Anne Weshinskey explores the question, ‘What is circus?‘ by investigating contextual categorisation through the analysis of a particular production, an assignment for the first module of the inaugural DOCH online research course into contemporary circus.
Most people in circus have seen a show that made them want to be be a circus performer. For me, I was in the show that decided this for me. As a performance artist in the 80s and 90s, I was engaged in some shenanigans before the experimental performance band Crash Worship, at a club called Çatal Huyuk in Houston, Texas. The rope hanging above the stage was the only hint I needed to change the direction of my life.
Fast forward a few years and, after bitter training, I am working as a tightwire walker. I am content to develop my own shows and perform site specific interventions. All of my colleagues are working for Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloise, or in European variété, and I think that is really boring. Then a friend of mine gets a gig with a Swedish circus called Cirkus Cirkör. She returns to the U.S. talking about the show she was in and describing what they do as ‘really contemporary’. And I believed her.
By some cruel twist of fate, I now find myself living in Stockholm and training at Cirkus Cirkör’s space—still not having seen one of their shows live. Finally, at the end of this September, I catch one: Wear It Like a Crown. What a disappointment.
The show is visually beautiful, the performers very skilled, and the music moody and poetic. But is it contemporary, as my friend (among others) had described? I am afraid not, by my standards, or those of this course.
A friend of mine who performs in Wear It Like A Crown says that, at the start of his career, he thought that if he got to play on the stage of Södra Teatern he would have made it as a performer. So it is nothing new to think there might be circus on stage at a theatre. The suggested criteria of ‘contemporary circus’ being performed in new contexts is a good place to start when distinguishing whether something is contemporary or not, but I think a theatre venue has become standard and is not especially ‘contemporary’ in itself these days.
Additionally, Wear It Like A Crown is especially heavy on the pure entertainment factor, and it was difficult to discern whether there was really some sort of thematic outcome carried from the process of creating this show.
A physical show like Un Loup Pour L’Homme’s Appris par Corps may succeed at expressing meaning, but it also has no circus to me. Wear It Like A Crown, on the other hand, sticks close to its traditional circus roots but seems to lack meaning. When performers and companies begin to question and eliminate codes they often go so far that they are really no longer ‘circus’ and it is up to the audience to re-codify it back. Cirkus Cirkör doesn’t have this problem. The show does not really bust out of traditional codes so much as give them a new, updated look.
Aside from there being very very long intervals in which nothing important happened, this show relied heavily on traditional circus props – such as aerial hoop, ball and club juggling, duo trapeze, knife-throwing, and contortion pommels – without fusing them together with any other forms. The spaces between these traditional specialties (performed in the standard 5-7 minute act running times) did have some theatrical conventions, but aside from that, there was not much fusion of form. And because the entire structure of the performance was one of an act-to-act, as in traditional circus, the idea of specialization was not really present.
One thing that did occur to me is that there was definitely a circus mindset to these performers. Their technical skills and the ways in which they related to the stage and each other displayed that, somewhere in the creation process, they had explored interpersonal expression and their engagement with the form they were making. But, by the time the show made it to the stage, the tools and methodology that they used to respond to whatever issue they were investigating had disappeared into a production that was gorgeous and entertaining without much more. Just like traditional circus should be!
Anne Weshinskey, 2015
See more essays from the course here.