Many things make Vicki Amedume thoroughly unique. Not only is she the only black director of an established circus company in Britain, but she is also happens to hold a science degree. When I ask the founder of registered charity, Upswing how she went from equations to aerial ropes, she explains with a laugh.
“Completely by accident! I’ve always been a very physical person but I always expected that my career would be in science, everything else was a hobby. When I was at university, I lived across the road from two circus performers from the company Exponential and they said ‘Come and train with us, just for fun.’ After my degree I toured with them for a summer, still thinking science would be my future and then I thought ‘Ok, I’m gonna try and audition for a circus school.’ And 19 years later, here I am!”
Amedume is softly spoken and very earnest when she explains the motivation for her new family show Bedtime Stories, which she co-wrote with playwright and actress Yursa Warsama. The concept for the show was partially inspired by the circus workshops that Amedume runs through her production company.
“We came upon this idea of parents doing workshops with children one on one, and lots of parents and carers afterwards said how present they felt. Many people said they didn’t get the opportunity to be present with their children that often. That led to me thinking about making a show that uses circus as part of the language about how life can sometimes keep us away from keeping those connections that are so important.”
Many people said they didn’t get the opportunity to be present with their children that often. That led to me thinking about making a show that uses circus as part of the language about how life can sometimes keep us away from keeping those connections that are so important.”
The choreographer’s shows have always had a strong social motivation and Amedume describes how circus can be a great metaphor for so many aspects of relationships and life.
“You have the coming together of two bodies, the breaking away, the balance. It can all be used to reflect so many elements of our experiences.” Relating to current audiences is vitally important to Amedume’s work. Previous shows such as her solo work Skin, explored stereotypes of strength and femininity. Her 2013 show Fallen delved into the inner workings of a woman arriving in a foreign land and her experiences in a detention centre. All creatively relayed through the fantastical sphere of circus techniques. In Bedtime Stories, Amedume reveals that her own childhood memories also influenced the show’s creation.
“I grew up in a single parent family and my mum often used to work nights as a social worker in a children’s home. When she was at work she would tape a story for us, so the next night we would have a bedtime story. I remember being tucked up in bed with my brother and my sister listening to these tapes and my mum’s voice. Thinking about it now as an adult, it was her attempt to stay with us even though her work commitments and her need to earn money meant she couldn’t be with us all the time.” “It feels like it comes from a very honest place, a very real place. This is a very current theme and a current story and reflective of what family means today, rather than 2.4children and mum and dad.”
Bedtime Stories follows the adventures of a young child whose bedtime story with her mum is interrupted and so she continues the tale herself with the help of her imaginary friends. Amedume won’t reveal too much more about the narrative as she wants audiences to be surprised. But she does describe the visual effects of the show, which combines dance, circus theatre and 3D animation.
“It’s in the round, which is a difficult decision for projection, but we wanted to create this environment where people are gathered around in the circle of storytelling. The projections comes in from different angles, so sometimes they function to create an environment or sometimes the actors are working in relation to the projection but it kind of shifts the it into a more magical, imaginative place. It was a difficult decision to combine all the elements and make the animation work. I’m so excited by the result but over the months there have been times when I’ve thought ‘Oh, God, why did I decide that?!’”
Another challenging decision was Amedume’s determination to cast actors who looked like everyday people “diverse and real” as she puts it. In fact one of the cast is a trained dancer who had no circus experience prior to the audition. But Amedume is up to any task! She elaborates upon her desire to make circus more culturally representative.
“When I started Upswing in 2004, I was one of the few non-white circus performers in the industry and we work very hard to look beyond the traditional casting pool. If that means we have to work harder to train somebody up, that’s what we’ll do. It’s very hard to imagine yourself in an industry where you don’t see yourself. When I first started performing I really struggled with what my identity was, because I wasn’t a tiny, white ballerina. I felt like I had to break a few boundaries. There are more and more non-white performers coming into the industry now, which is really exciting, not just to push an issue, but because it’s important for any art form to be diverse and reflect all the voices in a community. It’s starting to change because there are more role models for people to see.”
There is no doubt that Amedume herself has provided a role model for aspiring performers of colour, though she is loath to flatter herself. Her commitment to broadening the availability of training and opportunities for performers extends to the classes that she runs.
“One particular programme we run called Step Up, was started with the aim of getting more diverse performers involved in circus. When we started the programme, we were primarily working with people from ethnic minorities. But as a professional development we’ve broadened it out because I think in Britain race isn’t the only issue; it’s also class and they sometimes get conflated. So now it’s for anybody who we feel wouldn’t be able to get the training any other way. It’s really exciting’ cos we’ve had lots of people coming through that programme and moving into professional jobs now.”
When I first started performing I really struggled with what my identity was, because I wasn’t a tiny, white ballerina. I felt like I had to break a few boundaries
Amedume’s experience is vast, having trained with the most esteemed circus companies in France and America. Although she originally intended Upswing to be in part, a vehicle for her own performance work, she has found that being the director of a company leaves her little time to perform herself.
“I thought, ‘It’s my company, of course I’ll get all the best parts!’ But over the years I’ve discovered that sharing my passion for the art form with other people is as important as the work that we put on. Also now we’ve been doing this for long enough, there’s this circular process of participation leading to performance. With Bedtime Stories we wouldn’t have been able to make the show without the participation from the families that we spoke to and engaged with and shared circus skills with. That to me is really exciting, and Bedtime Storis will be a beautiful way for people to spend an hour of their day. They will definitely leave feeling happy.”