I remember sitting in a patch of sun after I had finished teaching for the morning. I spoke with Jed Wheeler, Executive Director for Arts and Cultural Programming at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, for just under half an hour before dashing off to my next job. Some minor precautionary measures had started to be put in place that day due to Covid-19. Little did we know how much would change in just a day or two. Montclair was on spring break, and not too much had shifted yet on campus, but Jed and I agreed that the future seemed undefined, open ended. We mutually shook off the temptation to let the feeling of uncertainty monopolize the conversation.
Jed Wheeler: Let’s talk about circus!
Madeline Hoak: Yes, let’s talk about circus! How did your relationship with circus begin?
JW: Many, many, years ago — and I’m not exaggerating — it was about 1985, 1986, something like that, I invited what would be described today as new circus, nouvelle cirque, from France. It was a company called Le Cirque Imaginaire, and it was a French man named Jean Baptiste Thierrée, and his wife, Victoria Chaplin. I encountered Le Cirque Imaginaire in London and was completely charmed by the absence of virtuosity, the authenticity, their view of what circus could be. So I brought them to the United States, and they did a series of performances… We had a glorious time, and they went on to Boston to the American Repertory Theater, and they even swung back around and had an extended run at an off-Broadway theater. That was my first adventure with the [type of] circus that I’m now seeing much more of today, and I’m rather energized by it, to say the least!
We’ve done two projects here at Peak Performances, [one] with a French artist named Raphaëlle Boitel. Raphaëlle’s work embodies the kind of circus that I’m interested in, in which the art of circus is not in the technique, it’s not in the spectacle, but it’s in the internal metaphors that an artist like Raphaëlle finds to tell human stories. ‘Talk about the human condition’ would probably be the cliché, but it’s true. Our audience here became very interested… It wasn’t an escape. I use that word cautiously. It was a way for the audience to probe who they are and who they can be. That’s what Peak Performance is about, whether it’s dance, theater or opera.
We’re trying to help people understand why the arts — why the performing arts, in particular — are such a valuable partner in anybody’s life.
I’ve now had the good fortune of heading up to Montreal, going to Paris, going to a contemporary circus festival outside of Toulouse. I’m seeing more and more how contemporary circus artists are utilizing their enormous craft and talent, but not in showing off the virtuosity they are capable of, but discovering the metaphors that make poetry out of circus. That’s what I’m experiencing. Next season we’ll be doing more of that. Our audience is not saying, ‘Bring me circus, circus, circus’, as much as they are beginning to see the tools and the craft of circus has expanded so significantly… It’s very exciting. It reminds me — although I’m not an expert — of postmodern dance that came in to being forty, fifty years ago through the Judson theater movement. Artists were deconstructing contemporary dance and ballet, were using the body in a new way… [discovering] what bodies can do together and still be dance… discovering what dance could be without emulating what dance had been. And I think circus is doing that.
MH: I’m interested in what you said about contemporary circus not being an escape for the audience. How have audiences responded to Peak Performance programming?
JW: Well, in Raphaëlle’s case the audiences were walking out telling me they could not believe how wonderful the experience was. Not one of them said, ‘I had a great time at the circus.’ Each one of them — from the people that I talked to, you know it’s all very anecdotal — each one of them understood immediately what Raphaëlle was doing. Of course there were these tremendously beautiful moments of flying… but I don’t think anybody said, ‘Oh, I can’t wait for the next acrobatic trick!’ It wasn’t that. I think we’re positioned in a way so that people know when they are coming in the door to Peak Performances they aren’t seeing a cliché. If they are coming here, they already know they are going to see something different, and they are going to see it extremely well presented. In some ways we’ve broken down the barriers in dance, music, theater, and opera already. So why not in circus?
MH: You often facilitate collaborations with artists in residence, which also breaks barriers between arts and academia. Tell me more about that.
JW: It’s very important. I’ll happily say that the College of the Arts is here to develop artists, and the Office of Arts and Cultural programming, which is me, is here to develop audiences. The only real way to do that is for audience members to see and gain value in direct experience with the artists… [Through] the program we’re trying to help people understand why the arts — why the performing arts, in particular — are such a valuable partner in anybody’s life. It swings back to what I was saying about escape. It’s not an extra curricular activity here. It’s not something that you do to get away from something. You come to the Kasser theater, you participate in, see an event, and you’re getting a co-curricular experience. How does what Raphaëlle, or what Sean Gandini [of Gandini Juggling] did, how does that help you as a student here? How can you be a better biologist? How can you be the political scientist you want to be? What is it about Sean Gandini or Raphaëlle Boitel that helps a student understand their own creative potential within the context of the discipline that they have chosen for themselves? That, in general terms, is what we are trying to do.
I have this fantasy that by doing it successfully I’m also creating audiences for the future. When students leave here I want them to say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got to go to my local performing arts center and find out what’s happening because I had such a great experience at the Kasser theater; it’s invaluable to me in terms of who I want to be or who I am.’
Sean Gandini was remarkable in the sense that Sean is a mathematician. He understands the mathematics of juggling. He was put together with both a mathematics course and a physics course last year prior to his debut here in December, 2018. Throughout the semester two professors and about seventy-five students engaged with Sean remotely to understand juggling, and in fact, to learn to juggle and to interpret juggling within the context of their own imaginations. One young man wrote a rap poem using juggling as structural inspiration. Another did a video game. There were 3-D experiences with juggling, and they were all inspired by Sean.
JW: I tell the president of the university when she wants to know what we are doing for students, ‘You know, Dr. Cole, you have to understand we just had a three-month course with juggling. I promise you, each one of these seventy-five students when they go off into the future with whatever they’re doing, when somebody says, what was the experience that changed their life at Montclair University? Each one of them will say, I became a juggler.’ That’s the kind of mood we are trying to create here. It’s investigation, it’s scientific, it’s research, but it’s also amusing, it’s fun, it’s life-supporting…. I don’t think circus has even begun to understand what it’s going to become.
MH: Have you encountered any challenges when programming contemporary circus?
JW: I think the major challenge is the term ‘circus’ itself… In the general public there’s a wild expectation of what circus is and what they’re going to see. We’ve done a few things that called themselves circus but weren’t circus in the conventional sense, in the Big Apple Circus sense. I’ve had some conversations about, why are we calling that circus? For the most part there’s been a big embrace. The students and the Theater department love Raphaëlle Boitel. It’s a physical encounter. The aerial work she does is not something the students would encounter otherwise, and she always contextualizes it so perfectly. It isn’t just a stunt.
ME: How else is circus recognized on campus?
JED: There are individuals in the Theater department who are very much aware of different levels of circus. Whether it’s historic, something like Bread and Puppet, or they’re aware ofPippen and how it used acrobatics… The physicality of circus is something that theater professors on campus here are very much aware of and want their students to know that these are the tools they can use when they create their own theater productions.
MH: You’ve been to Montreal and Paris. Where else do you go to seek out contemporary circus shows?
JW: I go wherever I’m told, because I’m learning!
We’re asking these companies to compete with their hands tied behind their backs. It’s not a competition… It’s almost criminal. You watch and see how other countries have energized the art form, and we’re not doing that. We’re just not doing that.
The French government has made a specific statement about supporting contemporary circus. You have Fratellini Academy in Paris. I went there a month or so ago in St. Denis. The contemporary circus outside of Toulouse was extraordinary for the range of work from France, Italy, Scandinavian countries. There’s a biennial in Marseille next year… There’s so much that’s happening. And the theaters throughout the country in France are all supported for the presentation for new circus.
MH: That’s huge: to have the mentality, the financial support and the technical know-how. How do you feel American circus companies are, dare I say, keeping up with the competition?
JW: We’re asking these companies to compete with their hands tied behind their backs. It’s not a competition… It’s almost criminal. You watch and see how other countries have energized the art form, and we’re not doing that.
MH: Is there anything you would like the Circus Talk readers to know?
JW: I’m really interested in emphasizing how circus has become an art form of the 21st century, and how circus artists of our day are transforming our conventional expectations of virtuosity and giving us an idea of circus as poetry. It’s a very exciting time.
(Below: a short video about the collaboration between Gandini Juggling and Montclair math and physics classes. Photos and video courtesy of Montclair State University.)
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Featured Image: Gandini Juggling engaging with students. Courtesy of Montclair State University.