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A New World of Imagination for Our Body, Senses, and Emotions: “Humans” in a Contemporary Circus

A New World of Imagination for Our Body, Senses, and Emotions: “Humans” in a Contemporary Circus

By Yue-Lin WU (Theater Critic)


In a red-and-white big top, there are playful clowns acting in an exaggerated manner, acrobats performing stunts such as tightrope walking and flying trapeze acts, strange looking people like dwarfs and conjoined twins, and more importantly, wild animals like elephants and tigers jumping through flaming hoops or balancing on balls. These are the images that we can easily extract from our memories when we hear “circus,” no matter whether we have watched such performances before.

In Chinese, “circus” means “horse acts.” These two terms have different origins, but they both refer to a combination of stunts involving humans and animals, and have something to do with animal performances and exhibitions of unusual or amazing things. Due to the vicissitudes of time and an increasing awareness of animal rights, contemporary circus has gradually differed from the traditional one. The film The Greatest Showman, inspired by the story of P. T. Barnum, a renowned American showman, and the creation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, depicts some of the situations related to circus development. In real life, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed in 2017, and this decision was somewhat related to the end of elephant acts in the previous year.

The transition of focus from entertainment to animal rights shows the evolution of concepts. However, people will inevitably ask this question: What is left in a circus without animals? Let us think in a reverse way instead: What else will we see in such a “new circus”?

In my humble opinion, it is humans that are “seen” – performers in a contemporary circus not only perform skills through their body, but also tell a story with emotions, undertones, internal sentiments, and physical movements.

In Taiwan, Formosa Circus Art (FOCA) created a play based on the Monkey King from Journey to the West, translating the novel into circus acts. This play explores one’s identity while pushing the limits of human body, working on the borderline of danger, boosting body functions, and creating awe-inspiring scenes. In Disappearing Island, the issue about Shezi Island in Taipei is addressed and concern is expressed about the land where we live. Thunar Circus represents past memories about our body and mind with folk skills and circus techniques. Its Kaxabu! A Language No Longer Spoken? presents field study results about Pingpu Tribe, while Melancholic Mambo focuses on funeral rites and related dialogues.

In La Verità by Compagnia Finzi Pasca, the director plays magic that combines drama, dance, circus stunts, and music, accompanied by dialogues with the crazy, bizarre images in Dalí’s works. This play is also full of stunts performed by 11 performers, which brings as many wonders as those animals bring to us. All techniques that one can think of, ranging from tossing and catching of clubs and balls, wheel gymnastics, and Chinese yo-yo to aerial acrobatics, are presented on the stage in a splendid and gentle way. What’s more, by transforming props, such as a cone hanging in the air and irregular-shaped objects, performers use their body to create vocabulary for the performances. At the same time, awe-inspiring scenes are created not because of physical abnormalities, but because of physical training or the addition of props, such as contortionists dancing with puppets, male dancers dressing like women, and performers wearing the heads or masks of strange beasts.

Thus, we start to move away from the big top in our stereotype and into the world of illusions and imagination in a theater. This may be an abandoned theater, a fantasy kingdom, the world imagined by Dalí, or the world created in Chekhov’s works which was once visited by Compagnia Finzi Pasca. With the music combined by the sound of musical instruments, singing, and small noises, as well as the aid of sparkling lights and changes between light and shadow, the body of performers is merged into this unrealistic world of imagination between the rise and fall of canvas curtains, creating a moment of tranquility.

Chinese yo-yos are tossed in the air and roll around the stage; wheels whirl with the rhythms of music; two performers skate on the tiny round stage and one of them throw off the other; a singer climbs onto a piano to disrupt the play before hanging onto an eye-shaped object with another performer… From these scenes, we can perceive what the writer would like to express – Be it the progress of plots, the war of desires, or the accumulation of sentiments, these techniques will make linkages with certain memories, enabling imagination to grow.

Abstract, poetic images and concrete stories continue to be refined in circuses without animals. The sensory stimuli and value of entertainment they create have not disappeared. Instead, the stunts are no longer a show-off. As a result, the transition from “horse acts” to “human acts” not only represents interdisciplinary cooperation in performance methods, but also creates another opportunity for humans to explore inwards. Both the writers and audiences will enter a world of imagination and cross the line while watching the performances.

Stage photo:Compagnia Finzi Pasca presents La VeritàStage photo:Compagnia Finzi Pasca presents La Verità


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