Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit, U.S. Tour 2007
aerial theater company, Melbourne, Australia
(front to back: Amelia McQueen, George Filev, Paul Bourke, [not pictured: Kathryn Jamieson])

Tottered on: 24 June 2007
Temperature: 73F
Ceiling: clouds and sun
Ground: fresh cut grass
Wind: N at 3 mph

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TT with HD: Strange Fruit (Amelia, George, Paul, [Kathryn])

strange fruit group

(left to right) Kathryn, George, Paul, Amelia

strange fruit group

Some romancing
requires no flower

strange fruit group

Romance atop
a pole?

strange fruit group

'hard to get'
to a Whole.

strange fruit group

Drop your flower, lose the girl.
Every. Single. Time.

[Ed. note: After mounting up on the totter, HD realized the recording equipment was not turned on, which required everyone to dismount again, lest the session have been documented with pictures alone--that is to say, without words.]

HD: ... I almost forgot. That would have been tragic. It would have fit with your act, though, right?

GF: True. We have many tragic moments.

HD: Oh! I was actually thinking of the silence! Okay. Alright. Welcome to the teeter totter.

GF: Thank you!

AM: Thank you for having us, Dave!

HD: So you've got two days down--three performances each day--and one day to go, today.

AM: Yeah.

HD: And three performances again today. How many days in a row do you figure you could keep that up? I mean, the physical demands of that, I would think, would start to take a toll?

GF: True. Well, we're scheduled to have like a day's rest after six days work, so that's basically our ...

HD: ... is that a contractual thing?

GF: Yeah, that's our contractual thing, so that we can maintain our health and stuff like that. Because, yeah, it does take a lot out of you.

HD: I would imagine. It's low impact--there's not a lot of jolting, right?--but you guys, even though your poles are made out of fiberglass, your abdominal muscles must be made out of steel.

AM: [laugh]

GF: Yeah, you could say that!

HD: So is there a specific training that you do just for this type of work? Do you do like a thousand sit-ups a day or something?

GF: At the moment we're doing this thing called the Nine Minutes of Heaven, which is holding a physical position for a minute, then changing that position for another minute, and you do that for nine minutes, ending in a handstand for a minute. So that's one sort of, what do you call it ...

AM: ... training method, or.

PB: I've been doing a lot of Pilates as well. I've gotten interested in that, and I've found it's really suitable for that and for other circus training I'm doing as well.

GF: And yoga.

AM: Lots of stretching. Lots of stretching, because you do work in your hip-pelvis zone a lot--because the equipment just on the upper thigh there. And so you have to keep basically stretching out those muscles and relaxing those muscles or they end up pulling your pelvis around into ...

HD: ... yeah, how comfortable is that rigging or harness that ...

GF: ... not very! [laugh]

HD: Yeah, I was going to say, it looks fairly medieval.

GF: It is!

HD: Almost like a torture device almost.

AM: [laugh]

GF: Yeah, no matter how much you pad the things, they still kill you, so!

HD: But they are adjusted to each one of you, right?

GF: Yeah.

HD: I mean you have a particular pole and harness that's yours, they're not interchangeable.

GF: That's right.

AM: Because we're people of different weights, but we have to be able to swing in the same length of time, to take the same length of time to swing, see what I mean? You need to find the right poles for each person so that we can be in time.

HD: So the poles are actually calibrated to your individual weights?

GF: Yep. They're calibrated to what will be a weight range. So if you're within that range, then you can start doing minute adjustments by adding a little lift in there if you need to go a bit slower, or cutting the pole a bit to make it go a bit faster, or lifting your perch up a little bit to get really technical and get the tempos happening at exactly the same time.

HD: Is that sensitive at all to the weather?

AM: Yes.

GF: Yeah, weather can affect it a lot. If it's really hot, the pole will be a lot more bend-y, so ...

HD: ... hmmm, so today it'll be bend-ier than it has been.

GF: Yeah.

AM: And in the evenings the condensation in the air makes you turn quite a lot--where the pole sits in the base is where it rotates from ...

HD: ... yeah, actually I was checking that at yesterday's performance, because on Friday evening, I couldn't make out in the light whether it was the pole that was turning, or the rig at the top that was turning about the pole.

GF: It's the whole pole.

HD: Yeah, there's like a grease fitting in the base, or something?

GF: Yeah, it sits inside a sleeve. And there's a little bit of grease in there, and the whole thing just spins with the momentum of your body, so you can control it, and make it go faster or slower.

HD: So how hard is it to just stand stock still?

AM: It's not really hard.

PB: The pole's kind of got a--it sort of returns to a neutral point. Like you take your weight in a direction, and that's how you move. But if you just relax, the pole's going to generally return to the center point. It's really only unless you engage it that it goes anywhere else.

HD: So the breeze that might be blowing, can that wreak any havoc?

PB: It can. It can blow you off center and make it not possible to be in that neutral middle space. And the wind--we perform up to a certain amount of wind, but the girls, especially, it catches their ...

HD: ... oh, with their big hoops ...

PB: ... their skirts, and it can make a show a bit more crazy when it's windy. You've got to sort of let go of the control you usually have and just go with it a bit more. It's kind of fun, actually. [laugh]

HD: So, you mentioned that the poles are calibrated to people's weights. There's a weight limit of 160 pounds, I read in the local paper?

GF: Yeah, yep.

HD: You guys don't have to struggle to make that weight, do you?

GF: Ahh, no, but if you're over it, then you're not in the [Strange Fruit] company any more!

HD: Do you have weigh-ins?

GF: Sometimes we do, like if you do a season in Europe or something like that, every now and then we'll do a weigh-in or something like that. But not often. Basically you check your own weight, because you can tell straight-away if someone's a bit over, because your pole will be out of tempo. And if it's one that you've used before, then there's something going on, so.

HD: You mentioned the prospect of being thrown out of the company for being over the weight, but how do you get into the company? Auditions, I assume, of some kind?

GF: Yeah, I did an audition about four years ago.

HD: How about you, Amelia?

AM: I was in the same audition as George.

PB: We all were, actually, at the same time.

HD: Had you had any practice with this apparatus before?

AM: No. They don't ...

HD: ... they just throw you up on a pole and see how you do???

AM: Yeah, because they're the only company with the apparatus. So you're not expected to have any experience. But your previous skills need to be in line with something that will make it possible for you to do it.

HD: I know, George, you have some specific background as an aerialist?

GF: Yeah.

HD: Hanging from ribbons and things I've seen on your website. Amelia, yours is more classical, traditional modern dance, is that fair to say?

AM: Yeah, well, I trained as a contemporary dancer.

HD: So the mental representations that you have then of these pieces that Strange Fruit does, is that basically the same kind of mental representation that you use to memorize the sequence of moves that you would on a static stage, or is it fundamentally different?

AM: Not fundamentally different. I think body memory and how you use your mind and your body, transfers in every single part of life in movement. So any physical activity I do--I think anyone who trains physically, uses all the things they've got very intuitively in every activity they do. So, no, I don't think of it differently. The things you do have to think about differently are definitely to do with just pole techniques. Like it takes a lot of time to work out this fine detail of controlling the pole, and getting it going in the right direction.

HD: I was struck by how much control you do have over the pole. To be able to control the accelerations and to be able to hold it at maximal extension the way that you do! I sort of expected it to be a bit more out of control. At the beginning of the piece, where it's--whatever you're doing to cause the poles to start to bend, is not discernible to the naked eye--well, maybe somebody with a really sharply trained eye could see some way that you're shifting balance or whatever. But it's almost magical, as if the wind's blowing you that way. I wanted to ask you about the music that goes with this piece that your performing here in Ann Arbor--it's called Swoon!, is that right?

AM: The [choreographed] piece is, yeah.

HD: Who choreographed that?

GF: Well, it's a mixture of different choreographers. But we recently re-worked the piece with our current artistic director, so we've done quite a bit of work on it just to update it a bit. It's kind of nice to do something new as well, for a company that's touring for six weeks.

HD: These revisions that you made, then, that was the four of you atop the poles, with the artistic director, and just sort of saying, Try this, try that?

GF: Yeah, and she came in with different pieces of music as well, and it was sort of a collaborative thing. So all of us put in ideas, and just played up there. We actually did it in two days, and sort of mucked around, and saw what we came up with, and yeah, it was good!

HD: So that bit of music that lends itself particularly well to clapping along to, is that Celtic music, or?

GF: I think it's Finnish, I'm not sure. The people that do that song, I think they're called Seelinnikoi. I'm not sure exactly where they're from. [Ed. note: Post totter-ride GF supplied the clarification that Seelinnikoi is a traditional Finnish song, arranged by Varttina.]

HD: That's good rip-roaring fun, that one!

AM: Yeah, it is, isn't it?

HD: So Paul, there's this part in the program where you've got this flower?

PB: Uh huh?

HD: And you mean to be extending it to Amelia, and you drop it. Or I mean, your character drops it--I'm sure that if you wanted--it's intentional, the drop, that's what I'm saying ...

PB: ... I'm always trying and I can never do it! [laugh]

HD: I don't know how much of the audience chatter you're able to follow up on the poles, or whether you're able to feed off the audience at all, but the Friday night performance, when the flower dropped, there was this conversation in the pod around me that went something along the lines of, Do you think that they meant to drop it, or it was accidental and they're just covering for it? Should we go grab it and throw it up to him? So I'm wondering what your reaction would be if somebody 'helpfully' grabbed the flower off the ground and tossed it back up to you?

PB: I think it'd be fun, it'd be something different, to work with it. But I kind of 'die' right at that moment as well, though, so I'd have to be born again ...

GF/AM: ... [laugh][laugh] ...

PB: ... if someone gave me the flower. But I mean ...

HD: ... it could be the flower that wakes you up and brings you back to life! Well, speaking of that, George, in the opening sequence your character is basically waking the other people up.

GF: Yeah.

HD: So my question for the other two of you is, Do you really have your eyes closed ... ?

AM: ... no ...

HD: ... or are you peeking? When you wake up is your cue solely the audio clap?

AM: Yeah, yeah. [Ed. note: The opening of Swoon! has AM facing such that GF would be out of her field of view, even if her eyes were open.]

PB: I have my eyes open in that bit, I mean like for the swinging ...

AM: ... me, too.

PB: Unless the sun's in my eyes or something like that. I just try to imagine that I've just been frozen for a thousand years or something like that. The music as well--I just kind of know when George is doing that.

GF: Whereas poor Amelia, she's got no idea, because I don't know when to do it either!

HD: And in that whole opening sequence, I guess the others' job is to sync-up to you [Amelia]. And you're [Amelia] counting time to the music?

AM: Yeah, I'm trying to be the same, trying to be regular, and not making any changes. That is really hard in the wind.

HD: I noticed we're getting some breeze going through the leaves here.

AM: This much would be alright. It's when it's kind of ...

GF: ... gusty ...

AM: ... yeah, gusty.

HD: So you have another touring group of Strange Fruit over in Europe right now?

AM: Mmm hmm.

HD: So were you guys a part of the group of Strange Fruit that performed at the World Swimming Championships?

GF: Yes! Two of us were in that.

HD: Did you get a chance to meet any of the swimmers?

GF: No. Sadly!

HD: Mmm. It would have been great if you'd said, Yes, as a matter of fact, we met a guy named Michael Phelps! He won, I think, six gold medals or something?

AM: Yeah!

HD: And the reason that would have been cool, is that he lives and trains here in Ann Arbor.

AM: You're joking!

PB/GF: Ahhhh!

AM: Isn't that Lumpy?! [to GF] Is it that guy, his nickname's Lumpy?

GF: I don't know.

AM: [to HD] Is his nickname Lumpy? Does he have a really lumpy head?

GF/PB: [laugh]

HD: [laugh] I don't know!

GF: This is getting controversial!

AM: You maybe better erase that part! I'm sorry, Michael Phelps!

HD: No, I'll keep that part in!

AM: He would know who I'm talking about.

HD: So you met a guy named Lumpy?

AM: Or maybe that's Klim. Is [Michael] Klim a swimmer?

PB: [barely audible] How did he get so lumpy?

GF: Yeah.

AM: I think his nickname was Lumpy in the 2000 Olympics, one of the swimmers, was being called Lumpy by the media. [Ed. note: For the record, it's swimmer Michael Klim whose nickname is Lumpy.]

HD: Okay. So are people constantly giving you suggestions for ways that you could amplify the whole Strange Fruit effect? Like, Why don't you get taller poles?

AM: Yeah, people definitely, give ...

HD: ... or, It would be really cool if you put the poles next to the edge of the Grand Canyon?

GF: ... yeah, that'd be sweet.

PB: I'd be scared! [laugh]

AM: What about the water show? Were you in the water show?

GF: The water show?

AM: The one in the ocean?

GF: No, but we have done that before.

HD: In the ocean with the bases underwater?

GF: With the bases in the ocean. With the bases in a moat around a gallery. Bases on a glass roof. Yeah, we've performed in quite a few different places. And we're currently in R and D on what else we can do with them as well.

HD: Something that would simply require just adding a bit of digital technology that I think would be super cool--you know, they make these lipstick-case cameras, you could maybe tape one to the side of your head, and you could do a live video feed to a giant screen, projected somewhere else, so that people could alternate watching the performance and then see what you're seeing up on a giant screen.

GF: That would be great! No, I like that.

AM: That'd be really good.

HD: So I was surprised driving you over here, you said nobody had driven you past Michigan Stadium?

GF: No.

HD: Is there anything that you've heard about here in Ann Arbor, that you're keen to see that you haven't seen yet?

PB: I haven't heard about anything. People I've spoken to have said, Oh, that's a cool town!

AM: Yeah!

GF: Yeah, what we've gotten everywhere is, Oh, wait 'til you get to Ann Arbor, you're going to love it!

HD: Really?! What kind of people are they who are saying that?

GF: [laugh]

AM: People who live in Columbia, Maryland!

HD: Maryland, okay.

PB: Younger people, I think.

GF: People that have studied here, I think as well.

PB: Yeah, one guy we met in Pittsburgh, who's the coordinator of dance stuff for the cultural trust there had done his studies here, and he said, You're going to love it!

HD: So, have you loved it?

GF: Yeah.

HD: You don't have to say that, just to be polite.

GF: No, no, no! [laugh] That's one really nice benefit of our job, that we get to see places that we've never been to before, just explore, even just walking a street in a suburb is great. I just love that, being a part of the people that live in the city. So yeah. And it's a young town and the audiences are fantastic.

AM: Yeah.

GF: I mean, like really mind-blowing. So we're really just loving it!

HD: Well, I certainly enjoyed both performances I saw. [Ed. note: There's a playful--not an accusatory--tone to this next comment by HD. The performers had to wend their way through the crowd seated all over the lawn on entrance and exit to the 'stage'.]

And in fact, Amelia, you almost stepped on me at both of them.

AM: Did I?? I'm very sorry!

HD: That's quite alright! At that point, I didn't know for sure which one you were, and I thought, Hmm, I wonder if that's Amelia [who I've been exchanging emails with] or if that's Kathryn. Paul, I'm sorry, I interrupted you?

PB: Yeah, it's interesting, because I've seen a lot of movies about America, and college, and stuff, and we were driving past these frat houses, and I couldn't believe it! It was like exactly like out of the movies, and it was like people partying all the time ...

AM: ... every night!

PB: You know, looking like they've just been partying in the morning when we've been driving past ...

HD: [laugh]

PB: ... and just like Alpha Beta, and I just thought, I couldn't believe how ...

HD: ... how accurate it was?

PB: How accurate it was, yeah. Because these are comedy movies I'm seeing! Like Revenge of the Nerds.

HD: Speaking of video entertainment, there's this TV show in Australia--maybe it's not airing anymore--Thank God You're Here?

GF: Thank God You're Here? I've heard it, but I haven't seen it.

HD: Okay, never mind. That's a thread that would go nowhere, then.

AM: It's an Australian program?

HD: It's supposed to be an Australian TV series, yeah.

AM: Hmmm.

PB: I don't watch a lot of television in Australia.

HD: It involves improvisation.

AM: Ahhh.

GF: That's right. They get comics into a scene and just throw them in it ...

PB: ... oh, I have seen that show! I have seen it on the air.

AM: So they have to walk onto the stage and the scene's already set... ?

HD: ... right.

HD: In the U.S. we've just ripped that off and we have our own version of Thank God You're Here, now. But the reason that's sort of near and hear to my heart is that one of the actresses who plays in the regular ensemble cast, actually rode the teeter totter.

AM: Excellent!

HD: Yeah, her mom is on the City Council of the City of Ann Arbor.

AM: That's great.

HD: How are your guys' thighs doing?

AM: They're good!

HD: The feedback I've received is that the teeter totter is a bit too wide and it needs to have its corners sloped down. So I'm just doing a comfort check.

AM: Yeah, no.

GF: You're talking to acrobats who are used to pain, so we feel nothing!

PB: We're trained to not express our pain!

AM: If it was thinner--I don't think it should be thinner, the teeter totter, do you [to GF and PB]?

PB: I can see how the rounded edges could help, because I mean I can feel what you're saying. But it's not bad for me, but I can see maybe how for someone ...

GF: As far as they go, it's quality!

HD: [laugh] Well, listen, do you have anything else on your minds before we dismount?

GF: Well, we're really looking forward to doing the last couple of shows here.

PB: We're going to see the MOMIX dance company today, which I'm excited about!

HD: Is the Summer Festival, are they taking care of that for you?

AM: Yeah.

GF: Yeah.

HD: And I noticed at the hotel some people who had name badges on that said 'Artist Liaison, Summer Festival'. So from that, I take it, the Summer Festival takes good care of you guys?

AM: This as been beautiful! Beautiful. And it does change, every festival you go to. So sometimes you arrive at the airport and you have a stressful time finding where you're going and blah blah, whereas here, we arrived, and there was a very nice person, Hi guys! you know, waving at us from back there and just kind of really supportive, and it makes that extra travel edge so much gentler.

HD: So you wouldn't mind coming back next year for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival?

GF: Oh, I'd love to!

HD: Well there's anything you missed or you needed, or something happened that you didn't like, feel free to convey that to the Summer Festival people, because they would fix it, I'm sure. And I would love to see Strange Fruit become a standard part of Top of the Park. That would be just tremendous.

GF: That would be good.

AM: That would be great. There's plenty more pieces that Strange Fruit have ...

GF: ... that would work really well here.

HD: How do you guys cart all that equipment around?

GF: We ship it, the heavy stuff. And the stuff that can be flown, we fly.

HD: Within the States?

GF: Within the States, we've got a U-Haul van.

HD: Really? Is it U-Haul, literally U-Haul, that brand?

GF: Yeah, literally U-Haul! Yep.

AM: Our production manager does some long drives while we fly ahead. Sorry!

HD: Speaking of managers, and you mentioned the job title of artistic director a few minutes ago. Is there somebody along who's like the 'boss' of you while you're here? Somebody who checks curfew or something like that?

GF: Not curfew, but we've got a tour manager as well. So she'll look at accommodation and any other things that we might need to make sure that the tour goes smooth. Yeah, the production manager takes care of all technicalities.

HD: I was thinking more like of someone who makes sure that you're not out all night partying.

GF: No, she's generally with us! [laugh]

AM: She's good at making sure we're eating kind of well. Different people in the role perform the job in slightly different ways, but we're lucky we've got a very lovely and excellent and very skilled woman with us now.

HD: So any last words from any of you?

GF: This has been fun!

HD: Well, thank you for saying that! Let's dismount.