Accomplished Australian circus and physical theatre performer Sarah Houbolt takes flight

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DAO talks to accomplished Australian circus and physical theatre performer Sarah Houboult with a profile of her career progression and discussion of what makes her tick as a circus performer working within the disability arts arena.

Sarah Houbolt

The month ahead looks very exciting for Sarah Houbolt. She will be working with Extraordinary Bodies on the creative development project What am I worth? at the National Theatre from 2-6 October, before an event speaking at Circomedia (St Paul’s Church) on 13 October as part of Circus City Bristol.

“I met Extraordinary Bodies last year on a project at Circus Oz in Melbourne, and it was so great. It was the very first time I had met another partially sighted professional aerial performer. Up until now the journey has been very lonely for me as an artist in that respect. I also never really used audio description and it blew my mind as to how the company used it, alongside other access tools and a general culture of access. I’d never seen anything like it. And so I want more!”

Later in the month Sarah travels to Berlin for Arts Access Australia’s Australia & Berlin Arts Exchange 2017. The project sets the stage to showcase Australian disabled artists and innovative learning opportunities between Australia and Germany from October 9-20 in Berlin. The 10-day festival will centre around a Meeting Place event with a number of satellite events, arts workshops, music, dance and performances. Sarah will be part of an opening performance on 10 October, and a key note speaker at the arts and disability conference Meeting Place on 16 October.

“I have worked with Arts Access Australia a number of times, speaking at their national conferences. Arts Access Australia is the national peak body for arts and disability in Australia, with a strong legacy and history. It was pure luck that the two opportunities in UK and Germany coincided!”

Sarah initially got the circus bug, training with women’s circus troupe Vulcana in Brisbane.

“Vulcana were made up of really strong women presenting work that was both political and skilful. Having these women around inspired me to develop a genre of performance for myself that echoed the political drive of the stories I wanted to tell. I am incredibly fortunate to be a part of the Australian circus community because it is quite unique in the way we support each other and build a sense of a real carnie family.”

After developing her talent for aerial performance through community workshops in Australia Sarah moved to New Zealand where she found independent circus and theatre makers to work alongside:

“In Auckland I was able to explore creativity in a city that didn’t have the richest infrastructure, so the experimental scene was really thriving. My first introduction to disability arts was with Philip Patston’s Creative Momentum Symposium in 2009. I couldn’t think of a better introduction! I was very lucky to have heard from people who had gone before me and this set me on a path to explore disability identity and stories, and related themes, in my arts practice. So when I moved back to Australia I was delighted to find a community of disabled artists who welcomed me, and together we are building great initiatives.”

“My aspirations for performance are generally to show something unique on stage and provide a transformative experience for audiences. I have done a lot of different performances, from children’s theatre, to adult burlesque, from expanded cinema to narrative monologues, to corporate events, performance art, film, circus theatre and movement theatre and contemporary dance.”

“My nightlight is probably working on a Cirque du Soleil film, and at the other end of the scale, working with Lizard Man and Space Cowboy in Sideshow Wonderland. Being part of the contemporary freak show was phenomenal for my connection to historical circus. From there I made a one-woman show about a historical freak show performer.”

Like several artists within the disability arts arena Sarah name-checks Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) as a key point in understanding the heritage offered by a disability arts practice.

“Watching Freaks for the first time gave me a legacy to follow, a lineage to belong to, and an urgency to ensure that our history is fully known, and most importantly, told by us. The film was banned for thirty years for being too controversial. It featured disabled performers in lead and speaking roles. Their contribution was very visible”.

“I had gone through a period of frustration working in an inclusive/ integrated setting where I felt my contribution wasn’t being prioritised, recognised or facilitated. I didn’t see any connection or progression of our historical contributions as a community to what was happening in the contemporary space. So I decided it was critical to begin a process of reclamation, beginning with disability arts history as I felt it was colonised by the culturally non-disabled.”

“It’s a standard practice  in art – making to research that which has gone before, and so I think that every arts company doing anything related to disability should know our art history, and honour our ethos and processes within collaborations. When I create my own art, it’s a disability-led approach, and I really enjoy working with other disabled artists, as I think we have something very unique to offer.”

“My full length show, KooKoo the Birdgirl, is about Minnie Woolsley, a historical performer with disability, who starred in Freaks (1932). This is an art history piece, and a female perspective on the side show. My passion to uncover her story is as a result of the importance of telling our history from a disability perspective. MInnie lived in a time of compulsory sterilisation and anti-marriage laws for disabled women, which not many people know about.”

“I found that through reclaiming our past that we have a stronger ground to stand on, it’s a more powerful position to create art knowing the contribution of disabled artists that have gone before. I’m also delighted to find out about artists across the globe, as we have always been present in the arts landscape. I’ve had to remind people in Australia that disability arts is not a new thing, and by recognising this, I feel we have more options to push art forms to interesting places”.

In 2018 Sarah plans to tour her KooKoo the Bird Girl show and to work further internationally. She also plans to continue arts research into blindness, dance and the aesthetics of access, as well as hoping to attend the Unlimited Festival in London in summer 2018.

Click on this link to see Sarah Houbolt on TEDxSYDNEY talking about designing for function and universal access.