This year I was selected for an Unpack the Arts cultural journalism residency at a circus festival in Belgium, along with nine other writers from across Europe. The experience massaged my mind and fed my soul; it excited me about circus and made me excited to be an arts writer. It also produced the following essay about the architecture of contemporary circus, which is published alongside my fellow residents’ work here.
Adventures in space | exploring the architecture of contemporary circus
Humorologie Festival Van Verwondering | Marke – Kortrijk | 28-30 June 2013
Circus is a definition defying art that takes what is possible on stage to its furthest reaches. Not yet free from the shackles of its past, over the last 40 years the classic big top formula of daredevil acts and exotic animals has evolved into something that is continually shifting shape.
From a performance devoted to juggling alone to kinetic sculpture on a grand scale, via theatre with dance and acrobatics entwined, the range of performances that can be presented during a festival like Humorologie is wide. As the event’s artistic adviser Koen Allary describes, “circus is always a blind date”. You may never know what to expect, but its ability to exploit and explore the far reaches of space gives circus the potential to be one of the most exciting contemporary performing arts.
When a circus maker walks into a theatre, the first thing they do is look up. Height and depth are important considerations for people concerned with occupying all a space has to offer. And it shows. Watch ‘Smashed’ by Gandini Juggling and your gaze will be drawn into the air along with their 80 apples, which enliven a space that is inhabited by otherwise one dimensional characters. See ‘Sans Objet’ by Compagnie 111 and witness how, given room, a purely functional machine can be rendered beautifully elegant.
A circus performer will often refer to his or her tools – it could be a trapeze, a trampoline, a length of silk. For Aurélien Bory, artistic director of Compagnie 111, his tool “is space”. Scale is important too. With ‘Sans Objet’, the universe Bory invites us into is vast. The opening scene – where a sheet of thick black plastic stretches and twists itself into incredible positions, filling the theatre with strange creaks – is epic and hypnotic. Combined, the plastic and the machine make shapes that are deliciously textural and, at moments, uncannily human
Later, two acrobats reveal the machine beneath the plastic and all three enter into a dance of sorts. The machine is like an alien, fascinating and frightening. The human actors are made tiny by its great bulk. They also bring it to life as puppeteers would – their focus makes it breathe. In the final scene, the robotic arm punches jagged holes into the plastic, which has been pulled tight across the stage. Light and smoke pour through the holes, reaching out into the audience.
Space to think
If you are after a plot you won’t find one here. Bory wants you to think and if you are unsure what is going on that is even better. “If you don’t know what it is, you are watching well,” he says, somewhat mischievously, when asked to explain his work. “I want the audience to have some room… It is important that they finish the work. I have no message but I have a structure.”
It is a brave man who explores what is possible on stage using just a mechanical arm, a couple of acrobats and an enormous sheet of black plastic, then leaves the audience to do the rest. ‘Sans Objet’ is not warm or enticing – it is cool and distant, even – but it does work. It is a visually arresting and architectural piece, where space is manipulated as much as the bodies and objects within it.
Designed to disturb
If ‘Sans Objet’ is designed to bemuse you, other shows on the Humorologie programme are designed to make you feel uncomfortable. The way performers inhabit a space can contribute to this unease. The emptiness of the ‘Smashed’ stage and the manner in which the performers, especially the women, move within it, makes the familiar (dining chairs, apples, teapots) seem decidedly odd.
The pace is slow, and the Gandini Jugglers’ movements are synchronised and repetitive. The constantly orbiting apples weave patterns around them and provide the opportunity for interference and the gradual progression towards chaos. The simplicity that comes with focusing on juggling alone, and the honesty of the apples that are dropped, invites a degree of intimacy but overall the performers are dehumanised, not to mention ritually humiliated.
A choreographed but consecutive series of juggling tricks performed in homage to Pina Bausch, ‘Smashed’ remains pretty abstract and elusive throughout. But it does have a structure, based on a gradual disintegration of the careful order created at the start. The decision to replay the first scene at the end makes a linear structure suddenly circular and, intentionally or not, adds to the odd atmosphere of the entire performance and the mystery of what it is all about.
Dramatic structure is not something circus is always that good at but it can make all the difference between a good and bad show. Bauke Lievens, a dramaturg passionate about circus who seeks out (often reluctant) circus performers to work with, describes her role as developing the “architecture” of a piece.
She asks the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ about a performance, and says the shift from mere circus performer to circus artist is in the ‘why’. “If the ‘why’ is missing, what are we left with?” she asks. This helps to explain why the Gandini’s portrayal of women, especially when they parade on all fours in front of the men with apples wedged in their mouths, is more offensive than provocative. The point of their degradation – the ‘why’ – is unclear. The architecture is incomplete.
Set as circus apparatus
Physical structures as well as dramatic ones contribute to the architecture of a performance, and they often influence each other. In ‘Are You in Town?’ by Jump or Fall the set is an integral part of the story – much more than a static construction, it helps to mould the action. The director Juliana Neves explains “the set became a circus apparatus” in rehearsals, but originally it was intended to be a passive backdrop, mere wallpaper for the actors to perform against.
If you watch the show today you will see that the set is essential in creating the tense atmosphere that dominates the piece. It is an anonymous urban apartment presented both horizontally and vertically, as though we are peering down into it, illicitly, through the roof. We see a bedroom, a bathroom and a living room. The bed is especially good – a whole wall of well stuffed pillows that a body can writhe all over. The way the three performers move through and over the set is highly skilled and inventive.
Art of the belly
The architecture of the performers’ bodies is matched by the architecture of the space. Both are presented at awkward, tilted angles. The mechanics of the techniques and the mechanics of the set become something that communicates very deeply to the audience. As the Belgian theatre critic Liv Laveyne says, “circus is an art form more from the belly than the head”.
While it successfully evokes discomfort in the viewer, ‘Are You in Town?’ is ultimately disappointing – it feels like there is something missing. The potential for a piece of great non verbal storytelling using circus rather than words is sadly lost. The performers remain individuals throughout. They are so intently focused on their own craft that they fail to convincingly interact. The story loses its power because of mismatched characters and avenues left unexplored – especially ones of gender. We gradually discover that Bauke Lievens’ crucial ‘why’ is missing from the structure of both the story and the use of space.
Close for comfort
Where the ‘why’ in ‘Are You in Town’ is weak, in ‘Los Galindos’ by Maruita it is strong. And, again, the architecture of it helps to explain its success – both the physical structure of the space and the arc of the story. The space is an extension of the main protagonist’s personality and reveals much about his character. The small yurt, designed to be used solely for this show, emphasises the performer’s humanity and humility, and physically places the audience around the beating heart of the action.
It is full of objects that are imbued with much meaning – a trombone that, draped in an overcoat and waltzed through the space, becomes a lost love; a curling snapshot pinned to a wall, mostly hidden behind a towel except during a quick wash; lots and lots of dough that is moulded into many incarnations, including a long armed acrobat. The proximity of the ageing performer – and the fact you can see every chalky crevice in his face and every bead of sweat running down his neck – creates an intensely intimate atmosphere.
The performance is ritualistic and poetic, presented in sepia tones like an old photograph. It uses playful object theatre and music to tell the story of a lifetime in circus. The story arcs chronologically from when our man started out, through the highs (an awe-inspiring aerial act) and the lows (roadside tricks), to the position he finds himself in now, where he is seeking to pass on his skills to a new generation. Here we find out one person’s definition of what circus is – it is about risk, make-up, chalk and the trapeze. And it is a young person’s art, requiring a fit and able body.
‘Los Galindos’ is both a celebration of an eccentric life well spent and a gentle reminder of our mortality. We come to understand a lot about this old man. He uses his body, and the space around and between him and us, to express something beyond words. By the end, there is a physical understanding between us.
And this is what makes circus interesting – its ability to talk to us in a very specific way, without the need for words. Aurélien Bory believes “the impossible is always very poetic”, while Andrej Rady from La Putyka, a company also performing at Humorologie, suggests “when you don’t know anything, you can ask different questions”.
In terms of the architecture of circus, exploring the impossible and the unknown are central. Experiments with structure and space – asking different questions of both and using them as tools to tell stories of the most visceral kind – are what, when done well, make circus today so potent.