A Geometry of Circus Criticism

11 cultural writers from around Europe have been sitting in a room for two days juggling their ideas around what circus is, and the role of critique in relation to the form. And I’m privileged to be amongst them.

Through interviews with workers from various fields within the circus industry, facilitated by Johann Floch as part of the Unpack The Arts residency, we are discovering circus history and current trends, and questioning ways to develop the critical discourse necessary to the evolution of any art.

It has been easy to see today’s circus world as a duality between the ‘classic’ and the ‘contemporary’; between popular accessible appeal and a codified artistic practise that situates itself amid the aesthetics of dance and theatre.

Human beings love to categorise, and we have a tendency towards binary opposition. Inhibiting movement, this is a restrictive view, and we are being encouraged as part of this residency to view the spectrum of circus forms, rather than relying on absolutes.

Adding a third point to the style definitions helps to create a continuum which allows for midpoints and exchanges of influence. Our triangle lies in the space between ‘classic’, ‘new’ and ‘contemporary’ circus compositions.

In this arena, ‘classic’ is defined by a succession of acts that showcase virtuosic skills, linked by transitions of music or clowning. ‘New’ circus developed in the 1970’s as artistic and political ideologies embraced the democratic infrastructures of circus, and artists started to incorporate virtuosic circus acts into their narratives and story-telling. Since the 1990’s, another aspect began to emerge; the ‘contemporary’ circus, which is concerned with the deconstruction of traditional techniques, no longer concerned with virtuosity or narrative and tending towards the conceptual or abstract.

There are, of course, other expectations and mythologies that are linked within these general definitions, but these can also travel.

Aesthetics and techniques borrowed from other cultural disciplines find their way into the triangle too, either in the compilation of acts, under the classical banner that dates back to Astley‘s time, or in the devising process of ‘contemporary’ pieces.  And, of course, in the spaces found between.

Circus is a 3-dimensional art, taking place across all the planes available within a physical space. When reflecting upon the nature and qualities of a performance, perhaps it is better to think of a 3D grid rather than a triangle, as each production finds it’s own home within the created space between fixed labels.
Circus always juggles amongst the existing definitions and artistic techniques available.  As critics we must learn to recognise their placement and relevance.

And, as we put down our pens, Adolfo Rossomando, editor of aptly named Italian circus magazine Juggling offers us a physical lesson in toss juggling. It seems fitting!


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