Fanning back flying high

Ken Fanning's inventive Tumble Circus is back in Belfast this Christmas and ready to raise the roof. The Belfast performer and film-maker talks raves, cranes and the addictive pull of circus with Gail Bell

Ken Fanning with his Tumble Circus co-founder Tina Segner in Writers' Square, Belfast - currently hosting a Winter Circus
Ken Fanning with his Tumble Circus co-founder Tina Segner in Writers' Square, Belfast - currently hosting a Winter Circus Ken Fanning with his Tumble Circus co-founder Tina Segner in Writers' Square, Belfast - currently hosting a Winter Circus

THE "sourdough belly" now completely gone and replaced with trapeze-ready muscle, Ken Fanning, acrobat, juggler, funnyman and film-maker, is ready to rave again the way he knows best: circus-style.

Co-founder of Belfast' s award-winning Tumble Circus, Fanning launched his fifth Winter Circus in Writers' Square last week, with the high-octane show running until January 3 and promising, he says, to have a bit of an old-fashioned dance party feel thrown in.

"We try to have a theme each year and this year we decided to base the whole show around a nineties rave," says Fanning, who runs his trailblazing human circus with Swedish-born trapeze artist, Tina Segner.

"I was on holiday in France recently and went to a circus festival and they had a bit of a rave on as well. I ended up dancing for three hours - it was great fun. I really miss raves."

At 48 he may be deemed a little too old for raves now, but he still manages to dangle with precarious precision on the trapeze alongside Tumble Circus's world-class performers including acrobats, aerialists and jugglers.

During the lockdowns, though, he did worry that he had hit the sourdough bread-making craze a little too hard.

"I grew a sourdough belly which made it impossible to do trapeze," laughs Fanning, who hails from Dublin but now lives in Belfast with his girlfriend and 15 year-old son, Tobin - often called upon to perform a "very funny" diabolo juggling routine in some of the shows.

"After over a year of not training on trapeze, I tried to get on one and my stomach muscle failed to kick in and I found myself standing on the ground, unable to do something I had been able to do instinctively for over 20 years. The sourdough belly had to go."

Tumble Circus in action
Tumble Circus in action Tumble Circus in action

It has been a long time waiting in the wings for the talented Tumble team of seven, but they're back, leaner and keener than ever, Fanning says, with a bag full of new tricks and new soundtrack, ready to raise the roof and spirits of everyone in the Christmas big top.

Founded in Dublin in the late nineties after a chance meeting with Segner on Grafton Street in 1995 - she was walking past with a pair of juggling clubs sticking out of her bag while he was busking - Tumble Circus has grown into an alternative new art form, touring extensively across the world (it headlined Glastonbury's Big Top in 2019) and re-inventing the traditional circus model along with way.

By his own account, it was an unlikely career choice for the dyslexic younger Fanning who taught himself to read after leaving school (where he abhorred all sport), eventually becoming the boy who really did run off to join the circus.

"I'm definitely not from a circus family - my dad owned a pub and my mum is still waiting for me to get a proper job," he says.

"When mum came over to see us perform for the first time at our end-of-year show at Circus School in England, someone asked her what it was like, seeing her son up there [doing aerial stunts] and - I love this quote - she was like, 'Well, we never encouraged him at all'."

As it transpired, the madcap Fanning didn't require that much encouragement after being instantly seduced by the carefree, non-conformist lifestyle of a group of New Age travellers he met in Spain.

"I was penniless, living in an orange grove and there were these guys living there, English New Age travellers, and they were all into doing street shows," he recalls.

"They would go out at the weekends and just do fire juggling and crazy stuff and make money from that, then travel on to the next place and do the same thing. I thought these guys were sorted and that this was the way to live, so I became a street performer.

"I was a juggler first - that was my gateway into the rest of it - and then I did acrobatics and all the aerial stuff. After meeting Tina, we decided we wanted to be really good at it all, so we went off to Circus School in Bristol."

Tina Segner and Ken Fanning
Tina Segner and Ken Fanning Tina Segner and Ken Fanning

As a circus performer, he calmly looks death in the face every day, but it is a "kind of rush" that, paradoxically, makes him glad to be alive. That said, he came closer to death than he would have liked on one particular occasion while executing a Houdini-style stunt outside Belfast City Hall to launch the Festival of Fools some years ago.

"That 'near-miss' scares me the most," he reveals, sounding surprisingly serious (for about a minute). "I was hanging upside down from a crane, 20 metres up in the air, with a rope on fire above me and I was dressed in a strait jacket. I was lying on the ground and the crane started pulling me up by my ankles and the driver was going really, really fast... He put the brakes on about 20 metres and I was bouncing in mid-air - there was this moment of fear and weightlessness and I wasn't expecting that. It was a bit of a nightmare, but I escaped."

Away from all the drama, Fanning is also a successful film-maker: he was commissioned by the St Patrick's Day Festival in Dublin last year to make hit comedy circus film, The MacCarnyson, while a fairytale film, Wood Trap, made during lockdown and supported by the Arts Council, was selected for this year's International Circus Film Festival.

Tumble Circus in action
Tumble Circus in action Tumble Circus in action

Meanwhile, a fly-on-the-wall type film zooming in on The Pitts Family Circus and shot in Australia earned him a best director award at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival in India in 2017.

"We have toured a lot in Australia over the years and I ended up making a feature film with a real-life circus family over there," Fanning explains.

"We raised the money through crowdfunding - it's a long, crazy story but it was the first ever blockchain-funded movie, funded by the cryptocurrency, Ethereum, so it was a big deal."

It is also a big deal for him to be back in his beloved circus tent this month after the pandemic forced a rethink, taking Tumble Circus outdoors with a new cycle show.

"It's all about moving forward and coming up with new ideas," he says.

"Next year, we hope to add in flying trapeze. When I was in Glastonbury a couple of years ago, I actually bumped into the man who had taught me trapeze at Circus School. He was 72 and he was backstage, warming up.

"I said, What are you doing, like? You're not going to get up there? And he was, 'Yeah, I'm doing flying trapeze'. And so, I watched a slender, buff man in his 70s, silver hair flying through the air and thought, 'What a legend'.

"I don't know if I'll still be doing that at 72, but I hope I am. When I first learned trapeze, it was like something just clicked deep within me. It was like I was in my body for the first time. It is the ultimate live performance rush and it's totally addictive."

Tumble Circus tickets available at wegottickets.com with family and group tickets bookable at bookings@tumblecircus.com.