In the gloomy context of Brexit, as our world reels from the effects of free-market globalisation (and misguidedly blames the EU for it), all the while listening to the incoherent arguments of bombastic politicians offering simplistic solutions to complex problems, and as fears of global warming increasingly become realised, what do we do?
For me, it is reminiscent of the despondency we experienced in the 1980s as Thatcher ripped apart the social fabric, reinforcing privilege and embedding a cynical, selfish culture that we see all around us today. Then, as now, I believe all we can do is to keep on doing what we are doing, setting up alternative cultures, giving sanctuary and reinforcement to those with a broader world view, avoiding head-on battles that cannot be won but, as creative performers, to use our position as communicators of culture to subtly promote, through content and form, a different perspective. By different perspective I mean extending people’s vision of what humans are capable of through presenting difficult or dangerous feats or through using fantasy to escape mundane futility, or by using comedy to release us from the stress of maintain dignity and false pretensions. And to cling to the hope that it will become, once more, obvious that the narrowness of self-interest is not a viable strategy for human co-existence, that it will become increasingly obvious that the drug of wealth and power, whilst providing a short term ego-boost doesn’t bring real happiness to those who are addicted to it. An ambition for self-fulfilment is healthy but need not be at the expense of others.
This summer I have been learning about teaching and learning for a qualification (Certificate in Professional Learning in Higher Education). One of the interesting writers I came across was David Kolb, who tackled interrelated problems we have been wrestling with at Circomedia but has wider implications – balancing breadth and depth, increasing specialisation or providing a more broad-based education, balancing emphasis devoted to action and reflection, assessable hard outcomes (trick level, wealth) and intangible soft outcomes (charisma, generosity of spirit, openness). This last binary is the same as that between personal achievement and social involvement and it is stating the bloomin obvious to say that a well –rounded, integrated person balances both. Keeping both in balance means that personal achievement is not at the expense of others and, looking at it from another angle, a sense of achievement and self-fulfilment means one avoids being so self-effacing as to be susceptible to exploitation.
Looking at the movement of sunlight reflections on the ceiling of our little canal boat, watching the ebb and flow of the tide on the river and seeing the migration of birds through the sunset, I can grasp a sense of the long term, in which this period of gloom is only a passing phase. All we can do is play the long game.
2nd February 2016
Thank you for your thoughtful and nuanced reply to the first Open Letter. I am very happy with your contribution and it would be great if we could continue our conversation. Therefore, please allow me to respond to your thoughts…
First of all, I totally agree with your remark that the many unfortunate examples of the attempted marriage of circus and theatre necessarily condemn all current striving to bring these two worlds together. Two weeks ago you came to see ANECKXANDER, the performance I co-created with Alexander Vantournhout at the London Mime Festival. This work is, among other things, an attempt at bringing circus and theatre closer together. It is ‘theatrical’ in the sense that it tries to unfold in a linear way (which one might call narrative) – without using other features of ‘dramatic theatre’ such as fourth wall-characters in a distant time and place. Instead, it tries to uncover the constant shifting and balancing of the circus artist between ‘pure presence’ and ‘theatrical representation’. This might connect to what you describe as: “Circus is very good at metaphor, simultaneously both real in the present and conveying a representation of wider relationships.” I wonder if this is what you meant?
(A small side note from my side would be that I prefer not to use the term ‘metaphor’ since it implies a mimetic relationship between the actions on stage and the reality off stage. I don’t think that circus provides us with metaphors, rather it produces meaning.)
I agree with your assertion that over the last ten years or so, contemporary circus has developed a focus on the identity of the performer –and that this tendency risks creating “self-obsessed navel gazing”-performances. However, when the focus on the identity of the performer is connected to an understanding of circus as a medium in which the performer constantly balances between ‘presence’ and ‘representation’, I think that circus can be an interesting tool to reflect on how the contemporary subject undergoes that same oscillation between sincerity and representation of the self. To my feeling, however, this is only possible when a circus performer does not ‘hide’ behind his or her technique/object and ‘dares’ to be open to his/her own (physical and mental) experiences in the here and now of the performance.
In the light of the above-mentioned balancing between presence and representation, I would like to come back to the notion of authenticity that you touch upon. Authenticity is a much-used term in the discourse of many contemporary European circus artists. It is also a term that shapes much of our contemporary behavior (travelling, buying, eating, drinking, …) and experience of what we find beautiful (design, fashion, literature), in the sense that we seem to be collectively longing or searching for authenticity. This is not my idea. It comes from two Dutch cultural theorists (Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin Van den Akker) who frame the desire for sincerity as a symptom of what they call ‘metamodernism’. Metamodernism is, in their words, an emergent structure of feeling which oscillates between postmodern irony and modern hope and enthusiasm. (If you’re interested I can send you some reading links. The website www.metamodernism.org is very interesting.) I also refer to this in the Open Letter. They talk about ‘performative sincerity’. And I think that this is a much more useful term then authenticity when it comes to circus. ‘Authenticity’ bothers me because it obscures the romantic desire and the fictional mechanisms that are so crucial in a lot of circus performances. (And in the construction of discourse around circus practice as a whole.) Circus is not authentic. Rather, it is the ‘lieu par excellence’ where our fundamentally romantic desire for ‘realness’ and ‘sincerity’ is staged. Again, the balancing of (the body of) the circus artist between presence and representation is an interesting tool in uncovering the romantic mechanisms that are at work in the production of discourse in and around circus practice: when we label something as ‘authentic’, we stage it as something ‘real’ – and therefore it ceases to be sincere or real.
I can understand that my attempt at (re)defining the circus come across as “rather Modernist in its centrism and its notion of progression.” I hadn’t thought of it, but I think you’re right: it is. It is a reflection of where we are at this moment in European circus practice: on the shifting point between modernism and postmodernism. As you indicate, the tendency of mono-disciplinary performances and technical skill can be seen as the circus-version of the meta-theatrical wave of theatre performances in the 80ies. That is also what I mean when I polemically state that contemporary circus is not contemporary, nor in its aesthetic strategies or in the subjectivities that it stages. Maybe circus is currently in the last stages of Modernism? Maybe what we call contemporary circus should rather be called modern circus?
Looking forward to your thoughts!
2nd reply to Bauke Lievens Feb 12th 2016
Yes I’m very pleased that this discussion continues. In such a complex area, the amount that we appear to agree is perhaps more significant than where we diverge. And divergence is inevitable as we come from different starting points. And coming from different starting points our understanding of certain terms may not exactly accord but I want to try and avoid a quest for tight definitions, even as we explore the complexities of metaphor, authenticity realness and sincerity.
I find your questioning of the notion of authenticity fascinating. I found the material on Meta-modernism interesting and I agree with its general thrust of finding a way out of the cynicism of Modernist approaches and the apathy caused by Post-Modernism. However I’m uncomfortable with some of their premises, as stated in the website you cite, perhaps because their meaning has suffered in translation. For example, the statement that ‘All things are caught within the irrevocable slide towards a state of maximum entropic dissemblance’ (www.metamodernism.org) is only one side of the story according to Complexity (Chaos) Theory, in which evolutionary natural selection is cited as an example of order emerging from chance occurrences. However I agree that the notion of the search for authenticity is the driving force behind much contemporary culture. I also agree that any rehearsed or repeated actions cannot be accurately described as authentic. I would go further, to question the purity of ‘presence’ in performed openness/vulnerability. Just as an habituation to particular kinds of risk lowers the level of risk of the performer, if not the perception by the spectators, so openness and vulnerability in the present moment can become synthesised through experiencing repetition. I have seen this process in Clown and Fool work over many years.
Watching our 3rd year students Practice-as-Research presentations, I was struck by the similarities of conclusion of a juggler and an aerialist. One talked about the real level of difficulty being unappreciable to non-jugglers and the other talked about the real level of pain and risk being unappreciable. In both cases their conclusion was to select more obviously difficult/risky/painful actions and accentuate these qualities. I presume this an example of your notion of ‘constant shifting and balancing of the circus artist between “pure presence” and “theatrical representation” ’. How can we gauge the relative sincerity of ‘truth’ in a circus performance when even technical physical actions are not what they seem? As Gregory Bateson indicates, it may be impossible to unpick the finer complexities. He talks about the differences between ‘real’ (presence) and representation in terms of the differences between a sacrament and metaphor, using the example of a dancer in Swan Lake.
The swan figure is not a real swan but a pretend swan. It is also a pretend-not human being. It is also ‘really’ a young lady wearing a white dress. And a real swan would resemble a young lady in certain ways… We are after all talking about the performer or the artist or the poet or a given member of the audience. You ask me how I tell the difference between a sacrament and a metaphor. But my answer must deal with the person not the message. You ask me how I would decide whether a certain dance on a certain day is or is not sacramental for the particular dancer… It’s something one cannot tell. (Bateson 1972: 37, 36 (2000)).
However we may be able to talk about levels or degrees of simulation. (I found it interesting that in ANECKXANDER, despite the predominance of raw, stripped-back material there were two illusions, one that was revealed as such (the tongue) and one that was left as a mystery (the final swaying)).
Moving on to another of your points, I agree that most contemporary circus is Modernist. I myself sometimes feel quite isolated within European circus education because I resist the purist tendencies of many peers and I actively encourage a range of cross-discipline approaches in Circomedia’s pedagogy. I have always found it paradoxical that the form of classic big-top circus, with its disassociated sections, non-linearity, multiple viewpoints and recycling of pop culture was so post-modernist in its essence. In this sense the more cohesive forms of contemporary circus can be seen as an attempt to impose order on this (Pre-modernist?) chaos. If we can agree that circus as a form is decades behind music and visual art, for example, then the next question is why this should be so. Is it because of the encumbering weight of its tradition (in the way that treatment of Shakespeare suffers in the UK because of veneration)? Is it because the advance of circus over the last thirty years has been powered by European institutions, which themselves are progressive, utopian and centralising in attitude? Or is it because the focus on specialist craft inevitably tends towards preserving older forms?
I look forward to hearing back from you and continuing the discussion,
Bateson, Gregory (1972) Steps To An Ecology of Mind. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press (2000).
I was very interested to read your open letter,
and I welcome the level of critical debate that the letter opens up. Having worked for nearly 40 years in the interactions between circus and theatre I have some perspectives to share that I hope will be interesting and contribute to the debate you have initiated.
I was one of the generation, that you mention, who was attracted to circus not just for the thrill of physical skills and the expansion of means of expression but also for their popular appeal. It seemed that circus could be used as a vehicle to connect with a wider range of people than could be reached through the avant-garde 'fringe' forms of theatre that were current at the time. Coming from this point of departure, combined with two years of study at Jacques Lecoq school, it is perhaps unsurprising that I am reluctant to dismiss all forms of what we called circus-theatre from the mid-1980s, despite the obvious problems with it that you refer to.
I agree with you that the main problem with the early forms of this hybrid form was that 'at the moment of physical danger (of presence) the story (re-presentation) simply stops'. Even very recently I saw a show that attempted to use a three-high stand on shoulders to express joy but resulted in the top-stander looking terrified. This appears to have been the basic error repeated, bringing into conflict the 'illusion' of theatre with the 'reality' of circus. However I do not think unfortunate examples such as this one necessarily condemns all attempts to marry circus and theatre.
I agree with you that there is currently a focus on technical skill and, increasingly, these are mono-disciplinary performances. I understand and appreciate this approach but I am concerned that it may lead to a limited focus on rather introverted concerns. It has a parallel in types of theatre that are primarily about theatrical form. A related development over the last ten years has been the focus on the identity of the performer. Although the authenticity and endlessly rich diversity of outcomes and was rewarding to see, this approach was also an introverted one, and carried with it the dangers of self-obsessed 'navel gazing'. Turning inwards excludes wider concerns and the perspectives of those distant in time or place. The act of imagination required of performers and audiences to inhabit other identities and worlds is important during this time of borders being reinforced and cultures closing off from each other.
If we are talking about post-dramatic theatre, I must disagree with your assertion that 'it is simply not possible to combine the two in one smooth whole'. To begin with, to me, narrative does not necessarily imply a linear story, nor does content imply characters distant in time or place, operating behind a false fourth wall. Circus is very good at metaphor, simultaneously both real in the present and conveying a representation of wider relationships. In ' When We Are Lost', by Ockhams Razor, a performer trapped in a narrow transparent tower is encouraged to ascend and escape from their confinement by another who uses a Chinese pole on the outside. The narrative is expressed through the actual presence as isolation, cooperation or support. What was unfortunate about early attempts at combining circus and theatre was the tendency to attempt a highly-charged emotional acting and insistence on inserting the most difficult technical move whether it fitted in or not. If however, as Ockhams Razor demonstrates, there is no 'menu' of technical feats that must be included then there is less likelihood of a gap. Some might say that this type of performance is 'not circus' but being that prescriptive is another form of border definition that is not helpful to developing a much wider range of circus-based expression.
I remain a strong advocate of keeping open to a wide range of approaches and resist the tendency to assume that currently we are somehow progressing towards a 'resolution' to the problem of how contemporary circus can claim to be 'art' as well as 'craft'. I am very happy with the idea of providing other perspectives to add to the rich diversity of approaches but I am uncomfortable with the notion of definition because it suggests a quest to establish a new orthodoxy. I cannot think of other examples where an attempt to arrive at any definition of an artform is considered necessary or even possible. It seems rather Modernist in its centrism and its notion of progression.
I agree with your beautifully expressed assertion that the dominating dramaturgy of much circus activity is the 'battle with an invisible adversary (the different forces of nature), in which the goal is not to win but to resist ... both the promise of tragedy and the attempt to escape from tragedy'. The role of the clown as a representative of heroic failure has an important contribution to make in this regard but has been somewhat marginalised in much current circus education. However what saddens me about much of the new critical writing on the subject is that there is so often a reference to 'the circus', limiting discussion by making the assumption that the task, and the skills required to accomplish the task, are the only preoccupation that should concern circus artists. The dramaturgy of the ‘tragic hero’ will always be present in circus but it need not be dominant. It could be argued that is an out-dated trait of the 19th and 20th Centuries, originally associated with dominance over wild nature and later associated with the competition inherent in Capitalism. Watching the new Ockhams Razor show, Tipping Point, there are thrilling moments of danger that are not to do with success/failure and the dominant dramaturgies are to do with support, trust, mutual-reliance and empowerment, simultaneously both embodied and metaphorical. Perhaps these more social dramaturgies will become more relevant in the global challenges we face together in the coming century.
I hope that this perspective on your discussion is of some use,
Artistic Director, Circomedia
As part of the Bristol circus festival I arranged a symposium called Clowns And Power. I was keen to get together a small group of teachers, performers and clown activists to share their perspectives on what the title meant to them. Despite the shoestring budget for the event and the competition for attention of the surrounding festival everyone there seemed to find it interesting. I had invited three people with very different approaches to join me in giving an opening statement - Peta Lily, Hilary Ramsden and Holly Stoppit. We were joined by Angela de Castro, Tweedy, John Lee, Maggie Irving and about 50 others from Bristol and the South-West.
I did not want to narrow the question too much - there are such a wide variety of clowns and 'power' can be interpreted in many ways - but I think it is important to distinguish between the performers and their clown personas, even though, in this field, there is a recognised overlap between the two. My question had partly come out of the discussion between Jacques Lecoq and Dario Fo about whether clowns could be political. It was also related to the discussion in my book about the different approaches to morality of the artists I covered and James Carse's distinction between open play and closed play. He suggests that if the purpose of a type of playing is serious then it is not really play, in the purest sense. So clown performers may have a political intention but their clown personas cannot. My contention was that clowns themselves are not only apolitical but also amoral. They respond to what is immediately in front of them, they do not see a bigger picture and don't have the seriousness to consider long term consequences. That said, because clowns don't understand rules or conventions they are associated with anarchy (but not Anarchism). They may get caught up in politics, as Chaplin innocently did waving a red flag in the film Modern Times, but usually as victim.
In the room was a wide spectrum of positions from those who use the clown persona for deliberate political ends such as CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army) or transformational ends such as hospital clowns and personal therapy, through to those who simply want to entertain. Even for these entertainers it was clear that they had a power over the audience and a power to disrupt other performers or conventions. The strand that appeared to link all these different approaches was the clown's vulnerability. Making oneself vulnerable by appearing stupid seemed to be transformational both for the performer and the spectators. The performer could be strengthened by becoming habituated to high levels of vulnerability, as in a drama-therapy situation, or empower spectators who feel vulnerable, as in hospital clowns or Clowns Without Borders, or could disarm, or at least confuse, the enforcers of order. These appear to be three different directions - the first is internally focussed, the second and third externally focussed, but with the difference being that one deals with a weaker spectator and one with a stronger. Holly Stoppit usefully identified three reactions to feeling vulnerable that she had noticed in drama-therapy situations - hiding/fleeing, adopting a tough stance to brazen it out and, finally, frozen inaction.
There may be a question of whether it is necessary for clown-actors to really wear their heart on their sleeve or whether they need only to appear to do so. Certainly clown training seems to encompass both directions – true authenticity or credible acting – an interior focus or an external one. The subtly different approach has some parallels with the differences between the pedagogy of Lecoq and Gaulier. Gaulier induces real feelings of stupidity and freedom, whereas Lecoq focussed more on physical technique, for example by analysing rhythm. The approaches both have their weaknesses: the free, authentic clown performer may not be able, or may not want, to produce reliable, consistent material; inspiration for brilliant improvisation may be elusive or not sustain in the long term (e.g. Gaulier-trained Sacha Baron Cohen’s demise as he moved away from improvised encounters). On the other hand the structured, technical approach may seem contrived, too clever or lose its authentic ‘life’.
Reflections from the Symposium discussion
Using clowning as therapeutic /personal journey:
Is therapeutic /personal journey ‘using’ the image of a clown in some way ‘political’? Yes, its purpose is to become more authentic as a performer, by raising self-awareness and honesty in inter-personal relations. The desire to ‘change the world’ must start with changing yourself.
What a supermarket, what a cacophony of cultural product! The buzz, the hype, the scramble for attention - every ten metres a purveyor of pleasure for the cultural consumer reinforces the excitement of myriad wonders to be discovered. There are the expert Fringe goers with their planned agendas and the novices, only aware of what’s a few steps in front of them, seduced into venues on a whim. They are guided by the young reviewers hoping to make their mark by spotting the left-field outsider before anyone else does and the older reviewers putting in their hours, churning out the word count, making their judgement.Then there are the thousands of young performers seeking to make their mark and the hierarchy of well-established performers, head and shoulders above, testing their current standing, watching their backs.
Seeing the work (10 shows in two days, mostly circus and physical theatre) there was a wide variety in quality and taste. Quality can often be difficult to assess but in terms of circus skills it is relatively easy to compare - the level of skill and impact, the ease of movement, the inventiveness (how far they have moved away from the standard lexicon or the standard equipment). But what is taste? For me, it is strongly related to the motive behind the work. Some use the easiest form of sensationalism. One group, Cirque Alfonse, padded out the time with an out-dated magic illusion and the busker's standard acts of bed of nails and the concrete smash. If you can attract in punters who have not seen certain skills, it's not hard to impress. It's mainly a feat of marketing and, as if to confirm the easy-buck ethic, in the middle of the show the whipped-up crowd became stupid enough to buy minuscule shots of alcohol for £1 in order to take part in a draw for a vaguely described 'prize', which turned out to be throwing a custard pie. The cheap nudity was cynically offered in the spirit of 'We're so free' and Burlesque irreverence. Maxing the income was clearly the prime priority.
Other groups, such as Cirque Le Roux and Cirk La Putyka, take their work more seriously mixing circus skills with theatre, with or without a clear narrative. They set up a set of relationships, using highly energetic physical expression, a hybrid mix, a bit like opera, and then go in to longer episodes whose sole purpose appears to be the display the accomplishment of skill. Occasionally these episodes serve the narrative well, a poetic metaphor for the intensity of feeling. At other times, it's just for the sake of the trick.
For other companies, such as Ockhams Razor and T1J, this 'showing off' is not necessary. Perhaps, because they are less insecure about proving their credibility or justifying their years of training, these, more artistic companies, are interested in exploring or expressing something and hold true to that purpose avoiding 'tricks for trick's sake'. Because they are curious they can keep producing very different shows over many years rather than being limited to re-packaging the same (if improved skills).
The history of the Edinburgh Fringe is littered with one-hit wonders. Years of hard developmental work is rewarded with a success that sometimes takes them by surprise. However, having got it how do they deliver on the higher expectations? If there is no curiosity, no interest in anything other than maintaining their profile they may face a limited shelf-life.
But, having been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, I couldn’t help wondering what was it all for? There seems to be a displacement of huge amounts of personal energy, as if the huge task of blocking out the imminent impact of climate change and the breakdown of shared common interest was the cause of the frenetic-ness of activity, juggling and jesting while Rome burns, reinforcing the collective myopia.
Circomedia has really announced its degree programme. That sounds pretty exciting. Could you tell us a bit about it?
This will be the second degree programme for circus in the UK. There is an equivalent in London that has been going for a few years. It's going to be interesting to compare the two. We've been having some meetings about what being a circus school means, what circus means, too. I was trying to clarify to them that we have a different approach. One part of circus is to impress people with your skills – wow! And all those sorts of things. That's fine, and we do that, but we are also interested in a much wider brief. We are interested in people using circus skills as a medium to deal with their concerns and their issues. It could be all sorts of things – Burlesque, kinetic sculpture, live art, stand-up, Bouffon, narrative-based work – but it's about using circus skills to go beyond just ta-Dah! Beyond just impressing people. Really, the third year is going to help that develop. I hope and expect that with time, we will show what we mean. It's no easy task; a drama degree is three years, and full circus training is three years, so putting the two together can be difficult. We have to get their skills up there so they have tools to communicate their ideas, but we also want to work on the creativity.
Does this make you different from other circus schools?
I think it does, yes. I mean, every school can claim it is unique, because it is different from all the others, but we are focussing on the idea of the performer as the creator of the work. Everyone has different bodies, different cultures, different concerns, so, as with live art, it is very appropriate that they use their identity and their shape to do what's best for them, rather than trying to compete by doing the same things as everyone else, like in gymnastics, or sport.
So it's like a similar tension as you find in the dance world, where people can either become an instrument for a choreographer, and be directed and positioned, or they can author and perform their own work?
Yes. We have two main aims. One is to train students to get work for an existing market. They need to get jobs – particularly at the moment – it's a big concern with the recession and increasing student fees. But the other thing is to move the art form forward. If we only work within existing expectations, we can't push the boundaries. It's really important to keep challenging the audience's expectation or it all gets very conservative, just doing what needs to be done.
There seems to be a perception among circus artists that circus as an art form struggles in the UK, especially when compared to mainland Europe. Would you agree with that?
Of course, yes. I have to say that the comparison with France can be misleading. France is exceptional and most of Europe isn't like that, though similar levels of funding go in in Scandinavia. Arguably, the position of circus in British culture is related to class. In the mid part of the 20th century, it was seen as the lowest common denominator – working class, popular entertainment. While everyone might have done once or twice in their childhood, it was seen as cheap.
Do you think the association with carnival and travelling performers put it beyond the pale for some people, too?
Yes – it's all a bit uncontrollable for a lot of people. There are two major lines of development in the history of circus. One is through gymnastics and sport, and so martial arts and horsemanship, originally, way back. The other is ritual and theatre, and exotica. The weird, the stuff that is outside. Circus is always fluctuating between these two things. It is exotic and edgy, but it also needs discipline, structure, and skill. Circus in Britain has suffered an image problem which has meant that the people who have cultural power have resisted its emergence. The collapse Fool Time was the direct result of someone in the National Theatre saying, No, circus is not art.
Have things improved?
There is still something about circus that is problematic. For some, circus is craft, or skills. I was having a conversation recently where someone said that music was a craft. You need to play the notes well and do the scales and all that, and those skills somehow make the art. That's a very linear and structured view. I think the other side to that is that you can't be too structured about creativity. It's about unique combinations, and turning things on their head. We try to look at things afresh, in order that the skills and form is dealing with concerns that everybody shares. It's not just about physical prowess. I've been in that battle for 35 years or so. There are little advances – it is advancing – but there is always an inherent conservatism around it, too. It's interesting; first we fought the traditionalist over use of animals, and then the treatment of women. Those battles were won and now there is a sort of new circus norm established around Cirque du Soleil and their model. It's very hierarchical, it's all about a big spectacle, and there is a tendency to refer to that and say, Oh, that is circus. I just think that is terribly limiting. It could be so much more than that. We deal with circus as a base for creativity.
Where do you think your approach has come from?
My main training was with Lecoq in Paris. He used mime as a base. There was a bit of the traditional stuff, like pulling ropes, but it was mime in a wider sense. For him, it was about the imitation of movement that happened in nature. You could imitate the movement of mountains and the elements, as well as people or animals. It was the whole idea of imitation rather than the cliché of mime. In the same way, I view circus as a really useful grounding because it can give you so many possibilities. It gets you fit, it involves equipment and movement, and it extends the energy of the body in many different ways. The juggler extends their reach with throwing and catching, the aerialist extends their range of movement by working the air, and upside down. But it's a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That's how we view the whole thing.
Arriving at this point, being able to offer a degree programme, it must be the result of years of work.
Yes, and we're planning to bring out an MA in a couple of years, and then research projects and PhDs. It's very hard work and we have very few resources, so we have to take things one step at a time.
Did you have a grand plan all along? Did you expect to be sitting here in 2014 discussing the possibility of MAs and PhDs?
No. Well, partly … like Lecoq, I had a difficult history with academia. He didn't like over-theorising and all his theories were drawn out of practice. He started as a gymnastics teacher. The other side of that, however, was that we always thought about the training as holistic. It's not just about the body, but also the mind and the emotions. We wanted to get people thinking about what they were doing, and how it fitted in. We wanted them to look at other people's work. Intelligent circus is what I would be after. We were left with the difficult question of how to make that work, and the answer has been a slowly evolving relationship with Bath Span University. It hasn't always been easy. Universities seem to find the performing arts problematic in general – how do assess things that are so subjective and fluid? Circus is even more out there on the edge. It's been a whole process of trying to make a bridge to meet them. It hasn't really been a grand plan, though. We started years ago with a diploma and little bits of qualifications to help students get career development loans and to reassure their parents that it isn't some Mickey Mouse course. The degree happened mostly because we were so frustrated with only being able to do a one year course. The only way that people could do longer courses was through student loans, so in some ways there was a very practical motivation. It also came from the founding principles of Circomedia 20 years ago, which were a development of what we had done with Fool Time since '86. I've got more interested in ideas as I've got older – partly because I can't rush around like I used to, but also because I was after a more complex form of what we were producing. There is a basic toolbox of 15 moves, and you can only watch people climb up a rope and back down again so many times! After 20 years of that, you wonder where the form is going.
Where do you think circus can develop?
Being around the emergence of street theatre was massively exciting because we were asking how the form could work, what we were doing. It was similar with early circus theatre. There are still lots of good questions we are researching. We still have integration week where we look at how you put forms together; how to put juggling and aerial together, how to incorporate theatre and text with physical work. It can be as simple as literally, how do you say something when you are all puffed out. It's a very different prospect from just making an act for a cabaret. There is something in just not dropping the balls, or falling off the trapeze. There is risk and danger, success and failure, all those inherent things that can be metaphors for the human condition, but they are only metaphors if you think in those terms. If not, it's just anthropology. You just say, well, that's the culture of this thing. You are separate from it and you can't relate to it.
My last question relates to politics. One of the top questions on my list when I talk to artists is about the politics of the work they make. The intersection of politics and circus seems a little less obvious to me, however. Can circus be political? Is circus always political? Can you separate politics from circus?
It's a lovely huge question, and one which I get very excited about! Circus is interesting because it is a culturally contentious form. It has these pulls between great conservatism and radicalism. Of course, everything is always political – you only have to look at Archaos and all that sort of thing. That was very political. Less overtly, and less obviously, so is Cirque du Soleil in the model they use and their attitude to cultures around the world What is uncommon, however, is for circus to be talked about in those terms, and I think that's a shame. It's seen as countercultural in a vague sort of way, and it's very unformed. The people involved as well may have made some political decision, they've sort of dropped out, but they might not see it as working in politics. Circus can bring in issues of gender politics through its performativity, and self-presentation, and the way relationships are presented on stage. We struggle to develop awareness of that with the students and even with some of the staff. People have takes on things, and sometimes there is awareness, but sometimes there isn't. Circus is a great home for people who don't necessarily fit in elsewhere, too, and my model is all about empowering people who would be rather powerless otherwise. Circus does literally empower – you gain confidence through success, you help people discover themselves and value their identity whatever that is. Rather than have them saying, I'm not good at this, that, or the other – which is what they have been taught – they say, well, I am good at this, and these are my values. It provides an alternative structure where there is a huge degree of acceptance. I've come out of discussions where circus schools are saying we need to train people to do a profession which will last ten years, but education is much bigger than that. You've got to train them for life. You've got to train them to think and how to be independent, how to explore and research. They might stop doing the skills after a few years, they might not get a job, and that doesn't matter. Even if they aren't the world's greatest aerialist, it doesn't mean they can't be a fantastic creative person, or just a fantastic person in other ways.
In the carnivalesque course the interesting question of morality arose. Did the bouffons (rejects, outsiders) just make fun of the usual targets – religion, government, military, education etc - with the moral purpose of exposing hypocrisy for the betterment of society or do they make fun of everything, including moral purpose itself?
When I was first introduced to the subject the argument ran that the bouffons were amoral because every suppression, pogrom and persecution had been in the name of moral purpose; that individuals had to suffer for the greater good. An assertion of global ideals, incomprehensible in a local context, would inevitably lead to unfortunate local consequences. Bouffons suffered from an excess of moral zeal. However, in these times, when the free-market, American model of capitalism operates with mathematical indifference to public benefit, like a computer programme that has survival-of- the-fittest and profit maximisation as its primary factors and that takes no account of social effects, bouffons reflect this amorality back. We can observe this in the August rioters lack of morality. Taught to aspire to the heaven of fame and fortune ( as a replacement for a belief system) by the all pervasive advertising bombardment but living in the hell of denied access to them, they simply replicated the amorality of the market. How morally different is the robbing of an injured foreigner to the asset stripping of Cadbury's by Kraft?
The 'amorality' of bouffons is based on survival at any cost. Back in the 1970's Colin Turnbull's grim account of the the starving African tribe, The Ik, was turned into a theatrical production by Peter Brook. The account described how the frail and old were ridiculed for their weakness as they were stoned to death so that the stronger could use their food ration. This week, Channel 4's Unreported World focussed on Christian preachers in Nigeria who promote the idea of personal wealth as being a sign of spiritual righteousness, offering their own ostentatious displays of wealth as examples of worthiness. Their crude exploitation of the gullible seems not so far from the self-righteous justification of wealth from the defenders of the disproportionate salary increases paid to chief executives this week. They claim that they are paid what they are worth even though they set the rates for each other through salary review boards.
Post-modernism, as I understand it, sees any morality as the construct of a particular perspective, neither better nor worse than any other form of self-justification. Like the free-marketeers, the advocates of Post -Modernism would dispute ideas of 'right' and 'wrong' as having no objective meaning. For example that the deaths of millions of human beings through starvation has no relevance to those people whose sense of well-being is centred on their own standard of living. This is the world we live in. The morality of our affluent, educated middle-class (who are the prime producers and consumers of theatre) may seem like a self-serving luxury to those rejects and outsiders who are beyond the reach of good intentions, so it is not surprising if they make fun of it.