From the Swiss Alps to the Volcanic Beaches of the Canary Island – Agencies in Site-specific Contemporary Circus Performances, Franziska Trapp

Intervention de Franziska Trapp

This article is a partial result of a larger research project funded by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.

Laissez-moi vous inviter à un spectacle que vous n’avez jamais vu. Un voyage à l’intérieur du cirque d’aujourd’hui, à la rencontre d’une génération d’artistes hors du commun. Nourris par la danse, le théâtre ou l’art contemporain ils ont inventé un nouvel espace de création hors du chapiteau […]. Préparez-vous à passer de l’autre côté du miroir. Là, où les circassien·ne·s vous dévoilent leur secret. (my emphasis)

Argillet, N. and N. Radvanyi, prod. 2016. Cirque Hors Piste. Documentary Film. Programm33/Arte France. 

The documentary film Cirque Hors Piste (2016), produced by Nicos Argillet and Netty Radvanyi in coproduction with ARTE, begins with these words, reminding us of the ringmaster of the traditional circus, who announces a spectacular show that stages the human being “in a relationship of supremacy and dominance over the objects in the ring”1. What is presented instead is a new self-conception of circus “in which the human deliberately vacates their dominant position to seek out a more deferential relationship to the circus object.”2 Decisive for this new reading of contemporary circus performance is not only the change in how the objects and apparatuses are used in training, creation and performance, but also the use of site-specific venues. Stunning mountains, beautiful deserts, torrential rivers – these natural territories are no longer exceptional performance spaces for circus but are regularly seen in documentaries, short films and photographs – pieces of art, which Guy defines as “digital circus”3. With the help of technology, this sub genre of contemporary circus is able to showcase circus disciplines in places that would be impossible for live shows. Within these digital circus performances, the natural territories not only serve as beautiful backgrounds for spectacular tricks, but are a decisive means to construct meaning, reflecting the current turn from an anthropocentric worldview to a new materialistic approach. In essence, new materialism postulates the idea that all matter is “agential ” and that agency is distributed across and among materials, both human and nonhuman.4 The most far-reaching consequence of this idea for performance analysis lies in the questioning of a concept in which “living humans [are considered] to be the only agents with their fingers on the puppet strings of otherwise inanimate objects and otherwise inanimate people – not the other way around. […] But the ‘other way around’ perspective is at least in part what the new materialism is re-evaluating”.5.

©Magali Bazi

Taking the scenes that capture Yohann Bourgeois’ trampoline jumping in an old ruin as an example for the overall semiotic strategy of Cirque Hors Piste, the importance of the cinematic montage directing the recipient’s reading of the presented discipline becomes evident. In this portrait, the natural environment is over-exaggerated. Yohann Bourgeois performs trampoline jumping in front of a clear blue sky underlined by the backlight of the setting sun. Close-ups and camera tracking shots emphasize the expanse of the surrounding area. The human-made buildings and objects that are visible at times appear old and conquered by the forces of nature (e.g. ruins). The circus apparatus, the trampoline, is invisible most of the time. If it is shown, it appears from a low angle so that its white color merges with the environment.

The dominant focus on natural landscapes, the specificity of site, presented in Cirque hors piste makes recipients take a nonhuman-centered stance, which allows “fresh and potentially valuable perspectives on human/more than human interdependency to emerge”6. Despite underlining the “biological superiority”7 of the artists – their superpower and their extraordinary effort to learn circus techniques –  the naturality of the movements is highlighted by the montage. Even more, the movements are staged as being only executable in cooperation with natural forces. Vitality or agentic properties are ascribed to the surrounding territory – not only because of the visible impact of nature (weather and seasons) on the staged objects but also due to the focus on natural forces. In the extract of this work by Yohann Bourgeois, the omnipresence of the wind, which might be natural or generated by wind machines, catches one’s eye. The use of wind underlines the impact of gravity on the movement. Gravity is not staged as the adversary of the artist, as something that has to be battled, but makes the movement possible in the first place. This impression is reinforced by linguistic means, which are presented in the form of an interview with the artist himself: “laissez faire le mouvement”, “un instant pour s’abandonner”, “Est-ce qu’on peut faire autre chose que tomber?”, “force élémentaire”, “Se mettre en rapport avec ses forces ce n’est pas pour minimiser la place de l’homme, c’est au contraire parce que dans cette perspective je trouve notre humanité beaucoup plus bouleversante”. 

In Cirque hors Piste, the natural venue doesn’t only serve as a beautiful background for impressive circus tricks but is also a means to reframe circus practice while developing “ecological paradigms that move beyond ideas of human stewardship of the environment, dissolving distinctions between (human) subject and (nonhuman) object, between internal and external”8.

Cirque hors Piste is only one example of many digital circus performances using natural territories in order to direct a specific reading of the presented circus discipline. In the documentary film Un horizon vertical (2007), performed by Marie-Anne Michel and produced by Raphael Peaud, a Chinese Pole is placed in the Tunisian desert. In Naturally (2015), the photographer Bertil Nilsson went into the wilderness to create spontaneous performances in collaboration with male dancers and acrobats. In the Quarry Project (2019), the photographer and circus artist Einar King Odenkrants captured the graduation act of CIE Analogue Acrobatics in wild and rough Swedish landscapes. What unites these examples is the fact that the decision to perform in a natural territory is not only aesthetic but has a political dimension. The artists position themselves within the current political discourses on climate catastrophes and sustainability. Nature is not staged in opposition to the artists: It is not about the artist’s dominance over natural forces or their supernatural powers. What is underlined instead is the entanglement of humans and nature. Using this semantic strategy, these self-portraits express the political impact and social responsibility of contemporary circus as an artform in the 21st century. In times of striking questions about how we should or should not use natural resources (e.g. Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future), the new materialistic analysis of circus performances reveals the changing perception of our human relation to objects which is not any more based on the dominance of the human body, but rather in interplay with surrounding territories. The present research thereby not only contributes to circus studies but also provides general insights concerning the place of human beings in the material world.

References

  • Argillet, N. and N. Radvanyi, prod. 2016. Cirque Hors Piste. Documentary Film. Programm33/Arte France. 

  • Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Bouissac, P. 1976. Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Coole, D.H. and S. Frost, eds. 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Donald, M. 2014. “Entided, Enwateredm, Enwinded: Human/More-than-Human Agencies in Site-specific Performance.” In Performing objects and theatrical things, M. Schweitzer and J. Zerdy, eds. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Focquet, V. 2020. “Towards a humble circus.” In Thinking through Circus, B. Lievens and S. Kann, eds. (p. 42–53). Ghent: KASK Conservatorium.

  • Guy, J.-M. 2015. “Circus does not exist: Lecture at the international conference ‘Semiotics of the Circus’.” Muenster.

  • Lievens, B. 2017. Between Being and Imagining I: First Open Letter to the Circus. http://sideshow-circusmagazine.com/being-imaging/letter-redefine (accessed 29.09.17).Schneider, R. 2015. “New Materialisms and Performance Studies.” TDR: The Drama Review, Vol. 59, no 4, p. 7–17.
  1. Lievens, B. 2017. Between Being and Imagining I: First Open Letter to the Circus.(accessed 29.09.17). []
  2. Focquet, V. 2020. “Towards a humble circus.” In Thinking through Circus, B. Lievens and S. Kann, eds. (p. 42–53). Ghent: KASK Conservatorium. p. 45 []
  3. Guy, J.-M. 2015. “Circus does not exist: Lecture at the international conference ‘Semiotics of the Circus’.” Muenster. []
  4. Coole, D.H. and S. Frost, eds. 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ; Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press. []
  5. Schneider, R. 2015. “New Materialisms and Performance Studies.” TDR: The Drama Review, Vol. 59, no 4, p. 7–17. []
  6. Donald, M. 2014. “Entided, Enwateredm, Enwinded: Human/More-than-Human Agencies in Site-specific Performance.” In Performing objects and theatrical things, M. Schweitzer and J. Zerdy, eds. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 119–120 []
  7. Bouissac, P. 1976. Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 45 []
  8. Donald, M. 2014. “Entided, Enwateredm, Enwinded: Human/More-than-Human Agencies in Site-specific Performance.” In Performing objects and theatrical things, M. Schweitzer and J. Zerdy, eds. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 119 []

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
CCCirque (11 mai 2021). From the Swiss Alps to the Volcanic Beaches of the Canary Island – Agencies in Site-specific Contemporary Circus Performances, Franziska Trapp. Le carnet du CCCirque. Consulté le 23 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/mb64


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