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).