What a good place to be! Last Friday saw the city’s Freedom Festival festivities commence, and as the sun flooded Hull’s streets with its glorious rays, so did eager visitors to the festival. Lucy takes us through the events of the first weekend of Hull’s acclaimed annual arts festival, as she met with some of the most pivotal artists of the festival season…

On Friday the 26th of August, nine-days of festival fun began! For many, the festival was the ideal place to spend the last bank holiday weekend of the year, as crowds wandered around the plethora of events available throughout the city. Whether visitors flocked to Ferens Art Gallery, Humber Street, Hull New Theatre, or the Museum Quarter, the first Friday of the festival was a triumph and unforgettable for many. Hull and scorching late-summer sunshine on a bank holiday definitely isn’t a regular occurrence, but the weatherman blessed the city and the Freedom Festival team couldn’t have been more grateful. Enough about the weather though, because there was one event in particular that took the opening day to completely new heights - literally!

It goes without saying that one of the most anticipated performances of this year’s festival has been Gravity and Other Myths’ production of BACKBONE, following the brilliant success of their show A Simple Space back in 2018. Having suffered the loss of worldwide touring during the pandemic, the Australian contemporary circus company has bounced back victoriously with their latest production, and Hull had the pleasure of hosting the troupe for the opening night launch event at the New Theatre. Their journey over to Humberside was anything but smooth sailing, as the tour crew bus broke down in Germany only a day before the show was due to be performed at 7:30pm on the Friday! Nevertheless, the troupe managed to overcome this considerably major inconvenience and still stun spectators with a breath-taking preview of their award-winning production.

Though, what exactly does it take to successfully create a performance that makes audiences question the limits of bravery, human physicality, and strength? I had the pleasure of delving into the life of a Gravity and Other Myths (or GOM) acrobat, as I talked to Megan Giesbrecht and Kevin Beverley of the troupe.

After wandering around the maze of the backstage area at Hull New Theatre, I ponder upon Megan and her daughter Bird frantically sorting through their suitcases and the company’s flight cases before showtime. Touring around the world for six months at a time is no easy feat, let alone also bringing your little-one on tour, but it seems Giesbrecht has mastered the balancing act of a mother/acrobat beautifully as little Bird appears to love every second of following her mom in the spot-light. Meeting artists as their most authentic selves in raw moments like these is what makes my job so rewarding, and even after my first acquaintance with the GOM performers I feel extremely at ease. We wander through to the main auditorium of the theatre to meet Kevin, and sit before a stage with set designs slowly being constructed as we begin to engage in conversation. Before becoming such a prominent member of the troupe, Beverley had already been extremely impressed with the standard of performance, which he explains after previewing BACKBONE four years ago: “I was kind of floored because this tiny company from Australia could have made a new show that was very similar to the last (A Simple Space) and kept it easy, but they decided to take risks and do things that as a company they haven’t done before, and I found that so brave and very daring.” Of course, with every theatrical performance whether circus or not, there is always the fear of repetition. However, one of the most prevalent attributes of GOM is their ability to continue to defy what may be deemed impossible and completely subvert audiences’ expectations, even in the eyes of hardship such as the pandemic in 2020.

“I think that as an artist we’re used to fluctuations, but the reality that no one in our industry at all was working was a uniquely scary thing,” explains Giesbrecht on her experience during lockdown, “because it wasn’t like, ‘I don’t have work right now,’ it was, ‘circus doesn’t have work.’” For the arts, Covid-19 didn’t just permit artists from earning a living, for many it also became an incredibly damaging hindrance to creativity. Though, if there was any group of role-models that demonstrated the power of persistence during this time, it’s GOM; despite the fact that Beverley and Giesbrecht were forced to live in America whilst the rest of the troupe resided in Australia during this period, their art became their saving grace. “You know like, when we lost our income we all couldn’t stop moving and I think that’s the difference between doing something you love or doing something you have to do,” she reflects, “when there’s no income, there’s no applause, there’s no beautiful lights and costumes, you still do it and I think that was really grounding for me actually during the time.” When the two were able to rejoin the circus company in Australia, after five months of working remotely, the two acrobats recount that as a troupe they “created some of the most beautiful work we’ve ever seen, and really used that period as growth.”

Having previewed BACKBONE on the opening night of the festival and compared it to the other events occurring during the festival season, there is no doubt that the themes of strength and power have been integral focal points for artists during each piece’s creation. There is no better demonstration of this than GOM’s production, which I interpreted as a physical representation of the Freudian concept of the battle between the ID, the Ego and the Superego, especially considering the repeated motif of the buckets of sand being thrown across the stage alongside acrobats pouncing and somersaulting off of one another. However, the company invites audiences to draw as many conclusions about the central arc of the piece as possible, as Beverley explains: “The show is definitely elusive, and the backbone is the vertebrae so it holds everything together representing strength, but this could be interpreted into all different kinds of contexts like the pieces of wood and the rocks we bring out on stage to the towers we build on top of one another.” Ultimately, the production’s intended central focus lies in its humanistic elements, with each section connected regardless of how contrasting those sections may appear. For instance, one of the most jaw-droppingly dangerous stunts, the four-high, opens the show, as Beverley acknowledges, “People don’t really perform four-highs without a belt on because they’re so so so dangerous, so we hit the show off strong,” but even with the extreme exhaustion mentally and physically that arises with performance of this kind, Beverley states that, “any time we are maybe getting tired and overreacting, we always get notes to just be yourself,” and this definitely shines through.

Throughout history, circus has not always necessarily been favoured by different arts communities and cultures, but as a contemporary circus troupe GOM are trying to rewrite the stereotype and use the art form as a reflection of humanity rather than a form of extravagant escapism like it has traditionally been associated with. There are no bearded ladies, lions and tigers, or florid costumes as far as BACKBONE is concerned, but this begs the question of what is art? Should art be defined through beauty, or is it time that we explored our initial presuppositions of art through a completely different lens? “There is a piece of us, as humans, that sees the majesty or the fairytale and we relate to it on some childish level or maybe some fantasy level,” explains Giesbrecht, “but then you see something like BACKBONE and what it’s doing is specifically not taking you to a hyper reality, it’s saying here we are on the same ground, breathing the same air, the same people just like you and we are showing you a facet of this same space as a reflection and asking what you think of it.” This is true for many of the company’s other productions, which is perhaps why they have had such a fantastic impact on arts communities worldwide, but couldn’t be more true of this particular performance. Although the use of hang-me-downs from thrift shops as costumes exemplifies this aspect of the show, the section that depicts Giesbrecht wearing a grey suit whilst swaying side-to-side with a rock in her hands on the shoulders of her fellow acrobats, is perhaps the most extremely powerful demonstration of humanism in the whole production. Whether the artistic director intended to use this scene to physically portray the weight of the world on a working-woman is only one interpretation, but Giesbrecht’s harrowing performance has definitely stayed with me since.

Ultimately, the production has reaped nothing but immense success since it first previewed in 2018, but Hull couldn’t be more grateful to have opened Freedom Festival with an unforgettable display of acrobatic mastery. Since its launch in 2008, I’m sure many can agree that the festival has never delivered a show that is as mystifying and electrifying as BACKBONE. Drawing our conversation to a close, I ask Beverley and Giesbrecht what they wish for their audience to take from their performance, and their response proves that audience connection really is at the heart of why they continue to do what they do. “We get to come out to the audience after the show either in the lobby or in the theatre to say goodbye to everyone and just thank them for coming, and I often get people - like every time they see the show - I get one comment about our connection to each other as a troupe,” reflects Beverley, “and I find that really special because GOM as a company is really like a family at the end of the day, and if that group connection that we have extends to the audience, then just having that intimate reaction with one person or maybe a family really means a lot to me.” The two are no stranger to receiving completely contrasting abstract responses to their performances, but as Giesbrecht acknowledges: “Most of the time we’re told to find our own connection to the piece, so if someone comes up and asks, ‘was that what you were doing’, you know it doesn’t really matter if it’s a yes or no - to me it’s really cool that that’s what they saw, and I actually love when people come up to me after the show and do that.”

Whatever audiences may have taken from this weekend’s performance, one thing is for certain that this family of movement mavericks are masters of their trade. As performers’ bodies twisted and contorted, whilst being tossed into the air to create calligraphic swirls, I couldn’t help but feel immensely emotional about the spectacle before my eyes. Hull New Theatre could not have been a better location for the event, with its almost circular seating layout and grandiose atmosphere, and in that hour and twenty minutes the impossible was seamlessly transformed into the possible. If BACKBONE is only the beginning for this year’s Freedom Festival, then I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week has in store for visitors! I cannot thank Gravity and Other Myths for delivering a spell-binding performance that will remain with me forever…

Words by Lucy Tessier

Images by Lucy Tessier and Tom Arran