Edinburgh Festival Fringe show La Clique's new Scottish act, Miranda Menzies, on her hair suspension circus skills
She’s part of the variety show, which was born in Edinburgh in 2004
Before every performance, Miranda Menzies, 31, has to thoroughly brush her hair.
Then the performer ties it up in the secret knot that she was taught by other practitioners in the very niche and ancient art of hair suspension.
She goes out on stage, and is lifted into the air by her roots, as if she’s a Christmas decoration, before she contorts in a fashion that would make less flexible mortals crumble.
Along with her aerial hooping skills, this is why La Clique approached Menzies, originally from the Capital, and asked if she could join them for their Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. This “cabaret, new vaudeville and circus” troupe has been coming here since its debut in The Famous Spiegeltent, back in 2004.
It was way ahead of the curve, when it comes to edgy adult shows, and though we don’t see much of the Jim Rose Circus or Puppetry of the Penis anymore, La Clique has continued to attract audiences.
Menzies was already a fan, before she became a participant.
“They've got such a good formula. You're gonna cry, laugh, be shocked and have fun”, says this acrobat, who is London-based but staying with her mum while she’s up here.
When I speak to her, she’s about to head along to a technical rehearsal for the opening night at Underbelly’s Circus Hub on The Meadows.
She’ll be practising alongside her co-performers, including roller skaters, The Skating Willers III, comedian J’aiMine, stunt unicycle performer Sam Goodburn, sword swallower Heather Holliday and other death-defying acrobats.
She’s already friends with some of them. “It’s a small community,” she says. “A lot of circus work is on your own, but when you’re with a cast, you can help each other. It’s really lovely to feel supported”.
As well as other routines, her performance will include one over a full bathtub, in tribute to one of La Clique’s original acts, Bath Boy.
It involved a Nick Kamen-esque man in jeans, doing languorous and sexy acrobatics, while splashing the audience. This time, it’ll be more “girly”, Menzies says, and she’ll be wearing an “ethereal” crystal-emblazoned outfit.
This performer originally studied acting, and has been in various theatrical productions. So, how does one go from thespian to hanging from your hair in a circus tent?
“Life is strange”, says Menzies, who is also an expert in yoga, Pilates and barre. “When I did acting, I slowly got into teaching personal training. The more movement work I did, the more physical theatre work I did. I was spending more time with circus people, so I took it on myself to go away and learn more. I was in Berlin, in 2017, when I saw a girl doing hair hanging. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I really wanted to learn how to do it”.
It took two or three years for Menzies to find someone to teach her the ways. It’s not a case of sticking a scrunchie in and hoping for the best.
“I just had to go around like an idiot asking. They wouldn’t tell me because it is a very traditional and small circuit of touring families,” she says. “There are lots of different hair knots and they're all family secrets. People don't not teach them to be mean. You have to trust the person that you're showing it to. They're ethically responsible and want to know that they’re not endangering someone by showing them”.
She finds the knotting a relaxing preparatory ritual, along with doing her own stretches and breathing practice. According to Menzies, the sensation of being lifted by her hair isn’t painful, though the tension across the scalp has to be even, hence the brushing, to create a “strong rope”. If some hairs are pulled more than others, it can feel like a wire tugging at the scalp. If Menzies can avoid that happening, she thinks that suspension is almost therapeutic.
“It doesn't hurt the way you think it would hurt. It's very intense but feels really nice. Your entire spine elongates”, she says. “We've got layers of really thin fascia and tissue that attaches to the jaw. It uses all the muscles in your face and the top of your neck, but you engage your body to make you feel lighter so you're not like a sack of potatoes”.
Although this is dangerous stuff, not to be attempted at home, Menzies hasn’t had too many accidents in her circus career thus far.
There was one broken rib – “nobody’s fault” - and she’s had a few embarrassing technical motor fails, when she’s been left dangling, or dropped close to the floor. “You feel like you’ve got egg on your face, but that’s as bad as it’s ever got,” she says.
Despite this, Menzies doesn’t get scared.
“When I was younger, I got nervous about everything. I would be nervous a whole week before an audition, but now I'm much more efficient with those feelings. I get nervous a minute before I go on,” she says. “And that’s a good thing. I think if you weren't a little bit anxious, you probably shouldn't do it. If I was too laid back then something would be off and I’d need a holiday”.
Although Menzies will probably manage to keep her cool, we imagine that everyone else in the audience will be holding their breath in unison, as they watch her Edinburgh circus debut. Our scalps are already tingling in anticipation.
La Clique is at Underbelly’s Circus Hub on The Meadows (The Beauty), running from now until August 27 (apart from Mondays 15 and 22), 7.35pm. For tickets, £19, see www.edfringe.com