‘Down-Up’, by Circus Geeks

Glastonbury Festival; 27th June 2014

Arron Sparks, founder of Circus Geeks
Arron Sparks, founder of Circus Geeks

Jump back to the yo-yo craze of the 1990s (or, for the baby boomers, the 1950s) and realise that. for some, the craze never faded.  Arron Sparks shares his intimate relationship with the skill in a lecture style demonstration that seems to be his company Circus Geeks’ trademark, echoing the form of their juggling show Beta Testing premiered earlier this year.

The material is let down somewhat by the cavernous Astrolabe theatre tent and raised stage at Glastonbury Festival (who commissioned the piece) but still provides a decent nostalgic hit, and a fascinating insight into a niche universe.

An engaging opening introduces Sparks as our Wonder Years style narrator, playing up to the company’s geeky title in thick black-framed spectacles.  As he launches into a display of yo-yo prowess he maintains a blasé appearance as he makes not one, but two, yo-yos do things we had forgotten they could.  The radio mic that picks up his breathing gives the only hint of how much effort is actually involved in producing the slick routine.

There is a nice mix of clarity and lyricism to the text as Sparks takes us through the journey from  his first yo-yo competition, to world records, and a career as a Demonstrator.  Vintage footage is projected onto a simple screen, and the entire set appears as a purely functional lecture theatre, with an appropriately low-tech vibe.

We are offered a montage of moments that open a window onto the science and development of the yo-yo form, and given a tour of some of the most famous tricks (I particularly enjoy the ‘rock the baby’, ‘drunk baby’ and ‘crazy baby’ combo), as well as a philosophical insight linked to the recent bankers’ crash; ‘If we’d paid more attention to yo-yo history, the world could be a better place.’

IMG_2538A show-and-tell of unique pieces from Sparks’ own yo-yo collection falls a little flat in the massive space due to a live-feed failure of his nicely geeky headcam but, by the time he moves on to his final skilled routine, the projection is working, and gives an almost vertiginous perspective of the looping strings and spinning wheel as he plays out a complex series of moves, highlighting many of the intricacies that would otherwise be lost.

While there are elements of the spectacular to Down-Up, they are on a more intimate scale than this space caters for, and the content is more about re-contextualising an overlooked art-form for the layman. This is a thinking person’s show.

There is a trend at the moment within circus performance to communicate something of the form’s nature to the audience, to broaden perspectives on what circus arts are all about – and Down-Up is a prime example.  It ends very abruptly, giving the impression of a work still in progress (which is backed up by the blog which runs alongside the project).  The Glastonbury commission was for a 30 minute show, although the final production is expected to be 45 minutes.  A future incarnation is planned to run alongside a pop-up yo-yo museum, which will allow audiences to engage more fully with the material.

Last month I met with Sparks to chat about his commission and, like me, he had never been to the festival before, so was unsure of what to expect.  He recognised that playing in a big top would be a challenge, but one that he was game for, interested to see how his ‘civilised affair’ would be received.

young arron
A young Arron Sparks in Madrid, 2004. IMAGE: Void

He has been practising yo-yo for over half his life and, although most of his work since graduating from Circus Space in 2008 has been in juggling, the 8 hours a day he would put in as a teenager still allow him to run on autopilot with familiar yo-yo sequences.  This means he has to think about ‘performing’ a lot more, but needn’t spend large amount of time practising his old tricks.  Two of Sparks’ biggest influences have been Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist, and the YouTube series of videos Everything’s A Remix and, for Down-Up, he has collaborated with artists from a range of performance styles to shape the historical and anecdotal material of the piece.  Aside from a 3 minute routine learnt especially for the show, Sparks found most of his creative processes took place writing in offices and coffee shops rather than activity in rehearsal rooms.

I don’t think many circus artists get to work like that’, he says, ‘Which is unfortunate for them. It’s really nice.  You can’t think as clearly in a rehearsal space; it’s a different mindset for making work.’

Although yo-yo history may be a ‘deep undelved topic’, most of us can relate to the seemingly mundane toy of our youth, which is what give the show its draw; and it’s hard not to be swept up in Sparks’ own passion when he lets himself go with it.  The show’s next venue is in a Spiegeltent outside the Wales Millennium Centre, and I can’t help thinking that the change in scale will help convey that passion more fully, and am intrigued to see what Circus Geeks will come up with next.



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