In 2011 the Director of Circus Development at NCCA, Daisy Drury, dreamed up the idea of circus in a cemetery - five years later Depart is born.
Read her recollection of how an idea became reality below.
About five years ago a friend commented idly that he’d never been truly, properly frightened by a theatre production in the same way that he had been by films. I took this passing comment as a kind of challenge and so, shortly afterwards, when my husband took me to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for the first time, I felt like I might have found the place where I could put my friend’s theory to the test.
I first visited the park on a lowering day in mid-summer when the park was noticeably cooler than the heavy London streets around it. The foliage was thick at every level, grasping at our ankles and creating dark spooky pockets wherever we looked. It was wonderfully atmospheric and gazing up at the tall trees that screened out the light and noise from 21stCentury London I thought how amazing it would be to bring people to this place at dusk to see aerialists in the trees, dancers on the pathways and acrobats ducking and diving between the gravestones.
Nice idea but how on earth do you make something like that happen? An early conversation with the team at Spitalfields Music about collaborating on the project concluded that despite a great deal of enthusiasm on both sides neither they nor we had the skills or resources to deliver something so large, ambitious and, well, outdoorsy.
All went quiet and I focused on other things for a few years until I found myself sitting next to Mark Ball, Artistic Director at LIFT, at a lunch and telling him about the crazy cemetery idea. He nodded and smiled in his usual inscrutable way and I thought I was probably talking too much and ought to shut up. A few months later an email arrived that said, simply ‘Can we talk about cemeteries?’ I’m not even sure he signed it. When LIFT came on board with all their skill and experience in delivering projects of this scale I knew that the Cemetery Project (as we called it in those days) now had a chance of becoming reality. When Yaron agreed to direct it I knew that it had a chance of being amazing.
Much has changed in the intervening years since I first looked up in the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and imagined aerialists. The Olympics happened. We became the National Centre for Circus Arts. I had two children. The Cemetery Project, in the hands of the brilliant Circa team became Depart. We teamed up with Central School of Ballet. A few performances in London became a national tour. And my friend, the one who started the whole thing off, saw Ghost Stories in the West End and was sufficiently terrified by it that he disproved his theory himself.
This last is helpful because when Depart opens on Thursday I don’t want to frighten our audience anymore. I want them to be moved and surprised that a place so otherworldly and peaceful can exist in the heart of London. I want them to witness, some perhaps for the first time, the lengths and depths that circus can reach. I want the hair to stand up on the back of their necks. I want their noses to tingle and their hearts to beat faster. I want them to question what their eyes and ears are telling them. And I want them to head back on to the Mile End Road at the end of the night having spent a few hours or so in our wonderful circus world where it would seem that, almost anything is possible and crazy ideas can, in the end, become reality.