Cornish circus wows the world but no one in Cornwall knows about them

Their stunning larger than life theatrical circus shows are renowned across the world and they’ve even worked with Beyonce and Take That – however, very few people in their home county know anything about Cornish company Incandescence.

What started as a dream for a little girl from Sennen after seeing a trapeze artist at Cornish theme park Flambards has grown into a hugely successful company which brings hundreds of thousands of pounds into the Cornish economy – despite never staging shows on home turf.

Incandescence’s productions skilfully blend world-class circus performance with beautiful dance choreography, memorable theatrical characters and stunning costumes set to eclectic and diverse live music scores, creating unique performances.

I saw, reviewed and was blown away by Incandescence’s first show in a big top in Penzance back in 2004 but they’ve become so successful overseas since then that another Cornish show has never been possible, which is a great shame as it’s the sort of jaw-dropping spectacle which redefines the word ‘circus’. And they’re a homegrown talent we should be shouting about.

The company has been producing and touring circus productions both nationally and internationally for the past 19 years to over 50 different countries worldwide from its family-run headquarters at Trewellard Industrial Estate at Pendeen near Penzance.

Highlights include creating a site-specific show in a Thailand jungle, a crane show in Egypt for Beyonce’s I Am… tour, a custom show on a lighthouse out at sea and being the first company ever to dare to tour 34 people and two tonnes of freight across Bolivia.

Incandescence’s founder Satya Lapham said: “That was an epic adventure. We performed to over 27,000 Bolivians, ran workshops and free shows to local orphanages and got to perform in La Paz, one of the most beautiful mountain cities in the world. Which at that altitude created a whole host of problems with altitude sickness and the need to have oxygen masks at the side of the stage for the artists – definitely not a normal tour.”

Satya described how a childhood dream became reality for a girl raised on a Sennen council estate.

“My mother was a science teacher and my father had been a mountain and climbing guide. So my earliest memories as a kid were being dangled off ropes from Land’s End cliffs. Aged nine I saw my first aerial artist perform on a trapeze at Flambards theme park. I was mesmerised and wrote to the circus asking if I could join theme. I never heard back … so I guess that was the start of my dream to be a flying trapeze artist.”

Satya set up and developed a community performance group called Pyromaniacs when she was just 15 with the help of her mum and best friend Ben Smith.

Incandescence’s shows are renowned for their spectacle
(Image: Liam Arthur Norris)

“The group had a team of 15 local people and we created fire and pyro shows we performed at Glastonbury, T in the Park, Run to the Sun, Surfers against Sewage’s annual ball and Golowan.”

The team grew to include Bindle jones from Rosudgeon, Liam Norris, a Newlyn boy who has now gone onto to be a very successful photographer in London, London performer Laura Buzzard and Fleur Davison, Satya’s sister-in-law who now runs the company with her from Trewellard industrial Estate.

The troupe moved from Cornwall to Bristol to train because, as Satya puts it, “back then if you were not born into a circus family it was not very easy to become a trapeze artist and there were only a couple of circus training spaces in the whole country”.

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At the beginning of 2002 they all moved back to Cornwall and with the support of the Sennen community set up a circus training space in the local community centre. Their first big break came when Incandescence, as the company was now called, secured a contract to produce two 90-minute circus/theatre shows for the first ever arts festival in Bahrain.

“We were now a proper little circus, my mum quite her job and joined our merry little band, we employed some more artists and embarked on our first ever tour that summer to the Middle East,” added Satya.

Why aren’t Incandescence better known in Cornwall?
(Image: Liam Arthur Norris)

They completed a sell-out eight-week run and made a name for themselves in the Middle East where they have since secured many tours and high profile show commissions, as they have done in the Far East too.

They ploughed any money they made from their international shows back into training, equipment, costumes and marketing in Cornwall.

Satya said: “In 2004 we were commissioned by the Qatar government to produce Cirque Elemental. We then as a company tried to self-fund a tented run in Penzance over the summer. It was successful but broke us all. It is extremely hard in the UK to produce and tour shows without Arts Council funding. As a company we were unsuccessful at securing funding and decided that the work and time that goes into the applications was better spent getting show commissions from festivals and overseas governments.

“We have developed the company without any government funding, which for a UK arts company is a massive thing to do. The downside to this is that we have not found ways yet of touring are shows within our own county or the UK.”

The company, which produced a section of the show on Take That and Robbie Williams’ Progress tour, ensures all its suppliers, designers and creative team are based in Cornwall – “a wealth of talent, which we use and have nurtured for 20 years and see as one of the company’s strongest assets,” added Satya.

Incandescence’s spectacular work as part of Take That and Robbie Williams’ Progress tour
(Image: Incandescence)

“We support the Big Dance Company in Penzance, attending their yearly showcase. This has created contracts for Cornish dancers, including corporate shows, pop concerts and international tours. We also employ many local musicians, theatre directors, artists, sculptures, seamstresses, fabricators and touring production staff all from within this amazing and creative county.”

Like so many working in the arts, the Covid pandemic has had a massive impact on Incandescence.

“Like many other businesses we are obviously struggling and have had no income for a year. We have applied to the Cultural Recovery Fund. We are keeping everything crossed we may finally get some funding which we would use to support the company’s freelance self-employed artists. Like many industries the self-employed have probably had the least help in the current situation,” said Satya.

“I think the Government’s messaging about the arts and cultural industry during the current situation is terrible. I for one would not want to live in a world without the vibrancy, colour and magic that comes with the arts and cultural industry. Arts and culture is not a privilege it is an integral part of our society and should be accessible and enjoyed by all.”

Incandescence still have a desire to perform locally.

“We would love to perform at the Minack Theatre or do a primary school tour of Alice in Wonderland that would be accessible to all Cornish children. Well, we can keep dreaming as who would have thought that a little nine-year-old from Sennen would become an international flying trapeze artist?”

Cornwall Live