The not so quiet years: mind-blowing circus and dance - Roundhouse - Celebrating 50 Years


1999 – 2003

Although the Roundhouse didn’t officially reopen until 2006, the years between 1998 – 2003 (before the venue closed for a two-year renovation) were very artistically active. It was seen as a huge blank canvas with endless possibilities, even if the performers had to bring their own generators and fight off a few rodents. It was these years that reminded everyone of venue’s potential as a performance space and showstoppers including Del La Guarda, Art Angel’s Because I Sing, Bounce, Stomp and the Michael Clarke Dance Company shook the dust off the walls, and brought the building back to life.

Torquil Norman bought the Roundhouse in 1996, but it was quite a few years until it became the creative hub for youth and performance that we know it as today.  The recruitment for a capable team, who could support and develop a world-class arts centre and change the lives of young people, started almost immediately. Norman wanted to get it the venue ‘right’, so as to prevent ending up with a broke organisation and derelict building – a repeating theme and predicament of previous eras. This recruitment, strategy, renovation and revitalisation took 10 years to complete and the new Roundhouse launched in 2006.

However, the Roundhouse lay anything but dormant during these regeneration years. The venue was available to rent at a low cost and some spectacular companies and shows took advantage of the raw space, presenting high-energy, great scale productions that are still remembered by audience members today.

“The first bit of programming to come back in after Torquil Norman’s acquisition was The National Theatre’s production of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ in 1998 and then there was Michael Clarke Dance Company and De La Guarda and Stomp And then we put on shows like Bounce and Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men – he did his only ever stand-up show here. But it was very hard; we could only get a license for 28 days and the toilets were in old horse boxes in the yard and they were dirty and it was freezing cold. Once during Del La Guarda, the water froze  and we just couldn’t do that performance.” – Marcus Davey, Roundhouse Artistic Director

In 1998 the Michael Clarke Dance Company presented a new full-length work, current/SEEat the Roundhouse.  The choreographer was “as famous for his heroin addiction and hedonism as for his outrageous talent and the new show marked (Clarke’s) return to performance after four years of living as a recluse with his mother in Scotland”2

In the opening sequence for Current:SEE, Susan Stenger’s band Big Bottom stood around the stage, each member against a speaker stack which made the set look like a Neolithic stone circle. Each of the five members played the lowest possible note on their bass guitar. Describing the effect, participant Cerith Wyn Evans said ‘it was a very physical thing, it hits you right in the chest or in the stomach. You could feel your body vibrating.’3

Also in 1998 was Stomp –  the percussion show whose floor-sweeping, tub thumping, dustbin-lid-crashing, newspaper-rustling rhythms of first emerged in 1990 and toured extensively before arriving at the Roundhouse.  They brought a cast of original performers plus guests from the American companies, and took advantage of the space to create one of the best stagings ever of the show, with a completely sold out run.1

A year later the extraordinary circus/theatre group from Argentina, De La Guarda, performed at the Roundhouse for a record-breaking eleven months. There was initially doubt over whether the show would draw mass-appeal, but its “wild mix of high-voltage circus acrobatics, rave and dazzling visual coups kept audiences coming.”1 (read more about this in the dedicated Del La Guarda article also in this chapter)

In 2001 the venue was home to the breaking, popping, locking, swing, tap and boogaloo streetdance of Bounce for a 10 week run. Accompanied by a contemporary hip-hop and rap soundtrack, the high energy performance included one dancer’s “homage to “Superfly” featuring polyester and afros and thigh-high white boots” and another who could “seemingly isolate every part of his chest”.4

Also in 2001 was BalletBoyz – a new all-male ballet company started by ex-Royal Ballet dancers William Trevitt and Michael Nunn. A reviewer wrote of the early performance: “It’s a pleasure to see Nunn and Trevitt dancing on the British stage again, looking excited to be here and backed by four stylishly varied dancers. I hope they survive their first year and that they’ll be able to accumulate a larger, less opportunistic repertory, from which they can plan more coherent evenings of dance.”5 And 15 years later the company are stronger than ever, regularly touring and performing internationally.

Also happening during this “dormant” period were plays from Royal Shakespeare Company, the sell-out season of Art Angel Because I Sing (a unique choral experience that brought together choirs from across London) and much more, including The Roundhouse’s Creative Projects work with young people – laying the foundations for the new Roundhouse Studios.6

In 2004 the building closed for a 2 year renovation period until June 2006. The 1998 – 2003 programming provided a great time to trial different shows, look at what audiences were most interested in watching and keep the venue alive and ticking.