Monday, October 20, 2008

Meet my very flexible friend: Jane Fryer meets a contortionist who can squeeze through the head of a tennis racquet

Captain Frodo is a very disconcerting figure. It could be his semi-naked and very white body, bulging eyes, tattooed back, or perhaps the 2in black pegs skewered through his nipples that do it.

Or maybe it is the small fact that he is currently squeezing his body through a 10in diameter tennis racquet - strings removed.

Oh yes, and to speed things along a bit, he's now dislocating one joint after another, leaving spaces where shoulders should be and white limbs flopping and flapping in all the wrong places like a rag doll gone wrong.
'It's very straightforward, you just pop your arms through and sort of squeeze one shoulder through at a time - it helps if you can dislocate them,' he adds, twirling his left forearm above his head like a rotor blade and hitting himself in the face again with a loose dangly hand. 'This gives new meaning to tennis elbow, ha ha!'

Indeed. It also gives a new meaning to entertainment. Because after performances everywhere from Sydney to New York, Edinburgh to Ireland, Captain Frodo, 32, is taking London's West End by storm.

He's a contortionist in La Clique, a circus that also features juggling, sword-swallowing, strong men acts, acrobatics - indeed, pretty much everything but the bearded lady.

And today, on stage in the Hippodrome, Leicester Square, he is very kindly giving me a masterclass in tennis racquet contortion. Or, more accurately, making friendly, but not terribly helpful suggestions, as I stand trapped, sore and claustrophobic inside a graphite loop.

'It's difficult to explain exactly how - it's just sort of natural. Try wiggling a bit more . . . '

Great, thanks. It's like an extreme version of Twister, but with a tennis racquet instead of the slippery plastic mat.

I've always been pretty bendy, but Frodo certainly has the edge on me. And not just because he's spent years climbing in and out of tennis racquets. Frodo also suffers from the rare genetic affliction Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which means that the collagen in the body which should act as a connective protein doesn't function properly. Luckily for La Clique, this means greater flexibility for Captain Frodo.

'There are three different types of EDS and some are deadly, so I tend to refer to it as muscular elastosis in my show, so I don't offend anyone. I have it only very mildly with no side-effects, so rather than handicapping me, it has given me an opportunity. It's a great way to make a living.'

Frodo Sandven was never going to be a lawyer or an accountant. Entertaining was always in his blood. As, it seems, is talking. He is extraordinarily chatty and, despite his unconventional appearance, very engaging.

It all started when he was nine, living in the small town of Haugesund in Norway, and touring with his magician father, the Great Santine.

'In the beginning I was more of an assistant, in matching hat, bow tie and tails, but soon I was doing magic - vanishing handkerchiefs, balloons that popped with cards inside . . .'

And white rabbits? 'Oh yes, and doves - but it was difficult to take the animals on tour as you don't really want to be popping your rabbits and doves in and out of quarantine all the time.'

And the bendiness? 'Oh yes . .. we'd always known I was bendy, so we thought we'd make it part of the act. So my dad and I ordered a straitjacket from the Humane Restraint Company in New York. They usually supply mental institutions and police stations.

'I was only 12, so you'd think it'd be a little awkward when someone calls up and orders a children's-size straitjacket for private use - but they sent it straight away and we started using it as the finale in the show. My dad would strap me in and chain me up and I'd escape and the audience loved it.'

Tennis racquets were a natural progression.

'If you're a contortionist, people are always asking "Can you squeeze into a box?" or "What's the smallest thing you can squeeze though?" So why not a racquet?'

Why not indeed. Though there's more to squeezing yourself through a tennis racquet than meets the eye.

The shoulder bit isn't too bad - happily I'm a good deal smaller than 11st 2lb Frodo, so I narrowly avoid having to dislocate both shoulders and, after a wriggle, a grunt, a good bit of bruising and a mouth full of racquet I'm through, and listening to his chatter again.

'For me, it's less about the strict dimensions and more about entertaining and being funny,' he continues.

'Some of the things I do are so visceral that people find it very challenging to watch - some have to look away, or they faint. So I try to turn it into more of a slapstick cartoon, and in my act I fall about a bit and get tangled up with the microphone, to lighten things up a bit.'

And grotesque though it sounds, it makes compelling viewing, and as Frodo twists and turns and gurns, and gets tangled in his microphone, and a stool, and two tennis racquets during the show, it's side-splittingly funny. He's a natural comedian.

It's no surprise to hear that Buster Keaton was one of his heroes. Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini is another.

'I followed the same path - first Houdini was King of Cards, then he was King of Escapes.'

Frodo, however, has gone one further. He also plays the accordion, and the saw - yes, one of those big tree-cutting blades which apparently make a nice mournful sound when bowed.

He can juggle expertly and swallow a 21in sword: 'Anyone can learn, but there's a massive factor of uncomfortableness that can be hard to overcome. It takes years to train yourself to control your internal gag reflex, as well as learning to open the different sphincters to get it all the way down into the pit of your stomach.'

Just as the pit of my stomach is beginning to feel a bit odd, Frodo adds: 'Oh yes, and I'm a human blockhead.'

Which is . . .? 'It's when you put a nail or something else up your nose.'
Of course. 'I usually use a spoon - it's very hard training yourself not to sneeze, so it takes enormous self discipline.'

It goes without saying that Frodo has always been different.

'In my home town, I always stood out a bit. But being different is just about the context of where you are.'

Which is where La Clique comes in - an extraordinary group described as a mixture of cabaret, burlesque, vaudeville and freak show.

They have temporarily replaced their glamorous, red and gold mirrored tent to take a place in the Hippodrome - which opened in 1900 as a 'water circus', playing host to elephants, polar bears, sea lions and an enormous pool, and later Harry Houdini, Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey.

'La Clique is the one place where the more different you are, the better you fit in,' he explains.

'It's about everything that's hidden getting flaunted or celebrated. Just as church is a place of worship, La Clique is a place where you celebrate life. And you get it in both its beautiful and its ugly parts.'

Frodo's certainly done his utmost to stand out from the crowd. For starters, there's the enormous tattoo on his back.

'It's the king of escapes - a man wearing a crown and a straitjacket - and above is an extract from the ancient Norwegian calendar.'

And, dare I ask, the nipple things? 'They were painful at first, but what's a little pain when you want to look beautiful?'

No comment. But, for all the tattoos, piercings and popping sockets, Frodo couldn't be more pleasant company, or a more patient tutor - I'm only glad I'm not trying sword swallowing, or we'd be here for years.

'Perfecting any of this involves enormous self-discipline. We spend as much time on our occupation as anyone, but we're not learning to be a doctor, or a lawyer, we're learning how to swallow a sword.'

And has he suffered many injuries? 'I fall off the stage now and then, and I had a tear in my shoulder's rotator cuff a couple of years ago which was quite painful - it took 18 months to heal properly.'

And the big question - has he ever got stuck in his racquet?

'Never on stage - my weight doesn't fluctuate that much. But I have once been wedged in a racquet. Fortunately there was a strongman handy and he grabbed it and sort of shook me out.'

And, affairs of the heart - has his bendiness been a bit off putting?

'Oh no . . . I suppose with anything that's new and foreign it might seem a bit full on when you first see it, but it soon becomes normal and my girlfriend Miranda loves my act. I think she's proud of me doing my thing.'

And, with apologies for the rather indelicate question, does it help in other areas . . .?
'Well, we don't get the racquets out, but it certainly adds a dimension.'

And with that, we've both gone rather pink and move back to more serious questions, such as what's the point of spending years perfecting these skills?

'In some regards - apart from the actual performance - it's totally useless,' he says, cheery as ever. 'But it depends on how you look at it. Everybody's into different things and for me, standing up here and performing in front of an audience and making them laugh and gasp, is an amazing feeling.'

Back with our racquets, things are going pretty well. The chest bit's fine - if a bit of a snug fit - and I'm feeling confident.

'You're doing very well, but don't worry, it gets worse,' he says cheerily.

And it does. With the hips. 'This it the hardest bit - it's just one big bone that doesn't have any joints, so you have to sort of angle your way through it one bit at a time. Now tuck one foot in and basically flip it over.'

There is no flipping for me. I can't get my foot anywhere near the racket head and everything is screaming in pain. So with that, I call it a day.

After all, some things are better left to the experts and Captain Frodo is undoubtedly a comedy and contortionist genius.

I, meanwhile, will stick with tennis.
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Bie, that's my name. Im just an ordinary blogger.Ea eam labores imperdiet, apeirian democritum ei nam, doming neglegentur ad vis. Ne malorum ceteros feugait quo, ius ea liber offendit placerat, est habemus aliquyam legendos id. Eam no corpora maluisset definitiones.
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