In its record-breaking 11-month stint in 1999, De La Guarda’s Villa Villa transformed the Roundhouse into an Argentinian fiesta like no other. But what was it like to live it? For performer Wendy Hesketh-Ogilvie and climber Jamie Ogilvie, memories of the experience are as fresh as ever.
“I was only 19, and had never had anything to do with theatre at all,” explains Jamie, “it was my first job out of university! It was amazing – you don’t know it when you’re living it… It was the show to be involved in.”
Jamie and Wendy joined De La Guarda just as Villa Villa was bedding in at the Roundhouse, and travelled the world with the Argentinian theatre company thereafter. The last show to grace the main space before its refurbishment, Villa Villa provided a creative rebirth for the building, sorely needed following its closure in the 1980s. Both agree that the residency represented a perfect storm for both the venue and the company. “At the time when they [De La Guarda] came, it was really very new: combining aerial work with theatre, and there was certainly an essence that it was not ‘English’ – the Roundhouse are good at spotting that”, Wendy tells me. Jamie continues: “It was the right time and the right place for De La Guarda and the Roundhouse. They both had a similar background, and when put together it helped them both. The previous history and mentality that was around the Roundhouse also meant it had the right audience… it was just meant to happen.”
So what was Villa Villa all about? The answer is multifaceted. When I suggest that dark humour may have been an element in the show, Wendy rightly points out that this is simply one interpretation – Villa Villa held something different for everyone. Was it circus? “Not really.” Was it dance? “There’s a bit of dance.” Was it theatre? “Definitely theatre, but you can’t just say it was theatre by itself.”
One thing the show was certainly about was innovation. The name Villa Villa originates from the Spanish word ‘Villa’, used to describe shanty towns in Buenos Aires where “the town is made of anything: corrugated iron, wood, anything they can find.” The set-design – characterised by the infamous ‘paper ceiling’ which would break apart above the audience’s heads every night – reflected this idea of a shanty town, and was created on a shoestring budget, as were many other aspects of the show. This meant that the onus was on the performers and technical team – known as the ‘climbers’ – to make the spectacular happen.
“You had to work harder on your art, rather than trusting the backstage elements, and that had a really intrinsic feeling for the performer and the audience,” explains Jamie, who as a climber was responsible for the show’s rigging and technical set-up. More importantly, he had to ensure the safety of the performers as they flew above and around the audience – impressive given the somewhat rusty state of the Roundhouse at the time. The team he was a part of all came from non-theatre backgrounds – Jamie was scouted from his dad’s climbing shop – and they brought a fresh mentality to the show. “There’s a life on the end of that rope, not a light or a speaker” Wendy explains, “and that influences the style of the work”.
This helped build a level of trust and togetherness within the group that would define the sense of collective dynamism in Villa Villa. “We were one big family”, Wendy exclaims, “As soon as we entered the Roundhouse, we were one big energy. Not only could you play with the audience but you could play with each other.”
This also fed into the experience of the audience, who on entry into the show’s ‘black box’ were taking a step into the unknown. Performers did not simply interact between themselves and with the crowd, they would ‘play’, and this sums up the feeling of unbridled fun that Villa Villa evoked. As Wendy wonderfully puts it:
“You [the audience] imagined to go in and see a theatre set-up, but then you see the paper ceiling and hear the throbbing of the drum and everyone starts thinking ‘what the heck have I done?!’ And we’re sat above the top, looking down at the paper ceiling, seeing it breathe up and down with the heat of the people, thinking ‘we’re going to get you tonight! We’re going to play with every single one of you!’”
Then the fun would really start. Over the course of 70 minutes, the crowd were treated to a high-octane, highly skilled, visceral and totally immersive spectacle of music, dance and aerial acrobatics. All were soaked with water, while some were dragged into the air to fly. Everyone walked out physically and mentally drained, but with a smile on their faces.
Audience interaction was a key focus of co-director Pichon Baldinu – he wanted every audience member to “leave with something… an experience… not just to take away the programme and think, ‘oh that was a good show.’” These interactions would reach their height during the ‘Fiesta China’ scene, when performers would find out who wanted to play and who didn’t. “[Roundhouse] audiences on the whole were just tremendous,” says Wendy, “apart from Madonna – she would hide behind [Guy] Richie and say ‘don’t play with me!’ It was only when I found her high heels and was halfway up to her knee that I realised it was her!”
Language also formed a fundamental part of the Villa Villa experience – Baldinu forbade performers from speaking in English, and so ‘playing’ was conducted in the Spanish of Buenos Aires, ripping audience members away from North London and into a new reality.
The popularity of the show was astounding. Jamie notes that the shows were selling out from the moment he joined, and that he was originally only given a six-month contract. But didn’t it get boring after 11 months? Evidently not. “The show filtered into your flesh!” says Wendy, “Every single show was different, and it was because of the people they’d chosen to be in the cast. We all enjoyed being different every night, and playing. You never went to work and thought ‘here we go again’”.
The Villa Villa experience has clearly had a long-lasting effect on the pair. For many years they have been running their own company – Wired Aerial Theatre – putting on fantastic shows based largely around aerial dance and the use of a vertical wall. It is testament to the world-class aerial training they received during their time with De La Guarda at the Roundhouse.
Wendy and Jamie also fell in love during the residency, and shared their first kiss at Pichon Baldinu’s birthday party in the building’s undercroft. They have now been married for seven years. What is particularly striking is that they speak about the whole experience as if it was yesterday. If that wasn’t evidence enough of the power of De La Guarda, Wendy goes on to declare, “I know if somebody put me in a full body harness I could do the show from beginning to end. I know it.”