If you hear "circus", what do you imagine? Acts of seemingly impossible skill performed with perfect poise? A troupe of confident, muscular men, who could be models, holding aloft an unfeasibly glamorous woman?
Well, if any of that’s the case, two new shows at this year’s Fringe might just challenge those assumptions, using circus skills in exciting creative ways to tell stories.
Ellie Dubois is a performance-maker and director of contemporary circus. No Show—which will play at the Old Lab at Summerhall—is a deconstruction of circus tropes. It opens with a typically superhuman-seeming, showgirl-inspired circus routine by its all-female ensemble – then unpacks this glossy fantasy, revealing the truth about the pain, vulnerability and dedication behind the stereotypes.
The piece was born of Dubois’s love of experimental theatre, “that feeling you get in your heart when you watch someone do something incredible”, and her frustration at the sidelining of female circus performers.
While Dubois was training at the National Centre for Circus Arts (then known as Circus Space), she became fascinated by the fact that an audience sees only “the one per cent of tricks that we can do brilliantly”. No Show is partly her exploration of the journey behind that.
“I was interested in how I could put performers’ failure on stage and contextualise it, so it didn’t just look like they’re crap,” Dubois explains. “This is about trying to be the best, about striving for this kind of unreachable perfection.” She thinks this will resonate generally.
And as the audience gets to know the performers as individuals, No Show also challenges what Dubois calls “the pretty fucking boring” roles women get stuck with in many circus pieces – from having to do the splits in revealing costumes to “dainty aerial routines”.
The “most badass women” often end up as token presences supporting men, says Dubois. She wants to celebrate the strength and the capability of “female circus bodies being allowed to do what they are trained to do”. It’s women “using their physicality to 100 per cent”.
Dubois has loved rehearsing No Show with its five female performers. In a world where women are usually outnumbered by men in circus companies, presenting work with an all-female ensemble “really feels like we’re sharing something”, she says. “We’ve really got a huge variety of experiences over different lengths of careers.”
Meanwhile, Kin, Barely Methodical Troupe’s new show at the Circus Hub, with its troupe of men and one female circus performer, could sound like a cliché. But the show pokes fun at the macho stuff rather than promoting it.
From hilariously awkward Greek statue poses, to answers stuttered into a dangling microphone, there’s some deftly comic play with fragile masculinity.
Where BMT’s last show, Fringe hit Bromance, used circus to explore male friendship, Kin uses it to convey how it feels to jostle for attention and affection. There’s no grandstanding without a payoff here.
Reflecting on the competitive posturing underpinning much of Kin’s narrative, BMT co-founder Charlie Wheeller says with a laugh: “I’m sure it came from Ben [Duke, the director] watching us rehearse and going, ‘Ah, okay, there’s something in this. Let’s bring that out.’”
Kin developed, says Wheeller, like devised theatre, while drawing inspiration from dance. The various circus tricks and impressive set pieces all serve the overall story, rather than just being there for the sake of it.
Following the injury of fellow BMT founding member Louis Gift, Wheeller has been fascinated by how bringing in another friend has subtly altered Kin. And that’s because real-life friendships are key to the group’s work. “You can fake tricks, but we wanted a real buddy on stage,” he says. “It’s changed the flow of the story.”
As for Dubois with No Show, it’s been important to Wheeller that BMT individualise their ‘characters’ in Kin. “You watch circus people online, say, and you don’t think about their life,” says Wheeller. “You go, ‘Of course they can do this crazy thing’. It’s nice to humanise it.”
For Wheeller, circus is one of the best vehicles for conveying people’s complexities and contradictions. “The audience can see vulnerability as well as strength,” he says. “That’s a rarity in certain art forms.”