Practitioners and Academics Unite! A Sneak Peek into Circus and Its Others, 2021
I’ve had a daydream of this scene before: a curious scholar peers through a telescope from a high window in the ivory tower of academia. They adjust the lens to get a better view of the circus tent in the field below. What are they doing in there? Holding the tent flap aside, circus practitioners take turns pointing binoculars back at the tower. What are they thinking up there? Sometimes, circus practice and circus theory feel impossibly far apart, and the distance between the tent and the tower can foster misunderstanding or even suspicion. My daydream optimistically goes on: acrobats use trampolines, or maybe a teeterboard, to alight into the tower windows; academics zip line into the big top; or the two groups simply meet on a bridge spanning the castle’s moat and talk the evening away. Sometimes, all it takes is the right tool or the right space to create proximity which encourages communal discourse.
Circus and its Others (CaiO) is just that: an opportunity for practitioners and scholars to close the distance between their respective inquiries. As described on its website, CaiO is “an international, cross-disciplinary research project that explores the ways in which contemporary circus artists and companies relate to concepts such as difference, otherness, and alterity in their practice. “Although it wears the coat of an academic conference, co-director Charles Batson (Union College) says CaiO has made the choice “to always work in a space where there are practitioners and artists. Working in a specific silo, one may go in one direction – it may be a hugely exciting direction, but wow! – how even more exciting it can be when other voices step out of those silos and start to feed into what we can learn, how we can learn, and what we can experience with each other.” Ante Ursić(UC Davis) (also a co-director along with Karen Fricker, Brock University), said, “The conference is not a top-down model” as in theorists outside the performance dissecting it and determining its meaning. Rather, “it is a bottom-up approach. A lot of practitioners are already proposing something [and there is] a certain kind of interesting intersection between trying to articulate what the practice or the performance is about.” With this strong foundation of cross-pollination, CaiO is preparing for a third international conference in November. I checked in with Batson, Ursic and two of the conference’s scheduled presenters to get some behind the scene’s information.
With sparkling eyes and enthusiastic gestures, Batson told me the conference’s origin story. “It began with a conversation in Montreal – as so many good things do – after a show during one of the festivals.” Batson and two compatriots asked themselves, “What did we just see? Person A said, ‘I saw, some really heterosexist ideas being tossed out onto the stage.’ Person B might have said, ‘I think circus is kind of queer already. It’s just all this extraordinary space with extraordinary bodies doing extraordinary things.’ Person C might have said, ‘But you know, there aren’t many persons of color up on that stage. Maybe we should be talking about that. Maybe we really need to tease apart what’s present and what’s absent.’ And so we all said, ‘Let’s do this.'” CaiO’s initial gathering was associated with the Montreal Working Group. In 2014, the group did a think tank. Batson clarified, “It wasn’t the first time that people had been talking about this, obviously. But it seems like it was the first time that there was a structure. We said, ‘Let’s make sure that we start the conversation, move the conversation along and then continue the conversation and [be sure to] set up a structure to make that happen.'”
There is a certain whirlpool of energy that festivals and conferences generate. People from around the globe catch a wave and wash up on the shores of the same city for a week or so. They tumble around in each other’s presence, knowledge, and ideas. In this fashion, past CaiO conferences have been held in Montreal (2016) and Prague (2018). Ursić, a circus practitioner who also received his Ph.D. from UC Davis, attended the Prague conference. With the casualness of an approachable professor but underscored with genuine excitement for the subject matter, he told me he noted a kindredness between CaiO’s mission and the interdisciplinarity of UC Davis’s Performance Studies program. With support from many departments and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, the next CaiO conference was slated for UC Davis in November of 2020. Alas, it was postponed one year due to the pandemic. To keep momentum and a sense of community, CaiO hosted a digital panel series that included “Circus 2021: Adaptations and Possibilities Amid COVID-19,” “Color in Center Ring: Cultivating Inclusivity in Circus,” and “Clown + Drag” (links below). As many of us have experienced, the density and quality of kinetic encounters during online events pales in comparison to in-person gatherings. Yet, I can personally attest, that the digital events hosted by CaiO this past year retained a particular spark. People from around the world attended, and the chats were organized in such a way that it was possible to get to know one another, voice ideas, and make global connections. While the details of the November gathering are still in the works, I have no doubt that there will be a similar synergy to the previous digital offerings.
Presentations: A Sneak Peek!
I had the immense pleasure of speaking with two of this year’s presenters, Aastha Gandhi, and Magali Sizorn. They were generous enough to share with me a sneak peek into their presentations.
In measured, clear tones, always with a hint of a smile on her lips, Gandhi told me how she weaves her law degree, an interest in migration and economics together to capture a global picture of the evolution of circus. She aims to find methodologies to talk about “local networks which are collapsing” in order “to see where the shift happened in which circus lost the community network.” She explained, “Circus, which was thriving during the colonial period, was supported by many states during the Cold War period. Many of the circuses were nationalized under Soviet Union, East Europe, but circuses in global south, majorly India, did not receive that kind of support from the state. They were still capitalist ventures. Barnum and Bailey continued to be that, but then it collapsed, it shut down. So what happened to these local, traditional circus forms?” She also asks, “Who gets support in Canada, in the West, or in Europe? It is the contemporary circuses. The traditional circuses do not get that support. I look at global circus, and how it has changed. You cannot look at circus as only a form which was colonial. It has its own history in every country, even in the colonies. We’ve had indigenous roots to circus, we’ve had indigenous performers taking up circus and getting their own indigenous body, trained bodies, into circus. There has been a constant shift in what was being performed, so you need to look at it through a different, more complex lens.”
If we are thinking of circus as being upside down, of being contortion, of being juggling – all those metaphors in which the circus is invested — then maybe a conference is a way of putting yourself upside down, contort, or juggle with different ideas and materials.
Sizorn’s presentation is based on a sociological research conducted with (and not only on) circus artist Elodie Guézou, contortionist and “multiple performer.” Guézou’s show, Cadavre Exquis, was first performed in France in March 2020 in Cherbourg. Sizorn says, “It is built in the manner of the game invented by the surrealists: to each director (choreographer, photographer, theater director, etc.), a five-minute act is to be written from constraints imposed by Guézou. This circus show ‘for one performer and twelve directors’ and the traces of the creation process (drawings, notes, emails or sms exchanges) constitute a beautiful space of observation of the division of the roles in the artistic work. Who is the author? What are the modifications induced by the device on the work of each one?” Her paper is titled “When the performer keeps power” and the research is sociological.
Just by nature of being called a “conference,” academics might feel more at home than a circus practitioner. So I asked each of my interviewees specifically: What will a practitioner gain from attending CaiO 2021?
Ursić noted that often there are things we know or sense about the world or our practice, but sometimes can’t articulate. Conferences such as CaiO give us the opportunity to have these thoughts, feelings or ideas validated and find language for them. “If we are thinking of circus as being upside down, of being contortion, of being juggling – all those metaphors in which the circus is invested — then maybe a conference is a way of putting yourself upside down, contort, or juggle with different ideas and materials.” Ursić also mentioned that conferences like CaiO give practitioners “…especially those who are interested in writing grants” tools to write and talk about circus in more specific ways. Rather than generalizing about poetics, risk, or visibility, “You have to be able to contextualize and able to put your work in relation to the wider cultural context.” Conferences can give practitioners vocabulary that helps them “articulating their own project differently” which can generate support in a variety of ways.
Gandhi stated that discourse between practitioners and scholars is important for any body-centered practice. For practitioner, she said, “Your discourse is coming out of your practice. For scholars like me, it provides another window to look at the practice, to see what practitioners are actually going through, and what is their lens. It complicates it more, which is, of course, very exciting.”
Sizorn notes that academic research spans “…sociology, history, semiotics, art studies, movement analysis, etc.” and its appeal to practitioners ranges from circus history to “…the social logic at work.” Sizorn also clarifies that, “If academics can sometimes give the impression of ‘disenchanting’ the world, by deconstructing, for example, collective representations shared by the actors, they are also interested in the ‘logics of action’ of the actors. Collaborative research, notably involving researchers and artists, can be developed.” This is Sizorn’s aim with the company Ama, which brings together Sizorn’s expertise as a sociologist and Guézou’s work as an artist.
Batson answered, “With a more academic, more arguably theoretical deep-dig or deep-dive into these particular matters, I think that we give ourselves time and space to reflect. It’s precious this thing called time.If we’re always moving towards producing an object – of any particular sort – we may lose a lesson that we can give ourselves when we take the time. I think that’s what happens in the deep-dive. I think that it is hugely important to then, in that deep-dive, to specifically be explicit, and say to ourselves, ‘Where is the other in my dive?’ That has to be an active question. I think that without it being active, we can passively slide into the idea that, ‘The other: it’s just not there anyway, so why even think about it?’ As we give ourselves the time to get into the dive, we can say a mantra to ourselves, ‘Other, other, difference, difference.’ And we can then explore.”
To me, CaiO is an ideal opportunity to trade in our telescopes and binoculars for a spot on that bridge where we can meet, converse, get upside down in a deep-dive. And although we will gather in virtual spaces this year, the importance of the event and the potential for tangible impact on one’s circus life — physical and theoretical — is very real.
Resources: Circus and its Others website Registration, presenters, events, and volunteer opportunities coming soon! Performance Matters 20 papers that address the questions: To what extent and in what ways is circus always-already different, and about difference? How does the mainstreaming of circus in our era affect its status as a haven for the different, the outsider? What is happening to circus’s historic status as a site for the celebration and exploitation of differences, from stagings of exceptional performing bodies to the display of “freakery,” in the context of the increased mainstream popularity of the genre? In what ways are contemporary circus artists and companies embracing and exploiting (or not) difference in their practice? CaiO digital events 2020 - 2021 Circus 2021: adaptations and possibilities amid COVID-19 Color in Center Ring: Cultivating Inclusivity in Circus New Perspectives on Australian Circus Clown + Drag
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