Cancer is no laughing matter, but Islington performer Yvette Cowles has created a one woman show that stands up to it – and entertains us in the process, writes Gabriella Werre
Often people are labelled by the sum of their tragedies, but cancer doesn’t define anyone; the attitude towards the misfortunes of life is what characterizes who you are. Though immensely difficult, Yvette Cowles, creator of her own one woman show Sequins on My Balcony at the Islington based Rosemary Branch theatre, grabbed life by the reins and decided cancer wasn’t going to take control.
Yvette enters the room smile first dressed in colour and draped with, of course, sequins – and she is one of the warmest souls I have come across, and all I hear from her is laughter. ‘It’s not gloomy at all. It’s light-hearted and uplifting,’ chuckles Yvette about her show. ‘I’ve always seen the funny side; you have to when you spend a lot of time in hospitals. You have to look for the humour and the silly things that happen because they do.’ Having faced three stints of breast cancer, ‘The Royal Marsden can’t get rid of me! They know me well!’ she says, yes, laughing.
While in the hospital she would text her friends stories of her experiences so often that they suggested she should turn it into a show. Working in publishing at the time, Yvette ‘started to question what I actually wanted, what was really important’. She came to the conclusion that belly dancing was her passion – and she hasn’t stopped shaking her hips since she was 22.
Before the idea of generating this one woman show, and even before breast cancer itself, a 22-year-old Yvette spent time in France teaching secondary school. ‘Most of my students were North African – they were very friendly,’ she remembers. ‘They would invite me to their house and give me mint tea and cake and we’d dance. It was a sisterhood.’ Her love for the dance beams through as she talks to me about the friends who helped her master it and then who ‘became my support system,’ and eventually lead to playing a role in her show. ‘I reflect on those first days where I met those girls and they introduce me to belly dancing in the show,’ Yvette explains. ‘Up to that point, my experience with belly dancing was girls gyrating in James Bond films; I’d never really seen it as a dance women did with each other for each other, so there’s a lot of dancing in my performance.’ There’s also a lot of clowning as well, ‘people don’t laugh often around cancer, and everyone feels like they have to be serious around you. I’m a glass half full’.
One characteristic of her brilliant show is confidence. ‘I feel better about myself now than I did when I was 31 [when she was first diagnosed], and I’ve lost both of my breasts.’ I saw the show the other night and Yvette isn’t shy at pointing out and, quite frankly, laughing at the fact that she doesn’t have a ‘full balcony’ any more. Along with jokes, there is of course an abundance of belly dancing. She showcases her passion by shaking her hips draped in colourful scarves as she takes you on a journey through her battles with breast cancer.
It left a lasting mark on me. Who we are is what we choose to be, not what uncontrollable misfortunes happen to us. Yvette completely abolishes any idea that cancer has to be a constant state of anguish. ‘You do have to acknowledge when times are bad and when things are going wrong, but I just found it served me better to focus on what I’ve got in life, and the good things. The point of being alive is really to follow your heart and really do what brings you to life. I think we’re all on our own path in life, but I just feel that so many people go through life and they never really do what they want to do. Don’t wait because nobody knows what lies ahead of us and when you really see people doing that it’s so inspiring – when you see people really doing what they love. And if people enjoy the show it’s because I’m doing what I really love. Let’s just celebrate the fact that we’re all here!’ Yvette concludes with a smile.
Sequins on my Balcony runs until 19 October 2014. For tickets visit rosemarybranch.co.uk or call 020 7704 6665. If you wish to donate to The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity you can do so here: royalmarsden.org/donate