We’re bringing back our #PhysicalStoryTellers series to gain some insight into the people involved in this year’s Mime Festival.
“The Chosen Haram is essentially based in lived experience. There are two elements, one is the idea of sexuality and faith, so it’s rooted in the experience of a young man realising that’s he’s gay within the strictures of faith. And the other side explores the idea of addiction, specifically sex and drug addiction. And from that, I started to explore these ideas with other people, sometimes just through talking sessions and sometimes interviews with people who had experienced similar things, to broaden my understanding of the concepts and expand the scope beyond myself. And although these things haven’t been experienced by everyone, what I’ve come to realise is that a lot of people have either experienced some parts or know someone who has. So although it’s a story that’s unique to me, I’ve seen how it’s also very relatable for other people.
What I’ve tried to do is split those experiences that I’ve been through into two characters and then present them in a relationship within the context of the show to see whether they find unity and empathy with each other, or to see whether there’s a clash when these two experiences – which I, in a reductive way, feel are very ‘East’ and ‘West’ – come together.
There was one module in my university degree that was on live art practice. And it was from that one small module that, for the first time, I felt enabled to explore what felt real and important to me in performance, in a way that my circus training wasn’t really allowing me to do – and that I didn’t know was an option. During this module, I created quite an intense durational live art piece. There are no images or footage of it because it was very, very boundary-pushing and explicit. But making it allowed me to explore new ways of expressing myself and gave me a practice to take back into my circus work. It also made me appreciate the strength of what my voice could be. I feel like this work is not quite circus, not quite live art, and not quite dance. it really sits in the middle of all of that.
Above all, though, the work is honest. It’s really honest and it’s not shying away from any of the concepts it explores. And in a way, that means people feel seen: I feel seen performing it and people will feel seen watching it. For some, watching it will be more of a voyeuristic experience. But I hope that within that voyeuristic experience, we create a place that can foster discussion and empathy for people that are not yourself.”
Sadiq Ali talking about his new show The Chosen Haram.
Main photo: Sadiq Ali. Photo © Glen McCarthy
“Around five years ago, I started to get the feeling that I had something more to say than: look how strong I am. This idea started bubbling away and I realised I wanted to make a show about the ways that we’re strong in real life, beyond just physical strength.
I started interviewing people to ask them to tell me a story about a time where they were strong, beyond lifting heavy things, or powerful – but not the kind of powerful where you’re controlling other people or have power over other people. It was more about that inner strength kind of power, like the ability to have agency or resilience or persistence, or the feeling of being the master of your own destiny in some kind of way.
And I was really surprised by the stories that came out. I had thought there were going to be many more stories about overcoming and triumphing. For example, one guy told me about being hit by a car and the doctors said he wasn’t going to walk again. But in the end, he ran a marathon. That’s the kind of story I thought I would find loads of. But actually, as I talked to people, what came out was people telling me about the times when they had felt the most unsure that they were strong enough, and the most out of control. But that when they looked back on those times, they realised those were the moments when they were really powerful. That’s when they were really strong: not the bit at the end when it was all OK.
Quite often, people’s stories weren’t ones where they had overcome something. And that made me appreciate that that the times when we struggle aren’t the times when we’re weak. Those are actually the moments where we’re at our strongest – we’re building strength and we’re finding strength that we didn’t know we had. It’s not about eliminating all the messy parts of your life, it’s just about choosing what your next step is.
These types of stories kept coming up and it made me reassess the physical vocabulary I was going to be using in the show. So, although the show does have feats of strength in it, I’ve also pushed myself into places where I’m not so certain. For example, I ended up putting in handstands – and my handstands aren’t super-reliable or super-great. But I’ve put a handstand routine into the show because it physically shows that struggle for control and that persistence: the falling down and the getting back up again! I also learnt a whole vocabulary of balancing and manipulating objects, because again, that fragility and the fight for control, and how precarious everything is, it shows how success is actually just getting through it, rather than always triumphing.”
Charmaine Childs talking about her new show Power.
“We were fishing around for ideas for a new show when my wife casually said in passing, ‘You should just make a show about how crap you are as men.’ And that instantly struck a chord. We decided we wanted to make a show about our experiences as men, but loosely incorporating the stories of Pinocchio and Frankenstein as well. Because, if you were going to make a new man – what would you make him like? And what would you leave out? And what would you put in? With Frankenstein, they were looking for perfection in a human being, so we used that as a starting block. And then we went off on a massive tangent and other things started to appear, like potato chips and Tupperware.
There are three different strands kind of interweaving into each other. There’s my story, there’s Adam’s story, and there’s our story together, because we’ve worked together for over nine years now. One of the big things we explored was fathers. Adam is a father to two boys and I’ve got two girls, so we had this whole thing about being a father and having a father.
It’s not Coulrophobia II by a long shot. That show was pretty much a barrel of laughs the whole way along, so you barely had time to breathe. This one is much more of a personal journey. It’s introspective and has a lot more emotional content, which is rare for me. Adam’s emotions are close to the surface and he’s a very emotional person, whereas I really have to root around to find out what’s going on for me. And that’s something that’s featured in the show. We’re still clowning, but not in the sense of the red noses and big shoes like last time. It’s much more subtle than that.
And it has a lot of Action Men in it! Which were huge favourites of mine as a kid. I would put on epic long plays involving Action Man and force my family to watch them. I think my whole discovery of storytelling and puppetry are solely a response to Action Man. He was the originator of my imagination opening to how you could bring inanimate objects to life and give them a full story. I also spent a lot of time watching my dad repair Action Men because I would break them a lot and he would meticulously repair them. I can honestly say that fed directly into my puppet-making because I watched how limbs and joints were put together and when I first started building puppets, I used very similar principles to the elasticated limbs and ball-and-socket joints. So there’s actually a direct correlation between Action Man and who I am and what I do now.”
Dik Downey, one half of Opposable Thumb with Adam Blake.
“I can’t remember the exact first time I encountered Merce Cunningham’s work. I feel like I’ve always watched it, or at least during my performing career – so for at least 30 years. It has always felt very intuitive to me. I know a lot of people have spoken about it being difficult. But I’ve never seen that side of it, or never seen it as a provocation. To me, it always made a lot of sense. And I find it very calming. This is one of the things I’ve said to the people at the Merce Cunningham Trust: If I am stressed in life or if I have creative doubts about what I do, I probably turn to Merce and watch a bit of Merce’s dance, and it calms me. I’m not a religious man but art can have a cathartic effect on you, and Merce’s choreography has that on me.
I think it’s the right balance between order and chaos. And an unpredictability about what comes next that you can just watch. So yeah, I’ve loved his work for 30 years, but over the last two years I’ve really started to dig deep. I kept finding treasures and surprises. It’s such an extraordinarily rich body of work that he left and I think that it has fed so many people in so many different ways. I’m kind of flabbergasted by the consistency of the material over so many years.
When we started, I had two works by Merce that were my point of departure. But I think in Life we now reference about 30 pieces. We’ve approached it almost like we were in a sweet shop, with the different pieces triggering the material in different directions. So sometimes we’ll just use the arms on top of a juggling pattern, or sometimes we’ll use a geometrical formation, or sometimes we’ll use a rhythm. Or sometimes we’ll take a rhythm in the feet and then add arms over the top. And then recently, I’ve been getting into playing some of Merce’s stuff backwards and learning, for example, the feet backwards. Or I did some collages where I would randomise Merce’s pieces, taking the torsos from one and the feet of another, and then seeing what that does.
Merce was very private about his composing. He might say ‘I threw the coins this many times and it came out like this,’ but there is something about the pieces that is so personal. There’s something more than the randomisation which is very intriguing.”
– Sean Gandini talking about Merce Cunningham, the inspiration for Gandini Juggling’s new show Life.