Seeing Circus

One of the discussions this week was with Belgian circus writer Liv Laveyne. She spoke with us about the importance of seeking out the essential ingredients specific to circus performance, distinguishing it from other forms such as dance, theatre or performance art.

Because circus is an art that draws from, and can include, elements from numerous disciplines, it is very easy to judge a show only from a familiar standpoint, using the codes we best understand.

Liv suggests that our job is to learn the circus codes, and view from that angle; not pre-conceived notions of circus mythologies, or our own familiar territory.

(My natural mode of viewing, from my background and artistic preferences in contemporary theatre performance, are to seek out proposed themes and narratives, particularly those relating to human relationships.)

We have spent a lot of time attempting to discern these essential elements of circus, and amongst them seem to be:
Risk
Playfulness
Physical craft
Actuality

My personal preferences are also for accessibility and a connection with the audience.

Whilst it’s important to have a background in many contexts due to the multi-disciplinary nature of circus presentation, Liv encourages us to question which aesthetic we choose to apply when writing about circus; for example, a performance which is bad when looked at through a dance lens may be good when viewed through a circus lens. Or vice versa.

To counter my instinctive tendencies to search for stories or thematics in performance, I want to retrain myself to examine the way circus bodies interact with the real world around them, and the way this translates into a physiological response. ‘The circus is from the belly, not from the head’, Liv explains.

Dramaturg Bauke Lievens also attempts to pinpoint specifics in her practise; by attempting to name something, it becomes more concrete, and so can be explored more deeply.

For Bauke, circus work also contains an intrinsic Sisyphean struggle against natural laws and physical limitations. Circus techniques are particular in the confrontation between an object and a performer’s body and, to her, the way these confrontations are presented can mean the difference between a ‘craft’, and an ‘art’. This makes me think back on my painting analogy; I still believe there must be a space to analyse technical standards, as well as the conceptual framework.

As I’ve already witnessed, there is a danger for writers covering circus performance from another specialised perspective to get carried away with virtuosity (‘the dangerous salto; juggling with oh so many balls‘, as Liv Laveyne puts it). Even more dangerous to me, is the inability to differentiate between virtuosity and mediocre talent – if a review describes acrobats as ‘masters of their trade’ , they should be able to manage complicated feats, with style and artistry, not just be impressive to the uninitiated.

Above all though, in critiquing circus art, in it’s many forms, Bauke encourages us to ask the questions we would of any contemporary art: ‘what is it?’, ‘how is it achieved?’, and ‘why?’

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  1. I think Nik Wallenda’s wire walk across the Grand Canyon last week is a reminder of something all circuses, traditional and contemporary, forget at their peril: that one of circus’ unique selling points has always been the big trick. I couldn’t help comparing Nik’s literally death-defying stunt with a trailer for Cirque du Soleil’s new Las Vegas show Michael Jackson ONE – a lot of tumbling to music, but for all the big budget gloss is there anything we couldn’t see in any dance-based Michael Jackson tribute show? Or, for that matter, by staying home with a DVD of his old music videos? If not, why should we buy a ticket? Okay, you can’t put the Grand Canyon in a big top or arena, but you could put a 7-person human pyramid on a high wire without safety harnesses, as the Wallendas used to do (even after the tragedy that killed two of them during a performance) or you can have Nicky de Neumann’s currently unique to the UK Roman-style horse-riding act which is helping Zippos play to sold-out houses in Scotland. I think all styles of circus can be great. But I also think that to get the public excited enough to buy a ticket, performers have to strive to give us something we simply can’t see anywhere else.

    1. I think this is a good point; but in this age of the internet, is there anything we can’t see anywhere else? The difference is perhaps in the liveness of the act (which can also occur digitally through live streaming, as with Nik Wallenda’s Grand Canyon walk) and the way it makes us feel. To me, at a distance, although using a circus technique, Nik Wallenda’s walk was more extreme sport than art; more of a personal achievement than something for an audience – although I may have felt differently if I’d followed it live. So does circus come from a particular technique, or a context, or an intention? (For example, what differentiates a trampoline act in a circus from one in the Olympics?)
      At the end of a weekend full of provocations, this is, of course, another! Glad to have you joining in the discussion 🙂

      1. I actually think a lot of circus skills like Russian swing and flying trapeze are closer to extreme sport than art. There’s always a showbiz element, of course, but when you add that personal achievement element that you mention – someone attempting a quadruple somersault or a record-breaking wire-walk, or pushing themselves to do something no other performer has accomplished – then you get a spectacle that goes beyond theatre into something real. I think that desire to push the extremes and take genuine risks right there in front of the audience has always been one of circus’ great traditions, and one that audiences respond to.

        1. ‘I think that desire to push the extremes and take genuine risks right there in front of the audience has always been one of circus’ great traditions, and one that audiences respond to.’

          Yes!

          I think a lot of contemporary circus artists look at ‘extremes’ and ‘risk’ in a different way to the death-defying ones we classically expect, and this can lead to a confusion in the way their work is received.

  2. It’s probably harder to incorporate technical risk in a theatrical production. A performer can’t say, “Let me try that again,” because it would disrupt the flow. But I think contemporary circus still needs its big tricks – it just takes greater virtuosity to present them. I’d liken a big stunt in a contemporary circus to a big scenery effect in a West End musical – it has to work every night and can’t distract us with the worry of if it will work, but it’s still there to impress and bedazzle with its scale and daring.
    Of course, a lot of the perceived risk in traditional circus is exaggerated for theatrical effect anyway – they present that big “can they or can‘t they” moment twice a day every day . As you say in your brilliant painting analogy, it’s the same skills used for different ends. But whether the trick is there to impress in its own right or to convey something more artistic, I still think circuses should always be pushing themselves to wow us with something that little bit bigger and better – or more novel – than we’ve seen before. Most circuses actually do that now and again even within otherwise mediocre shows. It’s probably in the nature of circus performers. But to get the public in the door I think they need a big trick calling card that promises ‘this really will be the Greatest Show on Earth!’

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