“With the void, a free hand”¹ — Albert Camus on Yves Klein’s empty exhibition The Void, 1958


credit: Natalie Oleinik

I wrote this article in response to my own experiences as a circus viewer and maker. I had begun to grow frustrated with the “trick,” an element that many see as the essential building block of circus work. If we are using circus with the intention of expressing something, then what is the precise function of the “trick?” I felt that the problem of the trick was central to understanding the ambiguous role that circus plays in the public cultural sphere, somewhere between art and entertainment.

My personal mission is to make art-circus (termed “contemporary” circus in this article), and my intention here is to share some of my research with others who hold this same goal. It is not my idea to chastise or convert those people who are engaged in entertainment, which is a fine thing and which we have to understand on its own terms– I simply wish to explore and approach circus from the angle of art and art criticism. I’m nerdy about circus and I want to see it pushed to its limits. What can we do that we have not yet done? What tools can we use to help circus gain an articulate voice?

I will often approach themes in circus through the lens of dance in this article. Dance is a performance genre that is close to circus in that it focuses primarily on the body. Dance has earned the label “art” in a way that circus has not, evidenced both by its broad institutional support and by my own experiences attending circus shows and talking to audiences. I like dance, so for me it is a convenient model with which to compare circus; someone who is partial to physical theatre could do a similar comparison and find different but equally interesting results.

Of course I am only one person, and I am not able to see every circus show that has ever been made. I can only talk about my experience, and make assessments based on the shows I have been lucky enough to have access to. I have performed in cabaret settings in Europe and America, I have seen contemporary circus at festivals and venues across Europe, as well as in New York, and the conclusions I present in this article are based on that sampling. Most importantly, perhaps, I am a member of the circus community, and surrounded by that very particular discourse daily. I am also an avid dancer and viewer of dance, although that is not my official training. Hopefully this information will help put some of the below statements into context.

This investigation is just a beginning, a suggestion of a possible path we can take as circus artists. I hope that it is inspiring and helps other artists think more lucidly about their work. I have great faith in the potential of the contemporary circus, and I look forward to continuing my research and hearing from other voices in the field.

Part 1

Setting the Stage: Potential, Unfulfilled

The contemporary circus is a young medium that holds great promise. Like dance, it is a potentially excellent vehicle for expression of the postmodern condition. But in the almost half-century since its birth in 1960s France, contemporary circus seems to still be stuck in a strange transitional period, still half-eager to ‘impress,’ while at the same time striving to be recognized as having the same kind of cultural clout and artistic value as the best theatre and dance. How can we begin to resolve this conflict? Through a close examination of the ‘trick’—the atomic particle of circus work—and guided by examples from developments in 20th century dance, perhaps circus can yet attain a place of relevance within public discourse, emerging as a rich mode for contemporary reflection.

In the introduction to his anthology of writings about contemporary dance, André Lepicki asserts that dance gained “an increasingly catalyzing role for arts throughout the second half of the twentieth century” because of the resonance of its five main qualities: “ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring, and performativity.” He argues these attributes make dance particularly well-suited to comment on and act within the contemporary world:

The pressing issues of our times may be different [than those operating mid-way through the 20th century,] but the choreo-political question remains, of identifying what forces and apparatuses, non-metaphorically and daily, choreograph subjection, mobilization, subjugation, and arrest; of figuring out how to move in this contemporaneity; and of understanding how, by moving (even if still) one may create a new choreography for the social.²

Surely contemporary circus is able to answer similar questions, sharing dance’s five constitutive qualities. Circus may arguably be more versatile than dance: it has a larger spatial reach, a greater range of available intensities, and a more varied and individualized vocabulary. It is even especially well-suited to enter into the current dialogue about post-humanism in performance, hinging as it does on the close relationship between man and the object.³

But circus has not managed to stake a cultural claim to relevance on the level of contemporary dance, at least not in the public discourse. Bauke Lievens is a circus researcher at KASK School of Arts in Ghent, Belgium, where she is conducting a project entitled “Between being and imagining: towards a methodology for artistic research in contemporary circus.”Her project is partially structured around researching what she perceives as weaknesses in the field. In an interview with John Ellingsworth, Lievens expressed her frustration with circus:

[Circus is] in many cases rather old-fashioned and quite unaware of its own strengths. Also, the contemporary world that surrounds the artist rarely enters the work. What we see on stage is often solely based in technical skill. Thus, what we see if craft and not art. Moreover, craft is not directed towards the renewal of the medium, it engages with a repetition of what already exists. I think that’s why I see few circus performances that actually present us with something new, be it on the level or form or on the level of content.(*4)

In Lievens’ opinion, contemporary circus artists intend their work to be regarded as art, but are often unaware of their broader cultural context and thus fail to make coherent contributions. This disconnect means that when circus innovates, it seems to innovate relative to itself rather than relative to a broader conversation about the role of art in society.

This insularity—the circus world’s relative refusal to contextualize itself—means that even the works that do respond interestingly and effectively to changing social and cultural conditions, and which do take their ‘performativity’ in society into account, are mis-read by a public who is trained to expect less. ‘Circus’ is still a label that implies the performance of joy: “Isn’t circus supposed to be life-affirming?” asked a member of the public after Phia Ménard’s P.P.P. (*5) Indeed, audiences who come to the circus expecting excitement often “refuse and contest the label of ‘circus’” for those works that don’t deliver enough virtuosity: “They argue that the fundamental values of the circus are no longer present in them, and that circus techniques are not sufficiently put into use.” (*6) As Phia Ménard bluntly stated in 2010, the circus audience “is expecting virtuosity and death,” not artistic expression (*7). Who’s fault is this? The problem certainly doesn’t lie with Ménard, who, as an artist, has a right to express herself as she pleases. And neither can we hold the audience responsible for their preconceived notions: they haven’t seen enough convincingly meaningful contemporary circus to erase the idea that circus should be primarily entertaining.

[A glimpse of Phia Ménard’s chilling P.P.P, a ‘non-life-affirming’ work of ice manipulation. Ménard’s performances are among the few works advancing circus as art; audiences, however, are often not prepared to appreciate on her pieces on their own terms, due to lack of convincing prior evidence that circus can be art. A vicious cycle!]


credit: Natalie Oleinik

Judging by the public discourse surrounding (even contemporary) circus, not to mention the dearth of circus work in serious performing arts festivals, the circus world’s attempt to position itself as a community of art-makers is not yet sufficiently evident. The public still expects entertainment, and in general, the kinds of work that reach the public don’t do enough to suggest that circus can do anything else. The arts councils of the world appear to agree: as circus artist Alex Vantournhout explained to me in an interview, France is the only country where circus artists share equal legal status with dancers and actors (*8). Everywhere else in the world, circus creators and performers are seen as entertainers, not as artists.

Coherency and the Narrative

So in what ways do circus artists’ attempts at expressive work seem to fall short? . Contemporary circus artists often have dual priorities: to embody a story or concept, and to present something that ‘looks like circus,’ i.e. a “collection of disparate but spectacular acts.” (*9) In my opinion, this contradiction—between ‘technique’ and ‘artistic’—lies at the heart of contemporary circus’ coherency problem. The expressive elements and the technical elements rarely agree with each other, rather jostling each other violently, and that jostling is hardly ever accounted for.

John-Paul Zaccarini, PhD Supervisor and Senior Lecturer in Circus at Stockholm’s University of Dance and Circus, wrote a thesis paper in 2003 titled “Circoanalysis: Circus, Therapy, and Psychoanalysis,” in which he pioneers a method for uncovering the meaning buried in apparently incoherent circus work through the application of certain principles borrowed from Freudian (and post-Freudian) psychoanalysis. He argues that the unresolved conflict between ‘technique’ and ‘artistic’ results in a tendency to “superimpose a structure (dance or theatre) over the base form of circus before [the artists] really knows what they are doing with the circus itself.” In other words, rather than really working with their technique, and finding a way that it could agree with the concept of their proposition, circus artists often take their technique for granted—as a kind of neutral canvas—and focus their research on incorporating other expressive forms, like theatre and dance. Circus artists, more so than dancers or theatre-makers, tend to want it both ways: they search for expressivity, but cling to old forms which dictate what circus is ‘supposed to look like.’ This schizophrenic creation method leads to work that operates on two parallel levels—the actual and the metaphorical, the ‘technique’ and the ‘artistic’—rather than as a consistent whole.(*10)

In an interview I conducted in April 2014, circus artist Sergi Parés confirmed: “I have hardly seen circus shows which have the wholeness of a dance piece … I think that circus could learn from dance this [extension], like the fact of doing something as a whole and not a succession of movements or tricks.” (*11) What is the history behind this technique-artistic divide? As circus historian Helen Stoddart explains, the circus body did not become expressive through a slow realization of its own inherent dramaturgy, but rather “via the avant-garde ideas on theatre which had percolated through western theatre and dance schools in the post -1968 period.”(*12) Essentially, experimental performing artists in the late 60s recognized circus as uncharted territory and added some basic circus technique to their performances, inventing the New Circus. This layering of circus and content—but rarely approaching circus as content—has more or less survived through the present day. The quick and unreflective adoption of dance and acting techniques as a strategy for adding meaning to circus acts is one of the main objections Bauke Lievens has to the circus that is called ‘contemporary’:

Circus took this old school, ‘dramatic’ idea of theatre that what we see on stage is the imitation of a reality outside the stage. Thus, of an imitation of something that is not there. In this dramatic theatre, the illusion of a fictive cosmos is sustained through the suggestion of a totality. Theatre uses text for that, and story. Nouveau cirque has taken over this idea of ‘mimesis’ and story. What we get then is: story—CIRCUS ACT—story—CIRCUS ACT. The reason this happens is because the danger inherent in a circus act makes it impossible for a circus artist to try to represent something else, like a character or an external intention. Danger cancels representation, it just is. When we are in danger, our actions are functional and real, they are not representing something else. To me the combination of dramatic theatre that pretends to be something it’s not—or that asks me to believe in something that is not there—and, on the other hand, this heightened presence of the circus body, is a very unnatural one.(*13)

[A counter-example: in Cherepaka, Andréanne Leclerc find that “wholeness” that Parés believes to be missing in circus. It is, however, a mono-disciplinary show (and moreover in a discipline that closely resembles dance): how could a multi-disciplinary show work towards this kind of coherence?]

Dance has also suffered periods in which choreographers were burdened with a sense of duty towards the Narrative Theatre, when the reality of the dancing body was layered with fiction and artifice. So what prompted western theatrical (read: staged) dance to begin to part ways with the idea of the story? André Lepecki writes that “the notion of dance as ‘metaphor’ emerges at the end of the nineteenth century, when the problem of extracting dance from its deep binds with music, narrative and symbolic gesture was at the forefront of the attempt to establish dance as an autonomous art.” (*14) Dancers began to respond to the duality of their mode of expression—which was ‘dance,’ but which was also, to some extent, danced narrative fiction—by trying to separate the movement of the body out from the movement of the music and movement of the story.

The urge to then further separate the medium of dance from its meaning—to emphasize “form” over “content” (or to thematize the empty space for meaning-making that contentless form provides)t)—was in some ways a response to 20th-century doubt about the validity of imposing essentialist viewpoints or mono-perspectives in the wake of humanity’s first truly global crises. The essentialist viewpoints in question in this case are things like ‘dance must be beautiful,’ ‘dancers defy gravity,’ ‘dance is a good vehicle for storytelling,’ ‘dance is about movement.’ Lepecki elaborates:

[There was an] openly critical-political inflection in the arts after the Second World War, a period marked by the shock of the combined horrors of the Holocaust, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the geopolitical realignment resulting from anticolonialist independent movements in the 1950s and 60s, the intensification of the cold war, and what we now perceive as the implementation of the ‘society of the spectacle’ necessary for the current deterritorialization of capital and the globalization of the neoliberal financial system. These movements in politics, economy and social life … proposed new priorities for the arts: to be concrete, anti-metaphorical, and above all, to experiment.(*15)

Art in the mid-to-late 20th century, attuned to its socio-political context, re-focused its discourse: no longer convinced of the importance (or ethical value) of conveying literal meaning, works began to treat the structure of expression itself, finding new kinds of ‘content-less content’ through innovations in the arena of form. As Bauhaus visionary Josef Albers stated in a lecture at Black Mountain College in the late 1930s, “Art is concerned with the HOW and not the WHAT; not with literal content, but with the performance of factual content.” (*16) When Albers compared literal and factual content, he was drawing a distinction between work that is meant to be interpreted like literature—work that draws its power from the thing that is signified—and work whose value lies in its construction, in its inherent qualities as a signifier. Dance became a central concern in an artistic context which evaluates primarily the nature and form of the performance itself rather than the impactfulness of the real-world scenario that the performance ‘represents.’.

[Here’s Das mechansiche Ballett, a choreography made in 1923 by Kurt Schmitt, another artist from the Bauhaus school. In line with Albers’ preference of the ‘factual’ over the ‘literal,’ you can see how the interest in this dance lies not in the thing the dance refers to, but in the form of the dance itself.]

Dance’s new status as an autonomous and critically-appreciated art form was ushered in by the works of Merce Cunningham and the postmodern choreographers (Robert Dunn, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, etc.), who “found new ways to foreground the medium of dance rather than its meaning.” (*17) These innovators distanced themselves from the expressionistic acting and ‘dancerly’ movement of classical and modern dance, instead asking the question: what kind of ‘factual content’ is contained in the movement itself? Meanwhile, in 2015, contemporary circus still tends to convey meaning through metaphor, despite the popular belief amongst philosophers of art that “any notion of metaphor as a basis for artistic practice [is] impossible to sustain.”(*18)

Theoretical developments that underlie and unite much of contemporary art, resulting in a move away from certain kinds of (quasi-“realist”) representation, have yet to have had a wide impact in the circus world. From within circus, artists and academics feel dissatisfied with circus’ turn towards contemporaneity, and the official status of circus artists in countries around the world reflect the field’s under-development in comparison to other forms of contemporary art. If circus was to turn inwards and reflect on itself, what would it see?

1. Quoted by RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014), 145.
2.  André Lepecki, “Introduction//Dance as a Practice of Contemporaneity,” in Dance, ed. André Lepicki, London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2012, pages 14-21.
Louise Lepage, “Posthuman Perspectives and Postdramatic Theatre: the Theory and Practice of Hybrid Ontology in Katie Mitchell’s The Waves,” Culture, Language, and Representation 6 (2008): 137-149.
Bauke Lievens, interview by John Ellingsworth, Ghent, Belgium, January 18, 2015, video.
5. Karoline Skuseth, “Not Necessarily Beautiful—A Newborn Circus Critic’s Confessions,” Arts Writers and Circus Arts 2 (2010): 19.
Stéphane Hort, “A Question of Borders…,” Arts Writers and Circus Arts 2 (2010): 12.
Viktoria Dalborg, “Absurd and Exciting New Circus,” Arts Writers and Circus Arts 2 (2010): 7.
Alexander Vantournhout (dancer and circus artist) in conversation with the Sebastian Kann, April 2014.
John-Paul Zaccarini, Circoanalysis: Circus, Therapy, and Psychoanalysis (Stockholm: University of Dance and Circus), 17.
Ibid., 21.
Sergi Parés (circus artist) in conversation with the Sebastian Kann, April 2014.
Helen Stoddart, Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93.
Lievens, January 18, 2015.
Lepecki, “Introduction,” 18.
Ibid., 18-19.
Goldberg, Performance Art, 121.
Sally Banes, “Terpsichore in Sneakers,” in Dance, ed. André Lepecki (London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2012), 44.
Lepecki, “Introduction,” 19.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series; to be published in the coming weeks.

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