To clarify in my mind the responsibilities of a critic who does not exclude one form of circus or another, but acknowledges the traditional and contemporary as equally valid styles of production, I have been reflecting on what separates the two in many people’s minds.
Tomi Purovaara, director of Finnish advocacy and development agency Cirko, and author of An Introduction to Contemporary Circus, defines ‘contemporary’ practise as that where:
‘expression has moved beyond a display of skill. The core is now a creative artistic process in which circus techniques are one of the instruments of expression. It is now an art that employs a theatricality and semantics’
Critics already familiar with these dramaturgical codes have been able to apply their knowledge to these artistic endeavours, but often without an underlying appreciation of the physical circus techniques that are the basic materials of production. This has led to a split where the more traditional tenting companies miss out in the growing discourse, and are often distrustful of criticism (see Douglas McPherson comment).
Initially, circus was a form of populist entertainment, which was later superseded by music hall, and television. There is still plenty of circus which maintains this tradition, but new forms have evolved in an inter-disciplinary fashion to take their place in the interpretive arts.
Can television be critiqued in the same way as film?
Perhaps another way of looking at things is to draw an analogy with the visual arts. Whilst a purely representative painting is unlikely to win the Turner Prize today, the skills and techniques of the painter may be equal to – or even surpass – those of the conceptual artist who works in the medium of paint. Both deserve recognition. Both have different primary audiences, and different agendas in creating their art.
As in film and television, there is some significant cross-over in the languages used; likewise, there are languages unique to each form.
To prevent circus from becoming subsumed by the wider genre of theatre, I think it’s essential to study the languages that separate circus from other performance disciplines; a familiarity with the contextual environment of individual productions should be the icing on the cake, rather than the base ingredient.