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High-flyers: Charlotte Mooney, Artistic Director of Ockham's Razor

photo: Nik Mackey

Contemporary circus is often perceived as adorned in excess – thanks in no small part to its more commercial ventures. Ockham’s razor on the other hand is a problem solving principle that states that the simplest, most elegant explanation is always the best. When an aerial company names itself Ockham’s Razor, the choice is more than informed; it's also a benchmark and a mantra.

Armed with a clear state of intent, the joint artistic directors of aerial company Ockham’s Razor, Alex Harvey, Charlotte Mooney and Tina Koch, built their practice around a specific creative process. Ockham’s Razor constructs a new piece of aerial equipment for every single show, before venturing into devising. Giant treadmills and Ferris wheels featured in the past; their latest performance, Tipping Point, is more minimalistic and built around metal poles. The show will have its London premiere at LIMF early next year. In preparation, Run Riot talked to Charlotte Mooney about the role of music in the Ockham’s Razor rehearsal room, the company’s relationship to ‘traditional’ circus, and the art form’s sustainability in the UK.

Run Riot: Ockham’s Razor performances are always built around new, custom-made aerial equipment. How did this tradition start and why did it remain the backbone of your practice?

Charlotte Mooney: We find that when an audience come into a theatre and see a trapeze rigged above the stage that instantly sets a certain expectation. The object is imbued with a history which is very present and powerful. By designing new equipment we can find original movement that although coming from the techniques of circus isn't necessarily seen in that context. We find this widens how it's interpreted by audiences. We come from a fine art background and in some ways are frustrated sculptors. The equipment works best when it is something for the performers to move upon but when it also itself has a journey that reflects the narrative whether that's a giant treadmill of wheels and pulleys that eventually becomes a Ferris wheel or a raft that destabilises as the relationships do. There is so much play and pleasure in making sets that transform.

Run Riot: The metal poles used in the Tipping Point are far simpler than some of the equipment devised for your previous shows. What attracted you to this simplicity and minimalism?

Charlotte Mooney: The name of the company is Ockham's Razor - we are attracted to this philosophy that the best solutions are the simplest. We were very excited when we first started experimenting with poles, as they are such a simple element but can transform and create wildly different movement possibilities. It's incredibly gratifying for an audience to discover the play and invention alongside the performers - there's a sort of magic when something as basic as a few poles suddenly evokes a forest. The show is set in the round within a circle with the audience drawn in close to the performance. Another essential element of the poles is that when spun and rotated by the performers they describe this circle. The performers are enclosed in an arena with these metal poles, which plunge and swing around them, in a way they are the antagonists that the performers must face and the force that creates the circle they live within. Simple but essential.

Run Riot: Music is another important part of your practice. What role does it play in your devising process? Can you tell us more about the Tipping Point collaboration with Adem Ilhan and Quinta?

Charlotte Mooney: We worked closely with Adem and Quinta through the devising process as we were developing the moods and atmospheres of the scenes. They fed in with musical ideas early, based on conversations and what they saw unfolding in the rehearsal room. They were also keen to use instruments that reflected the nature of the materials, centering the composition on metal instruments. They made a metallophone from copper piping and used glockenspiels and musical saws, then strings to bring warmth and humanity. Someone watching the show recently commented that for them it was about soft bodies and hard metal; I think this is reflected perfectly in the score. 

Run Riot: Tipping Point is set in the round, ‘in a nod to traditional circus’. What’s the company’s relationship to this art form?

Charlotte Mooney: We see ourselves primarily as a circus company and this tradition is very important to us. We are also very interested in ritual and its relation to performance and theatre. The circle has a rich and powerful history in magic and ritual, in meditation and reflection and also arenas such as sumo and wrestling where people pit themselves against each other. All of these ideas drew us to the idea of setting the show within a ring. We are often billed as "contemporary circus" as something distinct from "traditional circus" but increasingly I think the distinctions are pretty fluid. We are looking at human strength and vulnerability in this show, at how far people push themselves and the relationships of people struggling together or against each other. A lot of traditional acts are ultimately dealing with the same themes even if they present them differently. 

Run Riot: Tipping Point is having its London premiere at LIMF, who also co-commissioned the performance. What’s the artist’s perspective on the festival - in terms of the programme it offers and the development it fosters?

Charlotte Mooney: LIMF is a truly great festival. I was coming to see things long before I trained in circus and I have discovered some of my favourite artists and companies through the festival. They have been a great supporter of Ockham's Razor and a great champion of circus - this is our fourth show to be presented here. They have such a good reputation that people will take a risk and see things through LIMF that would otherwise pass under the radar; we have been able to reach so many new audiences under their banner.

Run Riot: You often emphasise the importance of not presenting circus performers as superhuman. What do you explore or search for in your relationship with the audiences?
Charlotte Mooney: It's the vulnerability of the performer that creates the tension and makes circus so compelling. It's harder for an audience to identify with or care about someone superhuman and the most beautiful thing to watch is the relationships between people based on the trust and reliance between them that is founded on that vulnerability. 

Run Riot: Ockham’s Razor was founded in 2004; what have been the most significant changes in circus during that time? What are the biggest challenges currently facing circus companies and artists?

Charlotte Mooney: Circus has become a far greater feature of British culture in the last 12 years, which is wonderful. We have seen a huge change in theatres and festivals being willing to book contemporary circus. It is now more accepted that there is a huge and varied audience for this art form and that there is sophisticated and ground breaking work being made. The attitude that circus was somehow a fad, a bit of exotica to be added into theatre shows or solely for corporate entertainment is now thankfully out-dated.

Circus faces a lot of the same challenges as all art forms regarding scarcity of public and private funding. As it often requires a great deal of hardware, space and time to make it feels the lack of funding keenly. The major challenge I would say sadly remains the same as 2004. Wonderful artists train in the UK but then simply can't afford to keep making work here as there is a scarcity of affordable rehearsal space for them to make it in. Affordable, subsidised space where companies would have the freedom to experiment, create and learn would result in an explosion of new work.

Tipping Point

11-23 January

Platform Theatre

Part of LIMF