On a swing floating above a Melbourne laneway, sits a black and white stocking clad, red caped figure. Her visage is one well known to fans of Melbourne street art, however this is not the paste up imagery of Urban Cake Lady that they are familiar with – instead, the girl in the photograph is a real, flesh and blood person; a performer and artist in her own right.
When we first had word of the upcoming National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) show “Lucy and the Lost Boy” we were querulously bemused. Here were characters that we knew and loved, in an entirely different context to that which we were used to. The artists we spoke to about it were also mildly bemused, some spoke of appropriation and if this was yet another sign that their beloved art form was being “incorporated” and others were undeniably excited; most, however, didn’t really know which way to look upon it. It was far outside of the usual confines of the way in which they viewed their own scene as was possible. When it was mentioned to them, it really was as if a giant elephant had walked into the room, sit down next to them, and ordered a cappuccino – they couldn’t make sense of it, but it sounded cool and interesting.
I was one of those people – and, just for the record, I know sweet fuck all about modern circus performance. I have friends that can contort themselves (when they’re drunk), I’ve watched snippets of Cirque du Soleil, and I like to think that I know a fair amount about theatre arts – but walk me down a street at midday and, I’m sorry to say, I tend to avoid those guys touting their juggling, looking for coins and cash. Mostly I’m just pissed off that they’re blocking the footpath. To say that I’m a newbie in regards to my opinion on the art form would be spot on – I mean, isn’t a circus something under a big top? Where are all the elephants and monkeys doing their tricks and shit? So when I saw the flyers for Lucy and the Lost Boy, my curiosity won out. I wanted to know more. I wanted to be less ignorant, and find out exactly what on earth this art form had to do with the stuff I love doing out on the streets.
So, last week I headed down to NICA last week to speak to the director and creator of the show, Sally Richardson.
As I entered the NICA building, a large complex in the backstreets of Prahran, that resembles a massive factory-esque playground more than a school, I found myself walking past an area where students were training. From that point, I very quickly decided to clear the slate and take everything as it came, promptly throwing out any pre-conceptions I may have had about “circus arts.”
In the theatre, the production team and performers were in the final minutes of their rehearsal. I quickly noted the the professionalism of the entire affair – this wasn’t a bunch of clowns running around dousing each other with water, or jugglers waiting for the clink of change in a hat; this was some serious shit, with some serious talent involved.
“I come to and from Melbourne for work a lot, and I absolutely fell in love with Melbourne street art,” said Richardson, after the rehearsal had finished. “Its so dynamic and creative, especially the post-graffiti street art styles. It invites imaginative and fantastical, mythical synergies – which, to me, are a direct connection to the world of circus.”
Sally Richardson knows circus. With an impressive resume spanning multiple countries, companies performances and productions, her words ring with a certainty and trueness; if anyone can bring the art of the streets to life via theatre and movement, it seems to be her. Yet “street art” is a polymorphous, continually evolving, almost impossible to define entity – even the words themselves are debatably redundant these days, a product as they are of the necessitation for media and individuals needing a way to define its practice.
“As art forms, they both come from the street. Circus as a tradition came from the street as a rebellious, irreverent act, so in some ways they are quite similar. They’re both high risk – and they often involve work in high places. I think, in particular, it was the work of Vexta that got me going, because of her flying people. I saw them and thought “I can actually make that happen in space, in three dimensional form …”
As Richardson points out, circus performance does hold those synergies with street art. Also, perhaps one of the most synergistic elements is that circus is, like street art, is a combination of many different forms of artistic expression that have been merged together under a simplistic banner. “Circus arts” is, like street art, an entity with a multitude of elements – clowning, tightrope, contortion, rola bola; just as street art is comprised of aerosol, pasteups, stencils, yarn bombing, and many others.
The other element of commonality, however, is the somewhat youthful aspect of the two arts – with a large portion of street and urban artists being somewhat “youthful”, the same can be held true for circus performers. “I’m working with young people who are amazing physical artists,” she remarked on the common grounds between the two. “It feels like a direct synergy to the environment they are working in, the location of NICA, which is surrounded by laneways – but, also, it all ties in with their own age and concerns.”
When its looked upon in this light, I’m actually wondering why I didn’t really see it at first, and the cross over aspects between the two arts now seem obvious. Rooted as they both are within their own evolving sub cultures, each attempts to express ideas and notions via non-traditional communication, and each are consistently evolving by incorporating elements of other art forms.
After I’d heard of the show, I had many people sending me links to the shows flyer, or remarking that they’d seen a poster for the show. An image of one of Urban Cake Ladys figures made real is something that gets people talking, and one of the over riding concerns at seeing it made real was that that the show might be trying to “ride the wave of popularity” that street art seems to find itself surfing these days. When I asked if there was real authenticity to the idea of street art in the show, and wondered at the concerns of it merely playing lip service to the art, Richardson replied, passionately and assertively.
“Absolutely,” she remarked. “We’re not making a gratuitous connection.”
“I took all the performers out on research and we went up and down the laneways here, and in the city. I also took them to Hosier Lane – some of our international students have never been down any of the cities laneways, so we did do a bit of research in terms of that. They looked at figures and identified with them; there was a guy from Paris doing a piece and they watched the actions, so the movement vocabulary has taken on the action of painting. There’s a whole sequence called “making a piece” at the beginning of the show that has a lot of choreography that reflects a lot of spraying, pasting up and stencilling, that were turned into the actual physical vocabulary that they use.”
Thus, it seems as if the entire performance is soaked in fundamentals, a process which it seems will make Lucy and the Lost Boys ring true from the stage – with elements of the actual gestures and actions of street artists rendered into the performance via freestyle parkour and other movements. It goes further however, with the role playing involved involving a deeper level of character immersion for the performers.
“The entire theme has been one about exploring ones own creative expression and finding ones own identity,” Richardson explained. “So they all went and created their own tags and developed their own character names – so they’ve all called themselves swallow, or twisted, and they have all really connected to the identities they’re playing.”
If all this wasn’t enough to convince me not only of the good intentions, but of the homage being paid, it is also the fact that it isn’t just the performers which have been imbued with this “street sense”.
By using various objects that are usually found out in the streets as a part of the overall stage production, it is Richardsons hopes that the elements will combine to present something vigorous and exciting. With milk crate creations and beings, scaffolding, artistic appearances in the form of large images of Vextas flying people (actually flying across the backdrop), Be Free’s card throwing characters, tags rendered with lights and, of course, the visage of Urban Cake Ladys character are all merged with other projections of graffiti and street art, not only from Australia, but across the world. LATLB is, most certainly, a well thought out, if creatively imagined representation of the urban artistic bent . This attention to detail is quite impressive – even minor facets such as urban fauna are represented.
“Some of the fantastical figures that the performers play also include bugs spider, beetles and birds, – the kind of animals that exist in the laneways and the urban environment. We’re trying to pick up all of those diverse strands of street art, both two dimensional and three dimensional.”
There was one question, however, that begged asking. With artists characters such as Be Free, Vexta and Urban Cake Ladys relatively well know amongst street art fans, what input was taken from the artists, or, indeed, permission sought for the use of them? It’s an issue that is hotly contested in the world of street art. Some artists view their works on the street as “public property” and yet there is also an equally vehement side whom hotly contest that works displayed in the public are owned by the artists, and that any and all permission must be given for their use. Richardson is pragmatic on the issue, and though highly respectful of the artists, she sits somewhat in the public art for all field.
“I did, particularly, get in contact with Urban Cake Lady and Vexta, because i felt like i was using a very strong images of theirs. I do, feel though, that there are a lot of bits of things that are in the public space, which, to be quite honest, are fine to use. If you put something up on a wall, it does, in a way, becomes everybodys – which is kind of the reason I like it. I love the freedom of it all, that it is up against the institutionalisation of art, it’s one of the things I’ve always responded to. I felt with those two artists that I needed to make contact and say “hey, we’ve used this, do you want to come in and take a look? We’re really inspired by your characters …”
“They were cool about it all,” she continued, “but they were busy. I think that that also plays a part in the mythology, the secrecy … there’s a mystique to them. The fact that they always use pseudonyms and such ….”
There’s no doubting in the levels of respect that is given over to the artists, and indeed the entire show can be seen as a homage to theirs, and others, work.
“The beauty and the spirit that those particular artists work has really inspired our own people, “she enthuses. That idea to fly, to be free – the classic Be Free tag, and the cards … we’ve picked up different pieces, but we’ve really tried to clearly acknowledged artists like Vexta and Urban Cake Lady. There’s also little bits of Ha-Ha in there, and the clowns have some of Numskulls feel to them, and just little tags and such throughout, that if you really know your street art, you’ll get something out of it … but for the general public, who don’t know much about it, hopefully its a great introduction.”
It is that notion that may possibly be the most essential aspect that Lucy and the Lost Boy purports. Taking two art forms which, at first glance, are quite seemingly disparate, and coalescing them into one. Then being able to effectively communicate both facets of these highly specific subcultures to an unfamiliar audience. No mean feat, that. It is a highly creative, professional, new direction that is being explored – it is also modern, relevant and, for us, extremely intriguing. If Lucy and the Lost Boy can help to inspire and promote two genres of expression in one stroke, then we’re all for it.
“For the kids in the audience,” Richardson remarks as we’re finishing up talking, “Well, maybe they’ll play with these things and objects and feel excited by the imaginative world that’s actually around them. outside of the theatre you might go to a Solei or something, but its all fantasy and otherworldly – this is just outside.”
“After the show,” she remarks, hopefully, ” I’d like people to walk out of the theatre, go down a laneway and just look at it differently.”
Given the amount of drive, passion and skill behind the show, and the relevance it espouses, then I hope so too – it’s already changed the way I think about the world of circus arts, after all.
Check below for all the details on the show …
“NICA’s stunning new production features the final year circus arts students in collaboration with awardwinning Australian physical theatre and circus director, Sally Richardson. Lucy and the Lost Boy opens on June 13 at the National Circus Centre in Prahran and is inspired by the evocative and bold street art of Melbourne’s iconic laneways. Well-known street artists such as Vexta, Urban Cake Lady, Ha-Ha and Anthony Lister are amongst the many artists creating cutting edge, vibrant art in the heart of the city. Lucy and the Lost Boy draws on the creativity of these hidden gems.
Lucy and the Lost Boy follows the central character, Lucy, who dreams of being an artist while her parents have other plans. We fly with her on a high-energy adventure into the mysterious and uncharted territory inhabited by the free-spirited Flying Boy and Ladybird. This is a world in which creatures of the air clash with those of the ground with spellbinding feats of aerial bravado and spectacular acrobatics.
The show is devised and directed by Perth-based director Sally Richardson who has been the Artistic Director of Steamworks Arts Productions since 2001. Her credits for theatre and dance direction include The Flying Fruit Fly Circus production The Promise, which featured in the Sydney Festival in 2009 and won a Helpmann Award for Best Presentation for Children, tours to Shanghai and Beijing with The Drover’s Wives in 2007 and the production Alice which featured in the Melbourne, Perth and Sao Paulo International Arts Festivals. Richardson directed the 2009 NICA production Rhapsody and says she is delighted to once again be working with NICA’s final year students and teachers.
“Such a talented and dynamic circus ensemble of this size is unique in Australia. The show is going to be a celebration of the imaginative, youthful, energetic, vibrant creative arts scene that is unique to Melbourne.” This family-friendly show is a rare opportunity to witness the future stars of the circus world at the start of their professional careers.”
What: Lucy And The Lost Boy
Where: NICA, 41 Green Street Prahran, VIC
When: Show runs from 13th June 2012 until the 23rd June. (You can get some special discount tickets to the preview tonight Tuesday 12th June here.