Grounded with Katharine Arnold
Hi, I’m Katharine Arnold, and I identify as a female dinosaur, (scaly aerialist skin and have been around for a very long time).
It’s an interesting time to be asked to write this blog, as not only have we all had an enforced period of reflection, but I’ve had two surgeries, one very major, which has made me rethink the trajectory of my career – more to follow.
I’m what I consider an accidental aerialist, in that I never had formal circus school training and it wasn’t originally part of my career plan. I did a lot of ballet, theatre and music from a young age, and have a BA Hons in Performing Arts specialising in theatre. It was at university that I first became interested in physical theatre, inspired by companies like DV8 and Complicite.
A company called Fevered Sleep came to make a show with us, and we did some stilts, juggling, and most importantly trapeze. Cheese alert, but it really was a love at first touch moment for me, and I started going to evening classes at Circus Space, (now NCCA), for the remainder of my degree.
When I graduated I was bobbing around between dancing in commercial pop videos, acting in fringe theatre shows for pennies and a pint, and trying to train as much as possible. After a year of flitting about I got a job at Bloomberg, a finance company, and tried to convince myself that wearing a suit and earning real money was a good step for me. But when, after a few months, a friend suggested I should audition for a new, small touring circus called Gifford’s, I packed my bags and went off to live in quarter of a woodlouse-filled truck for a summer season (I swept them out before I went to bed). Clambering around the tent helping to put up the festoon lights and being part of a circus community made me feel happy and like the me I wanted to be, and I’m very lucky to have never had a ‘normal’ job since, 20 years later.
For the next couple of years, a flying trapeze company called The Flying Dudes took me under their wing, trained me in flying trapeze and rope, and we toured a show called The Flying Dudes Rock’n’roll Circus, which was an outdoor extravaganza where we all played instruments in the band (I play piano) and swung/spun around having the best time. These guys instilled a raw passion and determination in me which I’ll be forever grateful for, and it’s where I feel circus really stole my whole heart.
After this I was offered a year’s contract in an all female rope troupe at the Freidrichstadtpalast in Berlin, and while I was living there I started training hoop at the circus school in my spare time. When I got back to the UK, the corporate market was beginning to flourish, (see! Been around forever!) and I spent a few years doing the obligatory splits in the silks, making great money but missing the theatre of shows rather than events.
I started touring with Take That on their huge scale spectacular stadium shows, which was amazing, but I started craving more and more the feeling of creating acts myself.
Then, one night when I was out with friends on my 4th vodka, I had a call from a friend who was working in the 7 Fingers production of Traces. There’d been an injury and they desperately needed someone to come in and learn the show…for the 2pm matinee the following day! I sucked up the hangover, did the show, and the next one and the next one, and ended up performing the role for a little bit, during which time the producer of La Soiree , (previously La Clique), my favourite ever show, had come in to watch and offered me a job for their next season.
That was it….once I was on that little round red stage, I was in love with cabaret, and spiegeltents, and crystal-embellished costumes and backstage tequila and using whatever music makes your soul sing and choreographing your own dance on whichever equipment you want to be on, and having your audience so close you can smell their perfume.
Since then I’ve been incredibly lucky to have choreographed for plenty of big events, spent a year on Disney’s Dumbo – a major feature film where I worked with incredible people, got to be on a stunts team, have creative input and coach the main female star. I’ve toured with Cirque Du Soleil (including performing at Madison Square Garden, which was quite a bucket list tick), and performed regularly for a couple of years at Le Lido in Paris, a city I fell in love with and feel very at home in. It’s all been a brilliant ride. But…I think I am still at my happiest in a mirrored tent or a dark smoky room with the audience right in your face.
It was on my 2nd day of rehearsal in Montreal with Cirque in Autumn 2019 that I developed an intense stomach ache. New show, new cast, new company – I tried to ignore it and carry on learning the choreo. But when by the following day I was doubled over in agony still trying to say “no no don’t worry I’m fine!” (the perfect combination of being British PLUS a circus performer – not wanting to make a fuss and used to ignoring pain), the physio sent me to the ER. I had a CT scan. The doctor informed me that as they suspected, I had appendicitis, but that in addition, they’d found a large 8cm tumour on my pancreas which was the potentially more worrisome issue. I had further tests and the conclusion was that the lump was benign for now but was likely to turn malignant at some point, and so needed to come out as soon as I finished the contract and returned to the UK. My surgery was booked for late March 2020, and then….Covid hit. I had a phone call to say that my surgery date had been cancelled and they weren’t sure when I’d be able to have it. This was the first point at which I started to feel properly anxious, as the delay could mean the difference between a large unpleasant operation, or something much worse and much scarier.
I ended up being rebooked for June. I had the tumour and half of my pancreas removed, spent two weeks in isolation in hospital, up to my eyeballs in fentanyl (that was the good bit!), but worst of all, they had to slice through my entire abdominal wall. A whole life of conditioning my body and suddenly I had no abs, no core, couldn’t sit up for 3 months, couldn’t lift a kettle (and I am 90% Earl Grey), and certainly had no idea whether I’d ever be able to rebuild them enough to go in the air again. But suddenly, lockdown was my friend.
If there’s one thing I would say should be the number one mantra of any artist it’s this : never give up! I had the time and space to concentrate on my physio and little by little, an hour or two every single day, I began to get stronger again. By Christmas a leg lift still felt like a pipe dream, but I could hang and shoulder shrug. Eleven months later (and a surprise smaller second surgery) and I’m finally feeling nearly as strong as my old self. I’ve got a large pirate scar right across my stomach and my abs will never look the same, but more than that, I don’t FEEL the same. In this new landscape the world and the creative arts look different for everyone, but I’ve also been reassessing the direction I want to take. I feel it’s more important to make things which are meaningful and personally fulfilling – I’ve designed and made a new prop which contains the potential for a story I want to tell – and I’ve realised I can be just as satisfied offstage as on, directing, choreographing, teaching. I’ve become fascinated by rehabilitation, and how technique and science can have such a massive impact on our bodies and how we train. I teach on the degree at NCCA and have a whole bunch of lovely guinea pigs (sorry students, if you’re reading this!) to try new strengthening and core-centric exercises on.
I don’t profess to have any profound words of wisdom to impart, but the things I’ve always tried to stand by are : work hard. Always do your job as well as you can possibly do it. Keep learning, keep training, keep exploring. Watch shows, see things, fuel the passion. Say yes to as many things as you can. Don’t be an asshole. Be generous. Everyone is important. Really feel music. Leave some space in your acts and value your audience. Raise an eyebrow wherever possible. Never underestimate the power of hairography. Chocolate is your friend.
Thanks for reading,
You can follow Katherine and see more of her work here, (including the above mentioned scar, shot by Anna Strickland. It’s quite impressive):
Video link: Katharine Arnold
Image: A white woman with shoulder length, platinum blonde hair, hangs from a hoop by one hand, her legs split as if jumping and her free arm outstretched with fingers in a V sign. She wears a red and white leotard, decorated with diamante, fish net tights and what appears to be, a glorious puffball cloak. She shouts joyfully to an obviously appreciative audience below.
Photo credit: Alistair Veryard