It’s Monday morning and the circus troupe is well into in the first workshop of the week. A young woman in a harness turns slow midair somersaults in the high-ceilinged brick studio. A drummer in a wheelchair idly spins a stick between his fingers between bursts of frenetic drumming, while a translator explains something in sign language to a group of performers. A large red hoop hangs in the center of the room, and occasionally a performer lowers themselves onto it as casually as they would an armchair and is hoisted towards the ceiling.
This is Extraordinary Bodies, a London-based circus company that delights audiences while challenging conceptions about what disabled people are capable of. The troupe is made up of a revolving group of able-bodied and disabled performers, musicians and artists, and aims to represent the diverseness of society. Some performers are veterans: one has sung with the National Opera, while some are just starting their career. Today they’re practicing in a studio a stone’s throw from the venerable Old Vic Theatre.
For the last few weeks, the troupe’s been workshopping around the UK, working with communities to share circus and music skills while exploring the theme of worth for their next show: What am I worth?
Performer Sarah Hoboult says the theme is a timely one. “It’s something that needs to be talked about at the moment. We have divisions about what people are worth that are scary and sad. Finding the value in ourselves is one of the hardest things to find in your lifetime.”
“Finding the value in ourselves is one of the hardest things to find in your lifetime.”
Sarah is an Australian Paralympian-swimmer-turned-circus performer who has traveled from Sydney to workshop with the group, helping performers develop their acts and make the show accessible so everyone can engage with its themes.
The thirty-four-year-old was born with Hallermann-Streiff syndrome, which affects bone structure. She’s also legally blind. Standing at around four foot seven, the performer says her unique look attracts attention, which she embraces onstage.
“The world isn’t used to seeing people like me. People remember me in a performance because of how I look. I enjoy that, and I can’t shy away from that.”
Sarah says lack of sight gives her an advantage in her specialty, which is aerials and acrobatics.
“Circus is very tactile, you’re always holding an object: a trapeze bar, a hula hoop or another person’s body. A poor-sighted person has an advantage as we can read things quicker. The goal is to move with your feeling. I know how to feel, so I can create a more visceral experience for the audience.”
Circus is very tactile, you’re always holding an object: a trapeze bar, a hula hoop or another person’s body. A poor-sighted person has an advantage as we can read [these] things quicker
The intuitive performer says rather than use her distinctive look to confront, she prefers to walk alongside her audience, guiding them on a journey. “I know that I’m noticeable onstage and that people are challenged by that. When I first get on stage people say, ‘huh? Who is this person?’ So I will start with a sitting position, or I’m still for a minute, and it gives people a moment to take me in.”
Offstage, her appearance means people can have low expectations of her, or think she’s fragile, or sick. “I’m nothing like that, I’m very strong. One review of a performance I did started out saying, ‘who is this frail, diminutive person?’ But as it went on it was, ‘oh my gosh, she is really strong and skilled.’”
Sarah describes herself as “natural born freak,” and a “carnie”. These terms that recall latter-day freak shows might seem pejorative. However, Sarah’s keen to reclaim them. “It’s important to own your past. The philosophy of the freak show is to use what you’ve got, which is integral to circus.”
Sarah says the world is crying out for diversity, and that audiences are ready to embrace differences. “There’s a deep sense of urgency to tell our stories, we want to get ourselves out there. Art has the power to shift the world.”
“One review of a performance I did started out saying, ‘who is this frail, diminutive person?’ But as it went on it was, ‘oh my gosh, she is really strong and skilled.’”
Overhead, the woman in the harness stops her slow somersaulting and reaches for a dangling microphone. “Eye color”, she speaks into it. “Height. Languages spoken.” There is a flurry of signing and performers arrange and rearrange themselves into order, exploring their perceived worth: the value society places on them according to these attributes.
Drummer Jonathan Leitch is new to the circus world. Assessing his own worth has been “complicated”, and something he’s been mulling over since he started working with the troupe. “I started with a question mark … but working [with Extraordinary Bodies] has opened my eyes. I have ended up thinking my worth is happiness: of others, of myself. That’s what everyone’s worth, how happy you are and everyone else is.”
Jonathan grew up drumming on every available surface, and after a lengthy session where he drummed along to the Queen song We Will Rock You all over the house, his mum cracked and offered him lessons. Since graduating university, the twenty-three-year-old works as a sound engineer, composer and drummer for theatre productions. He got into theatre almost by chance after a suggestion from one of his lecturers, and fell in love with the heady, often chaotic world of live performance.
Drummers are usually on the edge of the action but working with circus performers often places Jonathan right in the centre. “In one session, we had to get one person from A to B without touching the ground, I just planted myself right in the middle of that, so I had to make sure this person was off the ground while I was frantically playing the drums.”
“Working [with Extraordinary Bodies] has opened my eyes. I have ended up thinking my worth is happiness.”
Jonathan’s been paralyzed since birth, when an ischemic event interrupted blood circulation to his spine. During day-to-day life, Jonathan says he “just gets on with it”.
“I’m very independent, my upper body is very strong and I just get on with everything.”
Like Sarah, he finds that whether he’s willing or not, he is often faced with challenging people’s perceptions. “I am always just trying to, maybe without even realizing it, change people’s depictions of me. I just realized this recently but I look more serious when I’m walking down the street people don’t ask me if I’m okay.”
Questions are fine, but don’t expect a polite reply if your opening remark is about his disability, Jonathan says. “Curiosity is normal. Sometimes I’ll stare at someone with the same disability symptoms as me. But I don’t like the first comment to be, oh, you’re disabled. I’m not weird, I’m just like everybody else.”
Jonathan believes perceptions about disabled people and their capabilities are changing. “The views are still there of disability being a negative thing, but from being at school and seeing kids now, the adults will look at me but the kids don’t react. Maybe it’s more inclusive or you see more [disabled people] on TV so people know it’s just a part of life.”
His experience working with circus performers has been eye-opening, especially its potential for physicality. “All these art forms coming together in such an open platform is amazing. You can do what you want: fly around, or do this do that. It is so inspiring to work and create alongside that.”
Working with the circus has left him thinking about exploring more movement within his drumming. “Throwing sticks in the air, playing with drumsticks on fire, or stick tricks, I’m always open to making things bigger and better.”
Jonathan says drumming is a way to come out of his shell. “I can be shy person in real life, but onstage behind a drum kit, I can be expressive and as loud as I want. It’s such an awesome feeling. Having the ability to make something is a great feeling.”
In the centre of the studio the performers continue to discuss their worth. “Number of sexual partners,” someone says. “Skin color,” signs another, hands flying emphatically. Someone cracks a joke, and laughter rings loudly around the studio. The drums start up and the performers drift into smaller groups to practice circus tricks. Celebrating the bodies they were born with, the circus troupe spins, twists and tumbles its way into a performance that’s