Anderson & Low: Circus
by Lucy Davies, TELEGRAPH.CO.UK
‘Performers bare their bodies and souls in a riveting new photography exhibition at
The Lowry in Manchester.’
Kelda Dearden’s day begins much as yours does. She wakes, she breakfasts. And that’s about where the similarity ends. For the next two hours, she curls and uncurls her muscles until they reach a temperature and peak elasticity that will permit her to spend a further five hours en pointe, on stage. It takes another two hours to dress and apply make-up — a stylized confection of sparkling eye shadow in shades of pink and gold and a slick of ruby lipstick. She says she has no time to be nervous: “you just forget and concentrate.”
In a room nearby, Alexander Petchkarev will be dressing in vivid blue, high-waist trousers and a waistcoat cut to divulge a well-honed chest. He will slather his face white from nose to jaw line in wry simulation of clownish greasepaint. Flanked by cohorts Sergey and Viatcheslav, he will throw balls then clubs into the air in endless, eye-catching loops. Expert choreography will dovetail their act with a team of tumblers; masters of the trapeze; the aerial straps, silks and hoops; with a contortionist, BMX bicycles and a roaring Harley Davidson.
In 2006, off the back of their much lauded “Athlete” and “Athlete/Warrior” series, photographic duo Anderson & Low were invited to photograph this circus troupe between performances of their show Eclipse in Blackpool. The full series of around fifty images opens at The Lowry next week. It is their first figurative project in colour, and also their first foray into video art, with a loop of several films staggered over three screens to show the acrobat Pasha coiling and twisting his way downward from a star-encrusted ceiling on strips of silk, in perpetuity.
Choreographed by Anthony Johns, Eclipse prides itself on being the first circus musical. One of the many offspring of the Cirque du Soleil format that has had necks craning worldwide since 1982, the show has enjoyed a nine year run at venues across the UK. Ballerinas from the Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert and the Bolshoi form the nucleus of the spectacle, backed by a cast of mime artists and acrobats practicing edge-of-your-seat circus artistry. The theatrical element comes from a presiding Lord of the Elements, an aerialist Vladimir, who guides his troupe through earth, air, fire and water.
The photographs, say Anderson & Low, who met ten years ago whilst sharing darkroom space, are a study in the way performance and costume shape identity. In some, the performers appear in their conventional, spot-lit, stage environment, but in others, they are removed and placed in incongruous locations along the pleasure beach. All seem to capture something of the soul of the sitter.
The pair is in good photographic company: Weegee, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, Stanley Kubrick and Fellini have all trained their gaze on circus folk, usually gleaning its brutal and rather freakish side.
“We wanted to step back from this idea of tragedy and fractured souls” says Anderson “What these performers do is utterly brilliant; you can’t help but become transfixed by it. This is a phenomenally difficult life with few rewards. It’s grueling and it’s painful. You don’t hear the grunts and the groans when the music is blaring, but we certainly did. To create their magic they must be one hundred percent devoted to their art. It must be their passion. They have this inner core of mystery that makes the ordinary, extraordinary. That’s what we tried to convey.”
“When we first met Anderson & Lowe they said they didn’t want the usual showgirl face, but for us to be as natural as possible” says Dearden. “The pictures they took go deeper than your average performance photograph. The image of me, where I’m waiting by the scaffolding, no effects, no music, that’s exactly what it feels like; that introspective sort of preoccupied look on my face is what I think I experience all the time I’m offstage.
“Before I saw it I couldn’t have explained it, it was almost as if they drew something out of me I didn’t even know was there.” Petchkarev was similarly surprised “It doesn’t look like me – I look sad, and so tired. But it’s not like that. When I’m performing…well, I can’t describe it. It’s like nothing else. It makes people smile. It makes them really happy.”
Despite the flamboyant costumes and extravagant make-up the images exude a sort of reverential hush. The supple bodies of the performers are frozen by the camera into precise sculptural forms. We feel their physical reality with a special intensity.
Anderson & Lowe use light like modern-day Caravaggios, employing high key chiaroscuro to create unsettling visual drama in steep relief and dark swathes of shadow. The light force comes from outside the frame, lending an unreal otherworldliness which exalts the extraordinary power learnt, owned and expressed by the performer.
“Our work has always had this particular thread running through it” say Anderson & Low “we ask the same question to everyone we photograph: boxers, soldiers, gymnasts, contortionists alike – ‘What is it that defines the identity of the individual?’”