Leila Jones, Circus Producer at the Roundhouse, Camden.

Circus Fest: Salon - Circus and Gender

Written by: Shanna F. Jones

What springs (or somersaults…) to mind when you think of circus? Bearded ladies? Queer folk? Mind-boggling flexing of social norms? Last night we got the chance to sit in on a talk centered around this topic, much like a (very large, beer glugging) fly on the wall. We earwigged among some of the UK’s most prolific circus performers and producers debating why circus and gender roles are WAY more traditional than the casual onlooker previously thought. Christ in his silk stockings wept.

The salon was enthusiastically hosted by Scottee, a radical performance artist who fully saw the irony in the room as a cis white male ended up dominating the conversation. The evening began with six women and four men sat around a table when Lina Frank, a Swedish curator and circus programmer, unleashed her provocation: Are women animals and are men just better?

Some unsuspecting audience members had been lured up to the table via the medium of free snacks (always works) and luckily, through passion or perhaps through fear of imminent awkward silence, the conversation got hot pretty quickly.

People have come to me after seeing me perform and actually said ‘your work is politically invalid because you have an industry standard body.’

Said Vee Smith AKA Vendetta Vain, a burlesque, cabaret and circus performer who The Scotsman once described as “somewhere between a crack addict and a blow up doll.”The conversation moved among the recesses of all male vs. all female circus troupes; the sheer boredom of watching a show where a big strong man lifts a tiny, tiny woman; male and female gender binaries and whether circus is too hetero-normative.The casual observer may not philosophize on these nuances whilst sat on the toilet daily, but when an award-winning theatre producer and artist such as Mark Storor says something like: “circus is not for my people” you know we have a problem. When he refers to his people, he is describing those involved with his production Puffball, which gives a platform to the often harrowing experiences of LGBTQ performance artists.

The debate included all sides of the circus-sphere with performers, producers and the programmer of Circus Fest, Leila Jones, having equal say. Leila has booked a circus goup, the Barely Methodical Troupe, next week (which we will be reviewing so you don’t have to move from your sticky office chair) who are set to explore the experience of the human condition. Their last show in 2014, Bromance, exploring maleness, raised the question of:

Must all male or all female circus troupes explore only their own gender? Or are we more evolved than that?

Conclusions were not the aim of the salon and no one expected to crush the patriarchy over a couple of Hobnobs one evening in North London – but we did catch a glimpse of things to come. Several of those sat around the table said they had often come across instances where shows weren’t booked, or student performances were badly graded, for being straight and hetero-normative, branding it as so ‘bloody unoriginal’.

One of the quotes that really stuck with us on the bus back home, above the rabble of teenagers bragging about their new Nikes, was: “one of the most impressive things a man can do in circus is the splits and one of the most impressive things a woman can do is lift a man.”

We felt so intellectual sat around listening to such revolutionary ideas that we almost felt like we were back amongst the chat at our respective higher education institutions. Instead of marching back into our old university bars and immediately ordering seven mind eraser shots, we became excited and engaged with the conversation like proper grown-ups. Gender problems in circus? Watch this space.


Body Photo: with thanks to Katharine Kavanagh

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