Why is circus like fruit?
Because we all ‘know’ what the word means but, when you dig under the skin, the defining characteristics are different for everyone. I asked the combined wisdom of Facebook and Twitter to describe ‘fruit’ to me. Guess what? No-one could do more than highlight one or two aspects that were important to them but irrelevant to the next person.
I find the same problem faces me when trying to discuss circus, and ways in which it should be reviewed. For some people, any of the physical disciplines taught at circus schools count as circus, regardless of presentational context. For others, the essential format is the traditional compilation of numerous skilled acts. Or a ring. For some people, circus is a sense of community and a lifestyle choice. Some fans demand animals. Some demand a ban. The most common consensus I’ve so far found is that the audience should be left with a feeling of ‘wow’, of ‘look what a man can do’ (to borrow a phrase from legendary wire-walker Karl Wallenda).
There is a lot of talk about the element of risk involved in circus performance and, traditionally, this was often a sense of physical danger that – with one wrong move – could result in death. This level of death-defying risk still pervades many circuses, but we can also now see companies performing with flying belts and lunges attached rather than using the treacherous net; and we also see artists who challenge what it is to take risks, working with internal as well as external dangers. Some performances deliberately include the possibility of failure (and not simply to build tension before the pre-planned ‘third time lucky’) – some even push for it. But all artists – musicians, theatre-makers, visual artists – take their own risks to produce the unexpected and make people go ‘wow’, so the circus is not unique in this.
Dramaturg Bauke Lievens talks about circus arts as those that try to overcome natural laws with the human body – our physical limitations, gravity, our place in the food-chain – exerting human control over those laws as far as possible. (In this, she says, a circus act is inherently tragic as, no matter how far these laws are bent, they can never be broken.)
So, just as there are many ways to enjoy your 5-a-day, there are many ways to appreciate the variety of arts that call themselves circus. Whilst some may feel the title is unjustified in places, others will quickly jump in to point out how it is relevant. And there are as many different ways to talk about circus as there are to appreciate it. There is a wave of circus performance occuring in theatre buildings across the UK these days that often finds itself reviewed from the perspective of specialist theatre or dance critics. British magazine King Pole endeavours to review classical tenting productions, describing the tricks presented in each act with little critical comment. The UnpackTheArts residency focussed on critically engaging with circus as an artform in its own right, but the artform looks different to each viewer and must meet personal standards rather than those imposed by any governing body or style council.
At a time when British cultural critics are up in the air about online audience-driven journalism taking over the reins from salaried printing-house professionals, I think circus arts will benefit hugely. Passionate writers will jump in to create web presence dedicated to their own preferred viewpoints, and interested parties will find trusted sources that match their own desires (just as print media set out to achieve back in the day). What we will get is more specialists – though the specialism may not always come from an academic base – and a wider view of the subject ‘circus’.
(There is, of course, the argument that only those already interested will access the information, whereas it used to be on show to anyone who read the papers. I think the internet has a bigger readership than any paper nowadays and, if we build our advocacy networks strong enough, our presence will be noticed by more people than would pick up a Sunday paper. So come on folks – feed in!)