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Fitzrovia Radio and Cantina

It being the last weekend of the London Wonderground festival, I thought I would stock myself up until next season by going to two shows one after the other.

The delectable Fitzrovia Radio Hour, upon whom I have written many times before, were first with a new show fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe. I was very excited to see them in the charmingly old-fashioned spiegeltent, which could reflect their dapper cast in all their retro glory in its many cut mirrors.

Needless to say, as usual I laughed myself silly while admiring the skilled deployment of both extraordinary and everyday items to produce often unexpected sound effects. Compared to the previous show I saw this one included a lot more on the characters themselves on top of the sketches in the show-within-a-show, running at a slightly faster pace and breaking into five-alarm pandemonium at the end. Plus, due to some engineered derailment, we finally got to find out what is going on in the mental depths of the perpetually muttering Tom Mallaburn. All I can say is, if you see him coming, smile and humor the man whilst backing away slowly. And try to avoid eye contact. (Lovely cape, however.)

Following this was the much-talked about Cantina, a circus performance of truly astonishing range, grace and thoughtfulness.

As a fan, I can only say how splendid both shows were. I am an unabashed admirer of both performances, and truly amazed by the skill of both sets of performers. I will happily turn up any time they are setting out their stage in my vicinity.

But it was watching the two shows juxtaposed against one another that spurred my anthropologist hat into service.

Both Fitzrovia Radio Hour and Cantina share an aesthetic veneer of the 1940s. As I watched I began to think about the use of the past to say that which we are forbidden to say, or to enhance that which loses meaning when presented in a direct fashion. All storytellers know that the past can give freedoms that the present does not often afford us, because when presented through the comfy cushion of the passage of time no idea can be too challenging, nothing strikes too close to the bone. What is being presented is not about us, not really, it’s about them in the past. Except that even through all that lovely cushioning, the uncomfortable touch of doubt remains: it is about us. Throw on all the lights and we’d probably see more of ourselves than we wished. But mercifully the past protects us; it allows the question to be dimmed, and dulled, and brought down to a pragmatic size. Fitzrovia Radio Hour has the added balm of humor to allow them to slip an extra sting of social commentary in while we laugh merrily.

Among its other presentations of circus arts Cantina involves a series of beautifully compelling acrobatic vignettes between its performers, including one duet where a pair of dancer/acrobats enact a dark sort of love scene: he pushes her around like a puppet; her movements follow his, they are manipulated and constrained by his. If you know me personally or if you know my work, you will know why I found this scene disturbing to watch. But it was also superlatively beautiful. And this raised for me the question of what we are supposed to do about the beautiful which disturbs us.

And how often are we permitted to ask that question?

While not one I think we get to ask very much in everyday life, this is a question I struggled with a great deal during my PhD while I considered how to approach old Orientalist paintings and photos, which all contributed to a narrative of the Arab world that was damaging to the people who lived there in many ways (for more on this see the endlessly raging debates about Orientalism, such as this anthology by Judy Mabro…off you go). Yet many of the images when considered in isolation were undeniably beautiful. My anthropologist’s eye does not permit me to view anything in isolation (and, indeed, it prompts me to question those who try to do so and draw them into a more reflective mode of thinking) but neither can I ignore charm or attraction where I find it. How to resolve such a dilemma?

Cantina resolved it by eventually divesting the male acrobat of the majority of his clothing and having a woman walk (dance, balance) all over him in very high heels as the act continued. Then she hit him over the head several times with a tray. Well, that’s alright then.

And in fact, the puppet-master relationship continued as a theme in the show, with several configurations of performers. It may have been a conscious commentary on traditional gender expectations between young lovers or it may have been intended for an entirely different purpose, but what it turned out not to be was an unthinking reference to women as bodies upon whom scenes are enacted rather than free and full agents with power to push as well as to be pushed. So as my understanding of the show deepened I was given a new perspective that allowed deeper and richer meanings to emerge.

Cantina is a particularly good show for thinking about circus arts as an exploration of the darker recesses of the soul, in part because of its deliberate calling upon another era. The spiegeltent certainly plays its role effectively, transporting us back into a time when running away with the circus really meant something. When the special status of circus performers as outsiders, as those who traveled from town to town at odd hours while most of the world stayed put and lived regular, and indeed regulated lives, was much more apparent than it is now. When circus people were both adored and reviled in equal measure.

This is something that strikes a chord with the way that many dancers working in Egypt currently describe their work environment (discussed in my book): they are celebrated on the stage, but the social consequences of their profession are dire. The attitude towards them is highly dualistic, with desire to see them perform and moral judgment of their work being equally strong social influences.

Though it has never been this for me, I am aware that for some belly dance is a space to explore darkness. What I have always believed is that for many people dance serves as a space outside ordinary life to explore parts of ourselves that we are not permitted to access, for one reason or another, during the grind of the everyday. Watching both Cantina and Fitzrovia Radio Hour, for me, shares that quality: being a spectator to such performances is not a space to get outside the self but rather to connect to parts of the self that are generally obscured (though always there). What a wonderful thing to be offered, especially in the particular magic of the spiegeltent.