Dome Birds Fly the Nest

Feature in Issue 12-4 | Winter 2000

About the only feature to have emerged critically unscathed from the Millennium Dome, has been the arena's central show. Dorothy Max Prior considers where the ninety or so performers who were specially trained for the show can hope to go from here.

A group are gathered in the combustion chamber of what used to be the Shoreditch Electricity Company – now London's Circus Space. It is where ninety young people trained for the Millennium Dome Show, which is just completing its final month of performances. Around fifteen of those performers are here today, gathered together for one of a series of workshops organised by Mamaloucos as part of the preliminary work for their forthcoming circus-theatre production, The Birds.

It is getting late, everyone is feeling a bit tired and cold, and the session is drawing to a close. Some of the group are in the air – high above, holding hands – while on the ground a petite woman shivers and pulls a black wool cardigan around her shoulders, watching them with fierce concentration. They let go and swing away from each other, and the woman allows herself a smile. She is award-winning actor/director Kathryn Hunter, founder member of Theatre de Complicite, and probably not someone you would expect to find working on a circus project.

But the Mamaloucos project aims to challenge those expectations, and brings together an artistic team that includes composer Goran Brerovich, designer Tim Hatley and writer Sean Prenderghast, to work with Kathryn Hunter on the creation of what producer Mat Churchill describes as ‘the first ever piece of circus-theatre with an artistic team of this calibre'. They will be working with ten aerialists, two actors and a band to create the show which it is hoped will tour in their own specially constructed tent in 2002. For the workshop participants, the project is a welcome one, as it provides a possibility for them to continue to work in a collaborative, supported environment, after the close of the Millennium Dome.

At the same time as the Mamaloucos project is being developed, another large-scale show is in the offing: Circus Space has recently formed its own production company, The Generating Company, building on the achievements of the training programme and Dome Show to create a new touring circus company. It has festival bookings confirmed for 2001, as well as a run at a leading London venue-following the success of Cirque Éloize and Circus Oz on the theatre circuit. The working title for the new show is Storm – intended as a thematic starting point for the devising process, which will happen under the guidance of artistic director Pierrot Bidon, previously of Archaos. Dome Show designer Mark Fisher is also on board, and producer Paul Cockle is gathering a team of assistant directors who will work with Bidon on the creation of the content of the show. One of these assistant directors may well be Matt Costain, who played Skyboy, the male lead in the Dome Show, until a shoulder injury put him out of action.

"I have no desire to return to nightclubs with my trapeze on my shoulder, looking for fifty quid and all the beer I can drink.”

Now out of the show, Costain has time to reflect on the past year and on opportunities coming up in 2001. ‘I think in common with many performers in the Dome Show, I feel that after some time working on such a huge project, I am ready for something more intimate,' he says. ‘I have been drawn to projects where the emphasis is on the personal rather than the epic. By the same token, I have no desire to return to a life of knocking on doors, small-scale profit, and turning up at nightclubs with my trapeze on my shoulder, looking for fifty quid and all the beer I can drink.'

Costain is in the lucky position of being courted by both producers, Churchill and Cockle, for a role in the two new productions – and he will find it difficult to choose: ‘There are similarities between the two projects, both of which are looking at a convergence of circus and theatre, and both of which are looking at establishing a long term presence in the market place.' And perhaps, most significantly for Costain, both productions are presently on tenterhooks with funding decisions pending. He continues: ‘The Generating Company offers a rolling production and rehearsal structure, looking to employ a full-time ensemble constantly hothousing ideas for inclusion in an evolving show. This is a rare opportunity to create work on a larger scale that is still artist-led and relevant. Mamaloucos is a company that I worked with some years ago and since that time has continued to develop across the whole range of circus considerations, from artistic policy to technical and logistic experience. I wish I could do both. But then I wish I could do everything.’

A lot has changed in the past two years. As Paul Cockle points out, neither of these two projects would have been likely to emerge before then. Cockle is keen to build on the legacy provided by the Dome. It has been an extraordinary time for the one hundred and sixty plus performers in the Dome Show. After an intensive year of training, followed by a year's employment performing up to four hundred shows in the central arena of the Millennium Dome, they are coming to the end of what has been a very long season. For some, enough is enough. ‘I am keen to move on,' says Gisele Edwards. She has loved the training, and enjoyed performing in the show, but wants to be part of something more fulfilling artistically. She will be working in the future with Shunt, the Total Theatre Award-winning theatre company that started life at Central School of Speech and Drama, and although she's very interested in any further opportunities to work with Mamaloucos, she will also be developing her solo act which combines singing and aerial work.

Other Dome Show performers have felt more at ease with the overtly commercial, crowd-pleasing aspects of the show. Bob Collins, whose photo appears on the front cover of the show brochure, has enjoyed the whole experience: 'It's a great spectacle – it succeeds in what it sets out to do.’

If you were lucky enough to catch the show at the right time, it is hard not to agree. At the 3pm performance on the Saturday after the attempted jewel heist, the central arena is full, including all available floor space. The large crowd gives the show what it needs – the energy for the performers to bounce off – almost literally at one point, as aerialists wearing stilts drop over the heads of the excited gang of kids I've got with me. It is moments like these – the interaction between performer and live audience – which Bob feels make the show. It is something that he would like to develop in his own work. Collins has formed a production company, Flybionic, with Alex Poulter and James Roberts, whom he met through the Dome project, together with Vicky McManus. The company have already started performing at parties and clubs, and have a gig lined up for New Year’s Eve at The Verge in Kentish Town. Collins also took part in the CircElation project in Sheffield as a trainee director, which he saw as an exciting opportunity to pursue the possibilities of work that combines circus, dance and theatre.

Like Bob Collins, Laura Pero is a Dome performer who originally trained as a dancer. She is also interested in auditioning for the two major new productions, as well as in developing her own small-scale work. She describes her experiences over the past two years as a 'massive learning curve', and – although a dancer – she tells me how shocked she was by the physical demands of training and performing in a circus show. She is currently part of a group working on a new flying trapeze act under the direction of Andreas Evangelou of The Flying Dudes – a project that also includes 'Domies’ Sophie Oldfield and Helen Ball. Pero is also planning to audition for both the Mamaloucos and Generating Company shows.

Although aerial work seems to be the future for many of the Dome Show performers – hardly surprising considering the emphasis in the show itself – there are some set on a different path. Joe Hull and Emma Insley knew each other before the Dome training begun. They have now worked together for four years, and formed a company called Unbalanced in 1998. They are now creating a new act that combines acrobalance with comedy and character work. 'We'd really like to carry on working with people we met at the Dome,’ they both tell me, reflecting the feeling of bonding and camaraderie that everyone I spoke to felt.

Inevitably, however, members of the Dome Show company will move onto pastures new. I've even heard rumours that one of the performers has already applied to join the police force. But this is an exception. Most will be continuing in circus-theatre or cabaret work using circus skills, which is the wonderful legacy of the Dome training.

This article in the magazine

Issue 12-4
p. 2 - 3