One of the discussions this week was with Belgian circus writer Liv Laveyne. She spoke with us about the importance of seeking out the essential ingredients specific to circus performance, distinguishing it from other forms such as dance, theatre or performance art.
Because circus is an art that draws from, and can include, elements from numerous disciplines, it is very easy to judge a show only from a familiar standpoint, using the codes we best understand.
Liv suggests that our job is to learn the circus codes, and view from that angle; not pre-conceived notions of circus mythologies, or our own familiar territory.
(My natural mode of viewing, from my background and artistic preferences in contemporary theatre performance, are to seek out proposed themes and narratives, particularly those relating to human relationships.)
We have spent a lot of time attempting to discern these essential elements of circus, and amongst them seem to be:
My personal preferences are also for accessibility and a connection with the audience.
Whilst it’s important to have a background in many contexts due to the multi-disciplinary nature of circus presentation, Liv encourages us to question which aesthetic we choose to apply when writing about circus; for example, a performance which is bad when looked at through a dance lens may be good when viewed through a circus lens. Or vice versa.
To counter my instinctive tendencies to search for stories or thematics in performance, I want to retrain myself to examine the way circus bodies interact with the real world around them, and the way this translates into a physiological response. ‘The circus is from the belly, not from the head’, Liv explains.
Dramaturg Bauke Lievens also attempts to pinpoint specifics in her practise; by attempting to name something, it becomes more concrete, and so can be explored more deeply.
For Bauke, circus work also contains an intrinsic Sisyphean struggle against natural laws and physical limitations. Circus techniques are particular in the confrontation between an object and a performer’s body and, to her, the way these confrontations are presented can mean the difference between a ‘craft’, and an ‘art’. This makes me think back on my painting analogy; I still believe there must be a space to analyse technical standards, as well as the conceptual framework.
As I’ve already witnessed, there is a danger for writers covering circus performance from another specialised perspective to get carried away with virtuosity (‘the dangerous salto; juggling with oh so many balls‘, as Liv Laveyne puts it). Even more dangerous to me, is the inability to differentiate between virtuosity and mediocre talent – if a review describes acrobats as ‘masters of their trade’ , they should be able to manage complicated feats, with style and artistry, not just be impressive to the uninitiated.
Above all though, in critiquing circus art, in it’s many forms, Bauke encourages us to ask the questions we would of any contemporary art: ‘what is it?’, ‘how is it achieved?’, and ‘why?’