‘Brave Space’, by Aloft Circus Arts

Review from: Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 26th August 2023

I have watched news of Brave Space from afar, online and on social media, for a good few years, and hearing that Chigago-based Aloft Circus Arts were bringing it back to Edinburgh this summer was reason enough for me to book a long overdue return to the Fringe myself. Only this time, reader, I was bringing a two year old. Happily, Brave Space is advertised for ages from 0+, and director Shayna Swanson confirmed that toddlers are welcome.

The show is, unostentatiously, a celebration of female strength and power. The script of ‘safe spaces’ is flipped from narratives of victimhood to a more empowering display of courage. Tenacity and determination are the foundations of all circus performance, and here we are encouraged to challenge our own comfort zones, inspired by the ensemble of women around us. For me, this means accepting the scowls and tuts from the couple next to me as my two year old clambers on top of me, emulating the acrobats in the show. Gritting my nerve as she narrates or questions what she sees, remembering that we have repeatedly been told we will be safe, and trusting that we are welcome. Encouraging smiles and chuckles from across the space – and from the company themselves – assure me that yes, I can brave this. Her attention may not have been held throughout, but here she has as much right to inhabit the space as any of us.

The space in question, beautifully designed by Angela Eve, is a gently undulating tent of pale parachute silk that is raised in front of us within the charming wooden speigeltent venue until we are invited inside its softly lit billows. The cast are Heather Dart, Hayley Larson, Rachel Nesnevich, Linnea Ridolfi, Zoe Sheppard, and Sarah Tapper, whose warm smiles connect with us as much as each other as they perform their set pieces, transform the tent, and guard each other’s safety with understated steeliness. Director Swanson is also an eagle-eyed presence throughout, after welcoming us outside before the show and setting us at ease with a gentle and permissive introduction to our roles.

Feminine symbols are subtly pervasive: circular props of Cyr wheel, hula hoops and juggling rings, white lacy costumes, fluid fabrics. But feminine does not only mean soft. Hems have unfinished edges, and Cyr wheels are made of metal. Delicately shifting colours of light play on the silk canopy (‘I want pink!’ my daughter repeatedly calls), but the heavy rigging poles that support it are less than an arms-length away.

Most reviews comment on the aerial silks duet, which we are invited to watch from beneath, lying on the ground and looking up into the performers’ grinning faces and twisting limbs. It’s a unique angle for sure, and undoubtably creates a sensation of risk for many members of the audience. I’m in the unusual situation of having been in this prone position before, performing in another show, so for me it’s comforting and nostalgic – which also fits this vibe well.

I especially enjoy the maypole intertwinings of a multicord rope and the ensemble aerial choreographies that utilise its various threads. The circus disciplines presented are mostly at an intimate scale due to our proximity in the small space (and if you’ve never been within touching distance of a Cyr wheel duet or a hula hoop artist spinning multiple hoops from her outstretched limbs, this has its own communal intensity). But, if circus is about exceptional expression of human abilities, then the most impressive talent here is the ability of the performers to trust an unpredictable audience up close and personal to their physical techniques – and the connections they nurture that create a reciprocal trust in return.

The circular motif is echoed structurally as the temporary tent is slowly whisked away from around us, returning us again to the spiegeltent where we began. With my attention split between the show and the toddler, my experience is not as it would have been a couple of years ago. Perhaps now, though, I can better appreciate its supportive ethos, caring camaraderie, and the steely strength of female experience.

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