A (love) letter to Circus on International Women's Day.
You are an art form that I love to distraction, for your beauty, discipline, aspiration and sheer disregard for the impossible, and yet, I am starting to mourn.
On January 21st, we heard a resounding message from 375 marches in 72 countries on 6 continents : “We will not go back, we will fight for, attain and retain equal human rights. We know that “if we fall into the trap of separating ourselves by our causes, by our labels, it will weaken our fight, as we will lose”.
But you, what’s up with you? You have introduced me to the strongest, most passionate, creative, and fearless women I know, and considering the powerhouse women in my family that is saying something. And yet, while I’ve always been very vocal about how great you are and how I don’t think the gender pay gap is such a thing in circus etc etc, I still mourn. I mourn the gender split, and the lack of diversity of roles, of themes, of bodies, and explorations of our human experience. I mourn it and I think we deserve better.
I have been heartened of late by how many shows have had a pretty even gender split, and indeed the rise of all female companies and female-led companies, where in the past all male companies were the norm, as were (and are) massively successful touring shows that have a token girl (usually in a red or white dress- often just getting by in a man’s world).
It is laughable of course, shows like Amaluna, the famously and extensively press covered “female centric” Cirque du Soleil show (a re-telling of The Tempest but with a female Prospero...progressive!), which over the years has taken on so many male performers that we now return to business as usual with a gender split favouring men.
Add this to the fact that at the recent Cirque de Demain festival there were 14 male soloists, 1 female soloist. 49 male performers, 9 female performers, and the company that played the opening act had 9 men and just one woman ( no to mention the judges on the panel being overwhelmingly male). If this is the “circus of tomorrow” it’s looking very bleak.
But more even than the lack of equal gender split, and therefore fewer total jobs for women in the art form, I mourn the offering in term of roles and archetypes. The prevalence of roles where the creative challenge on offer is to be the nymph, mermaid, fairy, ingenue, showgirl or prostitute is out of control. I’ve been offered each of these tired narratives countless times, and not once had the chance to play a bus driver, or a lawyer....
Could we have more of a Madonna Whore complex if we tried? From time to time, circus feels to me like a shitty boyfriend- the kind you would definitely leave immediately and certainly wouldn’t stick around for in some kind of “I love you- I hate you, Kiss me, Don’t touch me” hand to hand act. All due respect to Seb and Mimi, like everyone, it’s one of my all-time favourite acts- but seriously ladies, fuck that narrative, we can do better...
It’s not just that ten years of being asked to do my best Cabaret impression gets old compared to the infinite complexity and (changeability) of the human experience, and of course I want to be set more interesting challenges as an artist, but more than anything we need to consider what message it sends: to other artists, to our students, to our audiences.
In a final blow to any progressiveness Amaluna might have claimed, the ingenue lead, who starts so independent, and indeed is one of the most technically capable performers I’ve ever seen, falls at the feet of the male lead within two minutes of him arriving onstage and flexing. It’s all so flat and tired and one-dimensional.
Many of you may be aware of the Bechdel test- the test that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. And I think we need to apply an equivalent to circus:
At minimum I would suggest we should hold ourselves (at a minimum) to the following, and would love to hear further suggestions:
1) An even gender split
2) Women existing on the stage within their own narrative not merely to have an impact on men (onstage or in the audience).
3) A diversity of costume choice (glitter optional).
4) A diversity of body type.
5) A woman’s sexuality (if explored) should be done so with reference to her experience not just through the eyes of a man.
Makers! We need to be more considered in our casting, and in the narratives we choose to explore. Also, I don’t want to hear any more “there are so few good female acrobat” excuses. Check out the olympics- incredible female acrobats abound, maybe the pipeline for encouraging them to turn to circus needs work? Maybe they need better examples?
Performers! Challenge yourselves to go beyond emulation of the same narratives, the same images, the same costume choices. No more domestic abuse hand to hand, no more women in white dresses looking for a man to pick you up and put you over his shoulder. Mine your own human experience for creative challenges that interest you, and that reflect the massive complexity of being alive.
Students! Don’t emulate the artists and the narratives that came before you. Forge your own path, choose different disciplines or create your own, challenge Circus to be an art form that can express anything you want, in your heart, to express. You are the future and it falls to you to continue the expansion and development of the form.
Programmers! Hold us to these standards! Don’t let us get away with doing a split on a silk and calling it a day. Don’t program internationally renowned circus festivals where the shows have 12 male performers and 2 women.
I ask this not only because it will make for a more equitable and interesting world for women artists to create, but because the very nature of equality is that it is liberating for all. By encouraging women to acknowledge and express their complexity, we open the door for men to do the same. I am no more interested in men portraying testosterone driven muscle heads or considering their washboard abs to be their primary selling point, than I am in women in white dresses or “tits and ass”.
I also want to acknowledge that gender is a spectrum and the binary nature of this discussion is merely to reflect the binary nature of much of the presentation of gender within Circus (with many notable and laudable exceptions).
Also thanks Circus, I owe you a debt of gratitude for making me the person I am today, for challenging me physically, emotionally, spiritually, for taking me all over the world and introducing me to the best people, places, food and games I know. But also, we can do better..
Lots of love