(More than) Human? Staging Strategies in Contemporary Circus

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Charlène Dray, Nathalie Guimbretière: HIBRIDES, Screenshot of a Video © Agathe Catel

(More than) Human? Staging Strategies in Contemporary Circus

Franziska Trapp

The force of art is precisely that it is more than human.1

In the last few decades, the non-human turn2 has entered into the Arts and Humanities. It is considered “as a new paradigm of occidental thought”3 and includes numerous currents such as New Materialism, Speculative Realism, Animal Studies or Posthumanism. They all share an interest – as opposed to the dominance of anthropocentric perspectives – in focusing on non-human entities, processes, the capacity to act and performativity. If you take a look at the current circus scene, it becomes clear that this rethinking is in no way limited to the academic world, but also takes place in (and in an interaction with) the artistic world.4

  1. Human and nonhuman in (contemporary) circus

What Erin Manning generally formulates in her article “Artfulness” for the arts – „The force of art is precisely that it is more than human.“5 – especially applies to the circus. Circus is more than human in that every circus discipline is fundamentally based on the interaction between human and nonhuman agents6. In this case, nonhuman principal agents are understood to be both objects (for example, juggling balls), technologies, equipment (for example, the trapeze) and animals, as well as powers (for example, gravity). It is only in combination with these nonhuman entities that performing circus disciplines is even possible. But although the interaction between human and nonhuman principal agents is fundamental, so that you could define it as a relational art form7, circus performances are not per se part of the nonhuman turn.

On the contrary: traditional circus propagates the unusual heroic abilities of humans – among others, with the help of a Babylonian program structure that orders the elements according to a level of difficulty and the aesthetics of risk via drum rolls and a three-time failure of tricks.8 It can also be seen as a symbol for anthropocentrism.

In contemporary circus, which has been entering into the international art and theater landscape since the end of the 1990s, we are confronted with a paradox in this context: a mastery of the equipment is the prerequisite for critically examining this mastery.9 So if you assume that contemporary circus pieces can be classified as pieces of the nonhuman turn, then the actual change in the relation of the human and nonhuman entities in comparison to traditional circus is not in focus, but rather the change in the staging of this relation; it invites the recipients to change their perspective.

  1. Staging strategies for nonhuman agents

The strategies that are used in contemporary circus in order to subvert the anthropocentric telos are manifold, thus only exemplary insights are possible in this context:

For example, in the pieces by the companies Hors Systèmes, Baro D‘Evel and Cie Sacekripa, they have specialized in the implementation of animals/pets. In contrast to traditional circus pieces, in these performances the animals are offered a stimulating environment that they can react to (if they so please). The recipients watch events that remain mostly unforeseeable.

Jugglers such as Julian Vogel in “China Series”, Darragh Mc Laughlin in “Stickman”, Andrea Salustri in “Materia”, Benjamin Richter in “TAKTiL” and Müller & Müller in “OI+IO” place their focus on nonhuman performers/objects in their work. Their pieces are based on extensive material research (among them, porcelain, wood, styrofoam) that are enriched by the exhibition formats. So, for example, in Julian Vogel’s “China Series #5”, plates that are screwed together like diabolos, on long strings from right to left across the stage. Vogel stays in the background (as the puppeteer). The focus is directed to the quality of movement and the specific materiality of the objects, which varies according to the form and size of the dishes. Rolling, crashing, bursting – the diversity of the materials’ behavior gives the objects almost anthropomorphic characteristics.

This is a strategy that is carried ad absurdum in “Tank and me” by Francesca Hyde. In the dialogue with Tank, a water canister that serves as her counterweight in her discipline of hair hanging, the anthroporphization of the nonhuman entity is the central instrument of the piece.

The use of nature as a performance space is the core strategy for companies such as La Migration or Barcode Circus Company. In their site-specific performances, the natural surroundings (for example, the forest, ocean…) are included as inherently performative. Natural powers, such as the wind, are used as central elements to create meaning, instead of negating them. You can often even find this strategy in digital circus formats and photographs10 such as “Cirque Hors Piste” (2016), “Un horizon vertical” (2007), “Naturally” (2015) and “The Quarry Project” (2019).

In addition, the demarcation of distributive agency (with the help of a specific rigging that places the focus on forces in effect during vertical cloth acrobatics) offers the possibility of a non-anthropocentric reception of “Fractales”11 by Cie Libertivore.

  1. Conclusion. Circus as a perception tool

Despite the diversity of the staging strategies, the pieces mentioned have one thing in common: they challenge us to expand our thought to include beings, things and objects that had previously been ignored as active agents and to reject any a priori ontological assumptions of human superiority. In this process, not only is a development from an anthropocentric to a new materialistic circus recognizable, but also a change in the self-understanding of circus itself. While traditional circus celebrated the unusual abilities and powers of human beings – especially during the period of the industrial revolution as a high point of anthropocentrism and of circus – contemporary circus pieces are based on a self-understanding of being a critical and political art form.12 In this context, the circus (as well as theater forms that are devoted to the nonhuman turn) is understood as a means with which different future worlds can be presented,13 in order to stimulate an ecological rethinking. With this understanding, contemporary circus functions as a perception apparatus,14 on which basis a sensitivity for nonhuman agency and a change of perspective on the world could be developed. Circus pieces of the nonhuman turn invite us to a heuristic experiment that is not only relevant for the pieces’ reception, but also for watching performances in general: How does our gaze shift and what new results do we attain by observing performances when we do so on the basis of the agency of objects and apparatuses?15

1 Parts of this article were published in Trapp, Franziska: “(De)Center. Zum non-human turn im Zeitgenössischen Zirkus.“ In: THEWIS 2022.
2 Manning, Erin: „Artfulness“, in: Grusin, Richard A. (Hg): The nonhuman turn. Minneapolis 2015, S. 65.
3 Grusin, Richard A. (Hg.): The nonhuman turn. Minneapolis 2015.
4 Folkers, Andreas: „Was ist neu am neuen Materialismus? Von der Praxis zum Ereignis“. In: Goll, Tobias/ Keil, Daniel/Telios, Thomas (Hg.): Critical Matter. Diskussionen eines neuen Materialismus. Münster 2013. S. 17–35, S. 17.
5 Manning, E.: “Artfulness”.
6 Ebd., S. 65.
7 This is not only true for the circus. Human agency, Bennett argues, is always based on a network of human and nonhuman agents: “There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore.” Bennett, J.: Vibrant matter. A political ecology of things. Durham 2010, p. 31.
8 Vgl. Focquet, Vincent: Withdrawal to a Humble Circus. Three Careful Dramaturgical Tactics. Ghent 2019, S. 8.
9 On the aesthetics of risk, see Trapp, Franziska: Lektüren des Zeitgenössischen Zirkus. Berlin 2020; Tait, Peta: “Risk, Danger and Other Paradoxes in Circus and Circus Oz Parody.” in: Tait, Peta/Lavers, Katie (eds.): The Routledge Circus Studies Reader. New York, London 2016. pp. 528-545.
10 Vgl. Lavers, Katie/ Leroux, Louis Patrick/ Burtt John (Hg.): Contemporary circus. Abingdon 2019, S. 9.
11 For a detailed analysis, see Trapp, Franziska: “From the Swiss Alpes to the Volcanic Beaches of the Canary Islands - Agencies in Site-Specific Circus Performances,”
https://cccirque.hypotheses.org/579 (accessed Jan. 27, 2022).
12 Cie Libertivore: „Fractales“, https://www.libertivore.fr/fractales-1 (Zugriff am 27.1.2021).
13 On the difference between the traditional, the new, and the contemporary circus in this regard, see Trapp, Franziska: Lektüren des Zeitgenössischen Zirkus.
14 Vgl. Lavery, Carl: „Introduction: performance and ecology – what can theatre do?“. In: Green Letters 20 (2016) H. 3, S. 229–236, S. 233.
15 Drawing on Barad, Bleeker argues for an understanding of artworks as perceptual apparatuses (thought-apparatuses). Bleeker, Maaike, “Spectators Called to Thought. Theatrical Performance as Thought Apparatus.” Public Lecture. Antwerp 2021 (= Visual Poetics Invites... Nonhuman Performativity: Theories, Practices, Methodologies).

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