(Kate Wyver’s article appeared in the guardian 5.9; via Pam Green; Photo: The stars of Showwomen: (left to right) Fancy Chance, Marisa Carnesky, Lucifire and Livia Kojo Alour. Photograph: Sarah Hickson.)
Pioneering female entertainers, including a 1930s clown and a Wall of Death stunt rider, are celebrated in a show by a fearless group of performers
Female performers in British variety acts have long been termed “showgirls”. For the illusionist Marisa Carnesky, this demeans them. “What happens when the showgirl grows up?” she asks.
A performance artist and creator of the interactive show Ghost Train – which was in residence at Blackpool for five years – Carnesky is using first-hand testimony, archival research and a healthy dose of guesswork to conjure the world of late 19th and early 20th-century female circus performers. The lives explored in her new production, Showwomen, include those of a sword climber, a clown, an aerialist and a daredevil. “The British seaside was always this extraordinary melting pot,” Carnesky says with glee. “Women weren’t just mute leg-kickers in a lineup.”
First: the women who work with swords. Making the show with Carnesky is sword swallower Livia Kojo Alour, who was naturally drawn to the story of the sword artist, crocodile charmer and glass-walker Koringa. Working in the 1930s, Koringa was rumoured to hypnotise farm animals on enemy lines so soldiers could cross unnoticed. “There’s this picture where Koringa climbs up a high ladder of swords,” Kojo Alour says. “I do the same. I have a ladder of swords. I swallow swords; I lay on beds of nails.” She moves her hands as she speaks, occasionally flashing an intricate tattoo of a sword from elbow to wrist.
In pictures, Koringa has dark skin, but it is uncertain whether she was an Indian performer, as touted by the Bertram Mills Circus posters, or whether she was encouraged to lean on a racist British fascination for the “exotic”. This is a term Kojo Alour has had to deal with often. “When I was starting out, I had a hard time. I was one of the very few Black performers on the London scene. I was constantly searching for something that made me stand out, and not in an exotic way, which is how I was described a lot back in the day.” She was drawn to extremities in performance. “The only way to carve my way was to do something dangerous that nobody else could do.”
Another of the show’s main characters is the pioneering 1930s clown Lulu Adams. Her act would have felt something akin to drag kinging, Carnesky suggests, as clowning was only done by men. Carnesky and Kojo Alour will also be performing with the self-taught hair hanger Fancy Chance, who will explore the 1880s aerialist Miss La La, whom Degas painted hanging from her teeth. In some shows, they will be joined by the fire artist Lucifire, who will look into the life of the 1920s stuntwoman and Wall of Death rider Marjorie Dare.