Grounded with Sarah Bebe Holmes
‘The back road to circus’.
I’m Sarah Bebe Holmes, mostly known for my work with my company Paper Doll Militia. I identify as a woman.
Where are you now and what do you do?
I live in Glasgow Scotland, with my lovely partner and collaborator Bado Reti who has composed the music for two Paper Doll Militia productions as well as improvises regularly with me. I write, perform and direct aerial theatre. My passion is making emotive and narrative aerial pieces and productions with integrated scenography and usually with invented or quite adapted aerial apparatus. PDM teaches master classes in choreography and “Vertical Theatre Method”, Aerial Retreats and Teacher Trainings.
What was your pathway into the professional field of aerial?
Of course I have been asked this question many times throughout my career. I usually answer by talking about my introduction to circus with my first acrobatics and trapeze classes at Wisefool New Mexico But the truth is, it started before that. And since there is a question asking me “Share something that’s not in your biography,”. I’ll tell you when it really started. It started when I was a kid. No I am not from a circus family. No I didn’t take circus classes, or dance, or gymnastics as a kid. I had a ferociously dangerous and wonderful free range childhood. My mum would shoo us out the door and tell us to come home when the streetlights came on. We were kids wild and free and feral, not under parental supervision. I am so surprised that my brother and I both survived childhood at all. It was the best circus training.
Portland Maine in the 80’s was a fairly rough working port city. There was always exciting stuff to find around the house, washed up on shore, or near the docks, to play with or light on fire.
My brother and I found a huge old wooden pulley and put a rope through it. He would climb up our old maple tree, about 6 meters up, tie one end of the rope around his waist and I would tie the other end around mine while standing on the ground. He would launch himself from the tree and I would zip up. The weight difference between us made for the perfect counterweighting system. We would always pull our arms and legs in so we wouldn’t accidentally wack each other as we wizzed past. I learned about harness and counterweighting from my old Maple Tree and Paul
Paul also taught me stunt biking. We would see how many kids we could ride on one BMX bike, all balanced on each other and of course no one wearing helmets. We made super jumps too. A ramp made out of boards and saw horses. We had to ride as fast as we could up the ramp to clear the a line of trashcans on the other side before landing in the backyard and skidding to a stop before hitting into the back fence.
One time we found an abandoned mattress and dragged it into our backyard, we got some garden tiki torches and made a row of them and lit them on fire and practiced launching each other over the flames and landing on the mattress. I now know that’s called banquine. Though our version was quite reckless and without form.
I learned sideshow technique by daring each other to swallow worms and finding out if they would still be alive if we puke them up again. Which I now know is called animal cruelty. In my untethered childhood, I learned about ensemble, and the value of cheering each other on. I learned how to push my own physical boundaries, and how to challenge and harness fear and most importantly how to support one together.
Fast forward to Santa Fe, New Mexico 2005. I had just graduated from St. John’s College with a degree in Western Philosophy and Comparative Literature. And I got a job in an elementary school teaching a mix aged classroom. I filled my evenings with all kinds of different activities, piano lessons, dance, yoga, swimming, capoeira, and I found the circus studio. Well, as many of the others who have contributed to Grounded mentioned. . . something just turned on in me. I started performing regularly in the “Raise the Rent cabaret”. It was through these cabarets that four of us had an idea to make a full show. We formed Paper Doll Militia and wrote our first full length production. We threw everything we had at it. All ideas were good ideas. It was all about four quirky characters finding acceptance through another’s weird quirks being a perfect compliment to their own. It was in this first show in 2006 that I really developed my love for creating full length productions: writing and dreaming up a story, developing characters, and designing the set. I loved being a part of the whole process. It gave purpose to the skills and meaning to the movement.
Shortly after we debuted this show a special visitor came to town from India with a unique one off workshop. I met Uday Deshpande and learned what Mallakhamb was. At the end of class he passed out a business card with his details. I put the business card in my wallet and said, I’ll see you in India. Months later I bought a flight to India. I emailed him to tell him I was coming. But he never responded. I emailed again. Nothing. I knew I was headed for Mumbai, I had nothing planned, no hotel booked. Just a little bit of money and a business card with a smiling man on a rope on it. I spent my first night unknowingly in a brothel hotel. Heard moaning and footsteps coming and going all night. Sleepless, jacklegged and alone I set out in the morning, business card in hand to seek out my teacher. I walked all over the city, asked so many people, called the phone number on the card, but the person on the line didn’t speak English. I took several taxi’s who kept holding the card up to other people asking them where the place was. Frustrated I’d get out of the car and get into another one. Finally just before dusk I found the place. It was a earthen building on the corner of a dusty field. I walked in and asked for Uday Deshpande. The man at the desk said he as gone for the day, asked me my name and told me to come back tomorrow at 6am. The next day, distressed from my whole misadventure and hoping for some answers, I walked in. Uday smiled wide and said, Miss Holmes let’s begin. “but . . . but” I stammered, “I emailed. You didn’t answer” His response was, “ Yes, this is India. Now let’s begin.”
On returning to the states I moved to San Francisco where Rain Anya and I merged paths again and restarted Paper Doll Militia. Rain Anya is what I call my “Aerial Life Partner” we have now worked together for well over a decade. And another crazy layer to this story is that during this time in San Francisco my brother came to visit, me. They fell in love and are now married.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t have grief over feeling like you started too late.
I could have gone so far I thought, if only I’d had circus classes as I kid. Everyone wishes they had started earlier than they had. 20 year old beginners old wish they started when they were 10, 40 year old beginners wish they had started when they were 20. Don’t regret. Love what you do. Love it now, aim for doing it for as long as you can.
Don’t regret missed opportunities
If it didn’t happen it wasn’t meant to be, something better is waiting for you. Where one door closes another opens.
Good things take time. Don’t worry. You won’t be too old or broken by the time that beautiful project happens. Keep working on it slowly, it will come.
Celebrate other people’s success.
And tell them.
Research and Seek even more
Learn who is making work, learn what they do and where are they? Seek out more mentors. Find people who you appreciate and go and have a coffee with them. Travel far and wide to take private lessons with anyone you think you could learn something from. Don’t be afraid to ask to be someone’s student. There are so many beautiful things to learn and so many that came before you who have stories to share.
Your advice to someone just starting out now.
Everything was new and exciting when I started because there was no social media, and there were only a few circus acts on youtube. So I had the joy of disillusionment and the ease of ignorance. Now there are so many incredible circus artists who you can see with the flick of a finger. It’s amazing for access to information and inspiration. However, I’m sure it could also damage to your idea of yourself and your own abilities. When I started I could train in the void with my peers and think what we did was great, cause we didn’t know how high skilled people really were out there. Give yourself a break sometimes. Designate a screen free session where you train without looking online and where you don’t film yourself. Improvise and feel your body move, enjoy the sensation and freedom of you. You are incredible.
Any specific learning from the year we’ve just had? A hope for the future – or not!
I don’t have any answers, only questions. What is your ideal day? How much time do you want to be on your computer? How much time do you want to be training? How much time do you want to be doing something else? How much time would you like to be unscheduled in your life in order to allow things to present themselves to you?
You can find out more about Sarah here
Photo credit Laszlo Roth