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