Features Published 19 March 2019

The Extraordinary Bodies of Aerial Circus

"So how do we talk about the flying body, this body in space?": Francesca Peschier interviews two female circus artists about objectification, challenging beauty norms, and soaring through the air.
Francesca Peschier

Laura Murphy in performance. Photo: Darko Skrobonja

My body (my body)
My body
My body
Is walking in space
– Walking in Space, Galt Macdermot

My body has changed since I took up aerial circus training. It’s not particularly thinner, or ‘toned up’, or ‘strong not skinny’ or any of the other faux-wellness euphemisms for smaller. Most noticeable to me is my hands, the ridge that has calloused across the top third of my palms. When I miss training for a couple of weeks, that nodule smooths out. In a world that equates femininity to softness, I miss running my thumb across that hard skin – it’s a reminder of progress, of one step further along to one leg skinner.

The discussion as to how performers’ bodies are considered or even reviewed is one that stretches out across theatre, as fabulously dissected in terms of a lil’ bit of audience lusting by Dr Kirsty Sedgman. Yet, it has particular significance when we are talking about circus, and especially aerial. Like dance, the art form invites you to analyse what the artist is doing with their body in exacting detail. Unlike dance, the specialist vocabulary for discussing moves and techniques is not widely applied outside long form reviews or on specialist platforms such as the Circus Diaries. In both writing and training, I have been in constant confrontation with the tension between thinking about bodies and what they do without objectifying a performer. How the relationship between what we see and what we expect to see is convoluted in a way that you only become aware of when someone shatters it. So, I decided to speak to two physical performers whose work cracked my world wide open.

Before I took a mad leap off a crash mat (ok, about three months of teeny leaps until I finally could straddle up effectively) onto a hoop, I assumed that my body was not and could never be an aerial body. Before I saw Farrell Cox perform an incredible rope-doubles piece with Rebecca Solomon in last year’s Hive City Legacy, I had never considered the multiplicity of stories you can potentially tell in the air. ‘There is this idea of circus, you think it’s going to be red, loads of clowns but it is magical now what circus has turned into.’ Cox tells me: ‘It was going towards contemporary dance for a while – and now it’s turned back to storytelling’. Circus, when brave and innovative, can allow an audience to understand a story in a different way, as Cox points out in relation to Hive City legacy: ‘It can make a message easier to understand, giving you space to just sit and process rather than react with the first thing that comes to you.’

‘Hive City Legacy’ played Roundhouse in 2018. Photo: Helen Murray

This understanding of circus as a toolbox with which to tell new narratives is shared by Circus Next laureate Laura Murphy. Her latest work Contra, directed by Ursula Martinez, straddles (no, its not an aerial pun – would I?) live art and circus, staring down often uncomfortable narratives with a bit of critical theory and full nudity thrown in for good measure. ‘If you put my work in a live art context then it’s not shocking but in circus it’s out there’ Murphy explains: ‘…and that’s because in circus there is still a habit of sugar-coating issue-based work.’

‘In circus, I might make a show about missing my ex but then I would leave out the angry wank I had, and the crying, and the bit where I called you when I was drunk and screamed “why don’t you love me anymore”. Circus has been afraid of mess – and I want to show mess.’

Murphy cites ‘…a lack of honesty and fear’ in circus that stifles creativity and limits who and what we get to see. ‘There seems to be this need to make it digestible for people. When I first said I was going to do the show naked people were like “you’re not going to do naked aerial, people are going to see your vagina!” That’s the fucking point’.

That contradiction between what we see and what we expected to see rears its problematic head again in who we see in circus. Spend any time at all in a training centre or on the fringe and you’ll realise that the typically tiny glam sequinned shapes swirling down silks in the background of BBC trailers is a teeny segment of flying bodies – they are just the ones we most frequently encounter. ‘There isn’t a sense of variation and representation in the main stream’ sighs Cox, ‘It’s still very much glamour comes first – and because they’ve got the money, that’s what gets the most publicity’. There is a historical and sociological context for this seemingly ubiquitous glitz explains Murphy:

‘There are a lot of old narratives to do with circus about freedom and living on the fringes of society, when actually a lot of the aesthetic is built on colonial narratives. There is this look that came about in the 1930s during the depression in the US where one of the only ways to make circus sell, especially for female artists, was to make them parallactic with Hollywood film stars. This has carried through as a sort of silent understanding of circus and so there is a certain expectation.’

What you are left with, from Murphy’s perspective is this ‘contradiction’ between the freedom of circus conflicting with these very ‘heteronormative ideas of beauty – whiteness, skinniness, prettiness, shaved underarms and legs.’ Plus, the monetary and class advantages that are already inbuilt into what Murphy calls ‘a privileged hobby that can become a job’. Yet there are ‘extraordinary bodies’ says Cox, involved in work such as the Mimbre’s Exploded Circus, both in the watching and creating. ‘When you make aerial accessible to people in wheelchairs, to the partially sighted and so on, it proves that circus is multi-sensory and there are so many different levels to that’.

‘Tarzanna’. Photo: Pamela Raith

And this doesn’t have to be unique to politically engaged or work that leans towards live art. Both Cox and Murphy express their admiration for corporate performers (‘it’s bloody difficult!’ exclaims Murphy). Cox has bent (yes, pun sorry) her acrobatic talents to everything from the RSC’s West End Don Quixote to the classic spectacle of Chippendales’ big top.

‘You get a connection with an audience as you are flying over them – like yes I’ve made eye contact with you. And that to me is really powerful than just performing for the sakes of it. ‘

My soul is in orbit
Floating, flipping
Flying, tripping

So how do we talk about the flying body, this body in space? ‘There is a fine line between talking about the performer and what they are doing’ says Cox. ‘With training for so long, it’s not that you can’t say that a performers’ body is beautiful – they’ve trained hard for that body, but it’s the intention and the way you say it. In ballet, your lines are great but if circus it can still be great if it’s a jagged line. Don’t objectify the artist, praise the skill.’ However, Murphy cautions becoming bound up in ‘skills and tricks and the magic’. In a horizon so coloured by ‘Instagram and nice leggings culture’ you can be driven you back time and time again to focusing on how you look.

‘We generally understand circus through virtuosity which is intrinsically linked to objectification, and until we re consider the function of circus and that relationship, we’re stuck. It becomes the most important thing about the performance. If you shift the perimeters so that you are looking at a person who can do these things rather the action – so the subject not the object, then you get something quite different.’

Plus, the body’s uniqueness and beauty is frequently inseparable from its fallibility. Murphy battles impinged shoulders and inflexibility that challenges her to approach moves in new ways, new physical translations of her natural ability with text.‘I have scoliosis and sometimes people are like Whoah! Can I work with you? Will I hurt you?’ laughs Cox, ‘And I’m just like, yes – respect my body the same way you would anyone else’.

Laura Murphy in performance. Photo: Francis Rodor

‘I have one leg shorter than the other – and I can’t do certain technical moves, so I ended up teaching myself to do a single toe hang as my other foot won’t bend that way. The possibilities are endless. Even if I am broken, or I can’t do this forever – I will make it part of the story’.

On a rocket to
The Fourth Dimension
Total self awareness
The intention

Farrell Cox is currently touring in ‘multicultural girl power aerial theatre show’ Tarzanna until 1st June. The UK premiere of Laura Murphy’s new work Contra is at Jacksons lane Saturday 23 March.

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Francesca Peschier

Dr Francesca Peschier is a dramaturg, lecturer, writer and ex-designer based in the New Works department at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with back-combing her hair to Dolly Parton heights and trying to create passable aerial hoop routines to goth rock classics.