In the new book titled Contemporary Circus, three academics with a focus on circus studies (Lavers, Leroux, and Burtt) endeavor to highlight the significant elements of a developing art form by featuring interviews with twenty-four circus creators. Their motive? To help bridge the divide between the worlds of circus practice (usually undertaken by the young circus creator) and theory (often a scholar with a background in circus or an interest in understanding its benefits for society). That these worlds overlap is undeniable–it happens at professional circus schools and at festivals and conferences regularly–but the book maintains that without the studying, analyzing and publishing of ideas around circus outputs, society (and cultural agents who regulate and fund the arts) will remain in the dark.
The resulting book is a rare peek into the mind of circus creators, examining their motives and processes, but with an added bird’s eye view from the academic minds of the authors who contextualize and process it all through the socio-political lens. Contemporary Circus is illustrated with fifty photos of contemporary productions, and grouped into themes: apparatus (contesting mastery), politics (contesting the normate) , performers (contesting prowess), and new work (contesting the circus act.) It is noteworthy how the whole premise of the book is to contest things–and that includes the status quo in the industry itself, our own preconceptions about circus and even the works themselves. It is well done, especially when you read the voices of the carefully selected creators that have been paired to each theme, for example the interview with Phia Menard (juggler, company founder, and performance artist), in the ‘Politics in Contemporary Circus’ section, where the focus is on how and why Menard’s work questions patriarchal power structures.
Renown Italian circus writer and director Raffaele De Ritis and I decided to have a conversation together about the impact and significance of this new publication in the wider circus world.
Kim Campbell: Do you appreciate the historical perspective the scholars bring to this book which examines the contemporary phenomenon of circus? What connections between history and today’s art form stood out to you?
Raffaele De Ritis: When a form is persisting (fluid and actual), it is always a challenge to accept it as history. A commonly accepted perspective sees the birth of “contemporary circus” in the early 70s, even if things are deeper and more complicated, and still in a transformation process. We keep wondering after decades if contemporary circus should be considered as an autonomous genre, a sub-genre or something else. We also have not yet resolved, from a historical perspective, the semantic and aesthetic tensions between the different circus shapes of actual circus: as, for example, if and in what measure a circus called “contemporary” is independent of a similarly unresolved definition of “traditional.” The book plays an important role in bringing to our attention a certainty that we often forget–that contemporary circus is about 50 years old!
In the book’s approach, the speaking “voices” are a transversal, an indirect tool to a fragmented but compelling patchwork of stories, where the reader can develop his own historical perspective. Another value of the work is the broader perspective of history. Previous studies of contemporary circus have often idealized a concept of French origins (a very limited approach, if not inaccurate), or worse, used Cirque du Soleil as reference (of course more misleading). I appreciated the international vision: a new generation of circus researchers is finally considering the incredible development of circus growth in British-connected countries (Australia, UK), in North America (with interesting study approaches to Quebec), and new European developments such as Scandinavia. Of course, it would be interesting in the future to extend the exploration to Russia and Ukraine (perhaps the real cradle of the concept of “new circus”), the fertility of Spain and Catalunya, and to what is happening in some Eastern countries (especially Hungary), and the slower but visible shaping of the form in Latin America and Italy.
KC: What significance do the themes the authors have used to structure the book have for you? Themes: Apparatus, Politics, Performers, New Work. Are these categories all-encompassing enough?
RDR: Focusing on “apparatus” seems like a wise paradigm of possible exploration to understand circus’ transformations. The book helps us for example to understand how apparatus appears as a way for circus creators to extend the art beyond the classic ring (or even beyond the frontal stage), in a wider creative appropriation of performing space. Philippe Petit is perhaps the first milestone of the intention of circus apparatus as a tool of proper modern “performance” art in circus; the case of Johann LeGuillerm is also emblematic: as an alumnus of the very first public circus college (France’s CNAC), he sublimated circus creativity through object explorations, going beyond body and gesture; Adrien Mondot confronts himself with technology, and also inspiring are the approaches of Shana Carroll and Ockham’s Razor, in their different forms of dialogue with classic circus apparata.
The book plays an important role in bringing to our attention a certainty that we often forget–that contemporary circus is about 50 years old!
The topic of reading circus through “politics” has been raised in the last few years by circus studies, showing new and illuminating ways to re-read history. Seminal examples are the studies of Marius Kwint on Philip Astley’s age, Janet Davies’ about the American circus, or Peta Tait on broader subjects. In the contemporary form, the book’s focus on politics helps us to understand circus within our time and our current relationship with physicality and gender; but also to focus on the two opposite concepts of superhuman and vulnerability.
The third theme, “performer”, stands of course as the core of circus. Perhaps the most evident peculiarity of the contemporary form is the shift from a demonstrative circus performance to the interpretative field of expression. This tendency (first established in the last century’s Soviet circus) was obviously enhanced by the growing democratization of circus practices: from the anarchic aesthetics of street collectives to the new accessibility due to the expansion of circus schools. The “social” motivation was an early factor too– it is an interesting choice to focus on the example of Spanish ‘Los Muchachos’ experience of the 60s. I personally always considered it the real founding experience of further developments to a modern social approach to circus performers’ education. In the performer’s section it is also a pleasure to enjoy the range of voices: from the most prestigious and emblematic creators (Yaron Lifschiz, Philippe Decouflé, Daniele Finzi-Pasca of Compagnia Finzi-Pasca), to influential directors such as Shana Carrol or Firenza Guidi, as well promising and already established voices like Gravity and Other Myths.
“New work” also stands as an interesting concept: it legitimizes the ideas that in circus arts it is also possible to consider notions such as repertory, creative team, and creative process, going beyond the notion of “act”: this is still not obvious for the broad public of uninitiated scholars and readers.
KC: The book overall focuses on ‘contestation’ of each element they bring forward. Is this an overriding theme of circus historically and does it work for you in the context of the conversations they have with artists and directors?
RDR: Contestation was a necessary turning point in every phase of circus history. The story of contestation was the legitimization efforts of Astley’s pioneering art form; as the birth of Soviet circus as a whole system; or the complex philosophy behind P.T. Barnum. Contestation is not always, of course, an intention, but a sort of transitional need. The authors challenge the “voices” with four contestation objects respectively related to the four main books’ themes (examined at question 2 above): they emerge as mastery, ethos, prowess and circus act. In the conversation, I don’t think that those four objects, if contested, are refused (so ancestral to the definition of circus as an art form that they are). What emerges in the contestatory debate on those four topics is rather revelatory and appears to be one of the really new defining elements of contemporary circus: the intellectual and artistic notion of human vulnerability.
KC: In your opinion, who is the audience for Contemporary Circus?
RDR: It would be wonderful if circus students, teachers, and performers around the world, with their growing community, could benefit from this book. I also see it as a peculiar tool for programmers in the multi-disciplinary planning of seasons, often struggling to define and transmit the “circus” object. One of the merits of the publication, enhanced by its particular publishing positioning, is to be at the fertile border between circus specific interest and the broader field of drama/performance studies. In this sense, it is positioned to give to the actual circus the dignity it deserves. This follows the traces of a new brilliant trend of English language circus writing. My hope is not only that this literary exploration will follow, but a similar attention could also be invested in the “traditional” circus, which is thriving in some very interesting productions around the world, addressing similar intellectual challenges and, paradoxically, also rich in its purest style of “contestation”.
RDS: The book reflects the recent shaping of “circus studies,” a long-awaited new field in the area of performing arts research. How do you think it will contribute to a broader critical reflection of the live performance universe? And, by the investigation efforts of the book, do you think that contemporary circus is currently accepted as a definition of an art genre identity?
KC: I think the emergence of circus studies is both a cultural recognition of the long-existing genre of contemporary circus and an official validation on paper that adds to the mounting evidence among academics of its long-lasting contribution to the arts. This is important because written records and research give people outside of the industry, say, cultural administrators, a starting point to understand and support the role it plays.
For critics and students of circus, I think it will contribute to a broader reflection because it expands the repertoire beyond Cirque du Soleil shows and puts circus on a somewhat level playing field with dance and theater for example. In certain parts of the world, going to see a circus show is on par with a night out at the theater.
The book does a lot to contextualize circus in the introduction by including a brief historical primer of sorts, but where it really shines is in showing the diversity of talent and approaches in the Voices section, where over 25 artists and directors are interviewed on their particular take on the art form. This is the meat of the content that really helps validate the genre because it speaks directly to its identity through the voices of the creators themselves.
RDR: “Voices” is a peculiar part of this work, since circus itself doesn’t usually have words and if anything the voice of circus is the performers themselves. Can you define one or more general aspects that most impressed you in them? Do you consider them pioneers, or players of a fully legitimated art?
KC: Since there are twenty-four voices (not to mention the three authors) being shared in the book, I think it is hard to qualify each of them as pioneers or players in an established art form. Certainly, some of them are pioneers– or are pushing the art form forward, which is something we often talk about in circus. For example, an obvious place for pioneering is in apparatus, and Elizabeth Streb is certainly creating a unique apparatus that she pairs with her very distinctive methodology and philosophy about ‘pop action’. She explains how she is trying to map the motions of each apparatus she has invented like a musician can map each distinct aspect of their music through notation. This is certainly innovative and taking circus one step closer to the freedom of expression that dance and music have historically explored and also codifying it as it is invented. I think that is fascinating work because one might assume an apparatus is limiting the range of human expression but really it just creates the parameters and inside of this is endless possibility for variation.
Speaking of voices, one thing about the book that perplexed me was how the editorialization and narration is not attributed to any specific scholar. Since there are three of them from different regions (Leroux from Quebec, Canada, Lavers from Western Australia and Burtt from Sydney, Australia) and with different backgrounds, I often found myself asking the question, ‘Whose words am I reading now? Whose research and opinion is this?’
RD: The book mainly investigates circus experiences rooted in the “art” circuit. It reveals that this circuit is a sort of net that by the beginning of the century was able to shape itself into an impressive trans-national identity. What emerges is the concept of a large-scale popular circus industry. In the period considered by the book, there is some questioning of this industry’s identity (Cirque du Soleil), if not in a profound crisis or extinction (Big Apple, Ringling, and more). By the experiences and themes examined by the authors and “voices”, do you think the “art” circus circuit will have the instruments (and an economy) to reach a wider audience (as well as capture audiences left wanting from from the traditional market), internationally?
KC: Although the book questions many things (the historical precedence of valuing high circus technique above intention, for example.) I don’t think the book is questioning the continuing existence of a commercial market for popular circus. What it is doing is calling attention to an emerging vein in the circus market that is more developed in some regions of the globe than others, and that is the arts market that appeals to cinema lovers, opera-goers, ballet lovers, classical music fans and even rock concert attendees, and of course, traditional circus fans. These audiences are enthusiastic and open to art that is high entertainment but they are also hungry for art that has a social relevance (such as the work of Briefs Factory which joyfully addresses social inequities) or that innovates or evolves out of the classic forms into something more small scale, so more human and digestible (like the Acrobats show smaller, poorer, cheaper.) Whether this market is enough to keep the industry thriving, I can’t say, since there is so little public data about the circus industry’s profit margins anyway. But I think even Cirque du Soleil recognizes that having lots of thriving tendrils to the circus ecology is healthy for the organism overall.
RDR: The investigation choice of four themes reveals at the end far more than it does at its starting points. The problems and experiences explained reveal a lot about the different artistic approaches, and uncovers an impressive diversity in creation. From the book, would you be able to identify a few specific “tendencies”, if not sub-genres in contemporary circus?
KC: Two notable trends I see that pop up are the tendency to create through group devising (as opposed to the traditional hierarchical model for a movie, play or even some forms of circus where the author and/or director make the thematic and stylistic decisions– and the performing bodies act as a expression of that vision.) Many of the voices interviewed are either directors who used to be (or still are) performers themselves, like Shana Caroll of The 7 Fingers and who act largely as an outside eye in the process (or if performing also, attempting to pop in and out of that role as they create.).
This dynamic has had a precedent because the traditional circus has historically allowed for the complete devising of an act by the artist or artists themselves. But with the arrival of more narrative and theoretically driven circus, there has been some imposing of the theater model on to the process, and some equally awkward attempts to do away with any of those structures and have no hierarchy. I’m not sure a good solution has been found yet and each company seems to handle it on a case by case basis, but I think circus tends to get around the idea of sole ownership of the writing of a creation by harkening back to its communal roots and by double or triple assigning roles and by redefining them too (so you can be a soloist in the show a social media manager and a stagehand all at once.)
The other trend I find fascinating and almost omnipresent in circus shows is ‘Circus as process, not product.’ Of course, the show is a product still, but the act itself is undertaken for its own sake, not purely for entertainment purposes. There is no disguising of the effort it takes to make it (with big smiles and pausing for applause), but rather a purposeful display of what went into making it. It sometimes seems a bit like navel-gazing, and I think it can be what frustrates traditionalists the most about artsy circus, but when you think about it in socio-political terms, it makes perfect sense and is really a response to the times. Instead of showing you how amazing and powerful humans are so you can escape the horrible grind of your country farming life in the mid-1800s, circus is now showing you how hard humans work and what goes into building that rigging and how difficult it can be to climb that rope in order to help you escape from the horrible drudgery of your 9 to 5 job stuck behind a computer and disconnecting from your body. In that way, the escape becomes the same religious experience it has always been for humans, to imagine life as the other, to connect by stepping outside of your own experience and to embody another’s.
Contemporary Circus is a book for the circus scholar as well as the circus student, and certainly, it will be of great interest to anyone in the industry who is producing circus, as it gives us a clear snapshot of the prevailing thought processes of today’s contemporary circus makers and the trends that are emerging.