In: Performance Art

It is important to start off the conversation about what circus art is by actually going back to the birth of the circus. Different from other artistic practices like ballet, theater and opera, circus never had a definitive history. It was always told as a tale from one artist to the other, with press agents spreading facts and stories between people rather than physically documented. There’s a controversial notion that circus came from the Ancient Roman times, though it can also be claimed that the only similarity to Ancient Rome is the word circus, which in both Latin and English means “circle.” Though I leave that debate untouched, perhaps it is necessary to note a fine line between public-driven acts of circus artists and Roman gladiators.

Etching of Philip Astley, artist unknown (c.1800) — National Portrait Gallery, Heinz Archive and Library, Reference Collection (London)

Etching of Philip Astley, artist unknown (c.1800) — National Portrait Gallery, Heinz Archive and Library, Reference Collection (London)

Modern circus, as we all know it, was born in England. One of a few accurate facts in the history of the circus is that in 1769 Philip Astley, a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman, bought a property near the Westminster Bridge in London and constructed the very first circus building – The New British School or Amphitheater Riding Ring. The first performance took place in 1770 and was a tremendous success. Interestingly enough, in the beginning Astley was the performer himself, adding later on his wife and children to the act. However, 1770 is the date that marks the first full circus performance with acrobats, clowns, and other artists all in one performance as a theatrical act. It was never called circus though, the name came around only in 1782. Before the beginning of the 19th century, circus was introduced both to King Louis XV in Fontainebleau and Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg. Circus arts have existed over time but it wasn’t until Astley when the modern circus was born—the circus we all are so used to today.

Being essentially an act of performance, circus is not struggled by language barriers or cultural misunderstandings. It’s easily understandable and transportable to other countries with large successes in multiple locations. Once circus companies started embarking on tours showcasing new programs and performances, its popularity quickly rose.

Flipping through a few centuries and coming to today’s time, it is imperative to note a few trends, or should I say, positive changes happening in the circus world. After decades of slowing down its growth, circus arts have regained their initial strength. As for today, a number of world companies are performing innovative acts that challenge the very definition of the circus. What is a performance? In fact, one starts to look at circus with absolutely different eyes. It’s becoming no longer just a place to bring your kids, but also a theatrical event, climbing to the level of a play with a certain acrobatic involvement.

The Nouveau Cirque, also called Contemporary Circus, was first formed in France in the 1970s. This new type of a circus performance, or dramatic show, has a theme or concept behind it. The involvement of animals is no longer necessary. What we see is a play, with a story, music, and dance. Of course there are also clown performances, but again they are essentially different to those we saw before. No longer is it low-base humor, but rather ironic and more sophisticated. The Nouveau Circus is as much for kids as it is for adults. More so, each age group sees and understands performances in their own way, reflecting on them after watching one, not just blindly forgetting about an act after it’s done. The circus since then became essentially a high quality performance, rather than a “bread and spectacle” show.

Here is the list of our top ten international circuses:

  1. Cirque du Soleil (Canada)
    Cirque du Soleil, Photo Still from Amaluna Show. Courtesy of Daily Mail

    Cirque du Soleil, Photo Still from Amaluna Show. Courtesy of Daily Mail

    The biggest circus performance company in the world and the one to establish the Nouveau Cirque on the international level, Cirque du Soleil was founded in Canada by Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier in 1984. The key feature of The Circus of the Sun is that animals were never used in any performance. In fact, that was what made the company so different from others back in time. A show is often based on a tradition of a musical or opera, never stopping the action for even a second. Music is one of the most important tools during Cirque du Soleil performances in obtaining the groundbreaking effect on the audience.

  2. New Shanghai Circus
    New Shanghai Circus. Courtesy of gurtmanandmurtha.com

    New Shanghai Circus. Courtesy of gurtmanandmurtha.com

    The Acrobats of China as they are often called, the New Shanghai Circus features one of the best groups of acrobats in the world. Established back in 1949, the circus tries to make a link between traditional Chinese acrobatic techniques and modern technology.

  3. Circus Oz of Australia
    Circus Oz, Michael Ling in Circus Oz. Courtesy of Theater Mania

    Circus Oz, Michael Ling in Circus Oz. Courtesy of Theater Mania

    Circus Oz was established in Melbourne, Australia, in 1978, when two already successful Australian circus companies, Soapbox Circus and the New Circus, decided to merge together. Similar to Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz produces animal-free shows with an effort to communicate a traditional spirit of native Australia: “collective ownership and creation, gender equity, a uniquely Australian signature and team-work.”

  4. ROSGOSCIRK (Russian State Circus Company)
    Rosgoscirk. Courtesy of izvestia.ru

    Rosgoscirk. Courtesy of izvestia.ru

    The Russian State Company is the largest circus company in the world, encompassing 42 circuses across Russia. Established in 1919, the company redesigned over time due to political and social changes facing Russia in the 20th century. Nowadays, Rosgoscirk focuses on developing circus dynasties that are the stars of any arena. Though not being animal-free in its productions, the Company goes hand-in-hand with contemporary development in the circus-performance field. One of the new features is the annual international circus award—Master—established in 2015. Master is the only circus art award in the world that is presented by means of online voting and international expert council in 14 categories.

  5. Big Apple Circus
    Big Apple Circus, "Step Right Up!" Show, 2007. Courtesy of www.onstageboston.com

    Big Apple Circus, “Step Right Up!” Show, 2007. Courtesy of www.onstageboston.com

    Big Apple Circus, voted the most famous one in America, was founded in 1977 by two jugglers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen. It was primarily crated as a non-for-profit arts institution. Even though showcasing more traditional performances compared to other circus companies on the list, the Big Apple Circus is one of the leading performance companies in the world, presenting their own twist on classic, employing custom music and costumes.

“There are thousands of ways to approach music,” we are told as we venture into the basement of La Gaîté Lyrique, towards the extraordinary augmented and electronic noise of Paris Musique Club. This is an audiovisual exhibition that dismantles and rebuilds the traditional idea of just listening to music. The notion of ‘approaches’ to music immediately implies the potentially varying experiences we can have as listeners, suggesting that there is more than just listening involved. Parisian label Scale, who were given carte blanche to produce the exhibition, make a sonic-visual collision the focal point of the show. The exhibition gains a lot from it’s surprising smallness in both number of works (6) and spatial scope, giving each intricate piece the space to explore ideas of listening, viewing and performing.

Paris_club_2

First, 1020s: a fusion of classical music – Ravel’s ’Bolero’ – with contemporary, CGI visuals projected onto a large structure resembling in equal parts an iceberg and an orchestral pit (a nice shout out to ‘Bolero’s’ roots if intentional). The experience is enticingly immersive, requiring spectators to put on headphones which block out about 80% of the outside noise and lets you just float along. What you see on the iceberg are light projections in various structures, colours and patterns, these being the visual counterparts of ‘Bolero’ that have been meticulously translated by numeric formula. ‘Bolero’ is therefore rejigged as 1020s retains the original music but presents an alternative way of experiencing the score through the audiovisual. The new dimension that is added to the classical in 1020s renders you both the traditional ‘listener’ and, newly, the ‘viewer’. Note, if you are one of those people who thinks classical music is boring, then this might change your mind.

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Résistance and Playground together extend the roles of ‘listener’ and ‘viewer’ to include ‘performer’. Résistance, a self-playing piano which allows you to tweak its pre-installed melodies, also permits you to play it normally with the addition of an enormous network of tubes illuminated with various colours depending on the note. Watching people play is fascinating, looking back and forth between tubes and piano as if cracking a code. Even an adept pianist finds himself flummoxed by the connection between the notes and their colour responses. The new dimension that is given to this traditional instrument is clearly difficult to navigate as the seasoned player stumbles over his fingers, unable to immediately find the biting point between his roles as ‘listener’, ‘viewer’ and ‘performer’.  This performative element is important as it helps you play an active role in your understanding of Scale’s multi-dimensional musical space, suggesting that it is equally as important as listening and viewing. Indeed, Scale’s decision to stress the importance 0f performance in an approach to music as a listener provides you with a fresh understanding of sounds as you are producing. What’s more, you are struck by the sense of music’s universality: no-one really knows how to play it and so no-one is too self-conscious to try it out. 

Paris_club_4

In a similar way, Playground lets you play an enormous (36) set of drums by stepping on any combination of 16 pads, each corresponding with the self-playing drums which also feature a visual element in trippy abstract graphics that are projected onto the skins. Whether you are a kid storming gung-ho onto the mats or an adult with a slightly more methodical approach, everyone is trying to get their head around how to engage with this ‘uncanny drum kit’ that they only at least partially understand. And what is so brilliant about it is that gung-ho or methodical, either approach is totally acceptable, living up to its namesake Playground.

What is so appealing about this show is the almost unhindered allowance of interaction with the works. At only one point does an invigilator make a somewhat perfunctory intervention to encourage some kids not to jump “too hard”. This free reign provides an atmosphere that lets you approach the installations as you wish, guiding you to the ultimate revelation that the ideas of viewing and performing are just as important as listening. This contemporary concept of music references the prominence of electronically produced sounds in composition today, an approach governed by interdisciplinary approaches spanning computing, maths and visual arts to name a few. And with its crossing of both disciplines and listener roles, Paris Musique Club ultimately achieves the expression of music’s contemporary universality. We discover that we are truly an integral part of the music, both in the show and beyond.

Paris Musique Club is running at La Gaîté Lyrique until 31st January 2016. More information here.

When you ask Americans what’s the first association that pops into their heads when they think about Austria, the “Sound of Music”, with its singing nuns and melancholic captains, probably comes up first. At least every American I ever talked to got pretty excited by the sheer thought of Maria and the children and the bikes and the curtains. The movie was shot on location in Salzburg, Austria, and ever since then, casts it’s shadow over the romantic little town. Buses loaded with hundreds of tourists are guided around the city each day to visit the original shooting locations – Sing Alongs included. Well, who wouldn’t love the opportunity to dance in the gazebo like Liesl and Kurt or ride a bike through the gardens of Schloss Mirabell?

Salzburg’s tourism, however, has profited immensely from the popularity of the movie. But the picturesque, and sometimes – with its clean roads and neatly renovated houses – even fake looking little town, has more to offer. Especially in the summer. Once you’ve seen and heard enough of Mozart and the “hills, that are alive”, you can experience top-notch quality – if you’ve got the “small change”.

Salsburg FestivalThe Salzburg Festival, one of the biggest festivals for classical music, opera and theatre in the world, takes place July and August every year. It gives the culture vultures out there the chance to experience the highest form of culture (and the highest ticket prices) – whereas I got the chance to work there this year. It was an overall exciting time, meeting great artists, actors, directors and a whole crazy bunch of energetic culture freaks. What does one get to see there? Opera (lot’s of it), classical concerts (just as much) and theatre productions. This year, 14 locations around the city were used to stage 188 performances for 262.893 visitors from around the world. But that’s enough with the numbers. What you actually get to experience are plays directed by the most renowned directors of our time like Deborah Warner or Peter Stein, opera stars such as Anna Netrebko or Placido Domingo and musical highlights with solo concerts by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma. Quite impressive stuff. But, as you might imagine reading those big names, the festival is clearly not for everybody. The tickets cost on average 130€, the highest prices ranging around 430€ per ticket. These prices mirror the audience that pays them.

Each night, but especially on premiere nights, luxurious limousines drive up in front of the festival hall and sometimes ravishingly, sometimes not so ravishingly dressed people make their way to the entrance gate. Pictures are being taken and hands shaken. These people are usually quite wealthy and make sure everybody sees that. Whereas many locals have never even attended the festival, also because they can’t afford to. Just as most Austrians haven’t seen “The Sound of Music”, by the way (sorry to disappoint you).

Getting the chance to catch an overall glimpse by working in the production drama office, the summerly happenings in Salzburg reminded me of a circus of the rich and beautiful. But this, nevertheless, should not distract from the fine artistic quality and the cultural delights that are being offered. This year, it was for example Mozart’s opera “Le nozze di Figaro”, Shakespeare’s “Comedy of errors” or Wolfgang Rhim’s modern opera “Die Eroberung von Mexiko” – which was a hit with the critics as well as the audience.

Another great highlight is the annual performance of “Jedermann”, an everyman-play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who, together with director Max Reinhardt and composer Richard Strauss, founded the festival in 1920. Since then, the play was performed every year (with a few exceptions, i.g. between 1938-45) on the Dome square, an open-air stage of its own kind. The atmosphere, when the sun begins to sink and dawn sets in, is magical. That’s what theatre is there for, those special moments.

Every day on my way to work, I could hear opera singers practicing behind open windows, trying to reach the highest note possible, saw actors all dressed up for “Mackie Messer”, an experimental version of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera”, linger around in the sun during their rehearsal breaks, and listened to theatre talk in every restaurant I ate in (especially the Triangel, the place to be for celebrity-sightings). All of this makes this festival truly special and one gets the feeling, that Salzburg, the provincial town in the Alps with its narrow streets, large squares, abbeys and churches, becomes the cultural centre of Europe, or maybe even the world, for those six weeks.

And as cliché as it might sound, the hills then really seem to be alive with the sound of music…

Recently, visiting the Five Myles gallery located on St Johns Place, just off of Franklin Ave, I witnessed a group of young musicians and visual artists converge on a singular opportunity to occupy a space, inviting the viewer to slip into an immersive audio-visual experience. At Five Myles, the group of artists behind the aptly named, “Ashcan Orchestra,” opened up the show; on the main-stage would be what the composer Jonah Rosenberg labeled as an “electro-acoustic chamber opera,” under the title of “Ode to Jackeen.”

Ode to Jackeen, Opera Singer

Ode to Jackeen, Opera Singer

The chamber opera, consisting of four musicians on various instruments, including percussion, flute, acoustic guitar and violin, combines the Ensemble Sans Maître, with the composer’s vision for a performance based on counter-cultural, beat author Kenneth Patchen’s “The Journal of Albion Moonlight.” But, you may ask, a bit facetiously, where does the opera come in? Well, accompanying this tribe of art school experimentalists is a singular feminine figure, tall, lithe and hauntingly evanescent; from this figure, the operatic tremolo issues, charging the entire piece with a shocking Gothic flare of tradition, in the service of a neo-expressionist cacophony. More on this later, but first to give a little more detail on the opening performance and the inspired Five Myles program that makes events like this possible.

Five Myles gallery, as they express in their mission statement online, works with the local community in midtown Brooklyn where they are situated. Local artists and musicians during the summer season are allowed to invade the gallery space with absolutely no charge, putting on unique, experimental performances, exhibits and concerts for anyone who shows up. This is something that they call the “Space Program,” and it was this program that brought this extraordinary group of young artists together.

Ashcan orchestra

Ashcan orchestra.

Now to go into further detail on the opening performance, the Ashcan Orchestra,” takes this traditional label at its very root, to orchestrate, what they achieve is a simultaneous orchestration of sound, light, rhythm and movement. In this performance one first encounters the totemic like structure that they’ve crafted for the show: a cubic piece, rising to around four feet constructed with wood, lights and wire. Around this structure the artists group themselves with a collection of bells, xylophones, toys and objects, and so the sound begins and the lights fire off on the totem like some monstrous traffic light given consciousness. Producing a panoply of dissonant chords, vibrations and notes they build the sound to moments of discomfort, shocking the listener as if to shatter an innocent moment of childhood nostalgia. The entire performance ripples with dreamlike incongruity and creates strange audio-visual combinations that both stimulate and unnerve the viewer, an experience that I highly recommend.

Following the Ashcan performance, there comes the next re-evaluation and subtle deconstruction of traditional highbrow elitist cultural music formats, this was witnessed in the “Ode to Jackeen.” The performance began and it was immediately clear that this was not going to be a smooth harmonic display, a display of virtuosity by the musicians, yes, but in dissonant chords and jarring climaxes where the instruments seemed to almost shriek and jabber in unison with the persona of Joe Bobo. Images were projected onto a screen doubling as backdrop and stage set, as the ensemble played around the poetry inspired by the composer channeling wild beat lyricism. But aside from this, constant bits of narrative interlude would fall into place between operatic bursts and the convulsive notes of the ensemble.

This is where my interest was piqued, for on the whole there was an abstract and almost universalizing quality to the piece that rendered impressions of inner psychic torment, the surreal torpor of unconscious dreamscapes. However, this use of a narrative overlay pulled the piece together and gave it a substantive ground and context. Then it came to me, before me was a necessary continuance of Dada Theater, the amalgam of Dada’s symbolist poetics and anarchic style, overlaid into the beat generation’s project, driven by a wild denunciation of bourgeois morals and restrictive normative codes. Originally, this anarchic theater that took confusion, irrationality and the de-hierarchizing of fine art, feeding directly into an epistemological crisis over what art could be and who was authorized to produce it, was born of post-war tension and trauma. Here, we see that war has continued by any other means, for now it is the war of the self against the socialized norms encoded within, psychic trauma writ large.

Ultimately, this particular muse from the beat generation emerges from Burroughs’ dark corridors of the movement, that prose which attempted to capture the raw reality of mid-twentieth American subjectivity, a subjectivity constantly put upon by an ever more institutionalized and bureaucratized social-landscape. Joe Bobo our hapless character within the narrative skit is a Kerouacian “dharma bum,” a “desolation angel” simply trying to get a meal, get some kicks and explore the American roadways, but he is beset upon by sinister and sterile medical personnel representing the terror of the juridico-medical discourse that labels and apprehends all those that do not conform to a call for ceaseless productivity and middle-class norms. In this way, the sublime crescendos of the ensemble become Bobo’s psychological discontent, his strange medicated visions, and distorted hysteric hallucinations made manifest. This is an authentic channeling of the beat project and a worthwhile experience, if the ensemble reunites make sure to be in the crowd.