Mother and Daughter Flying

Feature in Issue 22-3 | Autumn 2010

Director, site-specific theatre maker, aerialist, mother… Daniela Essart from Scarabeus reflects on how she reconciles parenthood with her artistic career.

In 1988 my partner Søren Nielsen and I formed Scarabeus with a vision to make site-responsive multi-disciplinary aerial and visual theatre performance in unusual places. In 1999 (when the company was eleven years old) we had a child together. The birth of Naissa made me realise that being a mother is the most important thing in my life and work. This is the story of how the company’s artistic practice has changed since the birth of our daughter, and how having a child has enhanced and enlightened our work.

Over the years the company has created some amazing projects, both touring shows and large scale site-responsive aerial commissions for major UK festivals; as well as dipping abroad to Shanghai for the First Grand Prix of China, abseiling the mountains around Belo Horizonte in Brazil, taking over a castle in my native North Italy, and ‘flying’ (aerial dance/creative abseiling) from a satellite dish in Trinidad…

But after more than a decade of touring, the birth of Naissa brought substantial changes, as it became increasingly more difficult to balance the demands of being an artist and a parent. Not least were the practical considerations such as: how do you tour when you have a child at school? Here we had our best ‘project’ ever, not a Scarabeus project, but a personal one: how to reconcile the needs of the child and those of the company?

Naissa had been attending the Archway Children’s Centre for over a year when the headteacher Nassou Christou, a visionary woman with whom we have collaborated ever since, commissioned us to devise a pilot programme for pre-school children, aimed at boosting selfesteem and confidence in taking risks, and inspired by the theatre and circus techniques we employ in our performances. She already had the funding and four centres in Islington lined up for the programme! It was fantastic, the programme was very successful; and we ended up with a lot of happy children, a network of parents very interested in us, both as parents and artists, and a number of schools wanting to access the project and to see it adapted it for primary schools. This was the beginning of our journey into creative learning.

Part of our work has become more local. Søren and I moved the Scarabeus base from Circus Space in Hoxton to Hargrave Park School, a primary school in Archway near where we live, and we started to focus more on our community, wanting to invest in it and make it better and safer for future generations (including for our daughter); and to refocus our activities, by devising and developing engagement and participation projects with children and young people, and their families.

Exciting and high quality participation and engagement work for young people and families has now become integral to what we do, applying our knowledge of yoga, theatre and aerial skills to creating amazing projects in the community – an example being the creation of a site-specific aerial theatre production based on Luis Sepulveda’s book The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly which was staged in various areas of the school including the arts workshop, the school corridor, an outside junk area, and the main hall for the flying scenes. The production was created with the staff, looking at various techniques to implement creativity within the curriculum and promote tolerance towards differences in multicultural schools.

With a group of students at Chingford Foundation School, we explored the theme of the rise of violence and disengagement amongst teenagers. Rob, one of the participants, expressed the soul of the project better than I can do: ‘When I first heard about the Beyond Flying project, I thought I would just be learning about performing on harnesses. But during the project, everything changed and I mean everything. The way I perform, the way I express my views as an artist, have all changed… it’s shown me that a lot of us need to speak out more and say what’s wrong.’

Recently we have been proud to have run two substantial 2012 Skills Fund Projects with Redbridge and Newham Councils, training young people in aerial, stilt skills, and physical theatre – and giving them employment support so that they have the confidence and skills to gain long-term employment in the arts or other industries. We are also training young professionals, supporting their career development.

A particularly important project for us is Airborne Families, our parents and children programme which runs in Islington once a week for eight to ten weeks. Families come because they are curious about physical theatre and attracted to the idea of ‘flying’, as well as enjoying a bit of yoga! The programme is aimed at strengthening the bond between parent and child, allowing them to connect them at a deeper level, and to have special time together.

Airborne Families was originally devised a few years ago, when my mother was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. I felt during the journey when I was preparing to let go of her in this life that I wanted and needed to nurture even further the bond with her and with my own daughter, and stimulate other mothers and daughters to find ways of being together that create joy in our daily life. Mothers & Daughters Fly! was part of my artistic research and development process towards Shimadai - When Orchids Fly!, a site-responsive outdoor promenade piece performed in forests around the UK (the name taken from a Japanese variety of orchids). The piece explored my relationship with my (by then) late mother, and its epic cast featured three generations of women – performers in voluminous gowns hanging suspended from trees, and included a fully functional overhead kitchen…

I felt I had a number of very unusual techniques to offer to the participants, and in exchange I wanted their stories. I wanted to access their deep connection and find a way to reproduce it in a large-scale promenade performance; the intimate moments and the love we want to shout about to everyone. Our best pieces are born of our greatest joy and loss – and my daughter Naissa is one of my most faithful and critical collaborators!

We are still continuing to do exciting performance work: so far in 2010 we have created commissions for the Fuse Medway Festival and The Big Dance. Heartland, created through a collaboration with CandoCo integrated dance company and young people’s writer Nicky Singer, recently (September 2010) opened at Liberty Festival and filled me with the excitement and anxiety that new shows do. Sometimes it’s not easy: last year the balance shifted too far towards the engagement programmes and much less towards performance. It’s times like this that I start to panic, and must remind myself that I still have a lot to express as an artist… but on the whole, these days, I enjoy the process of transformation that happens hidden in school halls as much as I enjoy performing to hundreds of spectators, with the glory and pride that comes with that.

Often when walking on the weird and urban Holloway Road, in my local neighborhood, where both vehicles and people go at a considerable speed day and night, I am stopped and hugged by children and parents who have been ‘doing Scarabeus.’ It’s my community, the one where I live, where I create work – and it’s where I belong the most.

Daniela Essart is Artistic Director of Scarabeus Theatre, which she co-founded with Søren Nielsen.

Scarabeus Theatre are one of the foremost exponents of multidisciplinary aerial performance. They create performances outside conventional spaces using physical theatre, stilts, abseiling, dance and acrobatics – with sites ranging from the Natural History Museum in London to a giant satellite dish in Trinidad.

Past touring shows have included Hajar, Arboreal, Landscapes, Al Amor del Agua, and Shimadai. They have received commissions from: Greenwich & Docklands Festival, Winchester Hat Fair, Brighton Festival, Salisbury Festival, The Baltic in Newcastle Gateshead, Newham Olympic Torch Relay, and the launch of the Cultural Olympiad in Barking and Dagenham. They have also created many one-off site-specific projects in the UK and abroad.

Some of Scarabeus’ work in schools (including Keys Meadow Primary in Enfield and Hargrave Park Primary in Islington) has been funded by Creative Partnership North. For more on Creative Partnerships see

Airborne Families in Islington is funded by the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund.

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 22-3
p. 14 - 15