LifeLine: An interview with Ellis Grover and Grace Neville-Evans

One thing we love about funambulism is that the wire is an equal stage. Whether you’re a professional artist or you're just starting out, you go through the same emotional and mental journey when crossing a wire. It also has a beautiful way of connecting people. Ellis Grover, a professional artist from the UK who will perform at LifeLine, first learned to wirewalk from Ulla Hokkanen, Executive Creative Director at Galway Community Circus. Grace Neville-Evans, a professional artist also from the UK who is a member of BassAlto, learned to wirewalk from Ellis. We had a quick interview with Ellis and Grace to get their thoughts wirewalking and what inspires them about this beautiful art form.

What inspired you to start tightwire?

Ellis: This question is challenging me slightly, as there were different stages to me becoming a wire walker but it always crept up on me rather than me feeling inspired to do it. But there is one thing that always came to mind and that is the youth circus workshop that Ulla was teaching in, at NoFit State Circus in Cardiff. She told me I had a natural ability for it, and that always stuck with me. But the very origin of my story into balance and the reason Ulla saw that in me was because of another person. He was a free runner called Ben Milner, who was featured on channel 4's Jump Britain. This documentary sparked my interest and training in parkour which heavily influenced my life, and in that documentary, there is a scene in which he is teaching a class and says, 'Balance helps with everything you do'. This directly led to me balancing on railings a lot, to try to master balance as it would help with my parkour. That then became a game in which I would conquer the longest railings in my hometown. The challenge was to get on at one end and walk all the way to the other. I was still in this phase of life when I met Ulla at 14 years old. But it wasn't ever a lightbulb moment until I walked a highwire 3 years later. I was on tour with NoFit State Circus's Parklife tour as a free runner. Then in the final weeks, I was avoiding a dance class and found a chap called Tanc, who was training on a wire rigged between two trees. He told me that he had been asked to perform it in the last few shows as the usual wire walker wasn't going to be there, but he is a rigger who sort of used to walk wires and wasn't too prepared to perform in this show, and was busy enough already. After playing on it together he also said I had a natural flare and I should try the highwire the next day, and I did so, and then sat next to him and he offered to put me in the show. 4 days later I performed my first highwire walk. Now I was never interested in the wire because I hadn't walked it at height, and it is the combination of consequence plus mental focus that captures my inspiration, and still does today. I was a highwire walker from that day onwards and I feel I will be until I head to my next life.

Grace: In short, the passion and persistence of another wirewalker kickstarted my life on a wire. When working with The Black-E and Nofit State circus performing aerial silks in 2013 I was roped into trying tightwire by fellow wire babe Ellis Grover. I was immediately hooked. Me and Ellis spent the 2 weeks making an act together to be performed as part of the show. Then after the shows were finished myself and another young person convinced The Black-E to buy a tightwire for their space and I began to train everyday.

Ellis: On Grace's first lesson, I showed her what to do: slide the feet as you step. She got onto the platform and walked the wire perfectly. I then asked her if she had done it before and she said no. And I thought, 'this girl is a wire walker.' This will be the first time we will perform along side each other ever, 10 years later.

When you started, did you ever think you’d be performing/creating the way you are now?

Ellis: For me, the moment of walking a highwire for the first time was very affirming. I found it very natural, yet I also found everyone surrounding me was scared of doing it. So it really was a moment of certainty that I will always do this. But I could have never imagined the journey it has taken me on. I have been incredibly lucky to have had a back-to-back touring career since I was 17 years old, traveling the world. But even though I have had an amazing time, my dream has always been to do many long, high crossings in natural locations. I still haven't achieved a back-to-back tour of these as I have been swept up by circus shows. But that will be my next chapter.

Grace: Not quite. Whilst I really enjoyed training on the tightwire, I found it really boring to watch (in all fairness, I hadn’t seen that much of it) so I didn’t really think about pursuing it. Eventually I stopped taking my wire training so seriously and that's when I found a way of working on the wire that suited me and my way of moving. I never imagined myself working on highwires, though - that came as a surprise, and now I can’t believe it took me this long to find it.

As a professional artist, what now inspires you to continue to do it?

Ellis: The circus community is something I will forever be unbelievably grateful for. The professional worldwide touring circus network is filled with some of the most inspiring people ever, and I pinch myself to be part of it. Also, the audiences and people who get inspired by me are definitely a huge element of why I feel inspired to continue as a professional. But over the years my main inspiration has come from an element of highwire walking that fascinates me - that it is widely used in metaphor. The straight and narrow, the work/life balance, and the balance of our environment, all reference the tightrope walk somewhere in the writings of their subject experts. This is a unique thing for an artform to possess, and it transcends humanity as a whole, which makes it deeply meaningful and unique. The dreams and moves to make this a central focus of my work going into the future definitely keeps me inspired personally.

Grace: I think first and foremost I enjoy how it makes me feel. I use tightwire as a tool for meditation and as a creative outlet. I’m also quite stubborn and I enjoy the challenge of trying to create new ways of moving on the wire.

Have you done something like this before, where you’ve walked at an event with beginner wirewalkers? If so, do you enjoy it? If you haven’t walked alongside beginners before, how do you feel about doing it?

Ellis: This may sound mad, but I have only been among a group of wirewalkers twice in my life. My early days at attempts of trying to reach out to highwire walkers was always unsuccessful, so I became quite comfortable in my own skin and have mostly taught myself from observation. In fact, the first time I had the opportunity to ask another highwire walker about their art was the Head, Heart, Balance: The Art of Funambulism online conference last summer that was part of the Wires Crossed project! This being so, this has brought me a great desire to share. I believe that tightrope walking is more of a mental skill than a physical one, and that skill is a form of focus and meditation that can spread throughout our lives. So I am so overjoyed about how many people are embarking on this journey to walk the wire along side us, and I think it will make me quite emotional to see after feeling quite alone in my art for so long.

Grace: As part of this project we performed at the end of our residency in Romania with a group of young people who are keen funambulists and it was an absolute joy. To see so many people engaging with highwire was quite overwhelming. The image of so many people on highwires at once was gorgeous and so exciting!

Is there anything that inspires you about seeing people try tightwire/funambulism for the first time?

Ellis: The fascinating thing I have seen the few times I've watched a big group of people try wire for the first time is that very few people (Grace is one of them) have a completely natural ability, first try no worries. I guess I was the same. Then some other people can grasp it in a week, and some people will try and try and try and it sometimes takes forever to get it. I think that the busier the mind, the harder it is, so it's interesting to enquire about the busyness of the mind when watching people take their first steps, and then prescribe meditation as a tool to master it!

Grace: Seeing people try wire for the first time is so beautiful. It is such an exciting, frustrating and rewarding discipline and I enjoy watching people experience all these feelings. It reminds me of why I love it so much.

What advice would you give to people just starting tightwire?

Ellis: Just decide. I believe that all things in life come down to a decision. To get up early is a decision. To not spend too much time wasted is a decision. Focusing on your dreams or goals is a decision, and what you say to a lover is a decision. If you start to slip and say things you don't mean or slip into bad routines, it shows a lack of conscious thinking and we are all guilty of that. When things are easy, we just go into autopilot. With highwire walking there is no autopilot, you must be conscious the entire time you are on the wire, and the higher you are, the greater that focus is. Therefore staying calm is a decision, staying stable is a decision and not falling off is a decision too. I really rely on this way of thinking when I am on a highwire. It brings me confidence in myself and I think it would bring confidence in others too. Everything is choice. You choose to fall, you choose not to fall.

Grace: Play, don’t take it to seriously and always follow joy.

About LifeLine

LifeLine is Europe's largest highwire spectacle performed over the River Corrib and Claddagh Basin in Galway City. Staged on 7 highwires and featuring a cast of 150 people of all ages and backgrounds, audiences will witness a stunning display of strength and resilience over one of Ireland’s most iconic waterways. LifeLine is a free, drop-in event running continually over five hours from 1:30-6:30pm, with the finale performance of BassAlto at 5:30pm.

Cover photo by Thomas Madhaven.