#CircusIsBig

Barely Methodical Troupe, Award nominees IMAGE: Matilda Temperley
Barely Methodical Troupe, Award nominees IMAGE: Matilda Temperley

One of the National Centre For Circus Arts’ CEO’s has just joined Twitter.  Her first tweets have been circus related images that she’s encountered on her travels, with the tag #CircusEverywhere.  Circus is certainly spreading, becoming cool again in a way that sees its influence appearing all over, from club nights to fungal nail treatment adverts.  A lot of the time, this seems to focus around a neo-Barnum and Bailey aesthetic – perhaps sprung from the seeds of Steampunk – where stripes, sequins, and top hats with tailcoats are the order of the day.

The hashtag I’m advocating is #CircusIsBig.  It’s great that mainstream culture is slowly turning its eyes circuswards again, but there’s so much more to the industry than the popular hivemind tends to credit.

My time at Edinburgh Fringe last week is a case in point.  I was lucky enough to catch 5 of the 6 shows that have today been announced as Jacksons Lane Total Theatre Award nominees, and they range from solo clowning to ensemble acrobatics, from minimal stage setting to evocative produced environments.

Then again, there were also the other 10 performances that I reviewed with a circus eye for this site, often with a more family oriented entertainment agenda than the 6 nominees. (Chatting with someone who had been involved in the assessment process for Total Theatre, I was told that they were looking for shows with a technical focus, rather than any kind of narrative.  Looking at the nominees, I’m not sure how accurate that is, although most of the shows tend to explore around a theme rather than produce a complete story.)

Hoop Hooligans in Edinburgh
Hoop Hooligans in Edinburgh

In addition to these, there was plenty of circus technique from street artists up and down the city; I thought the Hoop Hooligans from New Zealand (Rewi Elffyre and Mr Jeff) were especially good, with their mischievous crowd-catching charisma and slick duo contact ball work – not to mention their ghosting and choreography that creates moving patterns with their horde of eponymous small white hoops).  I even spotted a group of local lads practising their parkour up the side of a wall in between the traffic and tourists.

Later on in the festival, Albert & Friends’ Instant Circus will be running children’s workshops, alongside shows from their own troupe of inspiring youngsters; and, a week after the Fringe finishes, the annual Edinburgh Aerial and Acrobatics Conference will be taking place.

Circus techniques and disciplines make regular appearances in cabaret entertainment, and the Fringe is no different, hosting the famous La Clique, gorgeous burlesque Dixey, Latin themed Café Baile, and electro-swing party FLASH/BANG!  Plus others that I’m sure to have missed in the pulsing beat of August in Edinburgh.

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‘My Uncle’s Shoes’ at Edinburgh Fringe

So what of those shows where the ‘circus’ element is more an atmosphere, or a theme?  My Uncle’s Shoes is definitely one of my must sees of the Festival.  Telling the story of an elderly street clown and his apprentice, Brazilian pair Lúcio Tranchesi and Alexandre Luís Casali, of Companhia Do Meu Tio, provide an impeccably plotted and poignant look at the world beyond the crowds and the clapping.  There is much hilarity to be enjoyed as the bulky – and apparently incapable – Casali tries to learn the many skills needed to take to the stage and keep the family tradition alive, but the show touches far deeper than laughs alone.  All the hopes, fears and joys of human experience are here among the two characters, thoughtfully and completely drawn.

The clowning between the pair speaks of those nations where the art form is more publicly respected, and has been allowed to develop into a strong storytelling vehicle, whilst still remaining true and surprising.  In order to appear as hapless as he does, Casali’s physical skills – on roller-skates or stilts, with juggling balls, and in the nuances of communicated intent – are highly developed.  Tranchesi evolves in our eyes as more of his story is revealed, from a sour old tyrant to a terse but loving uncle, whose frustrations are born of anxiety and love.  The musicality of rhythms created by the pair’s footsteps and handling of props is excellent.

My Uncle's Shoe2
Alexandre Luís Casali and Lúcio Tranchesi in ‘My Uncle’s Shoes’

A wooden pedlar’s cart that carries their world is simple and necessary, but looks beautiful on stage.  When one or other of the performers roam out into the waiting crowds, hidden in the wings, to rustle up an audience or to put on a show for them, I can picture the Brazilian shanty town realities that we all know hide behind the country’s Olympic facade.  When we become the audience who can provide the hope they need for the future, it is a gorgeous position to be put in, yet terrifying too.  There’s a whole lot of insight into the real work of a clown in this show.

I laugh like a child and cry like a baby more than once before the performance is over.  Beneath the laughs and the lightness, lies tenderness and the human tragedy of mortality; a philosophy.

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Chemical Confectioner Pippin, in Cirque Tsuki

Another company that takes the circus world as a setting for its shows is ImmerCity, who are presenting a triple bill based in their fictional Cirque Tsuki.  Clearly drawing inspiration from the popular novel The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, the three shows invite us into an intricately designed black and white world, where we are guests at a celebration of one kind or another, held by the circus proprietors.  Starting with the optimistic opening of the circus, each show becomes darker than the one before, moving through the history of the troupe until it tragically fades and folds.  Rather than present any circus related skills – other than some visual illusion – their world is a vehicle for layered storytelling, beginning with children’s fairy tales in Birthday, moving through the labyrinthine Arabian Nights in Feast, and ending with Japanese ghost stories in Parade.

I was only able to catch the first two of the trilogy, and I saw them out of order.  I felt that the level of interaction and clarity of trajectory was much clearer in Birthday and, though it may have helped ease me into their Russian doll storytelling style to see them chronologically, I do think it is the stronger of the two.  Nevertheless, I was left wishing that I had time within my schedule for the third instalment, as their concept, visual creativity and monochrome magic are very strong.  Millicent Wilkie is especially admirable as Tiffin The Living Doll, with an engaging and well defined physical expression.

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Tony Law as the Invisible Dot Lion Tamer

A third production that I’d like to mention, was that of The Circus, by the Invisible Dot collective.  Presented in the wooden Bosco tent in George Square Gardens, the twinkling lights, stripy panels, and red wooden seats trimmed with gold braid conjure all the circus nostalgia we grew up imagining.  Ringmaster Rob Crouch leaps forth with side-show barker panache, and introduces his starring acts.  We may have a lion-tamer, dare-devil, clown, and sexy American girl cousins, but these performers are all drawn from the comedy stable of Invisible Dot, and the show they present is a hilarious satire on circus stereotypes.

The writing is wonderful, biting and bizarre, and the energy and commitment from all of the artists is fantastic.  They even get in a dig at circus critics, which I find brilliant.  I do feel a little conflicted watching this show though.  I want to get up, and rebel, and say, ‘Look, circus isn’t really like this folks, you’ve got it all wrong, and are pandering to damaging preconceptions.’  But isn’t the point of satire to reveal those things that need changing?

There are reasons why Ellie White and Natasia Demetriou as limp Eastern European girls, trying to sell sexy with dead eyes, are so funny.  We’ve seen them.  They exist.

When ‘Elemento’ (Joseph Morpurgo) introduces each new attempt to subdue the forces of nature with superhero showman rhetoric, then proceeds to underwhelm us with feeble DIY trickery, we laugh because it’s recognisable.

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‘L’Enfant Qui…’, Award nominees

It’s a dangerous territory.  The show is excellent, but I don’t want to recommend people see it, because I don’t want to perpetrate those images of circus!  If clown James Acaster really does decide to give it all up and come be a critic, I’d welcome him with open arms; surely it’s because many circuses have avoided an acute critical gaze for so long that there are so many poor examples amongst the good, letting the industry’s reputation slide.

Perhaps, on the other hand, I should recommend all circus people see the show – that’s a critical response right there. Something we should work from?  They also have the second human cannonball I’ve seen in a week, and the better of the two acts!

#CircusIsBig.  And it’s getting bigger.  Instead of focusing on genres, or definitions of ‘types’ of circus, I suggest it’s better all round if we focus on ‘quality’ of circus, regardless of style choices.  Yes, we have to do our research; yes, we have to see lot of shows to develop a relative eye; and then, yes, detrimental elements can be pinpointed, positive attributes applauded, and the industry can continue to go from strength to strength, across all forms of circus presentation.

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  1. Interesting insight into those who are commissioning or giving awards to circus at the moment in Britain. As someone who has seen, as you say, 5 of 6 Total Theatre award nominees, plus 10 others which don’t fit their criteria, do you have any further views on what’s really behind this? If entertaining and appealing to a wide range of audiences are not desirable, then what is it that is being prized here?

    My own impressions recently looking at what’s on at outdoor festivals is that much of the work that has been commissioned by funders, promoters or the festival curators themselves looks like it has never left the R&D phase, and hence these are the hows that people are watching for a few minutes and then walking away from. On the other hand, the really appealing and exciting stuff seems to come from other places entirely, from many years of development, from a clear concept, etc. It would be a pity if Britain’s still rather lame outdoor arts world (though highly improved) were to squander the goodwill and desire by so many audiences to see work that they can get excited by, by flooding events with under-conceived, under-worked pieces which have no understanding of broader audiences.

  2. It’s a tricky one, trying to figure out the assessors’ sensibilities! The shows are, on the whole excellent, fully thought out, and skilfully presented, but it’s hard for me to see what ties them together and excludes other, equally excellent, shows.

    (I say ‘on the whole’, because one of the companies is clearly much newer than the others, and the dramaturgy isn’t as sophisticated. Nevertheless, still a very strong show)

    I don’t think there are any shows on the list that are underserving of recognition but, like you, I’m not yet clear what exactly is being recognised that makes these 6 shows the prime examples!

    I wish I had been aware of this award sooner, but it was announced rather suddenly, and the opportunity to become as assessor had already passed me by when I heard. Next year I’ll apply, as would love to be a part of the discussions that narrow down the eligible shows. Across the 4 different awards, 22 assessors watched 436 shows over the first 11 days of the festival, then met to discuss what they’d seen every two days, before drawing up yesterday’s shortlist!

    The quality of the nominees is such that they have definitely got audience pulling power and entertainment of various sorts hardwired into them. I also think that, with the exception of ‘The Pianist’ (and ‘Pss Pss’, which unfortunately I didn’t see), the concept runs quite deep in each of the shows and that, to audience members unversed in ‘reading’ artistic conventions, this may give the appearance of superb skills interspersed with ‘weird bits’, ‘slow bits’ or ‘dancing’? But that’s conjecture; I can only really judge from my personal experiences of years working in theatre before turning towards circus. (And a scattering of comments overheard and online).

    I think it’s important to remember that this is one very specific award, which comes from a long-standing theatre publication with a particular focus on the physical, visual and innovative. It’s great to have an award of this calibre available to circus artists working in this way. But now what we need is another, equally highly evaluated award for circus artists working in other ways!

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