• Shayna Swanson on Inbetweentime

    So I wanted to focus the interview on just one act—Inbetweentime.

    Oh good—that's the one I'm proud of. The only one I'm proud of.

    All your other acts are rubbish?

    Kind of.

    I've had a few other acts that have captured my voice and what I'm trying to say... Like I went through a time when I was making work that was really interesting to me and personal, and then I got really caught up in wanting to get hired and do jobs. So I started trying to make work that was more geared towards that, and I don't think it was very successful because I think people can see through that. Finally I just decided I needed to be true to myself and do the act that I wanted to do instead of the act that everyone else wants to see... so I did my rope act and I guess I've been more successful with that than with any of the other things that I was trying to do before—the things that were fake. So it was kind of a cool thing; when you're true to yourself people are receptive to that.

    When you say it was the act you really wanted to do, do you mean in terms of the technical material or something else?

    Yeah, in terms of technical material and in terms of style and the voice—what it says. I didn't set out to have like, This is what my act means. When I first started developing the act I was thinking, OK I want to make something really pretty, something really beautiful and, you know, in quotes, 'pretty'. And I started working that way and it just wasn't clicking and it wasn't coming together and I realised i'm not a pretty artist, it doesn't work for me. I don't have long arms and long legs; I'm powerful like a gymnast, so I have to make something that's powerful like that. And that's how I've always loved to move. I don't love to move in a dancerly way. I love to move in an aggressive way. So yeah, it's true to that style.

    And with the skills and things in it, they're all really hard and I really like to do things that are really hard. I've never been able to put together an easy act, ever. I've always had to put together acts where I'm exhausted at the end.

    There's still actually harder technical tricks that I'd like to put into it. I'm working on them but I don't know if I'll get there—I keep hurting myself practising them.

    What are they?

    The back salto that I land on the floor—it had always been my attention to take that back to the rope, to catch. And I was practising that and I could always get it—I'd be holding the rope in my hands, but I'd also be standing on the floor because I was afraid to go too high. And I started to like how it looked, just landing on the floor. Because it's like a moment—on the rope doing all the stuff and then BAM, you're on the floor and the rope's right there in front of you.

    And so I started to really like how that looked, but now I want to get it back to the rope, just to have it. I'm also working on like a one-arm backflip—a dislocate kind of thing to catch the rope—and some more of the toe stuff that I do.

    The toe stuff is obviously drawing from Mallakhamb movements—I was interested whether you actually went and studied it...

    I haven't studied it in India but I've taken a few workshops with a teacher from India when he came to America. It was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at this theatre called the Peñasco Theatre—this place in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, and for some reason there's a theatre there with a lot of circus performers.

    The aggressive style you mentioned earlier—what's been the evolution of that? Looking back to Nightmare, the latest act has elements of that but kind of a broader expressive range.

    Well, Inbetweentime is a much longer act, but Nightmare was really the beginning of my investigation into this sort of thing—it was like the very first step. And I couldn't do a quarter of the things I can do with my toes now, then. That act was put together in the context of a larger show, which I was the director of, so I was focusing on like a hundred things and had like two hours to work on the act.

    Actually, like two three years ago I came to Europe and I trained at Katakomben in Berlin, and I trained there for about a week, just by myself. And I didn't really know anybody and I'm kind of shy when I don't speak the same language as people. So that's where that act, the current act, started coming together—it's was like three years in the making.

    Then I performed the act in Germany—I got a contract and I worked there for two months and it was just like a total mindfuck. I'd been so sure of myself and so confident, thinking that I was a good artist, and then I went over there and the audiences were so different from at home. At home they just go nuts when you do anything; you touch the rope and they go crazy. And in Germany they're very quiet; at the end they applaud politely.

    And I couldn't get any agents to come and look at my act—they were like, There are so many rope acts we don't even need to see another. And people, other artists, are also very comfortable giving you their opinion there. So I was getting a lot of like, Your costume is awful, Your music is awful, You really need to change this and that.

    So I went home and I changed it. I had new music written, which was my biggest circus purchase ever—I cant even believe I did that!—and then I made a new costume that's much more aggressive.

    I really like it. I feel like those criticisms helped me refine what I was trying to say and make it more clear. I also think that when people go to variety they just want to be entertained, you know? Like, Don't make me think, just show me something cool. That act was like a woman dressed in kind of a feminine outfit doing these incredibly aggressive movements, and I think it just confused people a little bit. So now I've got kind of a more aggressive outfit to go with it. Do you want to see a video?

    What you're saying about audience response—I wanted to know how you felt about the audience clapping midway through the act, clapping every trick.

    I think it's like a cultural thing—it's just what you're used to growing up, and maybe also your background. Like I was a gymnast, so I did tricks and I wanted people to clap, but a dancer wouldn't be used to it.

    That was a really intense audience too—they were like ready to see some circus and ready to clap their asses off. It's cool to perform like that, but you get so spoiled. Like in my space [The Aloft Loft], we do a cabaret every month, El Circo Cheapo Cabaret, and the audience there are the same: they go berserk, they go nuts, they love everything. I wanted that cabaret to be a place to workshop and get an idea of what the audience is into, but they're so into everything that it's hard to get critical feedback from them.

    Mostly I like getting the applause; I feel like it gives me more energy and I'm getting energy from the audience. But I know a lot of artists that don't like that.

    So you were in the Cirkus Prinsessan competition...

    I wasn't in it. I didn't go.

    Oh, I see. You were in the video rounds?

    Yeah, yeah. I was in the voting.

    But you know what happened? It was a total scam—they never paid the winner her prize money, 5000 Euros. They never paid her. They were supposed to reimburse a lot of artists for travel expenses as well and they never did. And there was no heating in the tent and it was like November in Stockholm. Now they're doing another one.

    I was sort of hoping for like a jolly story or something. You know... went to Stockholm, had a great time, was crowned princess. Whatever.


    OK, well, moving on. You were talking about making a piece that achieved your vision, and I was wondering if you could express exactly what that is.

    I like to make work that's gritty. And sort of that doesn't beat around the bush about things. It's not like literal work; it can be really abstract, but it doesn't exist just to paint a pretty picture. Like the first show I ever did—it was called Rolling Blackouts and it was about a hypothetical situation where a city loses power and with that power loses basically all communication with the outside world. So sort of people having to come together and actually having to interact on a human level again. It's really interesting because I started writing that show in like July or something, five years ago, and in the course of writing the show there was Hurricane Katrina where that exact thing happened. And we actually had a friend of ours who was living in New Orleans and she ended up coming to Chicago and being in the show, and she was like, Wow this show really hits the nail on the head for what that experience is like. So it really made me happy that I was able to achieve what I had set out to do—express the feeling of panic, and then connection, and then in the end just going back to how you were. Like you have all this technology and stuff back and you forget about the lessons that you've learned and the connections you've made.

    Driving it back to Inbetweentime, even though it's a shorter piece and perhaps more abstract, was there something you were particularly reaching for, or some metaphorical basis for the act?

    Yeah, sure. Um...

    There is, but you've forgotten it.

    Seriously. It's like so long ago... um... Oh! I remember! The rope is a timeline, which is why it's called Inbetweentime, and in the first version of the act when I walk out on the rope it was sort of like leaving this part of your life—leaving your comfort zone and moving towards something risky that can possibly bring you great benefit, but possibly cause you great detriment. And you don't know which it is, but you can either stay where you are or you can move forward and take that risk. So the act is like about walking down the rope and then stepping on the rope; the first step is like that moment of Am I going to do this? Really? And then I turn around and look back and I could go back and not hurt my toes real bad—but no, and I'm climbing the rope. And the top of the rope is like your success. So I'm climbing the rope and getting so close to that success and then I'm falling and climbing the rope, getting so close, falling again, so frustrating. And then when I do the backflip off to the floor it snaps me back to having to make that decision again. Do I give up or do I go back up? And in the end I ultimately go back up and fall one last time, but I don't fall all the way down and it leaves me kind of hovering. That's what that act's about.

    Shayna Swanson performs around the world as a solo artist, and is the founder and artistic director of the circus company Aloft. She runs classes and workshops and the regular cabaret night El Circo Cheapo out of her own space, The Aloft Loft, in uptown Chicago. Here in England, 6-8 September she'll be giving a three-day masterclass at Greentop as part of Transform, then 9 & 10 September she'll be running four shorter classes at the NoFit State annexe.

    She was interviewed 28 August 2010 in the clattery interior of Cafeteria on Charing Cross Road.

    Artists: Aloft, Shayna Swanson
    Skills: Corde Lisse

    Stay informed with Sideshow's monthly newsletter:

    - Example newsletter -