills in the areas of juggling, hula hooping and acrobatic performance. The Ballygofeck Marching band disobediently marched around creating a massive hullabaloo with some clowns taking on a ‘backwards Ireland’ persona in a hilarious display of clowning comedy. One clown with traditional face paint depicted an Irish woman clearly before the days of contraception as she marched freely, heavily pregnant, rollers in her hair, cigarette in mouth whilst clutching seven or eight baby dolls. Others dressed up as priests donning signs ‘The Earth is Flat’ and ‘Bring back Slavery’. Others crashed their brass instruments together carelessly as a number of clowns beating drums in noisy rhythm followed. The atmosphere was one of pure excitement, humour, laughter, and joy and the crowds not only witnessed but also interacted with many of these interesting characters who all appeared delighted to be performing to a pleasantly entertained audience.
The weekend events then came to a close with the appearance of Kamchàtka. All weekend I had been told about this amazing group of street theatre performers from Barcelona, but I still had no idea what lay in store. This was the magic that ISACS had been referring to the whole time, where place, performance and public meet in one place and spectacle occurs. There certainly was a magical element to that day in the main square of Tralee. For an entire 35 minutes, these incredible performers managed to draw in and engage with a huge crowd of audience members, without even saying one word. The public chose to be there, to watch, to participate. This was outdoor street spectacle at its finest and people in the vicinity, passers by and anyone who happened to cross paths with Kamchàtka, couldn’t help but get absorbed into the interesting atmosphere. So how did a group of eight performers engage with a huge crowd without saying one word?
Kamchàtka have an air of grace about them, one can be comfortable in their silence. They appear in old-fashioned clothes, dressed in formal coats, suits, slacks and shoes, each one with an old treasured suitcase. They appear human like anyone, however their demeanor and presence creates something otherworldly, like they have traveled through time to spread their message or come from another era. Their basic needs of communication come down to gentle and curious interaction with the public around them, of any age. Initially, they all just lay down, sprawled across Tralee square, resting their heads comfortably on their suitcases and they just lay there. The crowd just watched, intrigued, confused and curious, wondering what they were going to do. Kamchàtka members then got up and each started to draw people from the crowd to come and lie down where they had been lying. They then would select more people and get them to rest their head on the feet of the person already lying down. The atmosphere was one of increased curiosity, people were taken out of their comfort zone, still in the same place but everything had changed, they were now taking part in this spectacle, trusting one another in this creative process, letting themselves be guided by these street performers who were completely silent but full of ease in their actions. It got to the stage where the whole square was amassed with spectators lying on the ground next to each other in wonder of what would happen next. People were smiling and laughing, others just lay and took in the experience, children glanced curiously at the parents, some had been separated from each other’s sides in this unexpected street spectacle.
There was no grand finale to this other than the members of Kamchàtka stood back and admired their creation, an organized array of strangers lying down together in a main square. It was so simple and yet so out of the ordinary. People began getting up and going back into the crowd which had now doubled in size. The audience was intrigued and they were not leaving. After getting distracted by something simple the performers turned their attention to something new and exciting - an audience member had pizza. At this stage people were standing up again and watching the performers each form an orderly queue, sitting on their suitcase, as each one took their turn in receiving some food, literally hand to mouth. This whole spectacle then took on the form of one of the most basic human needs - sharing food together, still in complete silence. These performers engaged with the public on a level that encouraged them to help them and give them what they wanted. Each performer would take a bite of pizza and enjoy, the audience watched, children fascinated and adults alike. Then each one lay down and encouraged an audience member to give them each a drink as they lay patiently waiting. After their food and drink, meaningful hugs were exchanged as Kamchàtka made their way to a raised level point in the square. There they waved to people who were watching from nearby restaurants, one member of Kamchatka was so enthusiastic to exchange a meaningful moment that he climbed up to the first floor of a restaurant, entered the window and introduced himself to the spectators watching from their seat upstairs. After he joined his fellow performers again, the mood shifted. The members of Kamchàtka each looked reflective, naïve, unsure of where they were going, unsure of where they were. They each took an old photo from their treasured suitcase and held it out to the crowd. This old photo looked like it symbolized so much to them, and here they were thrusting it out into the crowd to see, to understand. The silence rang out, emotions seemed to take over, and audience members in the crowd were clearly emotional and touched by the gentle innocence and naivety of these people, who could easily be mistaken for a passerby or an immigrant. Yet here they were, craving a display of interaction between themselves and those who were participating with them. Basic human needs being met, or put out there, still not a word uttered. With that they started to leave and the crowd followed, they ran along the streets of Tralee and managed to stop traffic. People in cars stopped curiously in wonder of this spectacle crossing their paths, others showed obvious frustration after being stopped for a moment in their day to day lives as something out of the ordinary passed. The members of Kamchàtka managed to hitch a lift in a handyman’s van, still without a word, as they waved goodbye joyously to the crowd that had followed their every move.
Kamchatka – they disappeared as quickly as they seemed to appear, their subtle approach leaving a lasting effect on the crowd that slowly dispersed after collectively experiencing their poignant and moving spectacle. Each audience member was now a witness of this intriguing and curious spectacle that I’m sure had a lasting effect on many.
Reflection on the events of the National Circus Festival was essential. Delve taught me many things that weekend. An intensive, information-packed and actively fun weekend, bursting with life and celebration for the arts. There is a community of Creatives of Ireland, from all walks of life, who have a vision for the future of Circus, Street Art and Spectacle and it is up to all of us to become advocates for these art forms. Again, we must write, review, critique, share and spread the word in order to create an archive for new audiences and for the future of these art forms. Together we can build a national archive of Street Art, Circus, and Spectacle in Ireland and create a lasting and informative memory.
The sights, sounds, and events of the National Circus Festival inspired an endless flow of creative energy in me. Witnessing firsthand this community of Creatives that exist on our doorstep, the future looks bright for being a creative in Ireland.
Thank you ISACS for the amazing experience. Thank you to Lucy and Louisa for being so welcoming, amazing and encouraging. Thank you Allayne for coming with me on this journey. Thank you to Florian, Paschale and Kim for all your life-encouraging advice and wisdom. Thank you, Amelie, for telling me about Delve. Thank you, Ulla, for encouraging my circus spirit. And honestly thank you to everyone whose path I crossed along my Delve adventure, you were all a part of the adventure. Circus for life!
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