photo by Jorge Lausell

The academic Team is on the clock, and as we embark together on this journey of thinking and writing circus from an academic perspective, we wanted to break the ice with the first ‘circ-essay’.

Below is paper written by the Academic Editorial Assistant, Ariel Schmidtke. Her research is centered in questioning how we establish value for different types of circus performances and investigating how imperfections within a circus performance can actually prove to be an integral factor in this system of value.

—questions/comments, link at the end— Allez, hop!

In an essay on contemporary literature David Foster Wallace claims that the value of art is primarily assessed on its ability to appeal to the largest audience. This is because the aim of art has shifted from the attempt to change, orient, or enlighten, to a goal of engaging without being demanding (Wallace 52). As audiences increasingly want art that is passive our perception is altered to meet this demand. Many traditional and mainstream circuses cater to this desire for exhibition. With goals similar to classical ballet they aim for “the erasure of movement failure and the establishment of technically and expressively perfect bodies” (Fernandez 77). Under this definition, a show “succeeds” if nothing more is required of the audience than a reaction of awe. But how can we maintain art’s humanness, with all its intrinsic imperfections, when confronted by performances that strive to erase the possibility of failure?

How can we assess the value of a flawed circus show? In particular, what is the significance of Vaudevillingham, a donation-only show run by the Bellingham Circus Guild (BCG)? Vaudevillingham disregards the popular desire for perfection by inviting all members of the community to perform in the show and by allowing acts of all skill levels. It is difficult to judge a performance wrought with technical errors, inexperienced performers, and acts that have obviously not been frequently rehearsed. However, our opinion changes if through all the technical inconsistencies the performers still fully express an intention in their acts. As our expectations shift we become more open to critically examining the material, instead of deriding the lack of refinement. The value of Vaudevillingham lies in its ability to foster a belief in the imperfection of art.
The BCG works against audience passivity, using techniques instigated by the New Circus Arts movement and Dance Theatre. Both movements create performances that critically examine their technical backgrounds, asking the audience to share in this process. They demand the engagement of their audiences to create meaning for their work. Choreographer Pina Bausch recognized the rules governing ballet limited her choreography (Fernandez 77). She was interested in the motivations behind human movement, not in its technical perfection. Bausch would ask her dancers questions and incorporate their reactions into her choreography, rather than independently creating choreography to be imposed on them. According to Norbert Servos:

As the audience is moved by this emotional authenticity, which confuses and delights their minds and senses, they are forced to take a stand to clarify their own positions. They are no longer simply consumers of inconsequential entertainment or witnesses to an interpretation of reality. (21)

By incorporating quotidian activity and her dancers’ personal experiences Bausch invoked audience recognition, forcing them to actively identify with the dancers’ movements instead of passively watching them.

Just as Dance Theatre was a departure from classical ballet, the New Circus Arts movement formed as a step away from traditional circus, which had become fraught with competition. Peta Tait explains the motivation behind the movement was:

photo by Jorge Lausell

An attraction to the mythology of a self-contained world outside mainstream culture … it emulated circus skills but not traditional circus organizations, where performers’ work regimes were extremely regimented and circuses were routinely televised for mass audiences … the aesthetics and content of some new circus reflected an idea of badness—even bad circus skills. (126)

New Circus performers used the entertainment value of traditional circus, but they focused less on the perfection of movement. Through this medium performers would tell stories, discuss political issues, and examine unconventional body types. They refused to indulge audiences with mainstream culture and its bland ideality, but instead forced them to think about alternative cultures and identities.

Since New Circus Arts’ origin in the 1970s many companies have formed using the tenets of the movement. Most are small, not-for-profit, and reach a limited audience. As a circus company grows the motives behind performance may change, and they often become more reliant on cultural demands. If a performance has an expensive ticket price many promoters will avoid controversial material in exchange for a show that exhibits the most stunning tricks and aesthetic appeal. A performance that is not concerned with its marketability is able to sustain the connection between audience and performer because it does not function under these same consumer demands. As a result, performers can use their art as a means for expression and communication instead of as a source of income.

Vaudevillingham was formed with this intention in mind. Though the show is a fundraiser for the BCG, raising money is not the primary aim. The show was originally created to provide a venue for performers, from novice to professional, to exhibit new or unpolished acts. The ticket price is donation based, so how does the audience decide we have been fulfilled enough to match an equivalent monetary amount? We cannot assess the value of Vaudevillingham solely on its entertainment capability and instead must look closely at the motivations for each act and how we connect to the meaning of the performance. A performer might sign up for Vaudevillingham minutes before the show starts just to dance around the stage while singing “It’s Not Unusual,” poorly, and there are few complaints because his joy and sincerity are enough to explain his intentions.

Mistakes are a constant occurrence in Vaudevillingham, so the audience learns to expect them and is no longer shocked by the lack of refinement. The mistakes in fact lend credence to the performances, because through the mistakes the audience comes to see the amount of skill required in each act. In mainstream circus, performers are trained to such a state of perfection that we often forget there is real danger involved in their work. We revel in their triumphs as they surpass the limitations of the human body, but we are only seeing the final product and not the components that went into reaching it. In Vaudevillingham, because performers of any skill level are allowed to perform, and many choose to run acts they know haven’t been completed, the audience’s concerns cannot be eased by the complacency of perfection. Mistakes do not lead to failure though because there is no system in place to define what would be considered failure. If a juggler is constantly dropping her clubs no one will criticize her for it, but a fellow juggler might later inform her how to improve her technique. If an aerialist is slow on his timing someone might assist him in becoming more attuned to the nuances of music. The audience even forgives technical errors as sound cues go awry and fuses are blown. Once when the electricity failed in the middle of an act the entire audience pulled out bike lights and cell phones to illuminate the stage and help the performer to finish her act. Most importantly, no one is ever dissuaded from returning to the stage. One of the greatest aspects of such a small show is that faces become familiar and we can watch the progress of the performers. As the audience watches the development of both professional and untrained performers, we realize that anyone is capable of this growth. The performers’ willingness to showcase their imperfections proves to the viewers that the performers are taking these risks, not only for their art, but for the audience as well.

by Jorge Lausell

The risks involved are not just the possibilities for injuries or technical flaws. Performers also face the challenge of the misinterpretation of their intentions. In mainstream circus the shows’ meanings are prescribed to the audience and any misunderstandings could be considered failure, both in the performers’ failure to unequivocally convey their intentions and in the audience’s inability to recognize their meanings. According to J.L. Austin these occurrences, when an act fails to convey its meaning because of incorrect procedure or inappropriate performer, are called misfires (qtd. in Taylor 125). Sometimes a performer may not convey his or her intended meaning, but these misfires can give rise to a new experience that is just as valuable as the performer’s original intention.

At one Vaudevillingham a white performer came onstage with coal smeared all over his face and limbs. As his act progressed it became apparent that the thin veneer of coal was meant to represent blackface. As he danced he removed pieces of clothing to reveal that his skin was still white underneath. No one in the audience, which was almost entirely white, knew how to react to the piece. Many of us knew that blackface is inappropriate in any context and some audience members felt as if the act should have been stopped. Others watched in confusion trying to understand the act’s social commentary. Regardless of the performer’s motives, everyone in the audience was uncomfortable and many were offended. A larger show would not have the ability to personally communicate with its audience about a situation like this. Mainstream circuses have teams of writers, editors and choreographers whose jobs include taking responsibility for the material they create. Though a performer in Vaudevillingham is responsible for his or her material, the audience participates in deciding the meaning and appropriateness of an act because it is an uncensored show.

Members of the BCG felt it was necessary to address the discomfort people felt over the act. Immediately after the show members of the collective met to discuss the best way to respond to the community. The BCG decided to open an online forum where people could discuss their feelings on the act and the performer had a chance to explain his intentions. Links were made available that explained the history and social conventions of blackface, and at the following Vaudevillingham a short video was shown about the history of blackface performance. The performer may have failed in getting the audience to understand his act, but through his failure the audience was able to create a new meaning for the act—it now represented the audience’s misunderstanding of blackface performance. The BCG’s connection with its audience allowed an uncomfortable experience to be turned it into an opportunity for education and community involvement.

Every performance, even a scripted one with repeated choreography, is a unique, inimitable experience because it is created through the interaction of performer and audience. A performance’s lack of tangible evidence endangers its memory, but its disappearance is essential to establishing its value. A flawed performance is by nature imperfect because it cannot replicate or perpetuate itself. Peggy Phelan describes that the ontology of performance:

Refuses this system of exchanges and resists the circulatory economy fundamental to it. Performance honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace. (149)

Performance, as with all types of art in our current economy, has to engage with cultural commodification, but some performances cannot be judged on a consumer system of value because they refuse to adhere to cultural demands. Mainstream circus is assigned value by its promoters, not by its audience, because it appeals to mainstream culture. Ticket prices are high because of rising audience demand and audiences are growing because the shows reflect a mass audience’s entertainment needs. Conversely, each individual audience member decides the value of a show like Vaudevillingham, and the standards governing this decision are unclear. We cannot allow ourselves to always be passive spectators, and must instead remain a critical and engaged audience. Both mainstream circus and performances like Vaudevillingham have their place within the spectrum of performance, but the small-scale performance relies more urgently on audiences’ ability and willingness to determine its value in order to survive. Though Vaudevillingham does not have a price, and thus no definitive value, its performers and audience still struggle to create something meaningful, in spite of all chances of failure.

Works Cited

Fernandes, Ciane. Pina Bausch and the Wuppertal Dance Theater: The Aesthetics of Repetition and Transformation. New York: P. Lang, 2001. Print.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Servos, Norbert, and Gert Weigelt. Pina Bausch: Dance Theatre. Munich: K. Kieser, 2008. Print.

Tait, Peta. Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.” Both Flesh and  

            Not: Essays. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012. 37-68. Print


—An Academic Team Digital Paper—

Interested in publishing with us? Please send a note to our editor, carlos@circusnow.org for peer review. Opa!