From Juvenal to Fellini: everything you (do not) know about Contemporary Circus
The reddish showground of the circus is a never-ending repository, keeping trace of animal and human footprints, whip-lash marks, the sweat of acrobats and performers, peanuts thrown by the spectators. These material traces of real or simulated recollections add up in the memory of many of us in the form of childhood flashbacks, but also as preconceptions about an often-forgotten practice relegated to the margins of the performing arts.
So the image of us, spectators, crowded around the circular showground, under a two-color stripy tent surrounded by a strong smell of straw, is one of the instant associations we experience whenever we hear the word circus.
Glolò. Histoire d’une petit phoque, Paris, Prisma, 1948, 8° album cop. Cartonata a colori con ‘finestra’ sul frontespizio, pp. 94. (Toole-Stott, IV° n° 11879) in Piero Piani, Civiltà del circo, Bologna, Edizioni Libreria Naturalistica, 2007, pp. 41-43
We might be tempted to think that this instant synesthetic link to the term is a good thing, and that it is so because it allows us to know (or makes us believe we know) exactly what we are talking about when referring to the circus. However, ours would be a reiteration of the commonplace that today constitutes a significant cognitive bias with a stronghold in the social imaginary. “The social imaginary” is one of those only apparently paraphrastic terms, so nebulose its concept becomes diluted into imprecise vessels.
We tried looking up the word circus in one of these vessels of the mind and we realized that we ended up in the same labyrinth of common yet unfitting meanings: in the great cauldron of the social imaginary, we stumble upon the circenses, the circuses that Juvenal paired with bread to satisfy the (recreational) appetites of the common people; and we fall back into the desperate opinions of a clown, where among Bernhard’s wanderers, buffoons and trapeze artists comedy meets tragedy. Fragments, we might think. In truth, they are narratives, real or presumed forms of awareness on the subject, that are materialized and continuously made to circulate. For this reason, we are not surprised to see that since Fellini’s documentary The Clowns to Mainetti’s film Freaks Out, made fifty years later, the circus has remained, for the most part, an exhibition of hefty men in leopard-skin tank tops and appropriately tamed tigers.
The fame of circus practice is in truth a well inlaid cage: keeping the circus – with its baggage of commonplaces – on the outskirts of performing arts, has also the paradoxical effect of limiting, on those same peripherical zones, its creative freedom. First of all, because of its “selective exposure” we go looking for what confirms our expectations, up to the point of turning our wonder into a mechanical reaction. Secondly, we are faced with the dilemma of re-inhabiting spaces in order to take contemporary circus out of the scenic tropes of an anachronistic tradition and into and amongst the most diverse audiences.
As a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for these paths, is the renegotiation of meanings within the social imaginary itself. Let’s start, therefore, talking about what the circus actually is: not only sensationalism but a creative art that in horizontal harmony with the statute of matter, becomes what Artaud calls “langage visuel des objets, des mouvements, des attitudes, des gestes”.
The Nuovo Teatro accelerated the transition towards a scenic, material and conscious thought, propelling an osmotic comparison with the most innovative forms of avant-garde in terms of the rediscovery of the body and of (scenic and dramaturgic) writing. As for the first aspect, if anything remains of the 20th-century utopia of pure theater, it is precisely the art of the actor. One can only become a circus performer, through strenuous efforts not dissimilar to 20th-century theatre-workshop director training. Of the 1970s experimentation, circus has shared the profound culture of corporeity: the incentives of the far-sighted French cultural policy come to mind, that with the foundation of the CNAC (Centre National des Arts du Cirque), set itself as a forerunner of a broader European tradition of circus pedagogy.
In terms of dramaturgical practice, on the other hand, the development of forms of circus writing testifies to “a movement of legitimation and institutionalization of the discipline through the identification of its own syntax and the elaboration of a specific repertoire” (Métais-Chastanier, 2014). Therefore, next to the traditional theatrical possibilities – number and virtuosity – new ones emerge, including: the tension dynamics between body and matter; the narrative possibilities that draw the circus closer to a theatrical dimension; or the idea of a compositional design, where the elements are systematized by an ordering power establishing a relation between them. Thus, dramaturgy becomes “a tool with which the artist spreads the circus in the process” (Vimercati, 2021).
We should therefore stop asking ourselves whether the circus is theater or not, but rather ask ourselves if it holds that purity of genuine action, that is, a practice founded on an expressive-aesthetic use of the counterfeit body, to quote Decroux, and on an organic dramaturgy in which it is not the word but rhythm that involves the spectator (Schino, 2001). We should ask ourselves if, in the circus’s own language, the circus is also “a totality characterized by incongruous and volatile balances, [...] and by the tension between anti-illusionist game and grotesque illusion” (Caracciolo, 1974).
If we accept these premises, that is, that the circus is a place of creative thought, capable of a complex elaboration of different artistic sensitivities held together by a vocation to amaze, it will appear perfectly natural to include within the sphere of contemporary circus practice performances such as those staged in unusual spaces, such as Triennale Milano Teatro, on the occasion of the Festival Fuori Focus, conceived by Quattrox4. In the shows of Storti, Solinas, Cortese and Burani, every attempt at dichotomous separation falls apart. These creations, bright examples of contemporary circus, stand out among others due to the homage they pay to the beauty of difficult and never accessory movement. Because contemporary circus is also this: to fill with dedication what, distractedly, seems silence to us only because devoid of words.