The New York International Contemporary Circus Festival brings North American circus, along with one international piece, to Marcus Garvey Park for three days of free, outdoor shows. The second edition of the festival will take place this summer from the 19th through the 21st of August. I spoke to Monique Martin, a programmer with the City Parks Foundation and the driving force behind the festival, to find out a little more about this groundbreaking American platform for new circus work.
Sebastian Kann: Hi there, Monique! So what is the City Parks Foundation, and how did the New York City Contemporary Circus Festival come about?
Monique Martin: City Parks Foundation (CPF) is the only independent, nonprofit organization to offer park programs throughout the five boroughs of New York City. CPF works in over 750 parks citywide, presenting a broad range of free arts, sports, and education programs, and empowering citizens to support their parks on a local level. Programs and community building initiatives reach more than 600,000 people each year, contributing to the revitalization of neighborhoods throughout New York City.
We program music, theatre, dance, family programs and now circus, not only in our flagship festival in Central Park, which runs from June through August—we orbit around the city in all five boroughs.
I was invited to the ‘Complètement Cirque’ festival in Montreal in 2011. It was an invitation through the Québec consulate—we already had a relationship with them, supporting music artists coming out of Quebec—and the attaché from the Consulate asked me if I was interested in going the festival. I had not heard of the festival, but who would pass up a trip Montreal, so I thought ‘Heck yeah.’
SK: And what was your impression? I guess you fell in love immediately…
MM: I went to the Montreal festival in 2011, and literally I was blown away by the scope! The circus I knew before was Big Apple, Ringling, Cirque du Soleil, and Universoul Circus, and so my head was blown off my shoulders! I was able to see one-man-shows, cabarets, shows that were more acrobatic, dance-based, clowning. . .
You know, in this country clowning is really not respected. As a person who started my career in theatre, clowning is actually one of my favorite of the five disciplines. It is very difficult! The ability to move an audience from gut-busting laughter to tears within the same piece—I find it extraordinary.
So, I was able to see clowns, Cirque du Soleil and everything in between. I also met with presenters from all over the world! There were people from Lille, and Paris, France. Stockholm, Barcelona, Argentina, Australia and from Prague who all knew each other! It appeared to be a club of presenters that all knew each other, and I thought “I wanna be down with you guys! I wanna travel the world and see circuses! This is awesome!’ Invitations to festivals began coming in.
SK: Wow, amazing. I would also love to be part of that club! And you took them up of their offers?
MM: From Montreal in 2011 I went to Paris. I was invited to Focus festival, and that’s where I saw Barolosolo for the first time, which we’re bringing to SummerStage this year (It takes that amount of time to actualize and to be able to bring international artists; there are so many variables). In May I traveled to Helsinki to the Circus Info Centre for a festival and Morocco in June for the Awaln’art Festival —I was on a roll! Helsinki is where I met the Racehorse Company, [who we invited to headline the first festival in 2013].
SK: Petit Mal— that’s an ambitious first show! Was it hard to convince the rest of your organization that circus was a worthwhile form to program? I mean, you had traveled the world and seen for yourself, but to try to just describe it to people who have no idea…
MM: Difficult is an understatement. It was as if I was speaking Chinese with an Arabic dialect. They had no clue, they thought it was bizarre, but I’m a pretty force-of-nature personality and I was relentless. What tipped the scales was when I took my boss to see “Traces,” the Seven Fingers piece, and within the first ten minutes he was like, “I got it.”
It’s one of the genres, if you only know Ringling Brothers and traditional circus you just can’t imagine. It was the same with me! When I went to Montreal, I didn’t know what I was going to experience. Even when I went online and looked at clips. You have to experience not just the art form but the audience. And I just don’t think circus translates well on video; you have to be there live.
SK: So we can thank Traces for convincing your boss! And from then on it was smooth sailing?
MM: So my boss became an advocate. And then the next hurdle was our development department: “Where’s the money for it? We already have limited resources!” And then the third hurdle was our production staff, who were kicking and screaming up until the day of the tech. They were just in fear of the requirements. What is rigging? It’s a very specific field. And once you do it you see, “Ok, it really is similar to hanging lights.”
I certainly don’t want to over simplify, but circus companies come with highly skilled technicians. They’re not going to put themselves or the artists at risk. They’re going to come with a technician who knows how to advocate for them.
SK: And how was Racehorse received? Their style is really unique and quite challenging, even in Europe! It must have been totally unexpected for a New York audience.
MM: The audience was blown away! We had limited marketing support. We are a massive festival, so our marketing department has the unreasonable job of marketing and securing press for all of our programs, the full breadth of what we do. We do over 1200 programs every single season. For them to add circus, they’re like “What are you doing to us! And who’s the market for it?” It was a learning curve for everyone. But people showed up! That venue is approximately 2000 at capacity. We had 1500 the first night, 800 the second night, 1700 the third show. There was total of 4,000 people in attendance over the course of the three days. To have a limited targeted marketing and PR push, it was extraordinary. It was packed with enthusiastic audiences of all ages and cultures.
And the artists, of course they’ve performed outdoors before, but they didn’t get that kind of audience! And it’s not just the audience from the Harlem community. We’re vocal: The U.S. audience is gonna talk back to the stage. And so when they’re in those Elvis costumes and they’re shaking their butts the audience is like ‘Oh YEAH!!!’ And they said they had never experienced anything like that, they had never experienced that kind of energy. When Rauli [Kosonen] is on that huge big yoga ball, and they’re trying to knock him off the ball—that moment there, they were like “Harder! Kick his butt!” And Rauli looks at the audience at one point like, “You wanna kill me?” But they loved it! Other audiences, when I’ve seen the show elsewhere, have been trained to behave in a theatre so the response is different. The European audience claps at the end, very loudly, and they do multiple encores, where here, we clap all throughout and if you get one encore and come back people are like, “Why are you coming back? You bowed already!
SK: That’s very true! And maybe the members of the company have performed outdoors before, but I think it’s still pretty special to have a show of that scale presented outdoors. And for free! Can you talk a little about the location of the festival? Why is Marcus Garvey Park the best setting for New York’s first contemporary circus festival?
MM: I know it’s something a lot of presenters grapple with: how do you get people past the threshold of your venue? New audiences, younger audiences, more diverse audiences…of course your patrons who support your organization and subscribe are going to come no matter what you’re presenting. What I find with outdoor presenting is that you have a bit more space to experiment and try something new, because there’s not a financial commitment, so audiences are willing to roll the dice. And you have your accidental audience, that’s just kind of strolling through with their dog or their partner or their family and is like, “Oh, what is this?”
What was fantastic about bringing [the circus festival] to Marcus Garvey Park is the audience there. Harlem is totally in transition—it’s becoming gentrified. The positive side of that is space to expand through the clash of cultures, and what’s therefore possible from a presenter’s point of view. We had people [at the shows] that have been in that park and this community for decades! We also had hipsters, and new transplants that are in the park, and lots of families.
And from the downtown area, and Brooklyn, and other parts of New York, came the circus community! They have their own underground community that thrives where it thrives, and they came. There’s just some kind of drum-beat as with any subculture. There were all these other folks from the circus community that came, and [some] had never even come to Harlem before! You had people who have been in Brooklyn all their lives that had never come past 96th street, because of this perception of what Harlem is. New Yorkers can be a bit geographically identified. It’s quite exciting to break those constraints.
So that’s also the beauty of circus; that it brings people out of their comfort zone. There’s a curiosity about circus. If we had presented classical music or some other form, you can get that anywhere, so why would you come to Harlem? It just mashed up the audience. It’s not often you see an audience with such diversity! You certainly won’t see that audience at BAM — they put a fantastic effort in producing circus; however ticket prices can be a financial barrier. You’re not gonna see it at the New Victory Theatre either.
SK: Was it hard convincing an international company to come to New York? I never hear of European shows touring the states, and I always assumed it was because of logistical issues: the cost of traveling, the cost of visas all that stuff. How did you convince Racehorse to come headline the brand-new festival?
MM: International artists perform in Asia, Brazil, and all over Europe, so the opportunity to perform in the States is quite appealing. If I had the budget I could do a festival for the entire summer—artists are out there, and they want to come to New York! Well, they want to come to the States, but New York is sexy—let’s be real. And many companies have the capacity to travel with the support of their governments, because unlike in the States, their governments see the value of art and culture, and quality of life, and of humanity—the value of creating citizens that are engaged. Art is a big part of that! It speaks to compassion, it speaks to community.
SK: What about American artists? It’s true that there’s a lack of support for circus work in the States compared to some European countries. As the programmer of the first circus festival in New York, you have the power to change the way circus is perceived in America!
MM: I’m discovering a lot of artists that are from the States that either work or live primarily in Europe, so I’m just thrilled and honored to be one of the people that is moving the needle on the record to raise the awareness of the history and the tradition that’s already here, and to articulate and amplify what the US circus voice is. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, and I now know Nordic circus when I see it, I know French circus when I see it, I know Québec circus when I see it– so I’m looking forward to being able to recognize American Contemporary Circus.
Racehorse Company did two shows. Then we partnered with Circus Now, who co-curated the third night. I wanted to tap in on their resources to do an evening of North American artists. It was important for me to support and nurture North American artists, and to ensure this festival not feel like an Import Festival. I didn’t know many of the artists from the New York area. I met so many artists who’ve said ‘We live in Brooklyn,’– much kudos to Adam [Woolley] and his network. We’re partnering with them again this year and we’re using the same model. They’re co-curating the third night with artists from Seattle, San Francisco, and Brooklyn, and we’re bringing Throw2Catch from Montreal.
SK: And I read you are commissioning a piece as well.
MM: This season I’m doing my first commission. One of the commitments that I have is to cultural diversity and diversity in form. I’m commissioning a new work with a young woman who’s Irish and Native American—and an aerialist. She also does Cyr wheel. She’s creating new work with a beat-boxer. This speaks to diversity in form: seeing two different kinds of artists that you wouldn’t necessarily see on stage together, and one artist being outside the circus milieu. I suggested a beat boxer, and she’s developing the piece with a guy named Akim Funk Buddha. He’s from Zimbabwe, he’s a b-boy, he’s a beat-boxer, he does throat-singing, and he does Butoh. He’s so fierce! The combination of the two together—I am so excited about it. That’s going to be a ten-minute piece, as it’s in its nascent stage. They will open for Throw2Catch.
SK: And when you say you ‘commissioned’ the piece—what kind of support did the artists receive?
MM: They received an artist’s fee, and rehearsal space if needed. For many artists, space to develop the work can be an obstacle, particularly in New York City! We have developed a partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The Recreation Center at Marcus Garvey Park is newly renovated; it’s called the Richard Rogers Amphitheatre. The backstage area is a large multipurpose space that functions as a rehearsal space, and it has hanging points. That’s the kind of support that we can provide. We’re a small non-profit that does big things, so we don’t have a $20,000 commission fund as large Performing Arts Center ala the Kennedy Center, but we are resourceful.
SK: But that’s already a great start! No-one else is commissioning circus work in the States, as far as I know. You might be the first! You’ve already pushed American circus forward a great deal—what are your plans for the future?
MM: Discovering new artists and exciting partnerships. I’d love to see opera, hip hop, film and circus mash-ups. I’m looking to keep the festival at three days for the first five years. That’s manageable; there’s a lot you can do in three days. I want to go deeper into the quality of work, although the international work is top quality and continues to reinvent itself. I want to be able to expand our marketing efforts and our branding efforts—[we want to show that] we are a vanguard in the field and that we are a destination for artists. I want to create residency opportunities, so that artists can come have a residency in the Rec Center in exchange for classes for the population that’s there, and commission new work. [As I said before], I’m interested in finding out and nurturing the US circus voice. What is the urban voice? I do see some hints of b-boying and hip-hop in European companies, but when I say urban it’s not necessarily hip-hop, it’s just: what is an urban voice? One big push in terms of funding now in the states is ‘rural’: what is a rural voice? That often gets left out of the conversation. What are people in West Virginia doing or Central California?
Those are the people we need to hear from in terms of articulating a North American voice, and I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. It’s going take time. So I just want to be a fertile ground for artists, for new ideas and new thoughts, and for audiences to discover new work and a new form. One thing I’m very proud of is that our festival is FREE! So there’s complete access to the work. You don’t have that financial barrier. You’re seeing extraordinary artists who under normal circumstances would cost $60-75.
I’m looking forward to just having a ripe and fertile environment for the growth of this art form, to position SummerStage as a destination for circus and to support artists and audiences.
SK: Thank you very much, Monique! A pleasure to speak with you, and good luck with the second edition of the festival this summer!
MM: If you’re in NYC this summer, be sure to catch the festival! It plays 19-21 August in Marcus Garvey Park.