If theatre funding doesn’t improve, these acrobats won’t bend. They’ll break 

Lina Johansson, co-founder and joint artistic director of Mimbre, Hackney’s women-led acrobatic theatre company, on how even circus performers can't defy gravity.

Disability proud and female led, this acrobatic theatre company might soon struggle to survive. Pic: Lina Johansson

Perched precariously on one another’s shoulders, three women contort themselves in impossible ways as they deftly twist, turn and duck. Like birds in collective flight, their fluidity of motion makes the impressive acts look effortless – edging towards the transcendently sublime. 

“It’s straddling the impossible, really,” says joint artistic director of Mimbre, Lina Johansson, who founded the Hackney-based company with Silvia Fratelli and Emma Norin in 1999 with a vision of creating strong acrobatic choreographies with women and now co-leads the company’s vision and artistic programme. “People always say, ‘Oh, circus defies gravity’, [but] it really doesn’t. We work painfully aware of gravity. If we fall, it hurts, you know.” 

In acrobalance, the body is the only tool. Pic: Lifted, by Ben Hopper

A balancing act

For Johansson and many others, circus is not a sport. It’s a creative act.

“Circus has always been at the periphery, [never the most obvious career path] but at the same time it’s always been a big part of people’s imagination,” says Johansson. 

The paths individuals follow to get to circus are as diverse as the performers. Some, like Johansson’s colleague Fratelli, enter through gymnastics. Others may already be enchanted by the surrounding theatricality and mystique.

“Me? I came in through having learned to juggle in a festival and I was like, ‘This is fun’,” says Johansson, who went to the National Centre for Circus Arts (one of the only institutions in the UK to award degree-level circus education) based in Hoxton before training in Havana, Cuba with her co-founders.

In the early days after setting up in Hackney, the sheer beauty of being three women navigating the acrobatic theatre space came with its own set of triumphs – and logistical tribulations: “We were fairly similar sizes, whereas in the technique we work with [acrobalance, where your body is your tool], it was quite common to have a big, strong guy at the base doing all the lifts and quite a petite woman being thrown around on the top,” she explains. “Obviously, if you’re lifting and throwing someone who’s half your weight, that’s a very different technique from someone more similar to your own size.” 

Mimbre seeks to present an authentic representation of women. Pic: ‘Acrolab’ by Emily Nicholl.

Essentially, creating storylines through acrobalance involved a great deal of adaptation, “We had to ask: how does it work for our bodies?” Today, they still adapt the art form to fit unique realities. 

Mimbre’s work is informed by a concerted focus on inclusive representation of women. “Working with different bodies, body shapes, body sizes and also abilities has been a big part of our journey,” Johansson says. 

One of the most recurrent themes in audience feedback from Mimbre’s productions, she shares, is, “the joy of the positive representation of women. I think often on stage and in films there’s a very stereotypical [image] of women and we’re trying to [offer] a more realistic representation of all the different things that women can be.” Representing the multiplicity of perspectives has been baked into the company’s ethos. 

So, too, is a regard for representing diverse audiences. “Internationalism and international collaborations have always been a big part of our company,” says Johansson. “The original founders? None of us were actually British. We were Swedish and Italians, but based in London and I think that internationalism has continued.”

But while the story of three plucky, resilient creatives striking out to make it is endearing, their trajectory is not linear. Especially not today. 

Funding realities 

That great theatre – acrobatic or otherwise – is not produced in silos divorced from realities of financial challenges in an increasingly constrained funding environment is not a surprise. What does raise eyebrows, however, is how seemingly promising figures can give an illusion of prosperity, masking potential vulnerabilities lurking underneath. 

At first glance, Mimbre is one of the lucky ones. As one of the ELL borough theatre companies to successfully receive funding from the Arts Council of England during 2023-2026 –  £128,087 each year, to be precise – in many ways, Mimbre is able to continue doing the phenomenal work it has carved a name for. They produce ambitious performances that tour nationally and internationally as well as working with young people in their Hackney community.

Furthermore, Arts Council funding is not the only source of cash flow for local performance companies such as Mimbre. “We then have earned income,” explains Johansson. “That’s income from our tours, from our performances, external workshops and consultancy work.” 

The Exploded Circus at the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing. Pic: Simon Dack, Vervate Photography

Funders in 2023 included the the Wilmcote Charitrust, the Rank Foundation, the Chapman Charitable Trust, Ford Britain Trust and many other individual donors and families. Hackney Council has also been immensely supportive in the past, says Johansson, and Mimbre will be reapplying for more council-level support.

Cast an unflinching gaze beyond the numbers, though, and it becomes apparent that as targets and programmes grow, funding doesn’t always increase proportionally. Beyond their core work of producing theatre and running classes, Mimbre is also tasked with serving as a sector leader, conducting master classes, mentoring other artists or supporting wider initiatives for holistic development. 

Funding, then, is spread thin between multiple needs. “The last two years have been a real struggle to secure the required financial support,” Johansson continues. “It’s a very high competition for the funds that are available.”

If funding doesn’t improve, Mimbre may struggle to deliver its youth programme. Pic: HeardinLondon

Crucially, says Johansson, the amount of funding received by the Arts Council, “Has been close to a standstill for 12 years.”

“The effect of cuts, of the increased cost of living, of increased rents and the regeneration of Hackney and how much more popular it’s become. In a sense, that has made it a lot harder for arts companies to thrive,” she says.

“We are delivering a much bigger and more ambitious programme, and the money is not enough for that. At the same time, we’re seeing a cut in other income streams, because everyone is tight,” she continues. 

Simply put, it hurts. 

Hackney roots

While Mimbre as a company may not be in imminent danger, explains Johansson, “in the arts ecology, if things don’t change, we, as well as many others, will really struggle to keep going.”

The inextricably interconnected ecosystem for local theatre is pivotal – the same factors that give credence to a location’s burgeoning popularity can also pose constraints later.

“Relatively cheaper rents [in Hackney], cheaper warehouses, places to create or places to rehearse,” originally made it an immensely collaborative place, explains Johansson. Over the course of the past few years, however, she has seen many creatives – even theatre acrobats she personally trained – moving out. They’re simply unable to make rent. 

Trying to push the boundariess of imagination and possibility is even harder with harsh funding constraints. Pic: ‘Mimbre devising’ by HeardinLondon

“It’s not just about money being tighter for us, it’s about money being tighter for everyone we work with,” says Johansson. “The theatre venue we work with has a tighter budget, income from audiences is still not as predictable post-pandemic. The festivals we work with have less funding and many of them are reliable of council support, which in many places are now being cut. Hackney [Council] is still really, really trying to be supportive of the arts and all the companies here are really trying, but the added cuts everywhere is felt!”

Johansson is aware of the reality of cash-strapped councils. Like the juggling maestro that she is, she knows there are many balls up in the air. But, she says, the last two rounds of funding have, “heavily favoured” organisations outside of London. While she completely supports the idea of uplifting historically underfunded communities, “[It’s] a shame that’s been done at the cost of the creative work that was happening in London,” she says. 

Yet, she remains hopeful. Moving out is not an option. “When people say, ‘Oh, why don’t you go to this borough? You’ll be able to get more funding’, I’m like, ‘Yeah, but Hackney is where my community is. I know these families. I bump into kids that I taught on the streets. It’s not that simple’. For companies based in Hackney, there is still a very strong loyalty.”

“I still see Hackney as a very creative borough,” says Johansson, “but it’s not something we can take for granted. It has to be supported; it has to be nurtured. People think Hackney will always be this way and I don’t know if it will be in 10 years.” 

What’s at stake?

Mimbre Youth programme reaches 50 students a week, with over half places subsidised for low-income families.  It supports the young people to explore their gymnastic and creative abilities, build human pyramids, and experience the unbridled joy of movement.

“[It’s] less focused [on becoming] the best acrobat [or actor] …it’s more wanting to share the joy of doing things with your body that no one thought you could do,” says Johansson. 

Mimbre’s Youth programme is energetic and vibrant. Pic: HeardinLondon

All too often, she feels, the simple act of having fun is pushed to the wayside with rigorous curriculum. “I think the best way of getting someone to enjoy moving their bodies is to make it fun.” 

Of course, all this means the physical as well as mental health benefits for young people are profound – as well as what we stand to lose if Mimbre is unable to continue operations in the future. 

Mimbre’s own research, seen by ELL, reveals 94% of parents agree – if the company shut its doors, they don’t know of a similar or equally accessible activity. 

“There’s so many physical health benefits, but for me, I still think that the most important benefit of our youth work is contributing to confidence, friendships and better mental health,” she says. 

Many of Mimbre’s students love the programme so much they never leave. One of Johansson’s students has been with the programme for nine years. Sometimes, she says fondly, the eldest child of a family will be volunteering to train as the youngest child enters beginner’s classes. “But I’d say definitely, over the last 15 years, we’ve had at least a thousand young people come through.” 

Performers experience the joy of movement, agility and balance at Mimbre rehearsals. Pic: HeardinLondon

So, what happens next? 

Despite it all, the outlook is far from bleak. Currently, Johansson is most excited about a series of collaborative films with Daryl & Co, a disabiled-led theatre company. “Young people ask questions about disability and then we answer those questions with humour and choreographies within the films,” she says, “I’m also really excited about our new show Weight(less), which actually deals with the themes of finding joy and resilience when times are hard!” 

She is happy they are using circus and theatre to tell important stories, just as she had always envisioned. Her work occupies a unique, curious space in the tenuous fringes between rational possibility and the sublime.

“Artists are stubborn and they are resilient,” smiles Johansson. Against all odds, she is hopeful they’ll continue to do the impossible. Even with the constraints of gravity and funding. 

Even if it hurts. 

You can find out more about all areas of Mimbre’s work, including their youth classes, on: www.mimbre.co.uk, or by following Mimbre_Acrobats on Instagram or Facebook. You can watch the short film Let’s Talk About Disability with accompanying learning resources about access and inclusion here.

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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