Anna Lumb (Melbourne) talks Spiegel Rock, 50ft women and going back to the future

An artist who has performed in a castle in Poland, an orphanage in the Angolan jungle, and a field in Malaysia, Anna Lumb is no stranger to the surreal. Lumb’s unique blend of theatre, circus and physical comedy has taken her to some of the world’s farthest corners. Ahead of her hometown appearance at Melba Spiegeltent, we caught up with the Pocket Rocket to find out more about her extraordinary journey as a hula-hooper, circus artist, theatre maker and mum.

Talking to Lumb, you feel a palpable sense of urgency, as though speaking to a woman on the precipice of something great. “I’ve just come back from Sydney Festival where I did a show called Retro Futurismus in the Spiegeltent.” Running on four hours of sleep, her voice is somehow abuzz with energy. “[Retro Futurismus is] sort of a future-focussed variety show; a post-apocalyptic after-party”. Upon hearing of her 20-year career in circus theatre, it’s clear that Lumb’s vigour is as much a part of her craft as the dozens of hula-hoops she twirls around herself with stunning finesse.

Retro Futurismus, an old-school variety night which can only be described with a great deal of hyphenation, is the brain child of Lumb, Gabi Barton, Teresa Blake and iconic twin performers Anni and Maude Davey. A retrospective look at futurism, the show explores past conceptions of the future as opposed to its current reality. “We were looking at dated ideas of what we thought the future would be, how we had this vision and hope, and how things haven’t necessarily turned out that way.” Lumb explains. “We wanted to look at how that relates to our current political and environmental situation.”

Both conceptually and aesthetically, the show channels icons such as Bjork, David Bowie and Margaret Atwood: “People that had these ideas and evoked these kinds of things within their own practice.” She elaborates. “We then commented on those ideas, using them for reference, visually, while making up our own bizarre and fantastical characters and creatures.”

Retro Futurismus also draws on the strengths of each of its collaborators. A myriad of skills and styles fused into an eclectic, yet cohesive variety show is evidence of the strong working relationship between these five women. “Anni and Maude are long term mentors of mine. I’ve worked with them for years and they’ve directed a lot of my work. I really respect their views and values and approach to theatre making. Gabi is also someone whose work I’ve been looking at for a long time. When I first started out, Town Bikes were really big and there was an exciting new wave of neo-burlesque performance, so I’m thrilled to be working alongside her.”

Initially a guest-performer, Teresa Blake has become an indispensable member of the vaudevillian quintet. “Teresa is the definition of a really inventive performance artist who is multi-skilled and multi-talented,” she notes. “One of the acts she does is ‘brick bikini’, where she has a bikini made out of bricks and she walks along in it. It’s just incredible. She’s like our post-apocalyptic warrior in the show.” In addition to its key members, the show features a rotation of special guests. “We’ve worked with some really fantastic artists including Azaria Universe, Moses and Sarah Ward (as Yana Alana). It’s kind of an ever-changing cast.”

With the rising popularity of circus and variety, the future of the genre itself is at the forefront of Lumb’s mind, and those of her fellow performers. “With that increased exposure to the weird and wonderful in variety and burlesque shows, it’s expanded the genre and given way to a lot of sub-genres and cross-overs between those forms,” Lumb muses. “I think the art form itself evolved in the last 10 years, so it’s like, what do we do next?”

For Lumb, what’s next is a performance in Spiegel Rock. A unique collaboration created by Danny Walsh and Emma Peel, Spiegel Rock is set for this years’ Melba Spiegelent, and there couldn’t be a venue more fitting for what’s in store. “Emma and Dan discussed with me the idea of making fun new collaborations and working outside the box a little.” How outside the box, exactly? The show features live rock acts Danny Walsh Banned, My Left Boot, and Dan Kelly’s Dream Band alongside circus performers. If you’re wondering how exactly to reconcile these art forms, you’re not alone. But Lumb assures us, “Circus and live bands are a match made in heaven. The energy of both those things – the physical element of circus and the physical element of people playing music on stage – is pretty electric.”

Citing among her influences Patti Smith, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Viv Albertine, Anohni, Princess Nokia, and Karen O, Lumb’s work is strongly connected to music. “Music definitely informs my practice. I probably sound like a massive hipster, but I’ve been listening to The xx’s new record. It feels like their first album, to now, is bookending a period in my life.”

A period which includes touring with Peaches in London, and performing at various festivals across the world, musical collaboration is by no means novel to Lumb. Reflecting on how these performances have come together and the processes that allow these art forms to harmonise, Lumb recalls. “It’s quite an organic, loose process. Sometimes it’s even just an impromptu performance on stage. With Peaches, she’d say, ‘Yeah! We’ll do this track, go on to this track’, and she just kind of pushes you out on stage. I’ve worked in a more curated sense where my performance has been premeditated and planned. But if I’m honest, with live music it’s more about, ‘Let’s just make this happen’. The magic happens on stage and part of that magic is the spontaneity.”

Having developed shows that have risen to acclaim across various world stages, Lumb understands the challenges inherent in performing experimental art to new audiences. “Melbourne’s a great city for theatre and experimental work. I feel like sometimes I might get away with pushing the boundaries a little bit more and taking risks [because there is] a very supportive audience. Having said that, we took a wonderfully strange and bizarre show to Sydney Festival and to Wesley’s [Enoch] credit, his programming was really vast and varied and the audiences were really receptive. There’s always that fear that your work might not go over the way you want it to, but we were just so happy with the response in Sydney.” If there’s one thing Lumb has learned in her years of performing it’s that, “You can never underestimate your audience anywhere. You can never going in thinking ‘Oh, they’re going to be like this, and it’s going to be like that’ because it’s not fair to yourself or the audience.”

This advice rings particularly true for Lumb when performing her children’s comedy, Super Amazing Giant Girl. “I have had so much fun making work for kids. They’re probably the toughest, most discerning audience you’ll ever get because their reactions are immediate, and completely unfiltered. So you know if something is working straight away.”

Initially a parody of The 50ft Woman created for adults, Lumb felt the show’s message lent itself to a younger audience. “Just the idea of playing with size and the absurdity of that; messages about body positivity and friendship and accepting differences within the work. Being a parent, it’s fun to explore that and find humour that appeals to both small and big kids. It’s a good challenge and a really fun one.”

On the topic of being a parent, Lumb reflects on the difficulties of new motherhood in her line of work. “I’m not going to lie it’s really challenging, especially being a physical performer. When you have a child, particularly in this work, but I think for any woman, you really look at your identity and who you are. It’s such a seismic shift in your world and your practice,” she explains. “It’s really tricky, because I want to make sure I’m performing in both areas as a mother and as an artist and it’s forever a divided heart. I’m excited to watch a person develop, and I’m increasingly excited about what I can learn from that, and what he’ll get to see and be exposed to. It’s a huge responsibility, but a great one.”

“In a way,” Lumb adds. “Because I have less time to do the work, the work I’m choosing to do has to be good. I’m learning to be more efficient in my practice and therefore, hopefully, making some of the best work that I’ve ever made, or will make.”

With a formidable future ahead of her, Lumb seeks to continuing nudging at the fringes of convention. “I’m really enjoying people pushing. There’s always been a political edge to a lot of peoples’ work, but I’m really enjoying shows like Hot Brown Honey coming out and being really unapologetically political and subversive and kind of feminist and strong.”

“As the world becomes an increasingly tumultuous and crazy place, I feel like art should reflect that. I mean, art always is a reflection of the times, but I think the more we become liberated in certain areas the more we’re able to push the boundaries of performance.”

Anna Lumb will be performing in Spiegel Rock, February 18th at Melba Spiegelent, Collingwood. Check out the official Facebook event here.

Also appearing at Fairfield Summer Series, Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne International Comedy Festivals:

February 5th – February 26th: FAIRFIELD, VIC | www.multiculturalarts.com.au
March 4th – March 19th: ADELAIDE, SA | www.adelaidefringe.com.au
March 29th – April 23rd: MELBOURNE, VIC | www.comedyfestival.com.au

For more information about Anna Lumb, head to www.annalumb.com.