DEA BIRKETT Mime - and the last word in circus

In the latest in her series marking the 250th anniversary of the circus, Dea Birkett – the official Ringmaster of Circus250 – discovers more about her artform at the London International Mime Festival

The London International Mime Festival opens this week, with contemporary dance, performance artists, physical theatre, lip syncers, ice puppeteers and, of course, circus.

Acrobats Barely Methodical Troupe are performing Shift and Gandini Juggling’s Spring is making its debut on Sadler’s Wells main stage. At the Festival opening, founder and co-director Joseph Seelig let us know what linked his diverse programme: it’s all “non-verbal”. That’s why circus can be included.

But only some. There’s plenty of circus in which people talk. In Casting Off, a multi-generational three-woman show out of Australia, the performers chat incessantly. They even recite the whole of I don’t know why, she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die... Britain’s best clown Tweedy, whose Illusion Confusion opens next month, talks throughout his one-man performances, either to himself or to the audience.

Above, Gandini Juggling with Spring

Main image, Barely Methodical  Troupe with Shift

There’s circus with and without words; circus in theatres and big tops and outdoors; circus in the ring and outside the ring; circus with and without animals; circus that feels like contemporary dance and some like a village fete; there’s sometimes magic and mayhem that could be part of any live show. In this fabulous jumble of possibilities, what is circus’s distinguishing trait equivalent to the “non-verbal” of mime?  It’s not at all clear.

“What is circus?” has become a popular title for a talk at many a conference and convention. Circus, being a liminal art form, is particularly vulnerable to “What is …?”discussions.  Mime, although just as fabulously fluid as the festival shows, doesn’t suffer from such agonising examinations. Like contemporary dance or jazz, it’s part of the cultural canon. Circus is not.

That’s because circus is so much more than that. It’s not just an art form, it’s also part of our cultural heritage in the widest possible sense. It pops up as an influence in every expression of culture and creativity, whether performance based or not.

Circus films didn’t begin with The Greatest Showman, the 2017 film about Phineas T Barnum and Barnam & Bailey’s Circus. Fellini’s 1954 La Strada came after Charlie Chaplin’s TheCircus. Chaplin was essentially a clown. Literature is littered with circus stories, from the work of Angela Carter to Katherine Rundell, recent winner of the prestigious Costa Children’s Book Award. Even Enid Blyton’s Famous Five ran away to the circus. 

Fashion is inspired by circus; Vivien Westwood had her models sidle up the catwalk in clown’s trousers and red noses. Circus has long been an inspiration for painters, including Picasso, Dame Laura Knight and Sir Peter Blake who designed our own Circus250 logo. There’s not another art form that has seeped into so many imaginations.

So – what isit about circus that makes it so inspiring? It’s because, at heart, it’s about taking risks with our fragile humanity, in particular our bodies. And because of this, circus evokes a whole range of raw emotions – fear, fun, anxiety, awe, amusement – not just one. You wouldn’t rule out something as being circus because it was “too like contemporary dance”, or “too like cabaret”, or “too like mime”. The only thing that would stop it really being circus was if it wasn’t an emotionally rich experience with vulnerability and risk taking at its heart.

There’s a single moment in circus that, for me, illustrates this. It’s when we spot the ladder in the fishnet tights, stretched over a tightened muscly thigh and sewn up with thread. It reveals the human body at its most impressive and powerful, yet also most vulnerable and flawed. However neatly the rip in the tights is stitched, you can still see it. The best circus, whether with putty-coloured fishnets or black and white striped leggings, makes us feel we’re touching on this moment. It makes us feel both fragile and powerfully alive.





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