Circus strong lady explores power and weakness
- Credit: Sean Longmore
The strong lady has long been a circus staple but in her latest show, contemporary artist Charmaine Childs goes behind the tassels and phonebook tearing to examine the nature of strength.
Uplifting, funny and moving, Power runs January 28-30 at Jacksons Lane as part of the London International Mime Festival and features voice-over interviews with a range of people describing when they "felt really powerful".
Combining her own story with their responses, Childs performs impressive physical feats while exploring how striving to be in control often sees us at our weakest - while accepting uncertainty and finding strength in our wobbles can find us at our most powerful.
"We were just about to start creating the show when everything shut down and it went on the shelf for five months," explains the Australian.
"But that space was a gift. It let me step back. The themes are about uncertainty and not being able to control everything and Covid gave me a whole new perspective on that."
Childs' interviews uncovered "moving" stories when showing vulnerability and reaching out for help became powerful moments.
"It's powerful to show people the ways they can hurt you but realise you are going to be fine," she says.
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"The thread running through it is how the times we are flailing or don't know what to do are the moments when we are strongest - when we struggled and kept going, took the next step and came through it. We're bound to end up feeling powerless if we try to control everything because we can't. What we can control is how we take the next step."
Much of Childs' previous work was for outdoor festivals, so being directed for an indoor show was new and involved revealing her own vulnerability - and learning new tricks.
"It was tempting to only tell other people's stories but (director) Emma Bernard said it was ungenerous not to be vulnerable too and share mine. It was a risk that worked amazingly well. Usually I build a show around spectacular tricks, but this time I built it around the stories and chose a trick that amplified the strength in that story.
"When it became clear that handstands would be the best way to physicalise a story I had to learn - in my 40s - how to hold a freestanding handstand. For another I learned how to balance heavy objects on my hand and head. The peril of big tricks raises the stakes of the stories and it was important that they had a real pay off."
Childs first encountered circus aged 15 and went on to study theatre at university.
"I was strong as a teen and at a workshop I discovered I was a good base to lift other people," she says. "One thing that kept coming up as an actor was that I wouldn't get much work because I was too fat and needed to lose weight. But in circus my size and strength were what made me in demand. The amazing thing about circus is the thing that makes you different makes you special."
And she loves how it engages a wide range of audiences.
"There's something equalising about tricks, even kids can watch something and see what's going on. It opens the door wide for people to enjoy."
Her introduction to Strong Lady acts was seeing a "90s trucker chick smashing beer cans on her head".
"I realised that tough, brash persona wasn't me."
But nor were the glamourous strong ladies like the late Belsize Park legend Joan Rhodes - or "Mighty Mannequin" - who wore tight sequinned bodices.
"That hyper feminising perhaps made their strength more palatable," she muses. "When I was young girls were told you are either tough, capable and practical or little, feminine and fragile but I wanted to marry elegance and gentleness with strong tricks, to be strong and soft in one moment. It's great that people have the freedom to be whatever combination of flavours they want."
The London International Mime Festival runs from January 12 to February 6, including marionette show The Red Balloon at the Puppet Theatre Barge, Little Venice, Gandini Juggling at Sadler's Wells, Theatre Re's Bluebelle at Shoreditch Town Hall, Big Boys Don't Cry at Jacksons Lane, and Aurélien Bory's dance theatre at the Barbican.