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.