Grounded with Claire Crook
Currently living in Kinloss, Moray in the North East of Scotland, I moved in September in what seemed like a slightly random fashion, from Sheffield where I was based for over 10 years. I have wanted to move to Scotland for a while, and got to that “now or never” moment. Relocating in the middle of a pandemic has its challenges, but I’m happy that I have moved.
Professionally, I describe myself variously as an aerialist, circus performer, circus theatre artist, aerial teacher, rigger, or as a circus ragamuffin. Definitely an aerialist, aerial has been my main circus skill throughout my career and of the all the aerial skills I either do or have done, rope is my first and enduring love.
I have also trained and performed acrobatics, handstands, hula hoops, fire skills and stilt walking as well as a few flirtations with other skills. I teach aerial and work as a circus rigger, often touring in productions where I perform and rig as I like to be slightly too busy and earn a little bit more! It also makes me very employable. These days I am more drawn to creating circus theatre performances and using my skills within theatrical contexts, a lot of my work combines text with aerial.
How we started doing aerial is something we get asked a lot, when people ask me, this is the story I tell (although I’m not sure its quite how things happened):
I started doing aerial by accident, I was at Glastonbury Festival in the late 1990’s back in the days when you could still jump the fence, with a group of friends from university. I think I had already played around with a few things, busking and fire swinging and maybe doing a bit of crap acro balance. Anyway, I had a go on a trapeze at Glastonbury and enjoyed it. It ignited something in me, it was a physical challenge that I could have fun with, and I felt like, maybe I could be reasonable at, from that moment I was hooked.
I started to look for opportunities to do trapeze, I did a brilliant day workshop at Skylight Circus in Rochdale, but trapeze classes were hard to find more than 20 years ago. After finishing university I went travelling around Europe, having a go on a trapeze wherever I could, in Toulouse, Barcelona, Amsterdam. I ended up in Portugal, working on a small organic farm in exchange for bed and board in an expat community. There were a few performers in their midst, and one woman, Mel, had a guy coming over to teach her trapeze for a week, quite soon after I arrived which felt fated somehow.
We carried on training in Mel’s barn, it was so low that we had one trapeze with long ropes to stand up on and one with very short ropes to hang under the bar on, beats definitely weren’t possible (and I don’t think we knew what they were!). We thought we were pretty good and made a show that we performed at what I now know to be a fairly prestigious performance festival in Loures.
When I returned to the UK I discovered how much we had to learn. From there, I had very little formal training, for one thing it was much less available 20 years ago, and I couldn’t really afford to join the full-time course at Circomedia. So, I did do a lot of workshops, private classes and learnt from and was supported by a very lovely and brilliant community of professional aerialists around Bristol, Sheffield and North Wales.
Being a performer was never what I set out to do, I don’t think it ever occurred to me as a career, not that I had any idea what I wanted to do for a living. I became obsessed with aerial and acrobatics, I loved training them, the fact that you can always be better, stronger, there is always something more to learn, another challenge. I was lucky to be offered a few opportunities to perform and it escalated from there.
I was attracted to circus more for the perceived alternative lifestyle, many performers I knew lived full time in trucks and caravans and toured for at least part of the year, for that feeling of being outside the norm, for the unusualness of being a circus performer and somewhat because it was something I could quietly become good at and gain a set of skills that not many people had.
There are so many people who helped and encouraged me along the way, and so many who inspired me. To begin with I didn’t understand performance or performance skills at all, but little by little I became much more interested in the theatricality of circus and your relationship with the audience.
Here are some of the things I have learnt along the way:
To be competitive with myself and not with others. Its really important not to beat yourself up because there are other people out there who are better than you. For most of us, those people will always be out there, be happy for them. Only try and be the best version of yourself and if you can do that and build on your skills at the same time, great.
Collaborate and share. We can learn so much from each other by helping each other out, listening and giving. So many people helped me out and encouraged me along the way, and I hope I do the same for others.
Have time off. I’m still learning this one, its hard in a busy schedule, and in those times when you are performing lots but not training, to recognise that sometimes you are weak because you need some time off, so, first have some time out and then go back to training!
What you do is not as important as how you do it. A high level of technical skill is not the most important thing in a circus performer, I got told this very early on in my career, but it took me years to really take it on board. We all love high level skills and want high level tricks but, lets be honest about what those skills are for, who they are for. A charismatic, open, joyous, vulnerable human on stage is much more engaging than someone who blasts through some killer tricks. Don’t get me wrong, I love a high skill act too, but we have so much more to offer than just that.
I still feel like I am getting away with being a circus performer, that I am not really good enough, classic imposter syndrome, I know its not the first time its been mentioned in this blog series. I often joke with a friend of mine (who is a successful visual artist) that we are “still getting away with it after all this time”. Its amazing though, that through taking some chances, trusting and following my nose, I have got to this place where I get to work at doing what I love, what started as just a hobby.
Advice I’d give to my younger self:
This is sort of to my current self too because there are things that seem to take us multiple lifetimes to learn (or is that just me?):
Train hard but remember to rest, eat more, eat more protein and have time off.
Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t do something.
Do Pilates and contemporary dance. I recently discovered Pilates through a brilliant teacher who has worked with many circus performers, and am now a kind of Pilates evangelist, encouraging everyone I know to start doing it. I feel so many of my aches, pains, injuries and dysfunctions have been fixed by having a great Pilates teacher, and I wish I’d discovered it sooner. I also wish I’d discovered contemporary dance sooner, for its effect on quality of movement and for how much I enjoy it, if I had my time again, I would train it more.
To someone starting out now I would say (as with all advice to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt):
Train hard, but remember to rest, train smart according to your goals, don’t end every session exhausted.
Take every opportunity available to you and apply for, and go to every casting, audition etc that you are even remotely eligible for, without taking it personally if you don’t get them. Those experiences are invaluable and you never know who you will meet and where that may take you, you have to put yourself out there so much at the start. When you are more experienced/known/busy you can become more choosy and discerning.
If you do things for less money but more experience, be clear with yourself what you are getting out of those things and where you draw the line, so you are not exploited.
Learn about rigging, enough to have some autonomy in terms of your own safety and enough to understand when you need to seek the services of a professional rigger. The aerialists that I met when I started out all took a great interest in rigging, and encouraged me to do so, something I am eternally grateful for, that knowledge is empowering.
I think you have to love being a performer to choose it as a career, it takes a lot of dedication and often the financial rewards are not that great (either that or I’m doing something wrong!) Remember that you are doing it because you love it, if it stops being fun then its time to reassess.
Specific learning from 2020.
2020 started off pretty weirdly for me, but I think was a bit of a tipping point in terms of understanding a number of things that had been slowly dawning on me for a while.
I had a bad injury in my left arm early in 2020, which I think, was ultimately the result of exhaustion from over-training and over-working for many years, and never really allowing myself enough time off. Having an injury gave me cause to reflect and the opportunity to try to understand some things. It’s been a slow process, but I now realise that the way I have worked, trained and fuelled my body have not been very healthy. I‘m sharing this because I think its important, and I definitely found it hard to understand where the lines were between training hard and training too much.
I also definitely, suffered from disordered eating, a struggle to find the balance between a desire not to put on weight and actually eat enough to sustain the high volume of training that I do. I think it is challenging in circus, things are getting a bit better now, there are more studies and analysis and knowledge about training that are being applied to circus arts, but we still have a lot of work to do. The attitude has always been that you need train hard to get fitter and stronger, and we don’t really have an off season like other sports do, often performing and training year round, but our bodies also need time to rest and recuperate.
Personally, I still don’t really understand where the line is between training hard to get stronger or better and training too much, I really don’t, also as I’m now in my mid-forties, that line is shifting and I need a different strategy. My lesson from this lockdown is that I need to allow my body more time to recover, and although I have missed performing dreadfully, having some time out has been helpful, I needed a big, fat rest, it has been replenishing in many ways, having that pressure taken off.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had more than enough time out now and economically its been a disaster, but the fact remains that I did need some time to rest and to think and I want to acknowledge that although it was helpful to me in some ways. I know that lockdown has been very hard for many performers and creatives for me it is double edged. I also want to acknowledge here the great privilege that I have in terms of a stable roof over my head, economic security and good health, I know that this has been an extraordinarily difficult time for so many.
There were other positive lessons too, from training and working less, one has been having more time and energy to pursue other things that I enjoy, long walks, bike rides, swims, writing, reading many books, spending time with friends (when restrictions allow of course) helping our neighbours and wider community, dreaming about the future, and just day-dreaming! Like for many of us the yawning abyss created by lockdown presented the opportunity to reflect on life, and something that I hope I will keep is spending more time exploring my creativity in diverse ways.
Which leads me to wondering what the future might hold? I never thought when I started out that I would still be working as an aerialist into my forties. Right now though, I know I’m not done with it yet, so I’m hoping for another 20 years of being in and making shows. For the wider scene, I’d love to see more funding for creative projects, more collaboration and creative exploration with aerial at its heart and proper respect for circus as an artform. Lets keep making amazing and beautiful things happen.
You can follow Claire Crook online in these places:
Twitter: @madammangocircu (that is right without the s, otherwise its too many characters)
Instagram: @madammangocircus (although I don’t really post anything)
Watch Claire Crook and Alex Anderson perform a counterweighted rope act as Janis Joplin for the Fallen Legends Cabaret, Playhouse Theatre, Shambala Festival 2016.