Theater der Zeit


Between dance and circus

Reflections on the aesthetics of hybrid art forms

von Jean-Michel Guy

Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2022: Circus in flux – Zeitgenössischer Zirkus (07/2022)

Assoziationen: Tanz Zirkus



One thing that has noticeably characterised circus over the last 15 years is somethingI call circocentrism, that is, the tendency to avoid, as far as possible, dilution of the circus by other arts – such as dance, theatre or music. For a long time, between 1968 and 2000, the circus freely borrowed elements from theatre and dance, and even extolled the fusion of the arts, presumably in part as a means of gaining legitimacy. Having gained this 
recognition, the circus can now return to its own problems and principles. This is the challenge it is currently facing. By contrast, I feel that dance has very much opened up to external influences, to re-examine itself, even if its curiosity about contemporary circus remains rather muted.

We could be at the threshold of a new phase that will facilitate a new kind of dialogue between the arts. A dialogue based a priori on respect, one that takes the concerns of the other into account, not just the image we have of each other. As simple as this sounds, it is very difficult to implement, despite all the wonderful examples of collaboration I will share here.

Three categories of encounter

I would like to begin by describing the different forms of coexistence between circus and dance. For a long time their relationship was characterised by artistic borrowing – the reciprocal adoption of certain elements (even if the circus owes more to dance here than vice versa). Borrowing is a mode of reciprocal recognition to this day, albeit minimally so, because there are three new forms of encounter which have gained in significance: osmosis, friction and transcendence.

1. Osmosis

The first category of relationship is osmosis, which we could also refer to as symbiosis or, more simply, fusion. I have also referred to it as mayonnaise, because the individual components, oil and eggs, cannot be extracted again from the mixture once it has formed. Typical forms under this category are acrobatic dance and dance acrobatics. This category can include other dance forms with high acrobatic demands, such as the Lindy Hop, which plays an important part in Compagnie XY’s circus performance “Il n’est pas encore minuit”, as well as hip hop. France’s Mourad Merzouki, head of the Compagnie Käfig and the Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil, who, by the way, also graduated in circus before discovering dance, performs pieces that are generally categorised as dance, but the demandingly acrobatic performance of the dancers completely blurs the boundaries. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s pieces may be less acrobatic, but here we could mention the Belgian choreographer’s work “Sutra”, which he developed with monks of the Shaolin Temple.

Another example of this fusion are pieces that put dancers and performers together on stage in relatively equal measure until it is no longer clear which performers belong to which discipline. For example, “Parallèle 26”, created in a collaboration between circus artist Guy Carrara and choreographer Sylvie Guillermin, which brings together four performers from dance and circus in a cage made of Chinese poles. And choreographic works by the German company Overhead ­Project, originally founded by a partner acrobatics duo, in which acrobats and dancers regularly perform together.

There is also another form of osmosis which I call cirque dansé – danced circus. These pieces are written and performed by performers whose only knowledge of dance is what they have learned and experienced
at circus schools, and they arise directly from both genres: the circus, because they employ objects and apparatus, and dance, because of the flowing quality, the grace or the elegance of the movements.

Performers frequently choose the term dance for the genre in which they locate their pieces. And the audience usually does too. Marie-Anne Michel speaks of vertical dance in connection with her work on the Chinese pole, Mélissa Von Vépy and Breno Caetano refer to their creations, directly or indirectly inspired by the trapeze or vertical rope, as danse ­aérienne – vertical dance. And the equilibrists on the tightwire already call themselves funambulists (Seiltänzer).

2. Friction

I call the second category friction, and it roughly corresponds – to extend my culinary metaphor – to a fruit salad which retains the typical characteristics of the individual ingredients, but when mixed together creates a new taste experience. The simplest form of this fusion is the straightforward juxtaposition of dance and circus. Two typical examples of this would be “Tangram” by Stefan Sing and “4x4” by Sean Gandini, both of which combine dance and juggling.

The concept of friction is most apparent in the form of the choreographed circus. Not only do performers take dance lessons, both classical and contemporary; in their circus school training they also ­often work under the direction of choreographers, while the reverse case is extremely rare. For example, the graduation pieces at France’s Centre National des Arts du Cirque are often staged by choreographers.
This category includes pieces directed by Philippe ­Decouflé, Fatou Traoré, Héla Fatoumi and Eric Lamoureux, Francesca Lattuada and Denis Plassard for
and with CNAC students, which paved the way for what is now a familiar type of relationship.

3. Transcendence

The third category of encounter, which I call transcendence, refers to the effective overcoming of the genre concepts of dance and circus in favour of a new genre, or simply the abolition of genre concepts altogether. This type is seen in pieces by Kitsou Dubois, Yoann Bourgeois, Phia Ménard, Aurélien Bory … performers who present themselves as both choreographers and circus artists, consciously avoiding either classification and, on balance, preferring that their works be seen as physical theatre – or just not fitting in a compartment at all.

Two examples: Kitsou Dubois and Phia Ménard.

Kitsou Dubois is a choreographer, that much is beyond dispute. She even wrote a doctoral thesis on dance in zero gravity. For this she brought together dancers and performers and examined their movements under altered gravitational conditions, first in a swimming pool and then on board an aeroplane in parabolic flight. When Kitsou Dubois and her comrades who were lucky enough to accompany her on this experience – including juggler Jörg Müller, trapeze artist Chloé Moglia, trampoline artist Mathurin Bolze and dancer Laura de Nercy – came back down to earth, they kept trying, over and over, to replicate and recreate the overwhelming experience of weightlessness on solid ground. The pieces that ­resulted transcend the categories of dance and ­circus in favour of a much more fundamental, proprioceptive view of both the core and the contours of the body.

Phia Ménard is transgender. And her pieces transcend genre categories, completely eluding definitive categorisation as circus or dance. No spectator would refer to her piece “Vortex” as juggling off hand. Nevertheless, it sees her juggling invisible air currents with impressive expertise and the greatest virtuosity by manipulating the orientation, intensity and number of twenty or so fans arranged in a circle.

Some points of contact

Following this brief overview of the types of relationships between dance and circus, I now come to the question of points of contact. By that I don’t mean the concrete opportunities for encounters between artists in bars, at parties, in training centres or in social networks, but rather a – very brief – account of what circus artists and dancers have in common. Naturally that begins with the ambiguous concepts of movement, body and stage space which they share. They also share, although in a more abstract way, an under­standing of theatricality, physicality and musicality.

But today, beyond any technical issue, what inspires dancers and artists to work together on a deeper level is their shared view of the world. Because both clearly have four common social concerns: 1. the issue of equal rights for men and women and the recognition of diversity beyond binary gender norms, 2. the existential threat to humanity following the atomic bomb, i.e. global warming and hypercapitalism, 3. the representation of intimacy, and 4. the search for a new urbanity. Each of these four points deserves further elaboration, but I will only briefly address two of them here.

A few years ago a comprehensive volume presenting the work of 100 choreographers appeared in France under the title “Panorama de la danse contemporaine”. When these choreographers were asked about the ultimate purpose of their research, they all gave the same answer: intimacy.

It was not so long ago that intimacy was a foreign concept for circus creators. You could even say that the re-entry of the intimate in circus acts represents a significant step in the transformation of the circus. In this context I would refer to the pioneering works of Phia Ménard, who directly addressed her coming out and the reality of her gender confirmation, as well as the piece “Nos limites” by Mathias Pilet and Alexandre Fournier, and “TU” by Mathias Pilet, which is explicitly autobiographical.

Another key concept is urgency. Ever since the (already acrobatic) pieces of Wim Vandekeybus and Alain Platel, some time ago now, dancers have demonstratively shown – right up to their exhausted exit from the stage – what classical dance has always tried to conceal: physical exertion and the reality of pain. At the same time, performers were compelled to go the opposite route and try to make the audience forget danger, fear or vertigo – effects that are directly associated with the traditional circus. The sine curves meet today, as a sign of a new shared urgency – a touch of cataclysm and the extreme permeates numerous choreographic and circus pieces.

Circus performers are exhibiting more physical exertion again, and some are even refocusing their performance on fear, including the company In extremis, which truly lives up to its name, and Finland’s Race Horse Company. And the issues of collapse and disintegration are now a normal source of inspiration for performers. One example is the latest piece by the company Baro d’evel entitled “Falaise”, in which the walls of a grotto gradually crumble before finally collapsing. “Maison-mère” by Phia Ménard is a similarly apocalyptic piece.

To close but not to conclude, it should be noted that I may not have placed sufficient emphasis on the obvious “technical” differences between dancers and circus dancers – their respective unique relationship to spaces, to the vertical, to the recollection of gestures, to the musical practice of “counting”, to mirrored walls in studios, to the market and “selling” oneself … which nonetheless offer them inexhaustible paths of encounter, even confrontation. To enable this, there is nothing better – need I even stress this? – than a stronger collaboration between dance and circus schools and initiatives like the great festival in Cologne.

Paris, 1 March 2020

This text was written by Jean-Michel Guy on the occasion of the first Cologne CircusDanceFestival and initially published in VOICES Magazine, 2021. The version here has been updated and abridged.



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