Monday, 4 May 2015

Daisy Black: writing and circus performing

(c) Johannes Hjorth
It is midnight in Paris and I am cleaning broken glass off the soles of my bare feet.  I’ve just danced a tango on a bed of broken bottles. An hour before the show, I could be found on the rooftop smashing bottles wrapped in a gingham table cloth with a lump hammer (bottles and hammer kindly provided by the bar – the Eurostar do not take kindly to this sort of equipment – transporting my hula hoops is difficult enough).  Freshly smashed glass is very sharp. I get changed quickly. Next up: hula hoops.Tomorrow, or next week, I will be in a different city, with different people. 

I started performing during my time on the Creative Writing MA at UEA.  I have performed in sumptuous mansions, famous Wintergartens, the world’s largest green house (in Vienna), and alongside some incredible and inspirational artists. At festivals and cabarets all over Europe, from the dingy to the breathtaking. My dressing rooms have been everything from a leaking, muddy tent or a disabled loo with no light bulb, to an eighteenth century bedroom with silk wallpaper, or an exquisite library filled with tame owls.

Between these sojourns, back at home I’ll make breakfast for my five year old and do the school run. I marvel at these different versions of myself, these skins, jostling up against each other. Back at the house, I traverse the steep ladder (far more death-defying, with a cup of scalding coffee in one hand and a laptop in the other, than the feats I perform in my other skin) to the attic, my eyrie, and write.

I realise now that whether it’s staring down a blank page, wondering how a collection of words can be made transportive, or holding onto a rope seven metres in the air, while it bites a tightening tourniquet around your thigh, plucking up the courage to let go - the discipline required is the same. It is about pushing mind or body to its limits, to where you are not sure it’s safe to go, or not sure that if you do return, you will ever be the same. It’s also about training; most mornings I train intensively, not only flexing familiar muscles and rehearsing, but also pushing myself. Then I close my laptop, get changed and head to my training space, and do the same with my body. Learning circus as an adult has been a challenge: the body isn’t as forgiving, and the mind interferes –overthinking when what you need to harness is the childlike willingness to try something without judgement.

(c) Neil Kendall
When inspiration (though the word is not visceral enough to convey the sensation) flows through you, as when the light is perfect and the painter must put oil to canvas, it can flow. Whether it’s circus performing, writing, music, or oil paints – to me, all these mediums are different outlets for the same outcome: you strive to connect, to elicit an emotional response. But you won’t always feel inspired. I saw a picture recently: on one end of the spectrum, absolute narcissism; on the other, crippling doubt. And in the centre: Art.  A large proportion of the battle to succeed in any art form is just carrying on. My 500 words a day are my training. I won’t necessarily use what’s in them, feel like writing them, or even like them, but just like when I’m having an off day training, or tired or injured it feels futile, I just have to trust that my body is remembering, my muscle memory is percolating: it is a process of accumulation.  A very good friend of mine recently asked me why I forgive myself more in the process of physical learning than in writing: I may get frustrated when I keep dropping the hoop when learning a new trick, but I understand that dropping it is part of the process. We accept that there is gravity: sometimes, you will drop the hoop. It took me much longer to understand this in relation to writing, but learning the process through which physical skills, and performance skills, are attained has made me better at the process of writing. You let go of the rope and after some freefall, you know that it will catch you because you trust yourself.

Performing; this is a different beast. At the moment my book exists in solitude, and when it is published, whether I write another book or not, I will be judged by it again and again. When I perform, it lives and dies in the moment. We connect. I tell my story. The feedback is instant. It is over. And tomorrow I’ll do it again, and it will be entirely different, even if it’s the same act. This is where the road forks.

I grew up surrounded by a family of artists. My mother has quietly accepted that I appear to have chosen just about the most ostensibly unstable career path possible. Not just one of them, but two of them. And did I mention that my partner Alex reads minds for a living?  You can imagine the conversations we’ve had when applying for a mortgage. 

In 2012 my partner Alex and I created Gossamer Thread’s Vaudeville Co. Both of us foster a love for the era of vaudeville; the aesthetic, the variety, the stories. As well as our individual disciplines, Alex and I perform double-acts and we are working on a full two-person show. We also produce sell-out circus and cabaret shows, predominantly at the Norwich Arts Centre (“Quite simply the best show in town’-Marc Gracey, Future Radio). I want the audience to never know what they are going to see next, but when they do to feel it is so right that it couldn’t have been anything else. Much like plotting a novel.  Each act tells a story. The next show is ‘Gossamer Thread’s Kubla Khan Cabaret,’ 12th June, based around Coleridge’s poem. We book performers from all over the country. Alex and I often create bespoke new acts: favourites of my own have been a conjoined twins aerial hoop act and an aerial silks act in which I was Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole – narratives, journeys.

I have found a pattern which works: five hundred words every morning; training in the afternoon. Then teaching circus or performing in the evenings. Our son has seen us both perform; he is surrounded by a network of family and friends.  I want him to see that it is possible to do whatever he wants to do.

Daisy Black  (aka Daisy Bourne) is freelance circus performer based in Norwich. Co-director of Gossamer Thread’s Vaudeville Co., she performs aerial hoop and silks, hula hoops and sideshow. She is also a producer and teaches circus skills in Norwich. She writes short stories, and is working on two novels, the current one is about the ‘father of modern circus’, Philip Astley. She graduated from the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 2013.
Tickets to Gossamer Thread’s Kubla Khan Cabaret are available from the Norwich Arts Centre website:

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