Many DanceTabs readers may not have heard of the Thursford Christmas Spectacular and will be surprised to learn that it is the largest Christmas Show of all in this land of the Pantomime, having attracted over 5.4 million visitors to date; all the more surprising given that it is hosted in a Norfolk village with a population of 205, according to the 2011 Census! It is, however, also the home of the world-famous Thursford Collection, a museum of steam engines and fairground organs, from which base the Christmas Spectacular began, some 41 years’ ago.
This year’s extravaganza (three hours of singing, dancing, comedy and variety entertainment) opens on 6 November and runs until 23 December. Every show is invariably sold out with up to fifty coach parties visiting each day! It is also a show that, importantly, provides seasonal work for over 60 professional dancers. This year’s show is choreographed by Tracey Iliffe, a Laine Theatre Arts alumna who danced for several years at the Moulin Rouge and Lido de Paris.
The star attraction at Thursford 2018 is Vanessa Alvarez, a seventh-generation circus artiste, from Valencia. Vanessa is an antipodist – a foot-juggler; one sister is a tightrope-walker; her father is also a juggler and her aunt, a contortionist. She was born into the circus – literally – in the Canary Islands where her parents were both members of the Roncalli Circus. Vanessa was recently seen, in May, juggling bath towels in the German circus show SOAP at the Underbelly Festival on London’s Southbank. Graham Watts caught up with this impressive and busy performer to pose our five questions.
GW: How did your circus dynasty begin and which of your family have been the major influences on your career to date?
VA: My great-great-grandfather was a circus director for the biggest circus in Spain. Everyone in my family became artists and travelled around. My dad was my teacher, and I got my education from him.
At 16 I started my career, and since then I’ve been all over the world. I was supposed to be a contortionist like my auntie, but that wasn’t really my destiny. I saw a foot juggler on TV when I was 9 years old; I told my father about it and he trained me. I knew what I wanted to do from then, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.
Can you explain something about your training?
Normally at the beginning you train in lots of diverse skills: in order to pick a specialism, you must learn lots of different things. I had dance classes with a Russian ballet teacher and I also took flamenco lessons. It’s not just training in your specialism – you must know how to be elegant, how to move your hands and how to walk, which is best learned from ballet and flamenco teachers. Training in the circus arts has to be broad as well as highly-specialised. It’s like a team – 50/50 – my dad taught me the juggling skills, the ballet teacher taught me how to move.
What have been the major highlights in your career to date?
I always wanted to work with Cirque du Soleil; it was my great ambition – and I did it, I achieved my dream (Vanessa toured for a year, in the USA, with the Cirque show, Banana Shpeel). I’m happy about that – it was a beautiful time and a beautiful feeling.
I enjoy what I do, so I’m happy to work anywhere and everywhere I can perform. The Thursford Christmas Spectacular is my next dream – it looks wonderful – I feel like a 10-year-old girl at Christmas. Everybody in England seems to know about it. I’ve met John (Cushing – the show’s producer and director, every year since 1977) and he’s very nice. You can see that they all have fun.
You appear to be able to juggle almost anything possible! How many types of juggling do you incorporate into your acts; what are the strangest items that you have juggled, and what speciality foot-juggling will there be in the Thursford Christmas Spectacular?
I juggle with carpet, and I juggle a guitar. The guitar is the largest and most difficult because it’s very sensitive. It can be easily destroyed if it falls so that’s the thing to avoid! It took me seven years of intensive rehearsal, like an athlete, 12 hours every day. I wanted to be the best foot-juggler in the world and I’m the only foot-juggler who can juggle a guitar. Also, I’m the only Spanish foot-juggler to perform in Cirque du Soleil. If you want to be one of the best – like a doctor or a lawyer – you train very intensely. Becoming an artist is no joke!
I’m working on a new routine for the Thursford Christmas Spectacular; but it will be a surprise. A Christmas present to the people of the UK!
Have you ever been part of a Christmas variety show before? And, what are you looking forward to about performing in such a rural setting?
As soon as I started at 16, I’ve performed in Christmas variety shows! But, in the world of Christmas shows, the Thursford Christmas Spectacular really is the top of the top. I’m crazy about it – it’s REALLY Christmas!
It will be the second time I’ve been to England; I’ve performed in London, so I know one of the greatest cities that everyone wants to go and see, and now I want to experience Norfolk! It’s an historic county to visit, and Thursford is a very beautiful and peaceful village.
I want to see something different, not all of England is London. London is like Disneyland, everywhere else is so different. I want to see the different. I know it’s a normal village; it seems calm, and then the Thursford Christmas Spectacular happens…
I’m very much looking forward to your act – can’t wait to see what you are going to juggle next!