The circuses of today don’t look as they did. Contemporary blends of theater and circus have surpassed the animal-centric style that was the model of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey several years before its closing show.
Through their transformation and a desire to experiment, Contemporary circus companies -such as The 7 Fingers currently performing ” Reversible” at ArtsEmerson have the same spirit of fun rebellion that was once the hallmark of the world of the big top.
The traditional American circus, renowned for its shows of animals, menageries for animals, and railway caravans, was a dynamo of entertainment during the early 1900s. The shows were a spectacle of flashy, cabaret-style performances that celebrated the achievements of the performers. It was quite different and, for a few, an attractive way of living on the fringe of society.
“The root of traditional [circus] is spectacular, death-defying, nomadic, romantic,” says Gypsy Snider, co-founder of The 7 Fingers circus company. Snider was born into the traditional circus. Her parents started their Pickle Family Circus circus in San Francisco. “Circus existed as a rebellious, outside of society, gypsy-like culture.”
The old-fashioned form was a struggle but failed to adjust under the pressure of war, economic depression, and, finally, protests from activists for animal rights. As it faded — the huge Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey ended in the spring of this time last year -an entirely new interpretation of the genre was beginning to emerge to take its place.
“Contemporary circus made a real shift when it decided to use the discipline, like trapeze or juggling, to express emotion, not just showcase talent or skill,” Snider says. Snider. “The woman who is on the trapeze, she’s insecure. There’s courage, fear as well as a definition of heaven and earth, and emotionality and gravity in the circus’s theatricality.”
The 7 Fingers, or Les 7 Doigts De La Main, in the way it was first referred to in its hometown of Montreal, is fully committed to the concept of emotional connection and creativity in the productions. Snider, along with six of his friends, established The 7 Fingers in 2002, and they have created a variety of works from original shows such as “Reversible” to Olympic performances and theatre collaborations, each with a distinctive style.
“The 7 Fingers performances are based on individual personalities of the performers — you feel like you get to know them,” says David Dower, co-artistic director at ArtsEmerson. He compares it with Cirque du Soleil, another contemporary circus that can achieve emotional expression through more imaginative creations. The most recent production at Boston is ” OVO,” which created a bee colony to investigate the concept of inclusion.
“Reversible” is constructed through individual narratives and circus acts that show family connections. It pays tribute to grandparents. Each performer recounts the personal story of their family members.
“Everything is taken from a true place,” says Natasha Patterson, one of “Reversible’s” performers. In this production, Patterson employs contorting and juggling to reveal how she learned about her grandfather and then her- they had no previous connection.
“A lot of the things that happen in the past are both joyful and more somber,” she says. “We’re representing life as a whole.”
The newer versions of the circus, be it incredibly personal, such as “Reversible” or fantasy-based, like Cirque du Soleil, are becoming increasingly popular. ArtsEmerson has included chaos in its programs since its first year and continues to welcome The 7 Fingers for extended shows.
“In some ways, the work over the years has moved circus into the mainstream,” Dower says. Dower.
“The line is starting to become fuzzier,” Patterson says Patterson regarding the difference between theater and circus.
For Snider, the growing demand and blurred lines mean there’s more space to take on the circus spirit and challenge boundaries — an act of rebellion against an audience’s expectations of a show at the circus.
“There’s something that is very real about circus: Where’s the line of danger? What is the risk? What is the risk?” she says. “We try to keep it in the way we run things — we try to maintain core values.”
“It’s disrupting what’s expected for a theater to present,” says Dower. “It lives as an exchange of ensemble instead of individuality — and that’s sort of counter-cultural in the U.S. where we celebrate the individual.”
The differences are evident. The difference is noticeable in U.S. performances, where the distinction from the traditional big top is apparent; however, the award is an even finer line with other cultures. Canada is home to Both The 7 Fingers and Cirque du Soleil and Cirque du Soleil has an established tradition of investing more money in circus experiments. Canada has an official national school for circuses, and The 7 Fingers, functioning as a non-profit and a government-funded organization, can receive government support.
“Circus in Canada is considered an art form worthy of taxpayers’ money,” says Snider in explaining that even though there is a growing interest however, there’s not enough infrastructure in place for the contemporary circus to become it is a mainstream event reality in the United States.
“It’s a responsibility,” she adds. “How are we going to take this art and give it back to society in a way that will be pertinent and stimulating?”
She is eager to keep expanding her boundaries and the boundaries of the circus to find out the question.
“I think live art has an incredible future,” she states. “I’m really excited about circus continuing to transform the theatrical experience — I think the audience is really looking for adventure.”