Perch, Glasgow’s flying and falling carnival

Perch performers prepare to take to the skies above Glasgow. Picture: Contributed
Perch performers prepare to take to the skies above Glasgow. Picture: Contributed
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AERIAL artists are to stage a death-defying show over the streets of Glasgow in an innovative online link-up with Brazilian daredevils.

The rain is coming down in sheets across Rottenrow Gardens when I meet Alan Richardson. But he is philosophical about the fact that, a couple of weeks from now, he is staging a major piece of outdoor carnival-style theatre in this very location. “It’s good,” he says, grinning. “Let it rain now and get it over with.”

While the cultural programme around the Commonwealth Games is full of big, ambitious events, Perch – on the opening weekend of Festival 2014 – is a contender for being one of the biggest, with nearly 150 performers, including the 86-strong senior orchestra from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. And if you count the cast of the simultaneous performance happening in Brazil, beamed live to Glasgow via video link, and collaborators in Australia, the total is closer to 500.

Huddled under an umbrella, Richardson, director of street arts and circus development organisation Conflux, who has masterminded the project, explains what to expect. From the gardens on the site of the former maternity hospital, the audience will watch aerial performances on the high buildings around the square, as well as close-up action around them. “At any one time, there might be five or six things you can choose between looking at,” he says. “Things get introduced slowly, and then build to a cacophony of chaos at the end – organised chaos, of course.”

Perch is billed as “a carnival of flying and falling”, a feast of interweaving stories and multi-sensory experiences about “the aspiration to fly, the reluctance to fly and the fear of taking risks”. One of the directors, Patrick Nolan, of Australian aerial company Legs on the Wall, describes it as “a big street theatre piece, just with a bit more infrastructure and an 86-piece orchestra. It’s not often you get to do a street show with a full symphony orchestra.”

Richardson says: “It’s about moving out of your comfort zone, shaking off your shackles; that perhaps the attempt to fly, even if you fall flat on your face, is much more exciting than not trying. I suspect the Brazilians are slightly better at shaking off their shackles than the British. We want to encapsulate a bit of carnival atmosphere and finish with a bit of a party. Hopefully, one should leave with a sense of euphoria, and possibly a bit more bravery.”

The show has been developed over two years between Conflux in Scotland, Sydney-based Legs on the Wall, who worked on the opening of the Sydney Olympics and the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in Birmingham, and Lume Teatro from Campinas, Brazil, specialists in large-scale outdoor spectacle. It has taken various guises: at one stage it involved aerialists jumping off a cliff in the Highlands, at another it was an 11-hour carnival. Finally, the idea of a live-link between all three countries was abandoned as the time difference was too problematic: 6pm in Campinas is 10pm in Glasgow, but 7am in Sydney.

Nolan and Lume Teatro’s Ricardo Puccetti will direct the show in Glasgow together before Puccetti returns to Brazil to direct the show in Campinas – and catch the World Cup Final. He laughs and says: “My whole life, my dream was to go to a World Cup, then finally it comes to Brazil – and I’m in Glasgow. But the collaborative aspects of the show, working with international companies and learning from them, has been wonderful.”

Running two linked shows in different continents makes for an awesomely complicated set of logistics. “The action here has to correspond to the action in Brazil,” says Nolan. “There are things happening in Glasgow that have to be happening at exactly the right time because when the camera goes live we need to be at the right place in the story. There are Brazilian elements which are integral to our story. It’s really exciting to be creating this work that’s happening on two separate continents with two separate audiences, but who are connected. And if the internet drops out, we’re stuffed.” He pauses. “The internet is not going to drop out.”

Then there is the challenge of making two symbiotic shows with two casts, continents apart. The linchpin is the score, original music by Scots composer Stephen Deazley, which will be performed by a symphony-strength orchestra in both countries. The rest of the show is being developed, using the music as a framework, with a cast of established dancers, aerialists and street performers, a larger group of emerging artists and a community cast from Coatbridge College. In the Conflux rehearsal space at the Briggait, they are learning how to be birds. Occasionally, our conversation is drowned out by cooing or warbling from the background. “To really own the work, they need to be part of the process of developing it,” says Nolan. “It’s a really rewarding process, they are incredibly generous in what they bring.”

The performers are divided into archetypes, each aligned to a bird type – narcissistic fashionistas (peacocks), medics (caring, but risk-averse), travellers, zookeepers (officious rule-followers) and the Furious, irreverent carnival fools who challenge everyone else. Puccetti says: “They are the clowns, the beggars, the anarchists, they are so low in society they don’t really care, they mock everything, they don’t care if they’re flying or falling, they enjoy everything.”

And there is a chicken, who will travel on a zipwire down from the top of the McCance Building. Gemma Blythe, who finished her training in physical theatre at Fife College last June, looks very at ease turning somersaults in her harness, though she is not yet (as she will be in the show) 18 metres above the ground. Her first aerial work was less than two months ago in another Culture 2014 show, White Gold. She’s looking forward to Perch: “It’s a lot of fun, once you know you’re safe in your harness. You don’t have to be graceful to be in a harness.”

Richardson settled on Rottenrow as the ideal location almost immediately. “I’d seen it before but I’d never really looked at it. We wanted somewhere surrounded by high buildings, and I was very surprised that we’d found somewhere that was perfect, right in the city centre.” Then all he needed to do was convince the owners of the buildings, Strathclyde University, to let aerial performers use them. “It’s a very risk-averse and mollycoddling society that we live in, and people are understandably nervous when you say: ‘We’d like to have six people jump off your building on a rope’. But Strathclyde has been brilliant. Obviously there have been negotiations about what we can and can’t do, but mostly what they said was, ‘glad it’s you and not us’.”

So, Perch, an ambitious show about risk-taking, cleared its most important hurdle. The next is the weather. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me: ‘You’re doing an outdoor show in Glasgow? Why?’” says Nolan. “There is a certain naive hope that it will be a clear, beautiful night. I think it will be. We had one the other week.”

Perch is performed at Rottenrow Gardens, Glasgow, on 19 and 20 July. See