Creating Meaningful Contemporary Circus

Recently after seeing a circus show, I was talking to a friend in the forecourt of the Victorian Arts Centre. It had been a warm day and as the chill of the night approached, the warm concrete exhaled a last breath for the shiny jacketed arts patrons clutching glasses of white wine. My friend is a respected sound designer who works for many of Melbourne’s foremost contemporary dance companies. Speaking about the show we’d just seen, he said to me with a look of slight concern ‘I just don’t understand circus. Like, what am I looking at? How do I read it?’ I answered with a joke, but I was struck by the simplicity of his question and the significance of why he was asking it.

It speaks to the deeper issue of an identity crisis for Australian circus, which is aching to be taken seriously as an art form, yet struggles to define or justify itself before the self-appointed ‘gatekeepers’ of culture on funding boards, festivals and awards panels. I think that this crisis can be viewed and dealt with through an important question – how to make circus meaningful for audiences unfamiliar with the form. While analysing this idea I’m going to discuss three contemporary circus shows I’ve seen recently and the attitudes of their creators towards this challenge. Backbone by Gravity and Other Myths, which I saw as part of the Melbourne Festival. Driftwood by Casus Circus, which I saw at the Mullumbimby Circus Festival. And Fauna by Fauna, which I saw at the Berlin Circus Festival.

Lets start with some definitions. If I was to explain how to understand circus to my puzzled friend, I would begin with looking at some of the different styles predominant in Australia, because I think that each of these deserves to be viewed against the standards that they set out for themselves, rather than trying to lump them all in together.


Bridges at Mullum Circus Fest, photo by Mark Turner

Family circus covers the incredible and unique ecosystem of youth circuses that have flowered here from the hard work of pioneers like Reg Bolton, as well as shows that successfully cater to this family audience such as Trash Test Dummies, and Children Are Stinky. This form is energetic, funny and skilful, often focusing on the delight and joy of group performance, as with the highly enjoyable Spaghetti Circus youth troupe show.

There is also some cross over between this category and the next, which I would call Australian New Circus – a style defined by its parent company and behemoth of the Australian circus world; Circus Oz. Rejecting the forms of the Traditional Circus during it’s creative high point in the 90s, New Circus shows work with goofy, offbeat and satirical characters, medium to high skill level, are often set to live music, and contain a relatable Australian sarcastic sense of humour. Within this genre there is a strong tendency to self mockery and mockery of the theatrical form itself by having characters break the fourth wall or break character entirely to comment on their own actions while performing. Circus Trick Tease is another example of a company that works with these ideas, and many Australians incorporate aspects of this humorous but skilful, self-deprecating style into their work.

Another genre is the Nightclub/Spiegeltent style of circus, which is typically presented in a cabaret format, often with mischievous, sexual or adult overtones. In these shows you’re likely to see individual performers or duos showcasing their unique act of sideshow, burlesque and drag just to name a few, within a multitalented ensemble, usually held together by a main MC. La Soiree and it’s predecessor La Clique really set the bar for this style of show and the format has since been emulated or developed by many other shows, such as Papillion and Briefs.

A style that some feel has been in decline of late is the Theatrical genre of circus show, which either aims to tell a story, or takes place in a thematically consistent world that the characters exist inside. Controlled Falling Project by This Side Up sat comfortably within this genre, while their contemporary descendants Elixir by Head First Acrobats also attempt to create a premise and thematic world. Other theatrical circus shows include If These Walls Could Talk by Dislocate, and The Dark Party by the Dirty Brothers. Some larger shows also attempt to span several genres to create a broadly accessible work, such as the recent Circus Oz show Model Citizens. Occasionally a rare and unique company manages to create genre defying and iconoclastic work that refuses definition all together, such as the raw energy and edgy idealism of Acrobat and their works Smaller, Poorer, Cheaper and It’s Not For Everyone.

Jo Lancaster in Acrobat's 'Smaller, Poorer, Cheaper'


These are just a few variations of what we describe as circus, and of course they exist more as an interconnected web than as clearly separated categories. Although it is important to approach a work of art with an open mind, when we watch a circus show we have a subconscious frame of reference to interpret it by that is defined by our knowledge of these different styles, and how the show we are seeing positions itself within them. I.e. we know how to read different shows against the criteria that they are setting for themselves – criteria that my friend is unaware of.


His difficulty in relating to circus shows is highlighted by the emergence of a
new genre that is currently pushing against the frame of reference for circus and struggling to define itself outside of these familiar categories. I will call this Contemporary Circus, because each of the examples I’m using are shows that have been made recently and are responding to the current conditions for circus artists. Because of its association with the world of visual art, the term contemporary also holds a reference to what art critic Robert Hughes called ‘the shock of the new’, which is the turning over of established orders by the artistic avant-garde in their pursuit for new expressive ground.

As represented by the three shows mentioned above, and also significantly contributed to in Australia by the work of Yaron Lifschitz with Circa, contemporary circus exists on a tenuous intersection between gymnastics, dance and physical theatre. And increasingly these shows are being pitched to a new non-circus audience that might be better described as the theatre/dance arts crowd – people who subscribe to RealTime, frequent the Malthouse and wear tight black clothing that holds their arms in the perfect wine drinking position.
When we sit down to watch a contemporary circus show some of our expectations might be; an awareness that there is not likely to be text, or an MC; That characterisation is played down and we are encouraged to focus on the performers physical bodies rather than their sense of humour; And finally we also know that the production elements of the show are less likely to mimic the entertaining styles of other genres – less sequined costumes, smoke machines, smutty jokes or rock n roll drummers. However, these are all examples of what contemporary circus is not like and herein lies the problem for my puzzled friend, because without a pre-existing knowledge of all those other genres, what is he to define the contemporary circus show by?

Some people might question whether he needs to define it at all in order to appreciate its artistry. I agree that a great show should be able to reach any audience, regardless of their pre-existing knowledge about genre or form. However, with the reach of contemporary circus expanding to include appearances in major festivals alongside rigorously critiqued art forms such as dance and theatre, I think that as circus artists we need to be aware of how these new audiences might read our work. It’s my contention that in order to succeed within this context, contemporary circus needs to cleverly position its frame of reference at the intersection of artistic forms mentioned above – be acrobatically accomplished, visually poetic, contain performances that are deliberately motivated by intention and ground the work in developed relationships between the performers.

Backbone by Gravity and Other Myths, photo by Carnival Cinema


In his program notes for the Melbourne Festival season of Backbone, director Darcy Grant begins to approach this question. He writes that Gravity and Other Myths are ‘young, raw, unpretentious and hungry for the next challenge. To create strong and deliberate meaning.’ He also writes that ‘Backbone examines the various perceptions of what strength is’. It’s significant that he chooses to mention youth and strength in the same breath as the challenge of creating meaning. Acrobatic circus emphasises youth in a way that other artistic forms such as theatre and dance do not. Whereas life experience and the maturity needed for deep thought and self reflection are prized artistic commodities elsewhere, in circus (and its parallel – gymnastics) there is an awareness that spectacular acrobatic feats are only physically possible for so long. Grant also touches on this in his notes, saying ‘Acrobats have a kind of reverse career trajectory as artists … an acrobats technical peak is often when their conceptual skill is just forming.’ Similarly, compared to the worlds of dance and theatre, contemporary circus is a fledgling art form. In the 70s when artists such as Pina Bausch were radically re-envisaging the relationship of dance and movement to meaning, new circus was only just beginning to break away from it’s reliance on exotic animals. Which is to say, that they’ve definitely got a head start on us!

Backbone certainly raises the bar acrobatically, and I found the scale of the work incredibly engaging. The choreography is fluid and confident and the performers undertake dynamic high risk sequences with ease that is awe-inspiring. The virtuosity of the show is underpinned by a strong conceptual lighting design by Geoff Cobham that plays with the exposed wings of the stage and reveals the lights in their utilitarian arrangements on trees and floor stands. This encourages us to focus on the raw effort of the performers, and also highlights their intense concentration as they prepare for the next sequence. The music by Elliot Zoerner and Shenton Gregory is atmospheric and haunting, and drives the action along with sufficient pace that we are never left waiting as props are unpacked, or costumes changed. However underneath these rich production values and the gifted physicality of the performers is a marked lack of emotional or thematic content. It’s a troubling discrepancy because all of the signifiers for meaning are present – dynamic group movement, distractingly eclectic costumes, and imaginative sequences using interesting props such as long balancing poles, buckets of dirt and even a literal suit of armour. Grant has done excellent work with the ensemble in moving their practice away from the stripped back terrain of their previous work A Simple Space, and into a more theatrical realm. But this move also inadvertently serves to highlight that there is little intention behind the action other than to display skill. It’s ironic that within this mix of colourful visions Gravity and Other Myths choose to pause and highlight a dance sequence from floor gymnastics by Joanne Curry. Perhaps this is tongue and cheek but it serves to remind us that what we are watching is really only one step (and a different audience) away from precisely that – gymnastics in theatrical garb.

While being fully engaged by the show, my mind was also racing to equate what I was seeing with Grant’s stated desire to ‘create strong and deliberate meaning’. At one point I thought that it might in fact have been a deliciously perverse comment on the meaninglessness of spectacle itself, and that the show represented a theatre of the 21st Century; powerful, naïve, and slightly aloof. But there are too many sequences that strive to be evocative for this to be the case, only to fall short when the intentions and relationships between the performers remain undeveloped. For a show about the ‘various perceptions of what strength is’, it seems to be an oversight that the performers are never anything but strong. There are very few moments of vulnerability where we might be invited into their inner world to gain a different perspective on their actions.
By the end of the show, I was wondering whether the performers had thought deeply about the themes of the show, or whether Grant had effectively communicated to them the ideas that he wanted to draw out from their performances. Through their involvement with the Australian Government’s Major Festival’s Initiative, Gravity and Other Myths are actively positioning themselves within an artistic frame of reference that is perhaps more conceptually rigorous than circus performers are used to. While Backbone is an admirable leap forward for this ambitious company, and an incredibly engaging work of physical skill, it doesn’t conjure the kind of poetic and evocative meaning that contemporary circus is capable of, and thus doesn’t quite meet the goals it has set for itself.

Lets return to what it might mean to create ‘strong and deliberate meaning’. I think that art engages our deeper emotions and moves us towards a contemplation of larger ideas. Art becomes meaningful to an audience, without needing to have a literal message, when it is motivated by a strong intention and invites the audience to create their own interpretations. This is what distinguishes art from a lecture, political speech or critical essay – it avoids explanation and instead focuses on inspiring subjective reflection on its themes. Meaning in art is fluid, transitory and beautiful. Contemporary circus is striving to become a more artistic form, and yet still retain its spectacular physical virtuosity. How then can we make contemporary circus meaningful?

Meaning can be artistically explored in several different ways. Representational work shows us stories and characters that are familiar to us, and through a comic or tragic turn of events invites us to consider the resonance of the situation with our own experience of the world.
For example, take Romeo and Juliet – kept apart by familial forces outside their control, love leads them into a series of impossible decisions that brings them to their untimely suicides. When Romeo drinks poison and Juliet falls on Romeo’s sword we see not just star-crossed lovers but the entire ironic injustice of pure love existing in a cruel world. We walk away from the play with tears on our cheeks and hold our lover’s hand tight, appreciating the breeze on our chest and thinking ourselves fortunate.
A second style of work is non-representational performance, such as contemporary dance or music. We can be powerfully moved by a strong piece of music, for reasons that most of us would struggle to explain. Indeed many generations of philosophers have tangled with this problem of how music is able to lift us out of ourselves and give form to emotional truths without the use of language or image. Most have themselves had to resort to poetry to describe it: ‘In music the passions enjoy themselves’ wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. In a similar way dance gives non-representational but physical form to these passions and expresses emotional meaning through a language of visual poetry.

Bummer...
So here we have two traditions of creating meaningful performance. Clearly the skilful and spectacular nature of circus renders it closer to the non-representational form than the naturalistic story telling of the theatre. Many have tried and failed to create dramatically believable reasons for Romeo to turn a few backsaults before knocking back the poison, or to justify why Juliet might do a quick bit of silks before dropping down onto the blade. But for the most part the circus arts are inconsistent with the portrayal of characters who live in the ordinary world that audiences inhabit day to day. And on the other, non-representational, side of the equation, the cause and effect sequence of tricks often render them less poetic than unbridled and expressive movements. So where are we to turn? I want to now look at two contemporary circus shows that offer different ideas.

On their website Casus Circus describe their performances as being ‘rich in human connection’, and that as a company they embody ‘home town values of humanity and friendship’. Similar to Backbone, my experience of their works has been of physical virtuosity that nearly overwhelms the space needed for deeper ideas to bloom. In Re-Strung (2016), which was a version of their award winning performance Knee Deep presented at the Melba Spiegeltent with a live band, the seductive musical score and commanding performances by the ensemble created a multi layered experience. Inspired by and drawing from his Samoan heritage, Natano Faanana brought a fierceness to the stage in his solo and group moments that rebounded throughout the show, adding texture to the performance through the meeting of different energies.

However in Driftwood, their second major work, I feel that Casus Circus don’t quite manage to create all the elements of deeply compelling show. In keeping with the frame of reference that I have defined for contemporary circus, the production values are high, with well-made costumes, interesting rigging ideas and clever transitions between routines. Reading the show in relation to the two styles of meaningful performance that I describe above, I think that Casus have made a successful attempt to create recognisable relationships between the performers, and forge a poetic and engaging style of movement from the substance of their tricks. In each scene where the performers run back and forth onto stage, we feel their joy in being there together – which is to say that the Driftwood ensemble perform with intention and create stories between them. They leave us room to invent motivations and characters for them by not doing too much, while still allowing their individual personalities to shine through, such as Kali Retallack’s playful interaction with a circle of light, or the compassion between Lachlan McAulay and Jesse Scott as they perform duo adagio, and again in Faanana’s intense dedication to task as he explores gesture with his hands in centre stage. However in creating a space that is ‘rich in human connection’ and primarily the connection of friend-ship, I feel that Driftwood doesn’t create a dynamic experience for the viewer because too much of the show plays on the same emotional note. Thus in my opinion, it somewhat lacks the complexity which creates deeply moving theatre. Or as I said to Jesse afterwards, ‘Look for my tastes there was just a bit too much smiling’. To which he responded ‘Well, it is our mainstream show!’ With a smile of course.

Daniel and Rhiannon Cave-Walker from Fauna Circus, photo by Carnival Cinema


This brings me to Fauna, which is by a very new international ensemble that includes Australian performer Rhiannon Cave-Walker. Formed in 2016 by 5 performers who met at the DOCH circus school in Sweden, I first saw them perform at Glastonbury after they received a British Arts Council grant to begin developing their currently touring work. Watching this first 20-minute collection of ideas, I was immediately struck by the dynamic range of emotions captured within. The tricks were amazing, but also the performers were awkwardly funny, sometimes nasty to each other, sometimes preoccupied with their skills, other times facing outwards with a smile. There was an edginess to it all that I liked and the conflict between performers on stage suggested the kind of relationships that tends to make an audience lean forward and begin to invest in a work. After hearing mixed reports about their season in Adelaide, I watched the full length show at the Berlin Circus Festival with a sense of trepidation. I was not disappointed. Fauna is the most accomplished piece of contemporary circus that I have seen to date. Underpinning the show is the sublime acrobatic duo of Rhiannon and Daniel Cave Walker. Their hand to hand scenes have a mercurial quality that is fluid and volatile, flowing easily around the stage and then culminating in explosive sequences of highly original acrobatics. Daniel Cave-Walker has a mesmerising presence throughout the show – each entry to the stage and movement while on it, seems to come from a place deep within, informed by elemental forces. The rest of the ensemble is of equally high talent, but what really makes Fauna succeed is the compelling physical language that each performer contributes something unique to. As well as being a stunning hand balancer, Matt Pasquet contorts and deforms his body into pathetic shapes as he tries to get the attention of Imogen Huzel, who flits around the stage like a light hearted winged apparition. Amidst a physically virtuosic show, Enni-Maria Lymi surprises us with a simple reoccurring gag about trying and failing to mount her trapeze. Everywhere throughout Fauna the cast sets up expectations then takes surprising directions.

In some moments the dynamic between performers suddenly crystallises into immediately recognisable relationships, such as Rhiannon’s incessant pursuit of Daniel’s attention, or Daniel and Matt’s face off after he has tried to ‘chat up’ Imogen. These brief interactions provide us with unlaboured stories that we can make up ourselves, filling in the blanks from the small suggestions offered to us. This is exactly how contemporary circus can transcend its focus on tricks – by recognising the natural signifiers present on stage (like large and small, man and woman, interested and disinterested to name a few) and playing with them just enough to allow us to do the work ourselves. Combining the stories in these relationships with a non-representational poetry of physical motion leaves us the room for creating and interpreting our own meanings from the performance. I was curious as to how the performers had managed to avoid becoming didactic or obvious in playing out these relationships. When I chatted to Dan after the show he explained an exercise that he does before his scene with Matt.

‘I have a piece of music that I listen to every night before I go on that gives me the feeling which I want to take into that scene. I lie there and listen to it while Matt and Imogen are doing their bit, and then I try to make a story for what energy I am going to use. Tonight I was thinking about being a small dog chasing a hurricane.’
This kind of lateral thinking in preparation for a performance is exactly what gives Fauna it’s refined yet unpredictable edge. Each movement comes with an intention and is reinforced by the world of the show, which opens and closes with a ensemble piece where the performers slowly move in sync, silently descending into a shared space and inviting us in.


There can be little doubt that contemporary circus is on the cusp of doing great things in Australia. There are few other art forms that can offer such spectacular feats of physical skill with which to create visual poetry. In Backbone when Mieke Lizotte is lifted several metres above the floor balancing on only a narrow pole positioned in the centre of her back, we know that we are beyond theatrical artifice. When we watch McAulay balance on one hand atop a pole that is itself balanced on Scott’s head during Driftwood we know that we are watching real trust between the two performers. This is fertile ground for creating compelling meaning, and I think that through self reflection and the questioning of intention by performers, deeper study of theatrical techniques, and collaboration with excellent artists in other fields, contemporary circus can create a frame of reference for itself that will inspire, provoke and create meaningful experiences for a wide range of audiences and lead to greater acceptance and understanding of what circus has to offer as an art form.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this detailed analysis and broad overview of contemporary circus in Australia. Totally agree with most of it. Look forward to reading more.

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    1. Thanks Sue, I hope to keep writing more when I can find time. I'd love to hear where we differ if you'd like to go into more detail? x M

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  2. That's a well written piece there Ruin. I had the same feeling about Gravity and Other Myths when a saw them two weeks ago here at Fringeworld. There's a lot of simulacra where they put the trappings of real relationships between performers in between acts but then drop them completely once the act begins. It was kind of frustrating to watch people respond to it, it felt like the emotional equivalent of light entertainment when it could of been a lot more.

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  3. This is a marvelous analysis that I am sharing widely. Thank you!

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