There are two men on stage, breathing heavily as they perform acrobatic maneuvers that give me butterflies in my stomach. This happened two times at Montréal Complètement Cirque–and both times were entirely different shows featuring a male duo. Although both shows shared some complementary themes and imagery–themes of the tension inherent in the nuances of the male dynamic for example, they were otherwise quite distinct in their approach. These two male duo shows had me wondering why we don’t often see full shows based around the female duo. Do men have more issues to work out, making for more interesting programming? Or are fewer small scale female led shows being supported during the creation phase? Are men more socialized to collaborate in circus than women? Or are women in some way reluctant to embrace the female dynamics that influence their relationships to one another? Are female duo shows not always fostered to the point that they reach the festival circuit? Or is the ability to show any sign of vulnerability so fractured by the unwritten rules of patriarchy that seeing these nuances of the male relationship challenged in tiny ways is more rewarding to watch? Although these questions are not easy to clarify, it is clear that the role the male duo plays in circus is significant both on its own, and in juxtaposition to the lack of female duo options. That being said, there often seems to be a frisson of tension when two human energies meet on stage and divulge the intricacies of their evolving relationship. Chute! and Un Poyo Rojo found this spot of tension and began poking at it for our entertainment.
For an acrobat, falling is a sign of failure, but in Chute! It is all a part of the game.
That feeling of suspence before a body teeters off balance and hits the ground–this is what it feels like for the entire 55 minutes of Chute! The French company La Volte captures that feeling perfectly by using acrobatics and the spoken word. Matthieu Gary and Sidney Pin are the two performers and creators of Chute!–a performance that feels like the amalgamation of a stuntmen’s research project exploring the art of falling. Gary and Pin show us the physical act of collapsing, descending, sliding, plunging, crumbling, tumbling, and toppling while they explain the scientific and philosophical ideas behind what they are enacting, but not without creating many moments of comedy of course.
La Volte made the bold choice to go minimalist–there was barely any music, with piano only in very few key points in the show. There were minimal props, and the house lights were kept on, giving us the chance to look around at the rest of the audience (a throwback to traditional circus, especially so because the stage was in the round). This also helped us to gauge each other’s reactions, as well as giving us a feeling of being a part of the show. Perhaps this created more empathy for the men as they fell to the ground in endless, glorious variations– like being dropped from a cradle hold or tossed from a two-high. Or perhaps it made the show very marketable, as it can be performed in a variety of settings, including a tent, and doesn’t require much production cost to run.
Chute! was full of monologues and conversation. This particular showing was done in French as it was performed in Montréal as part of MCC. The artists were eager to explain after the show that they can perform it in Spanish and English as well, another clear marketing plus. As a non-French speaker, Chute! was very interesting to me. I interpreted a lot of the unspoken themes to be about the physical risk we take as circus artists, and the importance of vulnerability and trust, although the spoken parts were actually all about the physics of falling. The incongruity of the physicality with the words created its own tension–one that echoed the stereotypical male relationship in many ways–where everything must appear rational on the surface, but underneath much is left unsaid and expressed in strange ways, ranging from acts of outright aggression (wrestling) to surprisingly thoughtful and tender gestures (catching a performer before he falls and laying him gently on the ground).
At one point one of the performers quips, “Mass attracts mass, like I am attracted to this chair,” as he sits in the audience after a tiring acrobatic sequence. The conversational aspects of the show created a candid environment so it felt like the performance was being created right in front of our eyes. Even the audience played a part in this creation as we were beckoned into conversation with Gary and Pin.
Chute! showcased many comedic games that were based on questions. Much like the show Un Poyo Rojo, the underlying premise of the action is: two men playing games with each other. For an acrobat, falling is a sign of failure, but in Chute! It is all a part of the game. In a way Chute! is all creation process. They ask questions like “How far can we jump towards one another before falling into each other’s arms?”, “How fast can you throw a pillow under my body before I hit the ground?” and “Why, when I go up, must I come down?” All questions are answered in a practical way, through breathtaking acrobatic sequences, slapstick inspired moments, and full on conversations with the audience members.
Un Poyo Rojo
The feeling of tension from watching a prolonged masculine seduction that moves in an out of aggression–this is what caught my attention while watching Un Poyo Rojo at the packed theater in Montreal. Un Poyo Rojo, a company from Argentina, set their namesake show in a locker room–a place that symbolizes testosterone as well as a place that could create confusing moments for men exploring their sexuality. Alfonso Baron and Luciano Rosso, the two men who perform and created the show (along with director Hermes Gaido), are incredible body language manipulators. They are both truly clowns who use acrobatics and multiple styles of dance, primarily Latin dance, to show the ridiculousness of the courtship ritual. Much like Chute! the performers take traditional male roles– competitive, rational, dominant and submissive, and play with them. There were moments of tenderness and camaraderie in their dynamic during their acrobatic dance sequences and swing dance moments, but they kept it tense most of the time with a continuous competitive undertone.
Dotted with references from birds mating dances, Beyonce, backpack kid, twerking, runway modeling, and so forth, the show flawlessly links itself to popular culture and the real world. They make the most of the fact that Rosso’s Youtube channel went viral due to his lip sync videos in which he embodies a cartoon by masterfully moving each muscle in his face for maximum hilarity. Rosso used this skill at multiple points (even for a encore afterwards) making it apparent that he is an improvisational genius. During one of the more subtle but hilarious sequences, accompanied by a live radio broadcast, Baron switched stations, and Rosso changed facial expressions to illustrate boredom to lip syncing to an emotional pop song, to a man saying “and then the scientists held a little party,” and finally to mimicking belting out an opera.
At times Baron and Rosso blur the line between wrestling and dancing, intimacy and aggression. Coming from the perspective of someone socialized as a female, some of the intricacies of gay male sexuality may have gone over my head. That being said, there were moments within the show that I found to be uncomfortable and sometimes downright problematic to put on a stage in order to get a laugh. Moments when one performer’s face was forced into the other’s crotch and where one was ripping the other’s clothes off in a frantic wrestling match. These moments started with a no, moved on to overpowering that no and ended in a joke. This begs the question: How do we react to most sexual assault situations in popular media? How do we know if the performance itself is meant as social commentary on a difficult topic or meant to maintain a status quo position? Was this case different because of all the undertones and influences that exist in gay male culture and/or Argentinian culture? The fear behind coming out as gay, the historical (and perhaps media-led) fetishization of the ‘gay guy attracted to straight guy‘ dynamic, as well as the Latin American sense of machismo–what influence did those factors have on the subtle messages and sense of humor conveyed in the show? Is there room in this conversation for reflection on consent or do the cultures involved have different, inscrutable codes? The last moment of the show, Baron and Rosso share a passionate and real kiss as the lights fade and our clenched jaws all relax a bit.
Both Chute! and Un Poyo Rojo were duos, both were full of tense and funny moments, but though they each have their fill of testosterone informed game playing, they differed in approach. Un Poyo Rojo plays with gay male sexuality and seduction, while Chute! plays with the rough nature of acrobatics and the masculine ideal of rationality. As they discuss science so level-headedly, they defy reason by doing ridiculous and dangerous things. Each show demonstrates some of the vulnerability and absurdity of being male in this age and climate. Similarly, they each chose to play very minimal music throughout the shows to focus on either the speaking or the rhythm of breath, which creates a beautiful sense of unease. Each of the duos used similar visual and auditory cues to create a rhythm between the comedic moments and the angsty aura that permeated their performances, but their topics and themes were unique. These shows each brought me deeper into thinking about humanity, our quest for knowledge about our physical world, and how our identity affects our relationship with what we see on stage. Each show went deeper than simple entertainment to raise questions and deeper than standard technique to stretch the definition of circus, helping circus reach a wider audience with their willingness to explore more than form.
Feature photo courtesy of Ishka Michocka Related content:The Body in Waiting, Circus Summer Seminar in Montreal, Meanwhile, Backstage…, 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, Un Poyo Rojo & Chute!