Come one, come all?

Cirque Berserk

This evening was set aside to write up my experience at the World Premiere of the utterly delightful Bedtime Stories from Upswing that I saw this afternoon.  Until I got home to find notifications of the #tigerdouglas scandal on Twitter.

At first appearances, this is self-confessed traditional circus super-fan Douglas McPherson condemning all forms of public performing arts subsidy via a Telegraph blog post, apparently oblivious to the fact that art serves more functions than just catering to the entertainment qualities that he prefers in his evenings out.  If the oversights in his piece are not immediately obvious,  Dana Segal has laid out a few of them here.

The cynic in me, who is currently reading the disturbingly accurate Trust Me, I’m Lying an insider’s guide to media manipulation – wonders if this is a promotion strategy to garner interest that may direct traffic to his book. (And yes, I see myself playing along here.)

But this is dangerous territory. To me, this is not just an article about arts funding. What McPherson does – despite our many shared interests – flies in the face of everything I believe about promoting an understanding and appreciation of circus arts.  He is creating a divide between classical models of circus production and the newer variations borne of shared roots.

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Magmanus with ‘Attached’

Circus exists on a continuum that encompasses heritage, history, innovation, arts and entertainment.  Within all of this, there are excellent and significantly less good examples.  To denigrate all that is experimental or drastically evolving is akin to a dance writer damning anything outside of a classical ballet repertoire, or a theatre critic who will only acknowledge the value of tried and tested play texts.

To be a critic has to be more than shouting opinion, ‘I liked this’, ‘I don’t like that.’ A knowledge that delves into the muscles powering a production is required (and, in circus, that applies both literally and metaphorically).  Many new circus productions inspire a contemplation and imaginative mode of viewing that, coming from a theatre background, I find easy to tap into.  What has been a fascinating journey for me is learning to utilise the same techniques to read and appreciate the dramaturgy of more classical circus shows.

Just as two productions of Hamlet will have relative merits, so will two big top spectacles. Or a big top spectacle and a studio theatre circus show.  Or a street circus performance and a Spiegeltent extravaganza with large PR budget.

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Giffords Circus
This is why critical circus dialogue is, well, critical.  For any art form to flourish, the best must be given its due merit, and the weaker be shown where it can build.  To say ‘I didn’t like it so it must be bad’ is as reductive as ‘I liked it so it must be the best.’  

Part of the beauty of circus is its inclusive spirit and, in the close knit circus community, it’s scary to say when a production doesn’t rise to the top. But those artists who are serious about their careers understand that it’s for a greater purpose than their own ego.  So Douglas, when you don’t think something is good, that’s great; tell the world, but tell us why. Likewise, is every aerialist or liberty act you see up to the same standard? Mark the differences.

Otherwise you run the risk of making the very art form you love the butt of ridicule.  The excellent satirical response from Stewart Pringle that coined the name #tigerdouglas makes me rather discomfited.

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00 comments on “Come one, come all?

  • Douglas McPherson , Direct link to comment

    Tiger Douglas bites back: Far from me creating a divide between old and new, its been there since I first began exploring the circus world, and its the newer companies that are widening it as shown in a few quotes I’ve included alongside my current thoughts on the subject here:

    In case anyone missed it, incidentally, my funding piece was prompted by my visit to Circa’s What Will Have Been, which I reviewed for the Stage, here:

    • Katharine Kavanagh , Direct link to comment

      Hi Douglas!

      I think you’re right that a perceptual divide existed before you started writing about it, but comments like ‘it shouldn’t call itself circus’ (I paraphrase) are strengthening those divides, rather than focusing on what makes the best of both classically styled and theatrical circus great, embracing the entire genre to nurture and develop those strengths across the field.

      From conversations with people who work within the industry – sometimes across both tenting and more experimental forms of circus – I disagree with your verdict that it’s newer companies and artists widening that gap. What I see is the mass media and PR engines trying to do what they can to secure certain types of audience, or hype ‘the next big thing’ (ooh, and doesn’t circus PR have a long and glorious history! Very much looking forward to reading this currently awaiting my attention back home!).

      With a critical media sadly lagging behind, I think it’s crucial to arrest these judgements of ‘two separate beasts’ wherever possible, to ensure the best possible future for all concerned.

      I have a project beginning to take shape to develop and promote a better critical culture around all circus in the UK but, as I have to wait on a public funding application (nudge nudge wink wink!), I will be in touch with more details if and when I get a green light!

      Out of interest, how do you feel about productions such as Cirque Berserk, or Giffords, that sit outside both the traditional ‘theatre’ and traditional ‘circus’ models? Surely there is a sliding scale along which circus – which seems to have evolved into a broader field than the parental ‘circuses’ – must sit. It is an interesting point though: where does the line get drawn? But perhaps there doesn’t need to be one, just as there is no longer any firm divide between what can be dance or theatre, music or spoken word? Only a hazy borderland…

  • theproductionshed , Direct link to comment

    Just as performance genres move on, so too does language. I think if you asked most performers a word which would best describe a show comprised of several short acts of different skills, most would answer, “cabaret”.

    I went to a circus school. I make circus. Those who go to art schools make art. We both can happily define our sub-genres as acrobatics or pottery, but why on earth should we remove ourselves from the family of our disciplines, whether working in a contemporary or classical style?

    Incidentally, I think that describing Barely Methodical Troupe’s work as gymnastics shows a distinct lack of understanding of the sport.

    Circus Geeks also wrote a response to Douglas’ article which can be found here-

  • Vincent van Berkel , Direct link to comment

    “Incidentally, I think that describing Barely Methodical Troupe’s work as gymnastics shows a distinct lack of understanding of the sport.”

    That quote should be on their merch.

    These are the same arguments from Douglas that critics of modern dance have (some would say it isn’t dance if it doesn’t have castanets or pointe shoes) or for example that critics of the Impressionist movement had (Monet was famously slurred as “merely painting impressions”). I grew up with both old and new circus, and both are undeniably circus. The rest is semantics.

    I agree with categorisation of art to a degree but it’s sort of like, if a cake has some carrot in it, it’ll kinda always be carrot cake. maybe… carrot/dance, or carrot/theatre.

    You can hate Circa’s ‘What Will Have Been’ or you can love it (I haven’t seen it), but what should be clear in this instance is Douglas mistaking his own preconceived bias and cynical closed-mindedness for a relevant opinion. We shouldn’t be giving attention to him.

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