Circus News

Never Alone: Dualities of Circus Tradition and Innovation

“This is for you,” said director Bence Vági, handing me a printed paperback book whose cover showed blurred black and white images of human male forms in motion. It bore the title of the show we were meeting to discuss, Recirquel’sNon Solus (Not Alone). The book is full of artful production imagery and peppered with poems that Vagi wrote throughout the process. Metaphor abounds in  Non Solus, and the multiple dualities represented in and of themselves demonstrate the sentiment that no one person, or for that matter idea, is alone.

Coincidentally,Non Solus was not alone in representing current approaches to circus to New York audiences when the show presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).  Non Solus  is as much about its subject, the body/soul duality, as it is an experiment combining formal dance and circus traditions. So while this article will focus on the details of Non Solus, to me the show is best appreciated in relationship to the shows that neighbored its visit to New York.

During the same February weekend, at The New Victory Theater, Australian company Gravity & Other Myths was presenting their show  A Simple Space, which is an intensely acrobatic show devised on the escalation of a series of games. Concurrent to that, over in New Jersey, Montclair University was presenting French circus director and choreographer Raphaëlle Boitel’sWhen Angels Fall, a post-apocalyptic dystopian production whose deconstructed use of heightened physicality could almost be described as post-circus. Meanwhile, New York-based Big Apple Circus toured its act-by-act structure of stunts and spectacle to other parts of the country. The four circus shows each represented circus subgenres informed by different traditions of aesthetics, disciplines, and structure. For one week, New York’s circus legacy briefly held a multiplicity of contemporary circus forms, applications, and expressions in its midst; a poetic reminder that no one production created by circus artists exists alone in a vacuum

All four of the shows offered small contextual clues to their viewers about the circumstances that informed their creation. While circus may still be finding names for its many voices, the conversation between the works is how we uncover its language. Circus artists are seeking ways to creatively inject their unique points of view into circus forms.  A Simple Space is devised out of a series of games, and even Big Apple Circus, which is largely facilitated by its clowns, celebrates playful connection while marveling at human virtuosity.When Angels Fall, the post-apocalyptic dystopia that looks like a world bred between a Cormac McCarthy story filtered through Pina Bausch, plays like a cautionary tale against increasing disembodiment and isolationism, calling on us to stay connected to our bodies and voices. Whatever their points of view, all of the shows somehow attempt to communicate to their audiences, without words, that we are all on this journey together.

A Glimpse intoNon Solus

Performed by a dancer (Gábor Zsíros) and aerialist/acrobat (Renátó Illés) Non Solusis told through a series of layered metaphors.Non Solus is a physical poem that tells a story of being; of life and death through the physical representations of Body and Soul. Like all strong poetry, the show is recognizably technical in its form and abstract in its language. From the elaborate, movable set pieces to the specificity of the performers’ movement, the piece is tightly choreographed yet open for interpretation.

“I believe that theatre is a way of healing. It’s a remedy for the human soul. I hope to be doing something good when I do art… Some performances only say something out loud without allowing an answer to come back” – Bence Vagi.

The dancer represents Body, the aerialist/acrobat represents Soul. While the story could be read as the experience of one man’s physical form in relationship to the embodiment of his consciousness/soul, the set surrounds the performers in mirrors and amplifies the story into little visual echoes suggesting that the story itself is not singular–that all of us are in the midst of the body/soul duality as well. This effect begins at the very start of the show. From the moment the lights slowly come up, a singular softly floating human form is echoed in the surrounding mirrors. A dancer in a harness slowly descends towards the stage, but the image is distorted as we watch this through a translucent plastic scrim conjuring the image of an unborn baby in a womb. The meditative music is reminiscent of something in a cathedral or other sacred space. Once grounded, the dancer pulls the translucent scrim away to expose the space around him.

Photo courtesy of Max Gordon

Non Solus, gravity is a force that compels the Body but not the Soul, and the vertical space is heightened consciousness easily accessible for the Soul but not the Body. Thus throughout the show, an acrobatic dance of communication and mutual respect between Body and Soul ensues, searching for the magic balance that carries this being through life and death. The dramaturgy of the show is clear and supported by poetic imagery, refined virtuosic movement, and a tranquil, ethereal soundscape.

The balletic aesthetic of both the dance and circus choreography is what led to marketing the show as “cirque danse.”  Vági told me, “[Cirque danse] was a tag that was given by the critics in Edinburgh… out of the 15 reviews there were at least 10 that somehow tried to puzzle the word dance and circus together… and actually it was with Joe Mellilo [BAM’s current executive producer], we sat and he said, ‘they’re trying to formulate something because you’re doing something that is different and is you.’ And easy logic … because I’m this guy who comes from dance and had nothing to do with circus, but I love circus and really respect circus, so this dual feeling within me creates what we do.”

There was some confusion and criticism amongst local circus audiences though, who thought that saying the tag “cirque danse” as new toNon Solus was confusing since other shows often employ circus and dance together in various ways. Vági agreed, “There are many performances right now that are moving towards ideas of dance theatre. You look at the work of Circa, an Australian company, [Opus]- it’s moving towards dance theatre, but differently [from  Non Solus]: the form is like dance theatre, the lighting, the music, the structure, but the rawness of the circus artists remains- which Ilove… Whereas we take the lines of ballet theatre where it’s really precise. All of these angles we have learned, the artists they know the positions, the squares, the stretch… I wouldn’t say that it is classical ballet, but when you look at it, it feels like ballet in a way because it’s put into a system (that maybe exists in my head), and that’s why it becomes different.”

The Inherent Politics of Bodies Onstage

Through my biased lens and experience as a woman making art in America, I see every artistic gesture as being inherently political, and it informed the way I approached both my conversation with Vági and my viewing of  Non Solus. I had to ask Vági if he too thought art was inherently political. At first he disagreed, so I asked why he cast two men to play the Body and the Soul in  Non Solus. He explained there had not been a casting process, “They have been with the company for seven years and they grew step-by-step together, and when we created [an earlier show called] Naked Clown ,we had an ending scene where they had like a short scene which was only three minutes. And they did a duet where the body and the soul, and the soul of the clown would go off and the body would fall and die. It was a beautiful short piece and it was a conversation between dance and circus.”

Photo courtesy of Max Gordon

Understanding the story behind Zsíros’ and Illés’ casting offered context, but I still pressed on about representation and gender in circus. I asked Vagi where that fits into his experience with Hungarian circus, “Speaking about all these gender issues, it takes time for a nation to open up. When you have 70 years of terrible mind-washing by a communist regime, it’s not easy for a country to find its own identity back again. It’s very sad… it takes time, and in this way maybe… we open some minds, and I’m sure with  Non Solus, and in this way it  is  political. Because in  Non Solusthere are two men representing birth and death or the body and the soul. I don’t think ever that it carries a sexual energy — but it does — because there are two nearly naked men onstage. But the quality of the choreography was never meant to be that. What we spoke about was more about the body and the soul and the belief that we are not alone.” While I felt validated by Vági’s acknowledgement that putting human bodies onstage carries inherently sociopolitical implications, it was clear that overt political gestures have not consciously been part Recirquel’s process or work.

While circus may still be finding names for its many voices, the conversation between the works is how we uncover its language.

Vági did say, “I believe that theatre is a way of healing. It’s a remedy for the human soul. I hope to be doing something good when I do art… Some performances only say something out loud without allowing an answer to come back. And this is really important for me [that an answer be able to come back]… We speak to the people with a lot of emotion. I think that’s key: that through movement we really like to be allowing us to be emotional… we are more poetic, so when people come they might see their own story in the storyline.” The point of view is striking, because to me, that is a political one. To make  Non Solus, a show accessible to everyone, suggesting that at the end of the day we are all moving through the world as a body/soul duality (despite socially constructed labels that attempt to distinguish types of people), to me is a deeply humanist argument. There is valid critique that white European men representing body and soul in this show also carries unhelpful sociopolitical implications, but at the same time, that a company from a country with as dark of a history as Hungary is endeavoring to make humanist “cirque danse” to me is a very hopeful thing. It is apropos that yet this is another duality embedded in the world of  Non Solus.

Endless Possibilities

When so much tradition and innovation goes into negotiating the creative process and product of a circus show, it’s no surprise that the four shows in discussion all share some common threads despite their many differences. After my conversation with Vági, the intersections and digressions ofNon Solus with these other works appeared more tangibly. Like Big Apple Circus,Non Solus comes from traditions that cherish classical circus technique. Like Gravity & Other Myths’ A Simple Space, the show uses physical virtuosity as a language to connect its characters. Like  When Angels Fall,  Non Solus carries a poetic through-line, that while not as concrete as a theatrical narrative, still offers a somewhat linear arc to the piece. Appreciating the similarities and differences, as well as the implications of so many shows gracing New York City at once, helps widen the lens of how circus and its subgenres can be enjoyed and appreciated.

The black and white book Vagi gave me is sitting on my computer bag. A blurry image of a man throwing his head back while outstretching his arms into darkness stares back. While circus critics and marketers may struggle to find the words to describe this work, the poetry in the image is clear. The image evokes emotion more than it suggests physical form. While circus’ subgenres are highly physical forms,  Non Solusis a reminder that these subgenres are all different ways of endeavoring to bring more human dimension to circus bodies and the stories they tell. Nothing exists in a vacuum: not art, not politics, not circus itself; and as  Non Solus  demonstrates in its staging of a birth through a death, neither do body and soul.

Related content: When Angels Fall –French Devised Performance with Circus at Its Core Inspiring US AudiencesBrains, Heart and Space for the Simple: a Conversation with Gravity and Other Myths, and Big Apple Circus: Back on its Feet, but Fastened to Tradition.

Feature photo courtesy of Max Gordon
Nicole Valerie Miller
Director, Performer, Writer -United States
Nicki Miller is an NYC based director and performer known for her theatrical take on aerial arts. She is co-founding artistic director of Only Child Aerial Theatre (ASYLUM NYU Skirball CN:ICE, Framework INSITU Site-Specific Dance Festival). Her work as aerial designer and choreographer has most notably been included in Ripe Time’s The World is Round at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) directed by Rachel Dickstein. Recently Nicki was assistant director of 5th Wall Studio's Breaking Surface in NYC. She has also been a resident artist at Cirkus Cirkör (Sweden), the 2016/17 New Victory LabWorks Program, the Santa Barbara Floor to Air Festival, Circus Sessions at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, the Contemporary Circus Arts Festival of Toronto, and was the recipient of the Glenn P. Davis Aerial Choreographer’s scholarship award for the 2018 Frequent Flyers’ Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado. In 2017 Nicki spent two months in Europe assisting and observing projects at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Shakespeare's Globe, as well as advanced training with Frantic Assembly. She also completed a creative residency in Sweden, where she also shadowed Cirkus Cirkör director Olle Strandberg on the premiere of his new show Under. Nicki is a graduate of Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts. She is also a freelance director, aerial theatre consultant, and educator. www.nickimiller.com

Nicole Valerie Miller

Nicki Miller is an NYC based director and performer known for her theatrical take on aerial arts. She is co-founding artistic director of Only Child Aerial Theatre (ASYLUM NYU Skirball CN:ICE, Framework INSITU Site-Specific Dance Festival). Her work as aerial designer and choreographer has most notably been included in Ripe Time’s The World is Round at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) directed by Rachel Dickstein. Recently Nicki was assistant director of 5th Wall Studio's Breaking Surface in NYC. She has also been a resident artist at Cirkus Cirkör (Sweden), the 2016/17 New Victory LabWorks Program, the Santa Barbara Floor to Air Festival, Circus Sessions at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, the Contemporary Circus Arts Festival of Toronto, and was the recipient of the Glenn P. Davis Aerial Choreographer’s scholarship award for the 2018 Frequent Flyers’ Aerial Dance Festival in Colorado. In 2017 Nicki spent two months in Europe assisting and observing projects at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Shakespeare's Globe, as well as advanced training with Frantic Assembly. She also completed a creative residency in Sweden, where she also shadowed Cirkus Cirkör director Olle Strandberg on the premiere of his new show Under. Nicki is a graduate of Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts. She is also a freelance director, aerial theatre consultant, and educator. www.nickimiller.com