Becoming Circus

Circus Sessions is produced by Femmes du Feu with artistic partners CCAFT. It is a weeklong creative laboratory and think-tank for 15 Canadian and international contemporary circus artists. Fred Deb, an aerial circus artist from France, will mentor and guide the artists through the creative process. This initiative spans the five families of circus: Aerial, Acrobatics, Balancing, Object Manipulation and Clown. Circus Sessions looks to encourage artists to engage in a creative dialogue that examines their evolving form, and cultivates experimentation in performance, networking, advocacy and audience development. The weeklong workshop will culminate in two nights of shows, open to the public.

This is the second in a series of guest blogs examining what contemporary circus means today.

Becoming Circus
By Eric Liu

Sometimes, when talking to circus artists, I wonder whether what I do counts as circus. Most of my movement background is in other disciplines. I breakdance and do acro-yoga these days, and I used to compete in trampolining and cheerleading, as well as train in martial arts. So I don’t have a traditionally “circus” background, and don’t always do stereotypically circus-like things — even if I do hang out (sometimes literally) with circus people these days. I’m not always sure if I count as a circus artist. Maybe the more I train, I’m slowly becoming one. But I’m coming to realize that contemporary circus is breaking old stereotypes, and that I may not be so unusual in the circus community after all.

One thing I love about acrobatics is the variety. It’s easy to see how impressive big tricks are. How many times did she flip? How many twists did he do? But it’s, perhaps, more subtly exciting to see the range of different kinds of acrobatics we’re now getting in circus. Go to a circus show and you might see techniques from gymnastics, martial arts, breakdancing, or parkour, in addition to distinctively circus techniques. You might see acrobatic feats onto/into/through/off of bars, poles, hoops, ropes, trampolines, walls, ledges, cars, bicycles, or other people. But it’s not just that we get different kinds of skills and apparatus, but that we get them all mixed together. We can get bouncing off a trampoline up onto a wall, swinging off suspended bars into a pool of water, vaulting over a car to land on someone else’s shoulders, etc.

Contemporary circus is a growing and changing thing. It’s not like there’s a fixed manual of circus techniques out there, and something doesn’t count as circus unless it’s in that manual. This is one of the reasons we get such a range of acrobatics in circus compared to a more codified discipline like, say, gymnastics. We don’t have to ask “Is this circus?” Rather we can just ask, “Is it good? Is it worth doing?” Circus is what circus artists make of it. And, increasingly, circus artists are coming with a range of different backgrounds and interests. Furthermore, contemporary circus is just that — contemporary. That comes with all the current cultural trends toward making remixes and mashups. And being contemporary also means we feel the effects of easy sharing on the internet, and being able to be influenced by all kinds of styles and techniques from all around the world.

Circus Sessions participant Jimmy Tommy also exemplifies the range of interests and movement backgrounds that is increasingly common. Often, parkour and breakdancing training is just training for hand-to-hand and acrobatics. Having trained in juggling, sleight of hand can be thought of as just another kind of prop manipulation. In magic performances, you can employ clowning skills to weave a narrative to help structure a performance. And while breakdancing or sleight of hand might not be what come to mind when you think “circus,” there’s no reason it can’t be part of it. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to try and nail down a definition for “contemporary circus” any more than it makes sense to try and say, once and for all, what can be part of a good show. Maybe it’s not that I can become a circus artist if I train in more circus things. Maybe circus has shifted, and I already am one!

Eric Liu is a multi-disciplinary movement artist with a background in breakdancing, trampolining, cheerleading, acro-yoga and circus. He is also a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Toronto.