New Territories and Strange Terrains

I’ve been composing a list of questions in my mind that I want to raise as part of the Unpack the Arts residency later this month, around the nature of criticism for circus and its value.

First of these is, ‘Who should the review be for?’

Currently, the majority of circus audiences are those who have no real understanding of the art, only it’s spectacle. These people are catered for in a small way by the few reviews provided by theatre critics but, aside from the limited styles of production that receive these reviews, there is another problem; the reviews that critique a performance as ‘theatre’ may well be alienating circus audiences who are interested less in the cerebral or conceptual, and more in the visceral and/or technical prowess.
Our arts scene within the UK is still, sadly, split down elitist/popular lines.

In addition to the circus audiences, I also think criticism is an essential resource for those who produce these types of entertainment, giving credible benchmarks and inspiring development and progression.
I was chatting this week to Jade Dunbar, who produces Glastonbury Festival’s circus tent each year, and she passionately agrees (she may even appear on this site to write some guest blogs – watch this space!). There is shockingly little written discourse on relevant performance styles and abilities in the UK, and this stems from a lack of writers who understand the circus form.

Whilst I am hoping to help plug this hole in the UK arts awareness, I come to another question:
‘Is it appropriate to detail each act in a circus performance, or does that give the game away?’

Instinctively, I feel that a greater understanding of what’s to come will only heighten the anticipation; the elaborate description of forthcoming acts used to be a salient feature of circus posters. But I’m keen to discover more opinions of those working in the industry.

There is a part of me that feels there is something unsportsmanlike about giving critique to artists who, though lower in calibre than their colleagues, are still infinitely more skilled than I am in their particular field. (I wonder as well if it’s similar feeling that engenders some of the wishy-washy reviews filled with unhelpful, unspecific blanket praise that appear every now and again.) In considering sportsmanship, however, I realise that there are many professional sports writers and commentators who’ve never professionally competed themselves. The question: ‘How much knowledge is enough knowledge?

And also: ‘How much distance is enough distance?’
I’ve come under fire before for posting (elsewhere) a review of a theatre company whom I knew from university. I understand the concerns about conflicting interests but, when you specialise in a particular field, it is inevitable that you will encounter the same players again and again, and in different guises. There is a duty to be nonpartisan that occasionally comes with the feeling of a rock in your gut, but this feeling can (and must!) be ignored; delivering a less-than-honest critique does a far greater disservice than a justly disparaging one.

It may well be that these questions can never be answered to universal satisfaction, but this is no reason to hold back. As I write this, I’m sitting on the Spanish coast staring out to sea, and can’t help but think of the original oceanic explorers. If they had waited for answers to all their questions, they never would have set sail; instead, they took it upon themselves to discover their own truths trough trial and error.

Just call me Christopher Columbus.

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