From July 3rd to 13th 2018, over twenty thinker-doers from a dozen countries, all practitioners and scholars of contemporary circus and/or other performing arts, converged onto Montréal during the Montréal Complètement cirque festival to participate in Concordia University’s intensive summer graduate seminar taught by Prof. Louis Patrick Leroux and titled “Experiential learning in Contemporary Circus Practice: Methods in research-creation, action-research and participant observation.” For two weeks, they attended lectures and seminars in the mornings, then in the afternoon, had studio time to work on their presentations or to attend participant-observation sessions as part of a larger research project, and of course, they attended performances in the evening.
In addition to their brief research-creation presentations, the students each produced two to three blogs during this period. We are offering a selection of those blogs. Some are candid, heartfelt, others analytical, some are critical takes, others are musings on students’research. They give a snapshot of what was on people’s minds during the summer intensive.Prof. Leroux and his teaching assistant, Alisan Funk, have also contributed original material to complement the students’ blogs. Check back every Friday until the New Year for an updated article from one of the participants!
The plan: an intensive two-week graduate seminar about research practice in circus arts, embedded in a circus festival, and integrated with a separate, multi-year research project investigating the dramaturgy of circus performance and culminating with ten days of ongoing public research presentations, panels, and workshops.
Meanwhile, Backstage, Early July…
Everything is falling apart. Days from the start of the seminar, days from the opening of the exhibition and the start of the performative research dissemination. Three teams: three directors, eight artists, two musicians, three technical coaches/teachers, an army of research assistants. One of the directors doesn’t want to work with the musicians. The musicians need an actual cello. One of the participants who should have been on board with the project is suddenly imposing ultimatums and wanting to change the schedule around. There are tears; there is rhetoric. The schedule took months to figure out, it’s like clockwork. There’s technical staff– there are riggers, various union workers involved. The scientific posters aren’t ready. Issues with the design process; issues with the final copy – I’m working nights to rewrite passages; we’re realizing too late that two years’ worthof videosand photos were shot on a low-quality setting and can’t be used on oversized posters. The research-creation space that had been booked for nine months suddenly becomes unavailable because we are hanging dynamic weight (as we have in the past and as we have informed them very clearly on a number of occasions), but this time, there’s an issue, apparently. I call in my own engineer, one of the only circus apparatus specialists who happened to have done measurements on the particular apparatus we are working on. Her expertise,while appreciated,is discounted as we need a structural assessment as well. I ask for alternate spaces. One space is fine, but it will cost thousands of unbudgeted dollars. Another space is great, but we can’t play music or amplify voices. Meanwhile, the international students are arriving in a heat wave and the residences are not air conditioned. Might I be able to help? How have I gotten myself into this? What will I teach these poor souls who have travelled halfway across the world? I thought I knew. I don’t know anything anymore.
Breathe in: Showtime!
First class. 22 amazing thinker-doers, practitioners, scholars, some friends, many I have met through my travels. We all want to be here. We all are invested. Oh, yes—hello!—that’s what a room full of promise and keen energy feels like! I remember why I did this; I know why; these people: they are my tribe, I am of their tribe. We are thinker-doers; we break down walls; we thrive on challenges; we love to discuss and debate. And if possible,do! What is doing in this context? Risking, engaging in an action beyond mere criticism or constructive critique. We will all take risks by also presenting our work, our take on what research-creation might look like, might amount to. We can talk the talk, but can we also walk the walk? Morning seminars and discussions, afternoon studio time and participant-observation, evening shows,and then more discussion. There’s a bit of everything and we want to do it all.
They came to study here at Concordia, in Montréal, during the Montréal Complètement Cirque International circus festival. They came to share, to experience. I quickly understand that, in spite of my “expertise,” I am ultimately a facilitator, a prompter of travels and inevitable convergences. I try not to profess as professors do (well, maybe a little, there is a pleasure in that for both the professor and some students), but rather to frame discussions, name phenomenon and to ask rhetorical questions.
Every day, a logistical, technical or bureaucratic challenge arises as one can expect in an institution and some doozies pop up that one wouldn’t expect: for example, custodial services have had the bright idea of tearing down all of our 16 oversized posters and striking the performance area minutes before the team arrived and a few hours before the audience was expected. Another day, noise and vibrations from nearby construction affect the concentration and the safety of the performers. Seven phone calls and 24 emails later, I realize that no one can help. Until I find the one who can, and the argument to end all unreasonable noisy construction. But for every problem, we also find problem-solvers, allies in the wings, helping us out, finding solutions. In two days, national media and international guests will be in the space – how can we sort this out? The posters, promised for the grand opening, still aren’t ready and won’t be. I ask myself; was it such a good idea to run a graduate seminar with studio time simultaneously to what amounts to a small festival of circus research in multiple venues during an international circus festival,where we are also expected to attend events as spectators?
Rather than pulling out my hair, ranting or keeping everything well-bottled up under pressure, I open each day’s seminar with “the challenge of the day” and take a few minutes to discuss this with the students. I find the exercise pedagogical as it brings us into problem-solving mode. I laugh and make light of the issues. In the meantime, extraordinary folks, led by the undaunted and impeccably prepared Alison Bowie (my production manager, organizational assistant, phd student and occasional conscience) are sorting things out in the wings. Also, in class, I am assisted by the energetic and clear-headed Alisan Funk who is more than a teaching assistant, but rather an accomplice, a discussant. (Without the Alisan-Alison tandem, I’m not sure that any of this would have been possible.)
I’m teaching thinking-doing, I’m advocating problem-solving by placing ourselves in problems’ way. These challenges, while frustrating, are also pedagogical gold. “How would you deal with this particular situation?” I ask them. And later give them an update on how it was resolved, because it always is –that’s what we do: we put ourselves in impossible situations, and then, we find a way out. It’s also good for the students to realize that even a professor with access and budgets and a certain modest renown for teaching, research, and generally getting things done, can be stumped and must fight for every single action that will be seen as out of the ordinary. Research-creation is about creating space for opportunities: physical space, mind-space, a space for sharing.
What Did We Do?
We researched the creative process, the very notion of research-creation as knowledge-generation and dissemination, we explored, we shared, we learned from each other, we were reminded that there is a space for artistic research and that contemporary circus can mean so much more than figures and technical training and entertainment. Together we created a space of infinite possibilities.
But apparently, infinite possibilities are exhausting and force us to our inherent need for limits and structure.
A month after the last day, I was still reading blogs; I was still receiving emails from all over the world with final assignments: ambitious, lengthy papers, some of which will become articles. Two months after the last day of class, something remains. ‘What will we do next year?’, someone asks. ‘In what country could we meet next?’, someone else asks. The seminar created a community of disparate, yet like-minded research-creators. It also was vindication for different models of teaching and learning within the university. For some types of students – the active practitioners, the international set – intensive seminars make sense, as they follow the rhythm and schedule of the intensive creative process. Is this how we could imagine a future graduate program in circus studies? A program made up of units of different shapes and sizes, following the natural rhythms of circus thinker-doers?
Three months after the seminar ended, I am working with a number of the students to develop various projects, exchanges, and collaborations. Some classes run all year and no one truly connects, some intensive seminars run for two weeks and create life-long bonds. You never know, walking in, if this will be the one,that one.
Early October. In retrospect, I think: that was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t change a thing (well, I would—but not in spirit) and would be ready to do it all again tomorrow with the same group!
Related content: The Body in Waiting, Circus Summer Seminar in Montreal, What It Means When Circus Artists Take Part in Graduate Research Courses, The More We Learn the Less I Know, A Sequence of Blogs on Expertise and Ethics, Simple Thoughts , Coffee talk with Maddy and Stacey–Finding the Intersection Between Circus & Dance,and The Male Duo in Circus, Un Poyo Rojo & Chute!
Feature photo courtesy of Agata Quintero