Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview

Alula Cyr: Hyena

By | Published on Thursday 5 April 2018

One of the events at this month’s CircusFest that we’re most excited about is ‘Hyena’ from female troupe Alula Cyr, aka Fiona Thornhill, Jessica Ladley and Lil Rice. These Cyr wheel specialists promise an exciting and highly inventive show, and we really want to see it.

I spoke to the trio, to find out more about the show and its creation.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from the show – does it have a specific theme? Why is it called ‘Hyena’?
AC: It’s circus so expect to be entertained! Hyena mixes all things acrobatic, spinning in giant wheels, contemporary dance and live singing. We named our show after the matriarchal society brown spotted hyenas live in. They are fierce protectors of their clans with a complex and fascinating hierarchy.

In creation we became obsessed with Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ which analyses folktales from different cultures to explore the inner wildness we should strive to be more in touch with. Hyena is about female friendships and the dynamic in our trio: how we test, push and support each other. Ultimately it’s about how we can be true to this innate wildness.

CM: For anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain what a Cyr wheel is?
AC: Imagine you’re standing inside a very large metal hula-hoop (like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man) then you’re flicked on one side to make it spin gyroscopically like a penny. That’s probably the best way to describe it, though it might be easier for you to just watch our trailer!

CM: It sounds like you pride yourselves on being extra inventive with it – can you tell us about the more novel ways you’ve chosen to use it?
AC: Yes, we do! Our thing is structures – we fit the wheels into each other, like orbit paths of an atom, and then we perch on top, tumble through and dance around them.

Sean Kempton, a fabulous clown from Cirque du Soleil, introduced us to ‘the hour of the impossible’ while directing us back in circus school. It was an hour set aside in each day to try out impossible ideas with absolutely no fear of failing because it was impossible in the first place. We joked about walking on top of a wheel then, amazingly, found a way to get Lil Rice up there! Then we thought, “If you can walk on it then surely you must be able to handstand on it?” Now we can!

In ‘Hyena’, Fi will handstand over it to land in Jess Ladley’s hands before she flinging her into the air in a somersault and Lil Rice doesn’t just stand on the wheel, she sings too!

(*Thank you Sean!)

CM: You’re the world’s first all-female Cyr wheel troupe – is it generally a more male-dominated thing?
AC: There are a lot of brilliant female Cyr wheel artists, but it was popularised by male practitioners. It’s still a relatively new circus discipline so there are a lot of exciting things yet to be created. We just happen to be the first three women doing it together!

CM: How do you go about creating a show? What’s the process?
AC: Fiona Dent was the incredible business plan mentor at The National Centre who helped us to develop our brand model for the pitch for the Centres’ Entrepreneur Award which we won. Jacksons Lane Theatre took us on as Associate Artists and helped us to secure funding from Arts Council England. In total we’ve received about 3 grants to complete the show, to get it touring, to book out residencies across the UK and bring in our production team.

Our director Rosamond Martin collated and organised all the material we had and gave the show a through-line; our assistant director Layla Rosa focused hard on every little detail. We spent a lot of time watching documentaries on hyenas and reading books by and about women. We wanted to make an empowering show about our honest friendship, about the ups and downs of tightknit female friendships.

We had our composer, Ollie Clark, with us in rehearsals writing the score at his laptop in the corner, constantly adapting as we went. Storm Athill, our costume designer, came in to study how we moved and the best way to show off our femininity and strength in the same design. Then there were six months of previews to test it and gather feedback.

Then it was back into rehearsals in January to apply what we had learned and then we spent days solidifying the technical side of the show with our lighting Designer Sarah Readman and our technician Cat Compson.

It was quite an easy process really – only, it took about 2 years!

CM: How did the three of you end up doing this kind of work? Was it something you wanted to explore as a career when you were growing up?
AC: None of us had any circus training before joining the Foundation degree at what was then Circus Space, but is now The National Centre for Circus Arts, in London. Fi’s a former gymnast, Jess has been dancing since she could put one foot in front of the other and Lil is still a singer/songwriter. We all met at the centre and none of us thought we’d be doing this for a living – but we’re all so happy that we are!

CM: How did you come together as a group? What made you want to team up together?
AC: In our third year at The National Centre, on the BA Hons program, the school asked us to represent them at Circa Festival in Auch, France with a 20-minute piece. We worked with Sean Kempton to create this and the feedback was incredible. We found that no one was making structures with the wheels or performing synchronised high-level skills like we were. When we came back to London it was quite obvious to us that this was something we wanted to continue doing. It’s a total joy to be able to work with your best friends: you cry, you fight, you pick each other up.

CM: How did you come to be on as part of CircusFest? Will you be seeing other shows that are on as part of that?
AC: Oh yes! I think we’ve pretty much booked in to see everything that we can fit in around our Hyena tour. We’re really excited for ‘No Show’ by Ellie Dubois, Remy Archers’ 360 degree film ‘Zoetrope’, Simple Cypher’s ‘Throwdown’, JD and Nikki’s ‘Knot’, ‘Sarab’ by the Palestinian Circus School, ‘Breaking Point’ – we’re a bit excited for all of it to be honest! It is such a brilliant festival celebrating and supporting circus and we’ve very honoured to have been invited!

CM: What ambitions and plans do you have for the future?
AC: To make more shows and inspire more young people to make art!

CM: What’s coming up next?
AC: We’re all taking a brief rest after the tour and scattering across the globe to get some sun in. Then we’re straight back for the summer festival season! Greenbelt has just announced their line up so we can tell you we’ll be performing there in The Playhouse Theatre on 26 + 27 Aug! You’ll have to follow us on social media to hear the rest though!


Alula Cyr perform ‘Hyena’ at The Albany from 12-13 Apr, see this page here for all the details.

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Photo: Mark Dawson