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'I joined the circus to escape The Troubles'

Meet the performers from Tumble Circus.

Source: Ken Fanning/YouTube

THE IDEA OF running away to the circus might seem like a fantastical idea, but for one Belfast native, it was a way of escaping from the darkness of the Troubles.

Ursula Burns is one of the performers from the trio Tumble Circus, and is a harpist who has explored many sides to her career over the past few decades.

Along with its founders Tina Segner and Ken Fanning, she will be touring with Tumble Circus for the next few months around Ireland with their Damn the Circus show.

Running away to the circus

“I’ve been in performance all my life – I’m from a musical family, my granddad was a highland fiddler and my mum set Yeats to music,” said Burns.

At the age of 14, in 1984, Burns met Mike Moloney, who had founded the Belfast Community Circus. The circus changed her life – she ended up joining it at just 14, and going on tour around Northern Ireland.

I was going to school in the Falls Road and it was a very dark time, we had just come through the hunger strikes. There were black flags flying, riots, buses to school being burnt. When you look back at it in your memory, you don’t imagine all of that can have been real. It was so dark and so traumatic.

“It was that point where Mike arrived and all of a sudden there was this guy who was wearing multi-coloured clothes, saying it doesn’t matter what religion you are, it was not weighted down with religion. It was a real freedom.”

Though Ursula says she wasn’t a very physical person when it came to circus activities, Mike “saw a creative person in me and someone who was quite sensitive and upset about what was going around”. 

She described it as a “real release” from what was going on in society around her. It brought “a bit of life, a bit of fun” to her world.

“I was dying to get out of where I lived,” recalled Ursula. “I couldn’t wait to move to Botanic Avenue or somewhere that was accepting of everything. I couldn’t wait to escape. He brought that escape to me a few years early.”

For three years she took part in the circus, as the Troubles raged.

“Some days our parade would turn into a riot. We were going off to rough places and doing circus. We were stopped and searched on the way home. It was really in the depths of difficult times that he was doing this. It was really exciting and really fun. It was an explosion of colour and excitement.”

Joining Tumble Circus

After her time with the Belfast Community circus, she then moved into theatre for 10 years, followed by a music career, and comedy career, before coming back to the circus again with Tumble Circus five years ago.

She describes Tumble Circus as “not traditional circus”. “It’s funny, tragic, beautiful and really quite true to life. It’s very special what they’re doing.”

“Circus encompasses theatre, comedy, and circus music – all the different places that I’ve dwelled and all the different genres and art forms for so many years have all come together. It does really encompass everything,” said Ursula.

Circus is a very abstract artform but the way Tumble Circus works, they really make it real and they’re very much into comedy and narrative and that’s an interesting place to be because circus is so abstract.

She performs the music during the Damn the Circus show, and Ursula’s performance is all about breaking down the boundaries of the harp.

“I look at it from a different angle essentially, as I’m not trained.” She describes it as like indie songwriting, but using the harp like a guitar.

“I play it lying down and I do all sorts of breaking the normal approaches to playing – so I take it outside the box basically.”

Meet Tumble Circus

Tumble Circus Trapeze Ken and Tina performing as part of Tumble Circus Source: PAUL MCERLANE

Normally we say, if you’ve ever seen Cirque de Soleil, it’s not like that, and if you’ve every seen a traditional circus, we’re not like that.

Tina Segner is the co-founder of Tumble Circus, along with Ken Fanning. “It’s essentially a circus show mixed in with quite lot of theatrical pieces, and with comedy and some weird and wonderful acts,” she said. “We draw on our personal lives in a way, and then we just enhance it a bit and make it more fun I suppose.”

Originally from Sweden, she moved to Ireland almost 20 years ago. “This show is essentially about expectations – we are also getting quite old for circus performers,” she laughed.

In Damn the Circus, they explore what they expected their lives to become, and what they have become. It’s about “expectation and hope”.

Tina said she came across circus by mistake. “I really tumbled across it,” she recalls.

When she tells people she’s a circus performer, they assume she means with a traditional circus.

But what do they mean by “traditional”? “It’s about the skills I think. It’s about trapeze and aerial and acrobats and juggling and clowns.”

Tumble Cicrus Trapeze Ken Fanning and Tina Segner Source: PAUL MCERLANE

In this show, Tina does a double trapeze routine, an aerial silk routine, a hula hoop routine and two acrobatic pieces.

She describes the hour-long show as “quite dark” at times. “We end up arguing on stage, screaming and shouting at each other but it’s all fun. We all love each other to bits.”

They also bring in elements of slapstick, but it’s not all played for laughs. ”We also want to make people think a bit. We don’t want people to forget about the show - we want them to think about the issues.”

Tina had a son, Kasper, earlier this year, and she performed five days before he was born. Describing that night, she said:

“Ursula played a lullaby on the harp, it was really beautiful. It was Mother’s Day… it was one of those perfect moments. The whole audience thought ‘we’re never going to see this again’. It was really beautiful and nice. People were amazed by how much you can do when you are pregnant.”

The show is described as a family show, best suited to children aged over 10, with parental guidance. Tumble Circus will tour on various dates from October to December across Ireland. Its next appearance is 10 October at the Waterside Theatre in Derry, followed by 22 and 23 October at the Half Moon Theatre in Cork.

To find out more, visit the official Tumble Circus website.

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