Circus productions and their audiences are constantly pushing their borders into the wider world of the performing arts. Raffaele De Ritis reflects on this through the model of the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Last August he attended 45 shows in 9 days, orienting his choices on those cases where the definition of genres falls toward unknown possibilities.
If a definition of what “circus” is is the subject of a never-ending debate between purists and avant-gardists within the profession, it would be interesting to examine the theme within the broader industry of performing arts and its audience. Let’s imagine for a moment that the definition of “circus” doesn’t exist. There is a blurry line in the industry where the codes of what we intend as theatre, dance, and circus merge and collide toward new shapes. This happens in multiple unique contexts: intimate, immersive, arena-sized, physical, interactive, contemplative, musical-driven, improvisational, family-oriented, sexual content-based. Perhaps there was no precedent in the history of a similar broad diversity.
Perhaps to get a proper observation point, we can go back to last August and to the Fringe Festival of Edinburgh, which has taken place every year in August since 1947. After all, the Scottish capital is the birthplace of the world “panorama” (thanks to the unique view from Calton Hill above the city).
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2023 edition brought together 3,553 shows for a total of about 52,000 performances in 288 venues, with 67 countries represented; and artists, arts industry, media, and audiences from nearly 170 countries, for a total of 2,445,609 tickets issued. Shows in venues were joined by nearly 500 street performers, buskers, and street artists as part of the Fringe’s free street events.
As the largest performing arts festival and expo market for professional development in the world, this year’s Fringe also attracted nearly 1,400 accredited producers, programmers, bookers, talent agencies, festivals, and others, providing touring and onward opportunities for artists well beyond August.
Creativity and the cross-pollinations of sub-genres are infinite; and, more than that, the audience doesn’t seem to have prejudices about which choices specifically belong to which artistic genres. They just want new emotions, fun, transgression with friends, or stimulating entertainment for their children; live contact with performing bodies and voices; to listen to stories or indulge in the just visual delight of fantasy worlds; or to experience cathartic references to our existence’s struggles. The main themes of this year’s Fringe were mental health and wellbeing, disability, queer lives, working-class representation, and the climate crisis; comedy shows (by far the largest area) were largely based on ethnic or sexual identities, with self-irony and sarcasm.
A clever and brave example of crossing the border of performing arts has always been Les 7 Doigts de la Main. In their last show, Duel Reality, they have approached no less than Shakespearean acting.Once more, they have hit the target of what “contemporary” circus should mean, with a show extremely delicate and immensely powerful. The sincerest dramaturgy of human relationships serves an outstanding acrobatic technique at an endless pace: fresh ideas and surprises, elegant touch, richness, and generosity; drama and romance in light balance. Their playful, humble, way to brilliantly deal with an otherwise demanding narrative. And, for circus lovers, their wonderful touch in reinventing and rethinking the timeless repertory, with respect for the classic codes and the magic inspiration to take them towards new territories. And, of course, Shana Carroll re-confirming herself as one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of circus creation.
This company’s field is, as always, the large-format stage circus show. It is a dimension that few companies in the world can achieve, and that has projected circus arts into the world of the international theatrical circuit. One of the most successful companies in this genre is of course Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus,whose Peepshow Club Remix is an outstanding gem. A triumph of the acrobatic body at its purest, in the difficult balance of traditional school and contemporary poetry. More than a show, this is a majestic fresco. It takes place in a sort of limbo disco/club where the brightness of few colours, the richness of sound, and the immense beauty of performers tell us of solitude, desperation, regret, and all the ephemeral joys our lives are filled with. Yaron Lifschitz once again speaks to us about unreachable emotions and impossible desires; as any true artistic master, he carves beauty out of our frailties.Peepshow is desperately irreverent, while once more the acrobat’s impossible feats separate us for one hour from the fear of mortality.
Large-format shows also offer potential for popular hits.The Black Blues Brothers seems like a small miracle: the content of the show is purely acrobatic (with five very good acrobats from Kenya), but the production has chosen the trend of movie/musical tribute shows, avoiding the words “circus” or “cirque.” The result is that this show, created by renowned Italian producer/author Alessandro Serena, has now been probably the longest-running circus title on tour in the world theater circuit for a decade. At the Fringe, they returned for the third year with daily sold-out shows in a large theater.
In the forms of popular entertainment, there also seems to be a new space for neo-classical forms of semi-dramatized circus dedicated to families. The Revel Puck Circus with their show The Wing Scuffle Spectacular is fresh, original, and pure joy. This up-and-coming British troupe manages to build a contemporary experience without losing the magic of connecting with children and a high level of performance. Their “reprise” Pierrot/clown (Arielle Lauzon, a rare female example) is a remarkable model of balance between classicism and innovation, poetry and derision.
In a more intimate form, the company Aloft—a pioneer in the new possibilities of immersive circus—brilliantly balances family-suitable entertainment with research on space and atmosphere.Brave Space is an enthralling show wherein the six multidisciplinary female acrobats build a parachute-silk miniatureBig Top above the heads of the audience, and with their help. I never expected to experience one day the sight of a fine aerial duo act while lying on my back on the floor with a few dozen other people. With a similar sense of intimacy, the show Reclaim from T1J – Theatre d’un Jour (Belgium) beautifully blends live baroque string instrument and voice, ground acrobatics, mime/mask, and ancestral myths. The audience encircling the action, set in a primitive world of men and wolves, makes us imagine a theatre before the theatre, or a circus before the circus.
Many of today’s circus shows reach the essential purity of thesophistication of art gallery performance pieces: this is the case of Escalate, an elegant, live music-driven piece from Throw Catch Collective that elevates juggling to contemporary art. Similarly, the hand-balancing full evening piece N.Ormes from the Quebecois duo Agathe and Adrien brilliantly faces gender norms through the physical and poetic limits of their own bodies. Both shows are masterpieces of beauty and a sublimation of the circus genre toward new borders.
In the field of physical theatre arts, a vast number of physical performances fail to fit into any of the assumed definitions of dance, mime, or acrobatics. It is a crossroads that, in Spain for example, some theatres have begun to define as “movement arts.” How appropriate.
A show that fits into that class is the unbelievable Mass Action from the renowned Danish queer company Himerandit. The piece is inspired by a gym’s synchronized energy; it starts as a workout session, only to soon turn loose into the hypnotic anarchy of a rave, culminating into a joyful sequence of full nudity and streams of sweat. With its kinetic energy and extreme sense of life, it is one of the most sensational pieces of body performance you can see.
On a different scale is the equally breathless solo work of Deborah Pugh, Beautiful Evil Things: a rollercoaster ride centered around the women of Greek myths, blending storytelling, rock, cabaret, creative sound design, martial arts, and extreme physical acting.
Physical theatre has of course its brilliant declinations into comedy, from the very same roots of circus clowning. One of the world’s most brilliant examples in recent years is the award-winning company of Pierre Guillois from France. Their latest show Ice Hole conjures up a hilarious, absurdly daring travel adventure by two comedians using just their bodies, a grammelot voice, and thousands of pieces of cardboard for all the most extreme creative possibilities. On a more intimate scale, the Voloz Collective from Chicago created the thrilling comedy movement piece The Man Who Thought He Knew Too Much: sort of Wes Anderson–meets Hitchcock–meets Spaghetti Western–meets silent slapstick…
Solo clowning meets a wide revival, with most of the shows performed by women. The star at 2023 Fringe was without a doubt Estonian-born and London-based Julia Masli. Her show is based on the most extreme conditions: first, you must find a ticket. Second, you should be patient until 1:30 in the morning. When inside a smoky, loud comedy club, you acknowledge that the show has no beginning nor end and is based on the audience member’s problems. Julia masterfully improvises nightly an orchestrated chaos, suspended between the sincere dedication of a psychotherapist and the absurdity of a Marx Brothers movie directed by Salvador Dalì. Her character is well-balanced between menacingly aggressive and sweetly poetic. Most of all, even in such a borderline piece of performance, she expresses the pure essence and spirit of what a clown universally is.This is the only show out of 3,500 that moved The New York Times to craft a full page.
From clowning to stand-up comedy can sometimes be a short step. If the form has a verbal and less physical basis, a show surprised us with its ties to the circus field. The classy comedian Chris Turner performs a club act in the old Las Vegas style: a nice contrast with his unique specialty, for being renowned as the world’s best improvisational rapper (and probably the world’s only tuxedoed one). The show’s comedy text is humorously based on his experience in the cast of the recent Vegas Cirque production Mad Apple.
Stand-up comedy borders on another genre close to circus, which is the art of stage magic. It is a widely popular area: it mostly falls into interactive comedy, and often with unpredictable moments (we witnessed aspectator mistakenly smashing his own credit card with a hammer, in an attempt to recover it from a block of ice where it had miraculously reappeared). Magic can also be highly dramatized (as in the new branch of French contemporary circus called “nouvelle magie”), generating great theatre. Ben Hart, a young creative British magician, exploited a rare scenic way in magic: the round space.His new show Jadoo, based on the atmosphere of Indian magic, is performed on the circular platform of an intimate Spiegeltent. The set, light and sound design, and the magic pieces he crafts with some beautiful text transport us to an imaginary Indian circus outside of time and space.
A solid tradition of recent decades is the one of circus-cabaret: acrobatic numbers in extreme variants close to burlesque or comic derision, in the contemporary versions of the decadent genre in vogue between the two wars, or in a grotesque revision of the 50s/60s and vaudeville or side-show novelties. David Bates’ La Clique continues to set the tone: in its effective simplicity, it does not need a narrative line and conveys the most electrifying atmosphere of pure circus to an adult audience. Every year, the Fringe Festival stimulates the production of similar projects in the spiegeltents or clubs. Among the most brilliant ideas of this edition was Sophie’s Surprise 29th, taking on the semi-interactive format of a birthday party (a show that rests heavily on the shoulders of the fantastic comedian/unicyclist Sam Goodburn).
Through hundreds of shows, there are a few exceedingly rare gems. They are those experiences that, in addition to breaking the genre boundaries, redefine new perspectives towards new forms yet to be discovered. There were two examples that seemed to stand out this year, for their magnitude of ambition, proportion, and creative madness.
One is Food by physical performer/magician/conceptual artist Geoff Sobelle (proposed not in the Fringe itself, but in the official section of the venerable EIF-Edinburgh International Festival). Sobelle invites the audience to an elegant dinner around a gigantic table, of which he is the waiter. The action gradually turns into a surreal meditation on eating, and on the planet’s food cycle. The table becomes an expanse of real earth, with surreal images worthy of the best physical theater, appearances, disappearances, and hallucinatory mentalism techniques that materialize the orders placed by the spectators with the à la carte menu.
The other experience, even more immersive, is the latest creation by Hungarian director Bence Vagi, founder of the celebrated circus company Recirquel:the show titled IMA (“prayer” in Hungarian). It is an installation in which a few dozen spectators at a time go through a twenty-minute experience. The only protagonist is an aerial artist, inside a black space, out of the world and out of time, in a meditative experience of great depth. The original soundtrack is wonderful, as is the innovative precision of the sound and lighting design. It is a technically overly complicated production, despite the appearance of simplicity. When did you pray last time? IMA (subtitled “Cirque Immersive”) is perhaps what the world needs: the bare, stripped-down purity of experiencing the sublime. It is not a show, is not a place, is not a time. It is just reconnecting to your inner self through what we are losing: artful wonder. Here you face a monumental, yet still humble, project. A colossal effort into the deepest 20 minutes of your life. You feel the sweet strength of creative urgency and the unthinkable generosity of artistic ambitions. How welcome is art with great ambitions! How necessary are those who dare to push the boundaries of what can be done, elegantly, towards what has never existed before and what we can further experience as human beings!
Main image: Brave Space. Photo@ Michelle Reid
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