Of Balance, Oscillation and Feeling: A Twenty-first-century Circus Experience

Katharine Kavanagh*

The Wing Scuffle Spectacular by The Revel Puck Circus. Director: Luke Hallgarten. Performer/creators: Louis Gift (hand-to-hand); Luke Hallgarten (juggling); Shane Hampden (teeterboard); Emily Lannigan (teeterboard); Sebastian Parker (teeterboard); Fiona Thornhill (Cyr wheel/hand-to-hand); Ange Viaud (clown); Imani Vital (straps); Annie Zita (cloud swing/hula hoop). Premiere: 29 July 2021, at Leyton Jubilee Park, London (England). This iteration: 13 April 2023, at Circus Village, Swansea (Wales).

In certain circles, there is an understanding that the meaning of circus productions lies in the sensations we, as audience members, are guided to feel. Beyond the cerebral, cognitive associations of content signs, studies of circus semiotics have included further dramaturgical connections to the sensational impacts of structures. The Revel Puck Circus, based in East London, are one example of a relatively new breed of tenting circus company who pay careful attention to both significant pathways in order to bring the dual meaning-making systems of high-art concept and populist entertainment to the fore simultaneously. This disintegration of conventional binary distinctions is symptomatic of the metamodern cultural shift observed widely in the early years of the twenty-first century[1], and The Wing Scuffle Spectacular embodies much of the perpetual oscillation between perspectives that is characteristic of metamodernism.

Imani Vital and Sebastian Parker negotiate space with a swinging chainsaw. Photo: Tekla Szöcs

The show is the second part of a planned trilogy that explores risk and its inherent presence in relation to the human condition. Part one, The Big Bagaga Show (2019), placed failure at the heart of its creation. The Wing Scuffle Spectacular focuses instead on fear and, particularly, fear as something to be celebrated rather than avoided. Perhaps a caveat is that the semantic richness of The Wing Scuffle Spectacular will be clearest and most meaningful to those already familiar with circus codes, but that is true within any artistic form of metareferencing. Within the U.K., it is still common for circus to be defined as either “traditional” or “contemporary” based largely on the type of performance venue, the training routes of performers and the level of rationalisable meaning involved in the production. The Revel Pucks blur these distinctions in a way more commonly seen in continental Europe.

The version I saw was on April 13, 2023, at The Circus Village in Swansea, Wales, where the run-time was two hours (including interval), with a company of nine. With mid-to-large scale circus productions, the ongoing development of physical technique means that content can evolve continually over a run, and a shifting cast is not atypical with the sector’s nomadic gig economy. Individual performers may be slipped in and out of an overall structure, changing with them the composition of unique skills on show. The Circus Village is a development scheme created through partnership with multiple U.K. companies and artists to address the country’s broader lack of suitable development opportunities for circus. This presentation of The Wing Scuffle Spectacular comes after a short period of mid-tour readjustment and optimization for the company’s newly acquired big top venue.

Promotional image capturing the giant rola bola act. L-R Luke Hallgarten, Ange Viaud, Sebastian Parker (front), Louis Gift (base), Poppy Plowman (top), Shane Hampden, Imani Vital, Annie Zita. Photo: The Revel Puck Circus

Inside the tent, two caravans flank the ring, which is marked out at ground level with dance-floor mats. Audience benches are erected around 180°, while red-curtained ring-doors and festoon lighting wait behind washing lines of clothing. As we enter the space, the performers are making the tent “ready,” fixing lights, largely unobtrusively. Their subtlety and naturalness appear authentic and well removed from any hamminess of performed preparation. This co-presence of real and fictive permeates the show. A romantic circus imaginary based on the mid-twentieth-century century western form co-exists with the contemporary realities of these artists’ circus life. Tongue-in-cheek pop-cultural references overlay reverential adoption of classical circus formulae. Fear and discomfort are actively present and put on display, notwithstanding that the routines are rehearsed and—as far as can be prepared—safe. The joy appears real too, and the exhilaration . . . Wittingly or no, there are elements of clown theory underlying each artist’s performance as they courageously expose their truest selves for our benefit.

The various components of a Rube Goldberg set-piece bring novelty and interested anticipation to the opening of the show, even though the chain reaction format of interacting bodies and props is no longer an innovation in itself (and, in this case, draws a direct line of continuation from The Big Bagaga Show). Costumes riff off dark cerise, sky blue and sand colours in a medley of charity shop individuality that retains a fragmentary memory of the military reds, blues and gold of an older circus tradition. We are exhorted to whoop, encouraged to clap, and singing along is far from controversial. Artistic director Luke Hallgarten acknowledges other theorists who have described the circus ring as a democratic space.[2] There is no hiding that we are all participants in this event—albeit with roles that differ in scope. A chainsaw swinging through the central space makes me physically shrink from its approaches in delicious frisson. My neck and torso rotate with the wheel on stage before me when Fiona Thornhill is reunited with her Cyr following an amusing progression of smaller alternatives: a juggling ring and a hula hoop. My head is moved up and down as Shane Hampden, Emily Lannigan and Sebastian Parker are launched and land from their teeterboard, fueled by ingenuity as well as muscle power.

Still from Fiona Thornhill’s Cyr wheel act. Photo: Tekla Szöcs

During the exceptional display of teamwork on a giant rola-bola (read: an enormous plank of wood balanced across a giant tractor tyre), I find my shoulders hunching into themselves again and again while the acrobatic cast clamber and balance and dance around each other atop the precarious structure, breaking and remaking the equilibrium over and over. The development of this novel act has seen the company invited to perform it at the 43rd edition of the prestigious Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain competition in Paris, where they were awarded the Trophée Bretagne Circus and a Prix Spécial Du Jury in January 2024.

My neck cranes to follow Annie Zita on her cloud swing high in the cupola of the tent and, as Imani Vital raises herself into her aerial straps above a steaming bowl of scented water, a synth remix of blues hit Summertime has me swaying from side to side; aerial rotations of her body add a round and round motion to my own. This kinaesthetic empathy ensures my response to the performance is fully embodied—my intellectualising does not come at a distance. The vibe is buzzing, and the buzz brings emotions to the fore. It’s easier to find tears, and belly laughs, and joy.

Still from the teeterboard act. L-R Emily Lannigan, Sebastian Parker (flying), Shane Hampden. Photo: Tekla Szöcs

An appealingly earnest Ange Viaud, in off-kilter Pierrot outfit, draws from a long traditional repertoire of clowning segments that perform the tension-relieving role of palette cleanser whilst maintaining an uplifting trajectory for his own character. Whilst often a role for an older and more experienced performer, recent graduate Viaud is more than up to this central task, his cherubically handsome face only enhancing the touching naivety of his clown. Recurring encounters with a faux-fur lion partner move from ferocité to partnership, echoing the changing relationships to real animals in circus environments that exemplify grander-scale developments of—and aspirations for—human interaction with the natural world.

The post-ironic aspect of metamodernism is most visible within the juggling act of director Hallgarten. Exhibiting some personal discomfort in a tight velour leotard, cut in a typically female style, he nonetheless performs his routine of tossing balls with professional physical confidence, to a recording of RuPaul’s drag hit Cissy That Walk. Gender conventions are further confounded through his choreography, blending clumsy “masculine” type movement with graceful “feminine” counterpoints. They bash up against each other until they are one new, non-binary thing. He is clearly not a skilled voguer, and yet he commits to his attempts with full sincerity. This return to sincerity from the depths of an inescapably ironic cultural moment lies at the heart of much metamodern creation.

Dr Tom Drayton has partially characterized metamodernist culture as a reaction to the millennial generation’s comparative fall from privilege in Western societies.[3] The Wing Scuffle Spectacular is certainly infused with a strong sense of optimism in the face of challenge. Powerfully, that hopeful feeling also transfers to me as an audience member. “My heart feels so full!” read the final words scribbled into my review notebook. Humans, together, can be beautiful and good, as demonstrated through the authentic actions and interactions of physical circus performance—effectively accentuated by the more conventional semantic tools of theatre. It’s a meaning worth holding onto.


Endnotes

[1] Van Den Akker, Robin, Alison Gibbons, and Timotheus Vermeule, editors. Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism. Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017.

[2] Hallgarten, Luke. “Circus, Really? Er, Well We’d Like to Give It a Chance . . .” The Metamodern Circus, 26 May 2023, Cardiff University. Keynote speech. (Available here.)

[3] Drayton, Tom. Metamodernism in Contemporary British Theatre: A Politics of Hope/lessness. Methuen, forthcoming. 


*In 2013, Katharine Kavanagh founded The Circus Diaries, an online platform dedicated to circus criticism. She has taught circus analysis at institutions including the National Centre for Circus Arts (U.K.), Circomedia and Stockholm University of the Arts, and is in the final throes of her Doctorate at Cardiff University, where she has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to explore the values attributed to circus attendance in the U.K. immediately pre- and post-Pandemic. In 2023, Katharine brought together scholars and practitioners as co-organiser of The Metamodern Circus symposium.

Copyright © 2024 Katharine Kavanagh
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email