Stephanie Bunbury | Sydney Morning Herald | Sunday 4th October 2015

Heather Holliday can swallow up to six swords at a time.
Heather Holliday can swallow up to six swords at a time. Photo: Simon Schluter 


Is swallowing swords dangerous? Well, obviously. “I don’t ever like to get cocky about it,” says Heather Holliday, “because I know accidents happen when you’re cocky.”

You have to be careful: eat at the right time so your saliva glands are in gear and your stomach is expanded when you need to drop a sword into it; avoid fizzy drinks; focus your energies; stay in sword-swallowing shape. “If I stop for a month and go on vacation, it’s not going to be as easy to drop the swords back in, so I’d have to build up my tolerance again.  Right now I am doing six swords at a time but the amount of time I’ve been swallowing swords, I just got to six a few months ago.”

For the past three years, Holliday has been touring the world as the glamour turn in Limbo, a cabaret circus show produced by Melbourne performance company Strut & Fret. Limbo has a theatrical veneer, but it is essentially spectacle. Pumped along by eccentrically jazzy music, it has tap-dancing giving way to fire-eating, showers of white feathers falling on the stage one moment and a contortionist apparently unravelling his bones the next, pole balancing and an amazing swirling dance involving five people swaying under the big top.

<i>So You Think You Can Dance</i> finalist Hilton Denis is the lead tap dancer in <i>Limbo</i>.
So You Think You Can Dance finalist Hilton Denis is the lead tap dancer in LimboPhoto: Melissa Adams


Both Limbo and Strut & Fret are the brainchild of Scott Maidment, who somehow combines running a slate of shows that tour the world with devising the shows themselves. Isn’t that at least two jobs? Probably: when we meet in London, he says he hasn’t unpacked his bags in eight years of travelling the world. Limbo is grounded in New Orleans-style brass music by Maidment’s collaborator Sxip Shirey​, a New York composer; it pumps and thumps along with the action.

The visual inspiration, says Maidment, came from Chilean surrealist film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky​, best known for his ’70s stoner movie El Topo. Maidment sent a trailer for Jodorowsky’s 1989 film Santa Sangre​ to the cast before they started work and to his potential backers. Clearly, it did the trick. What Maidment wanted, he says, was to give the sense that Limbo was a fantasy place with its own rules. “The format is really a traditional cabaret, where one act follows another, but the thing that makes it different from other Spiegeltent-type shows is that it takes place in this cohesive world of Limbo.”

Holliday represents the carny-sideshow end of the cabaret cavalcade, as befits a girl who learned her trade on New York’s Coney Island. I am ridiculously impressed by this. Everyone has seen pictures of Coney Island – its tacky freak shows, crowded beach and rickety-looking thrill rides – but you never think you will meet someone who actually worked there. She was 17, a pink-haired punk rocker from a good Mormon family who managed to wangle working in the Coney Island museum as a summer intern, tearing tickets and making coffee. It was a job that would contribute points to her high school diploma.

Composer Sxip Shirey provided the music for <i>Limbo</i>.
Composer Sxip Shirey provided the music for Limbo.


Except that she never did the job she was supposed to do, because she got there just as the sideshow lost one of its female performers. Holliday could not replace the formidable lady snake charmer, who had left to go to welding school, because she had no performance skills. Nor was she a freak, like the woman with only one very short leg who came in with rollerblades on her hands and single foot as The Human Tripod.

So she became the “skin act”. “Which means the girl who doesn’t say anything, but does all the magic help,” Holliday says. “Like I’ll sit in the box while they put the blades in it. I’ll sit on the magic chair while the Tesla coil shoots sparks from my fingers. Just basically a pretty girl who doesn’t do anything except help out – and that was how I got my start. So after the internship was done, my boss said ‘you’re definitely attractive enough to work here’. That is what he said. He hired me on my looks!” She hoots with laughter. At the time, she says, she didn’t even pluck her eyebrows.

Of course she wanted to learn real skills, but it wasn’t easy. “No one wanted to teach me, that is the thing. It is almost like a secret society. And as a teenage girl, everyone thinks you are full of shit: I was just some girl hanging out. I knew this guy who could teach me fire and he just said ‘never teach a pretty girl how to eat fire’. I’m like ‘aaaaggghhh’!!

Heather Holliday's fire-breathing act is not without risks – she has scabs on the inside of her mouth.
Heather Holliday’s fire-breathing act is not without risks – she has scabs on the inside of her mouth. Photo: Simon Schluter


“But you do 10 shows a day on Coney Island; it’s a grindshow. So you are backstage all the time and you try to pick up things and when you get to the stage where you’re serious and you could hurt yourself, you get a few tips.”

When the regular sword swallower left to join the Texas State Fair, she leapt into the breach. “I had been kind of learning, but I knew I had until the next season. I never worked so hard in my life. And I was the youngest sword swallower ever, which was a really big billing.”

“Heather is an extraordinary creature,” says Maidment. “She is so engaging on stage that we would joke in rehearsals that she could just come on stage and eat a bowl of cereal.” It was Sxip Shirey who had spotted her when she was touring as a double act with one of her old Coney Island friends, then called her six years later to ask if she was interested in working in Australia. Hilton Denis, the leading tap dancer, comes from Sydney; Maidment knew him through his brother, but he had runs on the board as a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance. The hand balancer Danik Abishev​ comes from a traditional Russian circus family who moved to Australia; Maidment says he has been working on his skills since he was four.

Batsheva Dance Company.
Batsheva Dance Company. Photo: John Saxby


In Edinburgh, where the show is a festival hit, I meet sousaphone player Eamon McNelis who joined the show just three months ago. He is actually a jazz trumpeter who grew up in Collingwood, then got a secondary school place at Victoria College of the Arts. He had never played sousaphone before; he had two and half months to learn before he joined up. “I thought it would be like learning to walk again, coming from the trumpet,” he says, “but actually it was waking up one morning and finding you’re five times as big as you were the previous night. Exactly the same, but a little bit different.”

Maidment himself grew up in Brisbane, where he rode a unicycle to put himself through acting school; Strut & Fret has been running for 17 years. When we meet in London he has just come from a couple of days in New York, where he organised a little last-minute show for Madonna’s birthday party. Paul McCartney was there too.  ”It is a little bit crazy right now,” he agrees. “But I think it’s something I always wanted to do. When I was in Brisbane I wanted to have a company that was working in all different states of Australia. When that happened, I wanted to tour overseas more and more.”  It’s all “super-cool”, even if he does lose track of clock time as he crosses between zones.

He started out doing touring productions of Shakespeare; “strut and fret” is a phrase from Macbeth. “I do love Shakespeare,” he says. “And when it’s done well, it’s amazing. But I think what I wanted to do is create shows that lift your spirits and engage you in an exciting way.” Lights, music, action and not too much of any of them: a short show is a good show. “You have to go ‘wham’ and leave people wanting more, as they say.” Most of all, he wants an audience to feel immersed. The sense that we are all human, that the performers are doing things with their bodies that are all the more extraordinary because we could potentially do them ourselves – that their tools are the same arms and legs we all have – is crucial to his conception.

<i>32 Rue Vandenbranden</i> by Belgium's Peeping Tom.
32 Rue Vandenbranden by Belgium’s Peeping Tom. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele


When Limbo started, it included several magical illusions, but he stripped them out because he thought they created a distance between the performers and audience. “Something you know is a trick can’t compare to the humanity of one guy doing an amazing handstand routine on stage or someone doing a back somersault,” he says. “In a world where there are video games and CGI, people do want to have something to see right in front of their eyes.”

It also reinforces a sense of community. In a round tent, the audience is looking at each other as well as the performers; they see other people laugh or gasp.  ”We are engaging in this journey together and I think that is why this style of performance, whether it’s circus or sideshow or burlesque, whatever you want to call it, is having a resurgence. You make a contract with the audience – I am going to do this for you and you are going to be in this with me. I’m not going to pretend you are not there. We are going to create an energy in this space. That is the idea of doing a show in a tent: the circus come to town, it’s here for this amount of time, it’s in a park. And you know it’s kind of there for everybody.”

Of course, the fact is that we can’t all do what these people do. Hardly anyone can. Hardly anyone would want to, I think when Holliday shows me the burn scabs on the inside of her mouth. She had to hold the fire she was eating for a very long time tonight, she says, because she was waiting for a music cue. “It’s not as bad, I swear, as if you sip a cup of tea and it’s too hot and you burn your whole tongue,” she says cheerfully.

“And everyone hurts themselves in the show. The contortionist has to be careful with his back. The aerialist has bruises from the hoop and calluses all over her hands. Actually, the mouth is the fastest healing part of your body, apart from your vagina. A mouth can go through a lot and then be fine the next day.” Truly, these people are not quite the same as the rest of us. But how fabulous is it to be able to swallow swords? To be a travelling carnival girl? Admit it: that’s pretty darn fabulous.

IMAGE CREDIT: via Sydney Morning Herald Website, Photo: Simon Schluter