CircusFest, The Place, London
As the visibility of circus as an art form increases, it has also begun to come under increased critical scrutiny for the themes, content and messages it puts out into the world. Eyebrows have been raised about the roles of and for women in contemporary circus performance, and in particular the dialogues and perceived power dynamics to be found within the choreographic relationship of male/female adagio hand to hand pair.
Articles and thought pieces have been produced critiquing the reliance on reductive gendered representations, worrisome tropes of passive womanhood and troublesome depictions of ‘consent’. In their work Knot, acrobats Nikki Rummer and JD Brousse show that the alternatives are not only possible, they are exquisite.
After having seen some of the development of this work at Jacksons Lane in 2016, I knew roughly what to expect: a typical boy/girl romance which slowly unravels to reveal the truth of the relationship status between the two artists, and the full length work has evolved this beautifully into an honest, heartfelt and emotional narrative about the difficulties of finding love, of the pressure of romantic expectation, of coming out, of the stigma of ‘spinsterhood’, and of making peace with the transitory nature of even the deepest and most trusted of connections.
Nikki and JD are exceptional physical artists and have achieved one of the most successful fusions of dance and hand to hand I have seen thus far. The integration of the technical circus into the movement language is seamless – there are no preps, no ‘hups’, no presents, only choreography which is evocative, accessible without being too literal and – most importantly – conspicuously ‘equal’.
Weight is shared, contact is distributed, physicality is not oversexualised, and lifting and support are not stand-ins for masculine prowess or feigned feminine fragility. When the moments of astonishing, recognisable hand to hand moments appear it is difficult for the audience to know whether to applaud for them or not, but their technical level and flawless execution serve as a reminder that these artists are operating at a top level in both movement and circus.
The fusion of text into the work is also well integrated, and serves to make the show understandable, relatable and accessible, pushing the themes to the fore. The biographical stories about the difficulties of negotiating complicated human connections in a world which is still primarily concerned with straight romance and happily ever after is touching and relevant. Sometimes these sections seem a tad ‘acted’, but the overall honesty of the portrayal and the physical embodiment of these truths, for me, more than make up for some lines and responses feeling a little rehearsed.
Ultimately, Knot can be seen as a triumph of what can be achieved within contemporary circus when it refuses to bow to expectations, or to take the easy way out. It would have been easier to pretend to be in love, to replicate the technical presentations of the past, to perform heteronormativity, and to conceal the difficulties of the truth. By stepping out from behind the mask of decades of how we understand the male/female acro pair, Nikki and JD are giving us all permission to be more authentic in our own life narratives.