Why is contemporary circus so often less dramaturgically rigorous than dance? Dance sometimes seems like Circus’ sophisticated older sister—more confident, fully-formed, less desperate to please. Maybe by closely observing the differences between the circus world and the dance world, we can bring circus out of its extended adolescence. Is there a problem in circus education? In the practicalities of producing new circus work? Or is the idea of expressive circus itself somehow problematic, given circus’ history as pure, populist entertainment? I asked three circus-artists-turned-dancers what they thought.

“I feel really out of place. I feel like there is something which really interests me from circus and something which really interests me from dance, but it’s not one or the other one, in a way.” I’m speaking with Sergi Pares. Sergi went to DOCH, a circus school in Stockholm, but he now he works with both circus and dance companies. He situates his personal work somewhere on a spectrum between the two. “I have seen hardly any circus shows which have the wholeness of a dance piece. Like for example, with any show from ‘Peeping Tom’ you have this real dramaturgy, as if you are watching a movie.”

artist: Sergi Pares, © Jonas Jonzon

I think that Sergi is representative of a growing trend which sees circus artists, dissatisfied in some way with the contemporary circus, turn towards dancenot only as a creative outlet, but also as a more stimulating viewing experience. “I’m not interested when it’s only about demonstration, like when you just show what you can do, or about doing just technique while ‘playing’ with emotions, or something like this. This is the part that I find often in circus which I’m not interested in…I think that circus could learn from dance this extended joy, like the fact of doing something as a whole an not a succession of movements or tricks.”

Sergi’s nagging dissatisfaction with the products of the contemporary circus project is not a new phenomenon. Manu Roque, who went to Montreal’s ENC in the late 1990’s, performed in just one circus show (Cirque Eloïze’s “Orchestra”) before turning to dance. “I couldn’t find a response for what I wanted in what was happening in circus back then.” For Roque, dance was an attractive alternative to the repetitive, number-based work that he was doing in Eloïze.

Roque: In North America you do your act, and then you do the choreography and all this stuff, but I had much more fun doing the choreography parts and participating during the whole show! I was just starting this process of questioning, so then I went to take dance classes in Montreal in two years it kind of ended up shifting…I was interested in how to work in a very open environment, and dance offered me that. You didn’t have to repeat an act one show after another, you could just go into a creative process and then go to another one and it was a totally different language, or a totally different way of exploring being on stage.

manuroque-c. jean-baptiste gellé

artist: Manu Roque, © Jean-Baptiste Gellé

So why do circus propositions so rarely live up to the standard of dramaturgical coherence set by dance? Alexander Vantournhout, a graduate of ESAC in Brussels, puts much of the onus of the circus education system. “After ESAC, I definitely wanted to do another education… I really think, in circus, theory is missing. Not in the sense of books, I think, just in the sense of, ‘what have I been training on? What are the principles I have acquired? And how can I use these principles now in many different ways?’—that’s what’s missing a bit. And I wanted theory; I wanted to study performance history and philosophy.” To find answers, Vantournhout spent a year at PARTS, Anne-Therese de Keersmaker’s dance institute.

Vantournhout: A circus artist has one of the hardest skills to master. And then on top of that, one is expected as a circus artist to be able to dance a bit, to have theatre knowledge, to be able to sell (like admin), to be able to play some music also (in Châlons [CNAC], for example). That’s way too much! So in the end what do you get? You get from everything something, but actually in the end you don’t have so much… a choreographer comes in to circus, and he choreographs, but we would not have understood how he worked. We only judge from the result. You really have to go to the texts of an actor or a director for the methods, the tools. [You have to go to] the compositional tools of a dance and their references, and not just the surface (the movement vocabulary).

But Vantournhout believes that the problem extends beyond the educational system. “There’s just a structural problem—it’s a newer form.” Circus is still less well-respected than dance, and so suffers from an inferior support infrastructure. He echoes the widely held view that France is essentially the only country where contemporary circus is allowed to thrive. “In France, as a circus artist, you’re equal to a dancer or an actor. But in Belgium we don’t have this yet, nor in Germany. England doesn’t have it either, Holland—nothing.”

This lack of support forces many circus artists to take a more commercial route; because putting on a show is expensive, a circus must make lots of money to repay investors, and artists are afraid to take risks on stage as a result. In North America, where support for dance is nowhere near as robust as it is in Europe, dance can nevertheless thrive because it can be inexpensive to create.Circus, hampered by the cost of rigging and specialized rehearsal space, doesn’t have that luxury. Manu Roque is currently making choreography for a circus festival in Montréal: “on a production level its very tight, and there’s lots of pressure. With contemporary dance we know there’s no money or not so much money involved, so… we are more somehow free to ‘go into the proposition.’”

Even in France, where money for contemporary circus is relatively available, the infrastructure is flawed. Sergi Pares points towards the process by which space and funding is acquired: “I have the impression that you have to justify yourself before you do the creation, so therefore you are doing the circus mistake, you know, in the way of closing all the doors and centering on one thing, and that’s the departure point. I have the impression that this is really the wrong way to do art.” According to Pares, “this thing of justifying yourself even before you start doing something”—the process of writing applications to receive residency and co-production—is an unacceptable burden to the creative process.

The dissatisfaction of these experienced artists raises some fundamental questions about the current state of circus education and the system of contemporary circus production. Do the major circus schools teach too many different physical techniques and not help students understand the theory behind their practice? Does the money involved in original circus creation hamper artistic freedom? And are these really the only reasons that circus work tends to be less coherent than dance work? Or is there something about circus itself that, after repeated exposure, reveals itself to as shallow played-out?

Manu Roque that admits that the sheer difficulty and specificity of circus makes it unforgiving material to work with. “You can’t change so much the language because it’s so hard to master.” In dance you can “transform it [your technique] more…It’s easier in dance when you start something to have a white page, or a totally open space. Then you start something. With circus it’s like, there’s a wire here, or I have a trapeze so it needs to fall, and then it’s in the way of something…” The apparatus of circus already suggests a context; the artist must either work this context into his proposition, or invent a way to break free from it. What’s more, the technical codes are hard to break because the technique itself is so fragile and specific.

But Sergi Pares thinks that this very clear and specific kind of technical focus is actually an advantage that circus has over dance. Because it’s “really based in action”—that is to say, circus tricks are actions with a clear start and finish, rather than the extended, more qualitative approach of the dancer—“it has its own dramaturgy.” In circus, the technique speaks for itself, while dance technique needs more encouragement and coaxing before it can really be said to have dramaturgical content.

Pares: Creating dance… it was very ephemeral. There was no purpose. It was just for the sake of moving. And I found it very hard to do… it was all about beauty actually. It was creating things and ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this,’ and about being satisfied with oneself about the material itself and that is it basically. Whereas, for me, circus has always been about a very specific research. I’ve been always very interested in going from one point and chewing that for as long as I can in my mouth and seeing where I come out of it.

And as for the apparatus, and the problem of its inherent dramaturgy, Roque points out that “sometimes it also helps to have constraints.” Vantournhout elaborates and proposes a solution:

A possible definition of art is “embodied meaning.” So to give a meaning to a senseless object, or to take an object about which we know so much [and treat it in such a way that] its associations and definitions are flattened, and then we try to give a new meaning to it. So one could reflect the same way in circus. I think Andy Warhol did that, Abramovic… that’s a very interesting stream which we haven’t used so much in circus yet.

alexander vantournhout

artist: Alexander Vantournhout, © Bart Grietens

So there is hope! Theoretically, it is possible to make circus work that is as interesting and deeply reflective as the best contemporary dance. So what is the way “toward a more contemporary or a more kind of developed practice of performance” in circus?

Vantournhout: This virtuosity aspect is really present [in circus], which you don’t have in dance anymore. And I think you have to keep it. So going to no technique, to non-circus, I don’t think that’s an evolution. What could be an evolution?… I think the evolution is that they use the knowledge of theatre and dance: not the skills of an actor or a dancer, but, like, how does one make a dance performance? And we try to do the same in circus. Now actually we use dance to fill up space. It’s a very different strategy I think… I think that rather [than focusing on the technical elements of other performing art forms, circus artists should] have a theoretical base, or like a conceptual / philosophical “how to make a performance”or something, and then specifically for a performance then you can focus on learning an instrument, for example.

From Roque’s perspective, progress has already been made in circus. Compared to 1999, when he finished circus school, “now there are lots of other propositions in circus that involve more creative processes or research instead of just the “production experience” of putting shows together.” And although there’s no easy solution to the problem of funding, and the way the production system influences the work that is produced, Roque envisions a way to work within the system. A circus show can be “for a big audience and still have that quality of research. It doesn’t have to be ‘contemporary’ of for just like a small minority audience, it can be really open but with… something else, or something more than just entertainment.”

Dance has been approached as an art form rather than a mode of entertainment since long before the birth of the contemporary circus. It follows that dance has a better-developed pedagogy and a more refined production strategy. But people who have experienced both professional dance and professional circus agree that the limitations of circus lie squarely in the schools and production houses, and not in the possibilities of the form itself. Circus has untapped potential, and through reform in the schools (or independent study on the part of the student) and more creative ways of harnessing the production system, circus companies will soon start making work that lives up to the standards set by other art forms.

And why is it important that circus up its game? I’ll let Sergi Pares have the last words:

It’s really important that what we do needs to be for the people, not for the public. What do the people need today? It’s our responsibility as artists! And I think that in our work, what I’m interested in is not entertaining people, or making them forget their lives, but by making them see the joy they have already in their lives, and question the things which they should be questioning.

Sebastian Kann
Sebastian Kann is from Connecticut, and a graduate of the National Circus School in Montréal. His dream is to co-create an original circus show. Sebastian has lived in Europe since 2012 and is currently based in Belgium.