Pushing Limits on Creation

by Mary-Margaret Scrimger

It is every humans dream to fly. And our greatest nightmare to fall.

That’s what attracted me to circus: the brief moment of freedom, the weightlessness, and the terror of falling. The circus empire that stretches through history and across the world is based on audiences all knowing these truths. As a performer, it is different. Whether three feet from the ground or 20 feet in the air, the responsibility of the performer’s life is completely and utterly in their hands. While daunting, it also drives exploration and discovery into just how far the limits of body and mind can be pushed. Essentially, circus is risk management. It is mitigating the terror of a plummet, and also standing on the edge of a cliff knowing you have the choice to jump.

Circus has inherent risks, and it seems the people attracted to this type of artistic practice aren’t the ones who like to risk life and limb. They are the types who like to reduce it. And much of circus is calculated risk: rigging, equipment, environmental controls and, to an extent, the body. The physical is of the most apparent to audiences, but it is also the most difficult because it changes everyday and you must be so in tune with your body that you innately know the risks. But the physical is also challenging the boundaries of what is possible, balancing on the edge of achieving the sublime or total body destruction. And isn’t that why we are here? Like the ever-expanding universe, circus is constantly pushing limits and establishing new boundaries, only to repeat again and again.

This is one of the ways that Balancing On The Edge is important curated work by Rebecca Leonard of A Girl In The Sky Productions. Leonard considers what it is to teeter between life and death. She doesn’t just stay within the confines of what is instinctively apparent but transcends the question into the artistic practice and the content of work. Leonard has collaborated with Thin Edge New Music Collective (TENMC), a group creating a new frontier for musical soundscapes, to pair 6 contemporary composers with six groups of circus artists selected for their ability to destabilize convention. The program features four previously composed 20th and 21st century contemporary music pieces and two world premiere compositions by Toronto based composer Nick Storring and California based composer, Scott Rubin. The pairing of artists was done based on artistic practices that compliment each other with the intent to create through true collaboration. Consider it like chemistry: the individual units create something that was impossible on their own. Unlike chemistry, the reactions and product are not the same even when matching the same pair together over and over again.

The creation of art is something that can be anticipated but not planned. All of the Balancing On The Edge artists will create work, this is know, but it can’t be foreseen as to what will be created. With over 30 years of creation experience, Leonard selected artists with the capacity to challenge artistry and performance design. Typically in the creation process, there is wavering between the project being exceptional and being utter drivel. Good art, in my opinion, has tension, which comes from the artistic practice and intent. Brandy Leary, artistic director of Anandam Dancetheatre and a Balancing on the Edge artist, has this in spades with an artistic practice that tears down structure. And Emmanuel Cyr, who’s artistic practice focuses on how to communicate, also hangs in a limbo of balance. Cyr is paired in a unit with performer Louis Barbier and composer Scott Rubin, who is creating a score based on communication through technology. Exploring impact of action, the mover influences how the score is interpreted through improvisation. Each performance of this act has the potential to be vastly different.

Frequently overlooked, specifically because of the difficulty in training, is providing content in work. Circus comes from an oral tradition where secrecy allowed for a significant barrier to enter the industry. Now, the tide has shifted, but the tradition of secrecy has caused aerial to be about a beautiful body in the air. Including subversive or political subject matter has not been a consistent circus focus until relatively recently. However, the Balancing On The Edge acts are taking serious subject matters, like the risk of cycling and motherhood, into the realm of circus. Ghost Bicycle, a performance by Leonard and Natasha Danchenko, shows the fragility of humanity, be it by riding a bike or being on their custom-made aerial bicycle, and how we are only here for a brief moment, filling it with love and fear, and facing the inevitability of the human condition: death. Aria & Fontana, an original performance by soprano, Stacie Dunlop and circus artists: Angola Murdoch of Lookup Theatre and Holly Treddenick of Femme Du Feu, looks at the other end of the spectrum: birth. By analyzing motherhood, which is infusing a profound love with the insanity of sleep deprivation, it brings light to the constant struggle of an artistic career and the care of a child. This is a role of art: to increase awareness while using artistic technique. For circus, it does come in the form of the spectacle, defying gravity, but it is so much more.

While flying and defeating gravity may be the initial element that ensnares audiences, the balance that is found in circus, or any art, and the challenges that it provides continue to captivate the crowd. The constant work of the artists in Balancing On The Edge is a beautiful example of Leonard bringing complexity and elegance to this under supported art form. So face your fear and fall into this night of exquisite insight.


A writer by trade, Mary-Margaret has worked in a variety of sectors such as finance, technology and publishing. In addition, she is a circus performer who has trained in Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and the US. Recently, Scrimger cofounded www.akhilandacollaborative.com.