Marie-Andrée Robitaille began her circus education in 1995 at the École de Danse de Québec and went on to graduate from the National Circus School in Montréal, Canada. She toured the world with the Swedish contemporary circus company Circus Cirkör during which time she debuted innovative acts on the Chinese pole, a discipline that had previously been performed exclusively by male artists. She has gone on to work as a producer, talent scout for Cirque du Soleil, stunt woman, choreographer, pedagogue and, most recently, as a researcher. She is now a senior lecturer and the head of the Bachelor of Circus Arts program at the School of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, Sweden. She founded the Gynoïdes Project in 2011. The project is based out of Stockholm University of Arts and aims to examine the roles and representations of women in circus arts. She has curated two editions of the Women in Circus Consortium and is currently developing a full-length show, entitled Gynoïdes, that will premier in January at the Orionteatern theater in Stockholm, Sweden.
If you had to describe the Gynoïdes project in one paragraph – what would you write?
Gynoïdes is a response to the objectification of women’s bodies in circus arts, and to the stereotypes that are generally perpetuated within the discipline. It combines artistic research, circus performance and social action.
The project also includes the creation of a full-length circus performance inspired by the artistic research.
The social action component is focused on organizing a women and circus consortium; an opportunity for circus artists and other interested parties to discuss and raise questions related to gender and the representation of women in the circus arts. The whole project is an attempt to develop feminist strategies within the circus arts.
Tell us about a moment or situation from a past Gynoïdes consortium that you feel defines what the project sets to achieve/represent.
The program of the 2nd edition of the Women in Circus Consortium was very dense and it is a combination of all its parts that truly defines what the Gynoïdes Project is all about.
I can try to highlight a combination of a few moments that I feel defines the Gynoïdes Project:
-We projected the shocking documentary Starkiss – Circus girl from India. It depicts a reality that is completely differs from ours, far from the comfort of our circus school system.
-We viewed a performance from Stacy Sacks and her show ‘I Shit Diamonds’ set in Congolabawe where the dictator never dies and oppression runs rampant. This brilliant one woman clown performance left us in both tears of joy and sadness!
Your website states that you interact not only with members of the circus community but also with contributors of various art and scientific fields as well as educational and research institutions. How have these interactions/collaborations benefited the project?
Could you give us an example of this coordinated effort and the results/ideas that have emerged from these various collaborations?
Because ‘Feminist Circus’ was a term that was generating debate and resistance, I chose to invite feminist leaders from various fields other than circus, so that we could benefit from understanding how they apply feminist theories to their work. I thought that this would help us develop our own understanding of feminist theories in circus creation.
An example of this cross referencing came from Helene Hermansson, a researcher in philosophy, who shared with us an overview of ethical problems faced in risk management. Another example from Helene Frichot was discussing critical feminist thinking and creative input in architecture. Rebecca Vinthagen and Lina Zavalia introduced their work about how normativity can be used to fuel creative opportunities. Camilla Damajkaer, a circus academic and practitioner brought up the question of gender in circus. After two days of lectures we could sense that the participants’ discourse on feminism and its role in circus was starting to evolve.
What tools do you use to question the role of women in circus art?
I get inspired and guided by discussions with experts on gender theory.
I see a lot of performances and I have become ultra aware of how women are portrayed in performances in addition to how their roles are established and what place these roles occupy in the show.
I am developing methods of work that resist the habitual sensationalistic reactions that we have come to expect from circus performance. I want to explore and generate alternative narratives when it comes to a woman’s presence on stage.
In my first year of research at the School of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, I collected as much information regarding the current state of women in circus. No statistics exist on this topic. How many women work in circus schools? How many female authors and directors are present at festivals? Who are these women and how do they experience being ‘women in circus’?
I compiled surveys on the topic, collected data and produced statistics.
How do you feel Gynoïdes art projects and dialogues have acted as a transitional and/or transformational platforms for women in circus?
I can see that my students at the University of Dance and Circus have adopted gender as a ‘hip’ theme in creation of new circus performances. I can also see that more and more women dare to collaborate and create their own companies. I see that it is now with pride that we use the words ‘women in circus’ and ‘femininity’. I hope this is not simply a trend but that we will continue to deepen our understanding of the topic.
What conclusions do you feel you have achieved by studying how a female circus artist experiences and understands her own practice?
The problems currently affecting women’s relation to circus are as follows:
-The objectification of women (‘pornographication’ and Stereotypes)
-Women are often less visible (directing shows, jurying competitions, in shows themselves)
-The lack of awareness on these issues
I surveyed many professional circus women earlier in my career and they all indeed pointed out that there is in fact a problem with women in circus – they are expected to be sexy, are given less responsibilities, play stereotypical roles and are often a minority catering to a principal male role. When I asked women how they dealt with this in their work, many told me they didn’t. They of course didn’t want to be treated as objects or minorities but perhaps they thought that ignoring the issue of female identity would somehow solve the problem? I also believe that women have the responsibility to propose, suggest, and try to reverse these norms in which too often women are cast and accept to be cast. That is what the Gynoïdes project is all about; to avoid victimizing ourselves or reinforcing stereotypes or opting simply to have a passive attitude. Why not be a part of the solution by proposing new ways for women to be portrayed, create new roles, and perpetuate new models?
Even if the female acrobat does not feel that they have to represent the female gender, the minute they step onstage, this is exactly what they are doing and this has the ability to impact many viewers. The great news is that we can see an explosion of female power in circus arts, there are discussions, networks emerging and new circus companies that proudly present themselves as women in circus.
Obviously we don’t want to take anything away from the male performance, but it is important to note that we have something to say and share that will contribute to the diversity of approaches in circus arts and of course society in general.
The Beta Tests are explorative periods of a few weeks to a few months where I have been working with one to six female circus artists at a time. We’ve had 8 Beta Tests so far with the ninth happening in September 2015. Each Beta Test explores a topic. We don’t engage in creating any characters or composing choreography to set music, nor do we compose from a series of set ‘tricks’ but instead try to find another order to the composition practice. We take away layers of costume, we use skin colored attire so that you can clearly see the shapes of the different bodies. The Beta Test also reinforces the relationships on stage between several women. I need people that are open minded and are able to bring suggestions. I am also addicted to amazing acrobatics; I love circus and the incredible set of skills that acrobats perform! I look for artists that have achieved a very high level of skill.
The premiere of Gynoïdes, inspired from the Beta Tests, will premiere on January 6th at Orionteatern, in Stockholm, Sweden.
All photos credited to Einar Kling Odencrants.
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