The following post is an essay assignment for the first module of the inaugural DOCH online research course into contemporary circus. Exploring the question, ‘What is circus?‘, we were invited to investigate contextual understanding through conversation with a circus artist and their experience of the industry…
Earlier this week, I attended an Open Space discussion forum for the UK circus industry and heard a voice advocating that people making work should also be seeing work, as this broadening of perspectives is what builds a confident understanding of quality. The voice belonged to Gwen Hales, who describes herself as, ‘a semi-retired aerialist learning how to be a circus director’.
Gwen has worked in circus since 1998 and considers her career fairly unusual, having comfortably moved through the gamut of circus contexts. An early interest in physical performance led to an education in dance, gymnastics and theatre. A chance meeting in a pub produced a job as general assistant with aerial theatre company Exponential, where she began learning trapeze, technical production skills and the practicalities of touring a show.
Gwen then trained at Circomedia, where flying teacher Mike Wright’s connections led her to graduate into the trad world and tour for 5-6 years performing aerial acts including cradle, silks, rope and trapeze. As the corporate market began to blossom following visibility sprung from the Millennium Dome project, she found herself selling mostly silks routines and, when the business began to ‘eat her soul’, started working in street theatre and local cabarets to offset the corporate gloss and polish. Most recently, she was part of the original Pirates of the Carabina company, devising and performing in Flown, and was Aerial Director for the West End production of Hetty Feather (now touring nationally).
Gwen is quick to acknowledge that the way she describes circus depends on who she’s talking to but, were she to be confronted by a Martian, it would be something like, ‘watching people do amazing things intentionally for an audience’. Within circus, she sees that two skills are required: physical technique, and the ability to entertain with that technique. ‘People who know circus can be impressed more by one or the other, but neither is right or wrong.’
Gwen Hales as ‘Gloria’ in Pirates Of the Carabina’s ‘Flown’
Gwen says that over time she has moved from the first to the second form of appreciation, but that when she creates work she is still looking to create ‘the wow’ first and foremost. We get to discussing whether this will also evolve as, at the moment, she is just starting out on a director’s path. Perhaps we have seen this pattern of shifting focus in other countries that have been exploring the field for longer than we in the UK?
Shows that have particularly inspired Gwen have been those revealing new mechanical possibilities for staging circus. She mentions the circular flying trapeze rig of cirkVOST as one of her ‘Oh, you can do THAT!’ moments, as well as seeing Tuig’s Salto Vitale and Odd Enjinears’ Splatter, Rope, Time & Poles at Stockton International River Festival in 2005. Her broad background in performance styles allows her to be quite open to the forms circus work can take, as long as it has ‘some element of manipulation or fantastic movement that goes beyond dance.’ There is no show that stands out in her memory as having been ‘incorrectly labelled’.
Finally, Gwen tries to place her finger on the common factors between her work and that of other circus artists or performers (the question of whether there is a distinction between ‘artist’ and ‘performer’, based on ownership of a creative concept, is outside the scope of this assignment, but provoked further interesting discussion). She talks about the long-term time commitment required to learn and maintain a skill before ever approaching performance possibilities, and also the intention of one day presenting the skills in public display.
Her conclusion is that circus work shares an intense physical practice that, (separate to dance, whose primary intention is expression) is grounded in the intention of creating ‘a wow’.
An important part of the online module is discussion, sharing experiences to explore possibilities of a common language for circus as it exists in all its forms today.
If you have your own responses to any of the following questions, do feed them in below!
Have you ever seen a performance that made you reconsider what circus is?
Have you ever seen a performance that was billed as circus which you thought should have been defined as something else?
How do you describe circus to other people?
What are the common elements between your own artistic practice in the circus field, and that of your peers?