Sitting on the freshly discovered frontier between live art and circus, Ellie Dubois’s work blows apart preconceptions about what circus can do, is allowed to do. She’s currently working on two shows at Roundhouse’s CircusFest. She’s bringing back her Edinburgh Fringe hit, No Show, a feminist deconstruction of gendered circus tropes. And she’s directing a new work, Fram and Dunt. It’s an astonishing piece – Fram is a hair-hanging artist, who performs graceful, seemingly weightless acrobatics while hanging from her own thick plait. Her father is an IT security consultant with a long-suppressed need to perform. Joining her on stage, he finds himself performing some intricate contemporary dance routine, airing his Britain’s Got Talent entry, and even hanging from a harness, feet in the air.
Ellie Dubois explains that “Joe is 60-plus and by his own account a bit overweight, and at the beginning he was so nervous about trying stuff out. He really felt he was past it. But actually, a lot of what we discovered in the show was that Joe actually has a body! It turns out that he’s actually quite a good contemporary dancer. He’s been quite ill, his body has been quite destructive to him. But within the show, his body allows him to do these beautiful things.”
It’s often said that people only use 10% of their brains. In reality, it’s quite a bit more than that. But how much of our bodies do we actually use? If mine could speak, it would be something like an old microwave advert that periodically, oddly, pings into my head: “I could be baking a sponge cake, cooking a roast dinner. Instead, she only uses me to microwave her cold cup of tea”, says the forlorn appliance. My body’s potential is wasted in a daily round of unambitious sitting, lounging, walking, and the odd quickly-regretted sprint. Then you go to the circus and you see hands that support a whole person, not a phone. A performer dangling by their hair. Backflips. Breathless moments of wonder that took months of practice to create.
Most people (especially women) stop exploring their body’s more outlandish capabilities when they get past the bloody-kneed territory of primary school. For Ellie Dubois, this under-explored potential is “fascinating. It’s why I love circus, because I love watching people push themselves to the absolute physical limits.” Ellie Dubois explains that hair hanging, for example, “is incredibly painful… there’s a moment when you first do it when it feels impossible, like it’s absolutely unbearable, then after that it’s okay. I specialise in straps which is definitely one of the most painful disciplines there is. But you want to be the best. You want to be a better human so you train and you train and you train to try and achieve these things.”
“He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease/ That daring young man on the flying trapeze” – thus goes the 19th century musical hall ditty, the product of circus’ golden era, full of ideas of magic and wonder. Traditionally, performers are seen as pulling off tricks, rather than sweating to do something that sits just at the outermost limits of the body’s potential. Contemporary circus makers are changing that, with a new set of tropes that swap sequins for beads of sweat.
Ellie Dubois’s first show, Ringside, was inspired in part by her interest in making the effort and risk of circus visible. It’s a one-on-one experience where a single audience member watches a trapeze routine take place metres away: sees the bandaged limbs, the bruises, the face creased with effort.
“Showing a human side to circus is much more interesting to the audience. In most shows the performers are like gods and goddesses, they are up on this platform, far away, up high, it looks easy and effortless. And you have no idea how much it hurts, because we’re deliberately making it look effortless. But I think as an audience member that idea doesn’t exist, because perfection doesn’t exist in real life. An audience member might not be able to do a backflip, but they can associate with the idea of pushing themselves, with trying their hardest and not quite making it.”
Ellie Dubois is especially interested in audience response: one of the many weirdnesses of being a circus performer is that applause doesn’t line up with how difficult or dangerous an individual feat is. Without the same framework of knowledge and experience that they might bring to a theatre show, people applaud to a lighting cue, or in line with the crowd around them. Separating audience members from the comfort of the herd, Ringside has its own destabilising dynamic.
“Some people watch in stony silence. Lots of people, because it’s so intense, feel like they need to talk through it, almost like an interview – it’s really exhausting trying to do the routine and talk about it the same time! But however they want to respond is fine… I never want the audience to feel like they were doing it wrong.”
Ringside’s approach is as close to live art as it is to circus: it’s a routine, recontextualised. Ellie Dubois says that “I feel with circus that it’s a device I have in my toolkit, as you might use music or text to make a show. Circus is another thing that I use to help me make the shows.” It makes sense: she started out studying performance: “I had a great time but we were constantly talking about risk-taking, and sometimes it felt like you were trying to create this fake risk that didn’t really exist. Whereas genuinely when someone walks along a tightwire they might fall, when someone climbs on another person’s shoulders they are reliant on that person. It felt like the risk was so real in such an authentic way, so I knew that was the sort of work I wanted to make…”
And as she explains, live art and circus have a lot in common: “there’s a mix of image-making – which happens a lot in live art – and also pushing yourself go extremes in different ways, that for me is really appealing. I think that a lot of theatre-makers and people in the live art world think that circus is quite uncool? But actually you’ve got people like Empress Stah, doing trapeze with a laser butt plug, and Scottee is making a show with circus performers at the moment. The worlds are crossing over more and more. People on either side are going: actually, this is really interesting, this is really exciting.”
No Show pushes further into live art, deconstructing all the ugly gendered tropes of traditional circus. Ellie Dubois explains that the spark of the idea for the show came “when I was training at circus school. I was surrounded by all these incredible women who were so strong and so talented and so interesting, and yet when I looked on stage I didn’t see them reflected. I’d see them having to look dainty or sexy, or not being able to pull off their best tricks because they had to be feminine, or falling at the feet of a man who takes his top off.”
It seems incredible that women who can carry several times their own body weight are still patronised, expected to simper on demand. Every circus show I’ve been to, I’ve found myself thinking about gender. About the scenes where a cast of eight men fling a tiny woman in a short skirt around, in a way that made me think of assault – but judging by the Amelie-style soundtrack, was designed to be adorable and romantic. About the way that circus narratives contextualise stunts as part of mating rituals of men-impressing-women, or of bros-hanging-out. And about the way that a genre that’s so ready to explore the eccentric potential of the human body is still so ready to impose a certain body type, a certain homogenous ideal of attractiveness.
These thoughts haven’t always made it into my reviews. I tell Ellie Dubois this, and she says that “I feel like if it was another artform, the reviewers would pull it up, but actually people feel like because it’s circus they can’t talk about it technically, or they have to say ‘Oh they’ve very good at their craft.’ It feels like for a while circus has been almost beyond criticism. And actually that’s not true, we need our art to be talked about more critically and called out, because otherwise we’re going to be bored. I’ve seen the same show multiple times, that show about seven eight nine guys hanging out, and I don’t need to see it again, but that one is still being programmed…”
Roundhouse’s 2018 CircusFest line-up feels like a response to the ideas we’re talking about – and Ellie Dubois explains that the venue’s programmers were prompted to rethink their approach by last year’s line-up, where both main house shows were bro-heavy, sweat-drenched extravaganzas had only a couple of women between them. No Show joins an entrancing collection of other works created by female circus makers, like Hyena by Alula Cyr, or French troupe The Bekkrell Effect: “I like to see our show sitting alongside these other female-led shows, knowing how hard it’s been for them to get there.”
Being at Circusfest is a bit of an epic struggle for Ellie Dubois, too. She’s travelled to London from her home in the Scottish countryside, which means navigating a complex shifting puzzle of childcare, and asking for her mum and sister’s help to look after her two small children – “The other day I took my 90 year old grandad along with me to look after the baby. Being a parent and trying to make work for the fringe is so exhausting, and childcare is so expensive. But I have to believe that there are more important things in the world than just money. It would make so much more sense not to make work at all, or to go and work in my local pub. But it’s really important that women don’t just stop making work.”
Having kids young, and having made her home in remote rural Scotland, both make Ellie Dubois’s path within a challenging discipline even harder – but they’ve brought benefits, too. When she was first pregnant, “I was 23, just graduated from circus school, and it was definitely not in my plan to have a baby. I won an award to take Ringside to the fringe, and at the beginning I thought ‘Oh it’ll be brilliant, you never normally see a pregnant circus performer, it’ll add so much to the show.’ I always thought that if I did have children I’d be like Serena Williams, able to win tennis tournaments and be pregnant and be amazing, but actually my reality was not like that at all – I was so ill, for three months I was sick all the time. But that’s kind of how I ended up directing, because someone else had to take my place at the fringe. And I kind of loved it.”
One of the many great things about Roundhouse’s CircusFest is how inclusive it feels. Pitch up, sit down, respond noisily, quietly, crunch popcorn. Whatever. It all feels appropriate. It’s a contrast from Ellie Dubois’s hunt for other shows to see while she’s in London, where she’s found herself limited by having a babe-in-arms. “What kind of a theatre wouldn’t allow you to take a baby in? That’s something that massively excludes young women from our world. I think a lot of people want to live in a world that’s working adults over here, kids and older people somewhere else. But actually there can be something really joyful about those things coming together.”
Fram and Dunt has something of that variety show, all-ages delight to it – there are whoopee cushions on each seat. The handful of pre-teens in the audience are enchanted. Testing themselves to the limits, even if that’s just seeing how much pressure you can put on a small bag of air before it explodes, noisily, as a woman floats by her hair.