Reflections on a progressive medium
According to the Australian circus director Yaron Lifschitz, one of the characteristics of German-language theatre is the incessant production of new work; authors, actors and directors are driven by the questions of who was the genius who left their mark on the stage before them, who will they be compared to – and how will they fare in this comparison. The new emerges from an often subconscious fear of becoming like one’s admired predecessor – Harold Bloom called this »anxiety of influence”. The circus doesn’t have the same problem, Lifschitz says, because it is an art of roaming artists, of traveling companies.
Contemporary circus is both a reaction to the conventions of the medium itself and an attempt to create modern theatre without »theatre”. It is a deliberate decision in favour of a different style of narration, one that is not based on text, but rather produced in a collective and interdisciplinary manner. It creates a kind of reality that is not subject to the imperatives of representation, but to those of otherness, magic and boldness.
While some decades ago, theatre scholars studied the influence of the circus on progressive theatre, it appears as if the opposite were true today: Contemporary circus emerged as a progressive medium itself, one that absorbs some techniques of theatre and elements of dance or video art and became a field of study of equal interest. While initially scholars focused on traces of circus in the literary works of Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artraud, Samuel Beckett, Eugéne Ionesco, Jean Genet or Thomas Bernhard, or echoes of the world of the circus in the dramatic works of Jean Cocteau, Oskar Schlemmer or Alexander Calder, today’s new circus itself seems like an avant-garde and has become the subject of in-depth reflection. Contemporary circus, says John Ellingsworth (in »What is circus”, YouTube 2014), has everything the old circus had: People flying through the air, a world replete with sweat, risk and grace, shaped by held breath and »the realness of life meeting death”.
Time passes more slowly at the circus, Ellingsworth claims, and the devil’s virtuosity is displayed in the ring – this ease with which the virtuoso leaves everything he has learned far behind, his skills seemingly far beyond all of life’s limitations. Above all, the circus possesses the quality of the unexpected, of surprise and amazement: Today, it has transformed from a closed art form, whose techniques and skills were handed down through the generations, to an open, adaptive and experimental art form. It is still all about bright lights and entertainment, but contemporary circus evolved into a very creative field of live arts, where new ideas are tested and everything is merged – elements of dance and martial arts, extreme sports and devised theatre. The circus has always been on the fringes of society. Today, John Ellingsworth says, it is on the fringes of the art forms.
Of all the art forms, it seems to me that circus is the most transitory. None of its works can endure, except for the knowledge that lives in the bodies and is passed on between artists and generations. As a live art, the circus is bound to the artists’ presence in front of the audience – you have to be there while the performance is taking place, sharing your time as spectator with the artist. The work takes place within this situation, only to disappear once it ends. Because circus performances are not text-based.
It is an art of creation, developing programmes and formats that remain unique productions. The moment of creation, however, is essential not only for the circus but for contemporary theatre art as a whole. It could be argued that the challenge faced by the established theatre system in German-language countries has a lot to do with this encounter of a culture of interpretation and a practise of creation.
Theatre evenings are less and less often based on literary foundations and more and more often on devised plays – and therefore on something new. Today, audiences go to the theatre as they would to the cinema. They want to see something original, not a repetition of something they already know. The grand programmes of the old circus are not repeated, neither are the inventions of the new circus. As in contemporary dance or performance, these productions are results of the process of »stage writing”, the development of the piece in rehearsal, in a collective process of seeking and finding which finally condenses into a work that generally has many authors, in marked contrast to all those individual original geniuses from the history of playwriting and directing. It is remarkable that, apart from a few clowns who gained world-wide repute, circus artists are relatively nameless and there is no star system.
Historically, the circus was a place where otherness was not hidden, but cultivated and exhibited: different bodies, freaks, contortionists. I think it is a medium that renders questions of gender and normativity, but also of post-humanism, tangible in a different manner than contemporary theatre does. Circus requires no preparation and no codes for the audience. It doesn’t shame anyone, it doesn’t find fault. Everything on the circus stage has a practical, rather than an illustrative, purpose, which makes for a welcome clarity of the act. But I think it is the most democratic art form above all because it hasn’t become entirely bourgeois. In Europe, or at least in its currently liberal states, everything that artists do is fully accepted. The character of the artist is a part of the bourgeois cosmos. In cultures outside Europe, this is not always the case. And in our culture, too, circus folk are still travelling folk, »outside” somehow, in the double sense of the word: both outside of public infrastructures and outside in the sense of the otherness of the material they deal with and the reality they create.
Speech contribution an discussion on the conference «Contemporary Circus in Art and Society»; A conference on Tuesday January 31, 2017 CHAMÄLEON Theater, Rosenthaler Str. 40/ 41 | 10178 Berlin, January 31, 2017