Seeing the Work: The Dangerous Act of Looking in Contemporary Circus

Feature image: Emily Chilvers captured by Aaron Walker Photography

by Alex Tálamo

Lately, I have been thinking about the radical act of looking. Having been recently immersed in the 2018 Sydney Festival and the concurrent Circus Industry Forum, I have been reflecting on my role as a witness to performance and what relationship this might have to the circus arts in particular.

In the late ‘90s I was a performer within the flourishing industry of Australian youth circus. Now, I am an observer: a performance artist and academic, who is lured back into the world of Australian circus as a heavily invested audience member. Watching circus from the seating bank still evokes the feelings of thrill and awe that captivated me during my training, but as an audience member I have discovered that looking—particularly in relation to circus—is also potentially a dangerous act.

The action of looking or ‘bearing witness’ is theorised about extensively across performance studies. Scholar Peggy Phelan famously declared that “[p]erformance’s only life is in the present,” suggesting that while the witness is necessary in framing a performance, the work only exists within the live moment shared between performer and audience. Alternately, Diana Taylor has suggested that an exchange of knowledge occurs between performers and audiences, “transmitted through a non-archival system of transfer … [called] the repertoire.” She argues that this is an embodied knowledge, which therefore escapes articulation. But it is within trauma studies that the witness is most directly attended to in understanding the relationship between the event and the context in which it is witnessed. In this account, the position of the witness, both physically and socio-politically, dictates what is possible to be observed.

In the book Testimony, which discusses the crisis of witnessing across trauma and literature studies, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub note that a witness experiences events within a historical context, but that this historical context is also narrated—’texualised’. They propose that the way a witness experiences an event is part of a narrative that has led them to the moment of witnessing (and continues after the performance is over). What a witness can see in any given event is defined by this pre-existing narrative. That is, an event doesn’t just have a historical context, it has a narrative context, and this is important because when something is narrated it necessarily requires including (valuing) some things and excludes others. Given this, a witness may be unable see things that are designated ‘unimportant’. In Australia, for example, you don’t have to look far to see how narratives about who or what is important has enabled the inability to acknowledge those perceived to be unimportant. From the colonial racism that led to Governor Bourke’s 1835 false proclamation of ‘Terra Nullius’, or the reimagining of national borders by shrinking Australia’s ‘migration zone’ in order to deny visibility, and therefore accountability, to refugees landing on Australian soil, to the unwillingness at a governmental level to acknowledge the epidemic of misogyny that is enabling a proliferation of family violence: these major events in Australia’s history demonstrate how narratives that precede an event can enable powerful acts of acknowledgment or exclusion.

Jack and Tonya
Jack Wilde and Latonya Wigginton captured by Lucy Egan

The politics of looking within history and trauma studies provides some understanding of how the politics of looking shapes what is possible to be seen in contemporary circus. It allows us to question who is acknowledged and who is excluded in the witness’ vision of circus, providing an understanding that issues of inequality in the arts are only half answered by looking only at the stage. To understand how the form of our art produces meaning and politics we also have to think about how circus is looked at. This is an argument that the ability to philosophise within a form—to create new social dynamics—requires the audience to also engage in the task.

I want to be clear: racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia and other forms of bigotry exist on circus stages, and in the pursuit of attempting to understand the role of the witness in circus performance I am not suggesting that performers are excused from their accountability in perpetuating this bigotry—we should absolutely be held accountable for our performance choices. However, in order to understand why this bigotry is so persistent, both on and off the stage, and in order to understand the social mechanics of how our form operates, I argue that we also need to understand how an audience enters a circus performance, and how a circus audience is created.

The narratives of the contemporary circus form are entrenched in its traditional (modernist) history. Circus, more than any other art form, has a mythology and media spin that frequently refers back to the traditional form. Whenever circus is evoked, it is framed in marketing and by media coverage with phrases such as: ‘roll up, roll up’ and ‘run away with the circus’. This framing positions circus within a narrative of social outsider-ism. Drawing on a history of constant travelling and a mythology of ‘belonging nowhere’, the circus is both an event and site where normal social rules don’t apply. Its parallels might be the Roman festivals of Bacchus, or the Christian Twelfth Night festivals, where misrule and revelry subvert social norms for the period of the festival, but where the status quo is re-established once the festival is over. In this frame, the circus is a place of wonder, where the ‘impossible is possible’; a site where magic is expected.

If this is the narrative in which a witness enters a performance—where literally anything might be possible—then subversive or empowering representations are only possible within the frame of the circus performance. That is, of course women can be strong, people of colour can be visible and outspoken, people in wheelchairs can do acrobatics, and gender diverse people can exist, but this openness and possibility doesn’t extend to anyone outside of the boundaries of the circus world. Off stage, in the ‘real world’, these people are still expected to shut up and behave as they’re supposed to. The narrative that the audience enters with makes circus performance difficult to be subversive in because the more regressive a performance is, the more ‘magic’, ‘unique’ and ‘impossible’ the representative world of the performance becomes. It is for this reason that within contemporary circus, it is actually hard to see performers as people. Within the narrative of circus as a site of ‘wonder’, performers are more like superheros, whose humanity is only recognised after a serious fault or injury—after the performance is broken.

Harley Timmermans captured by Lucy Egan

How audiences imagine contemporary circus, is also a question of what are the philosophies of circus that are as yet unarticulated or not widely articulated. It offers the question: How might the articulation of these alternative philosophies change the way audiences see work? For example, contemporary circus is based on intense interpersonal relationships. I argue that, to a greater degree than other artistic forms, circus relationships are highly specialised. Where contemporary dancers might be expected to dance with any number of partners and collaborators across their careers, frequently circus partnerships are so specialised that substitutions are not possible at all. When a performer’s life depends on their partner catching them within a millisecond margin of error, they engage in a level of trust not often experienced by other performers or members of the public. How might the representation of these complex relationships on stage, be overshadowed by the ‘magic’ of the traditional circus narrative? Does the ‘impossibility made possible’ frame fail to allow us as witnesses to see the real skill (and philosophy of the form) in the performance?

There are already some strong examples of attempts to reframe the way circus is witnessed. One way that performers are slowly shifting this narrative is to inhabit an aesthetic of ‘training’; to focus on the physical reality of the skill, rather than the spectacle of its performance. This has included a focus on failing bodies—bodies that do not perform ‘the trick’ successfully and have an aesthetics of grit, with unglamorous sweating hairy bodies and stripped-down lighting and costume elements. I do not present this example in order to dictate a new contemporary aesthetic. This is only one example of an exponentially growing contemporary form that will no doubt find several creative solutions. I highlight this choice in order to ask if we invite a new way of seeing the circus, not as a place of ‘wonder’ but, for example, as a place of work, does the witness have access to a more radical seeing? Could changing the narrative the witness enters with allow audiences to see a richer picture of the nature of the relationships between circus artists? Could it allow audiences to see performers as people?

Karina Schiller captured by Lucy Egan

Circuses have always been sites for housing and looking at those pushed to the margins of a society, and therefore, held the potential for radical seeing, but I suspect the contemporary form will be defined by how we (as artists and audiences) imagine the new circus narrative that will enable richer, more dangerous, ways of seeing.

Alex Tálamo is a performance artist and researcher, currently undertaking a Ph.D. candidature in Creative Practice at UNSW. She was part of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Cultural Leaders of the Future program (2011) and was an Emerging Cultural Leader at FCAC (2016). She has presented at The Performance Studies International Conference: Performance Climates (‘DoubleSpeak: excerpt’, 2016), The Circus Futures Forum (‘The future will demand new leaders, new cultural and social models of practice and more importantly community engagement’, 2014), and SPRUIK! (‘The language of circus performance’, 2010). She posts writing via twitter @alextalamo_ and documentation of her performance work is available via