Heather Holliday first trained to be a sword- swallower at New York’s famous Coney Island fair. Aged just 17 at the time, she undertook a gruelling summer of back-to-back performances. “Coney Island will always be what I’m most proud of,” she says. “I was part of a sideshow that was performed over and over again, in order to keep customers quickly moving in and out. And if the boardwalk was bustling, you could do ten shows in one day – 50 shows a week. It’s basically sideshow boot camp and you can’t get that kind of performance experience anywhere else.”
One of eight diverse acts on the bill at La Clique Noël – Part Deux, the flagship show of Edinburgh’s Christmas, Holliday has been swallowing steel – and fire – ever since. Fear, it would seem, isn’t part of her make-up.
“You don’t get into sideshows to conquer your fears – you get into them because you want to learn how to do stuff that shouldn’t be possible,” she says.
“I was just a teenager when I started this and jumped at everything with reckless abandon. I knew the dangers but was honestly never afraid, I was full of intrigue.”
With contemporary circus and cabaret becoming more and more ubiquitous, simply showing off your skill is no longer enough to win over an audience, regardless of how specialised it is. Happily for Holliday (whose current record is swallowing six swords at once), finding new ways to present her talent continues to be a welcome challenge.
“When I first debuted my sword act, I wanted it to be nothing like the people who came before me,” she says. “And every year after that I was always obsessed with how much further I was able to push myself – and I’m still learning.
“Some people have their signature act that they’ve been doing the exact same way for years, and it works for them, but personally, I can never stay satisfied. Even though I’m pretty sure the majority of the audience hasn’t seen me before, I just genuinely enjoy creating. New stuff doesn’t happen overnight, it can be a slow process, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Watching Holliday slide those long metal blades down her throat, most of us are flinching in our seats or peeking through fingers – largely because we imagine how painful it would be to do it ourselves. After years of practice, Holliday has a largely pain-free time of it on stage – but sometimes, even she finds her act hard to swallow.
“A lot of it is mind over matter, which is a hard place to get to some days,” she says. “If your mind wanders to something else, like where you’re meeting your friends later, and your body isn’t properly aligned, you can absolutely be jolted back to reality with a sharp pain in your guts. But unless you actually tear the tissue, these aren’t serious injuries.
“And swords are heavy, so if you aren’t swallowing them slowly enough, and feeling it out as you go, you can jab in the wrong direction too quickly. But after a few painful breaths, the pain subsides before the audience even has a clue. I’m wincing just thinking about – it’s not as easy as I make it look.”
That we can believe. One of the reasons Holliday is able to make her act look so effortless is she performs it regularly. Taking time off between shows might sound like much-needed respite, but it can actually do her more harm than good.
“As a full-time performer, I don’t need to practise too often,” she says. “The main discipline for me on show days is having to stick to a strict eating schedule, which can be boring. But having chunks of time off between work can really hurt me if I’m not careful – your body adapts to what you do, but that means it can also adapt back when you don’t do it.”
Such is the popularity of circus these days that Holliday is in fairly constant demand – and it’s shows like La Clique that have made that possible.
“In a way, La Clique spawned a genre,” says Australian director David Bates, who started the show 15 years ago. “And that genre has become very popular. These days, acts that were once based in subversive underground performance arts movements in London and Berlin have become mainstream. So one of the hardest things for me now is finding fresh, new artists.”
As Bates explains, however, it’s not so much finding talent that’s the issue, it’s seeking out performers who know what to do with their ability. “Once you’ve seen a few trapeze acts, there’s only a certain number of tricks they can do with that – the same with hand-balancing,” he says. “So now it’s got more to do with context than skill, and we’re always looking for unique takes on what would otherwise be a fairly standard thing.
“Heather Holliday is a great example of that – she’s an absolutely amazing artist who not only has this incredible knowledge but it’s the way she puts together her fire-eating, sword-swallowing and Coney Island sideshow skills.”
As well as welcoming back some of the performers from last year’s La Clique Noël show, Bates has recruited a few newcomers, including Veronica Thompson (aka Fancy Chance) with a hair-hanging aerial act, sophisticated be-suited juggler Florian Brooks, and New York-based burlesque artist, Mosh. Stephen Williams will deliver one of La Clique’s signature acts, Bath Boy, while popular TV magician/comedian Paul Zenon will show us why he’s a Gold Star member of the Inner Magic Circle.
All of these acts will be expertly hosted by cabaret star Bernie Dieter. “Bernie was unknown to me when she joined La Clique last year,” explains Bates. “But her show Little Death Club was a major success at the Edinburgh Fringe this August and she’s become a major artist in her own right.
“She’s got that perfect combination of being musically and comedically talented, but also quite on the edge. I really like the fact that she’s full of risk and danger and is fearless with audiences.”
Back in 2005, when Bates first started La Clique, everybody performed to a backing track. Not anymore – having a live band has now become an intrinsic part of the package, and this year’s Christmas show will once again feature the talents of Dannie Bourne and the La Clique Palace Orkestra, featuring vocalist Kelly Wolfgram.
“They’re a fantastic performance band, not just a group of anonymous musicians providing an accompaniment,” says Bates. “And that’s one of the things we’ve been working on over the past five years, to really make music a major feature.
“I couldn’t go back to doing La Clique with backing tracks now that we’ve elevated it to this level, because I want people to have a concert experience as much as a circus/variety show experience, but to still retain that edge and unique energy.”
La Clique Noël – Part Deux, Festival Square Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, until 5 January