Risky Business: A Journey into the Artistic Unknown

By: Jackie Houghton

There is a very negative connotation surrounding the word ‘risk’, but does there have to be? Any journey into unknown territory involves some element of risk. During Circus Sessions, artists come face-to-face with a variety of challenges that present new territory for exploration and growth, and of course, risk-taking.

“​A couple years ago I did a workshop and one of the questions asked was, ‘What is juggling’. It’s not a clear definition really. The conclusion we came up with was ‘the manipulation of objects with risk’. The same thing goes for any circus arts. Everybody has at least some kind of relationship with risk that is different from the general public,” says Kevin Chen, a juggler, who is participating in this year’s Circus Sessions. However, artistic risk-taking is a different endeavour for many circus artists who are used to the physical risks that are involved in most circus arts. Despite this, it is not something that is completely foreign to these performers. Take Toronto’s ‘Mighty Mike’ Johns for instance, a man who juggles bowling balls and sledgehammers, but also dances to K-Pop tunes as part of his classic strongman routine. “The light-hearted approach to strongman is a risk. Some audiences don’t get the joke. If they don’t get the joke form the start then I have to move on and change the whole show on the fly.” Johns says. Sometimes it takes a few brave artists to lay the groundwork for future performers to find success. “How do people appreciate the ironic take when they haven’t been exposed to it before. I want to expose them to this type of comedy, so maybe in the future they’ll be more open to it,” he adds.

For actor, clown and performer Christel Bartelese, putting it all out there is nothing new. In her one-woman shows Bartelese does it all. “If people like the show, the poster, the music, the writing, the producing it’s all on me. Even on stage and after the show, it’s just me and at the end of the day I leave the show and it’s just me. If I did a great job I pat myself on the back. If it wasn’t a great show, I cry in the corner by myself,” she says. For her, Circus Sessions is an adventure in trusting a new group of collaborators and a mentor she has never met before. “The challenges will be – and I assume – that everyone is an artist and a creator going into this project and with so many people with different backgrounds having someone else take the reigns is exciting. For once I don’t have to do all of that work and it’s on someone else’s shoulders!” Other artists involved echo this sentiment. “You have to be vulnerable and start from zero. You’re coming in as an experienced artist, but you’re also part of a machine that needs to work together in order for it to function. It’s not just about your own artistic practice, but everyone else’s and understanding that being open to risk is going to allow for so much more creativity to flow organically,” comments Britt Howlett, a dance trapeze artist from here in Toronto.

The man who will be shouldering the direction of Circus Sessions this year is world-renowned juggler, Sean Gandini. The mentor plays an important role in the residency and is the reason many performers decided to apply to take part in this process. Ty Vennewitz, a multi-talented performer based in Ashland, Oregon, says, “The thing that really drew me in was seeing Gandini’s name. I’m a big admirer of his work. He is known for beautiful and elaborate multi-person juggling patterns.” He adds, “I’m cool with going with the flow and working with different directors. My last show was a solo show. I’ve spent a lot of time in my own head over the past year so I’m looking forward to learning from a talented group of people.”

The pressure of developing and presenting a show in the span of a week is certainly a risk in and of itself. Most large-scale productions are in development for weeks and months before an audience sees the finished results. At Circus Sessions, artists must develop and rehearse their show in a mere five days. Even still, artists are excited for the opportunity and the challenge. “I feel it is less of a risk and more of an advantage. The pressure is off in the creation process. It’s liberating. You know the conditions are more unknown. The pressure to get everything perfect isn’t there. You allow chance. It’s lighter. It’s more responsive and human in a lot of ways,” says Chicago-based aerialist, Courtney Prokopas, of the tight timeline.

Femmes du Feu presents Circus Sessions as part of Harbourfront Centre’s NextSteps series on May 19–20, 2017 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.