Features Essays Published 19 February 2018

A New Era for Women in Circus

Poppy Burton-Morgan explores how female-led circus companies are dismantling and reimagining gender on stage.
Poppy Burton-Morgan
'Little Mermaid' in rehearsal

‘Little Mermaid’ in rehearsal

Women in circus. What images come to mind? Historically, circus was a place of huge emancipation for women. It offered the chance to be strong, the opportunity – in a time of rigid and restrictive clothing for women – to wear very little and move freely. Most circus disciplines necessitate form-fitting costumes or bare flesh. 250 years ago this was radical and empowering but in the intervening years, especially with rising awareness of the ‘male gaze’, and the media’s increasing use of women’s bodies as sexual objects to sell things, it became problematic.

The female body in circus became sexualised – a girl in a corset having knives thrown at her, a girl in hotpants contorting herself inside a metal ring. Fast forward to 2018 and the best contemporary circus is once again achieving what some of those curiously progressive traditional circus shows managed – it has once more become a ‘celebration of humanity’ and a platform for visibility (with a twenty first century eye on how to subvert rather than perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes). A platform for the female body as strong, muscular, capable of extraordinary physical feats. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the glorious rise of female-led circus companies.

This year sees the 250 year anniversary of Philip Astley’s circus ring so we can expect to see a lot of circus popping up all over the country – and indeed the Circus250 organisation can point you in the direction of that, led by the fabulous Ring Mistress Dea Birkett. Female-led acrobatic troupe Mimbre premiere their all-female The Exploded Circus in May, a feminist reimagining of circus’s history. A story of sisterhood and hope, The Exploded Circus takes place in a moment of frozen time when a big top has exploded and everything from the sequins to the fairground horses are suspended in the air. Six women emerge and must collaborate to form a new society in the aftermath of the explosion.

With my own company Metta Theatre, we’re currently in rehearsals for a feminist circus adaptation of the Little Mermaid (a tale that also historically problematic in its representation of women). In our version, female strength and sisterhood reign supreme. We offer up a version of the story where the protagonist is an active participant in her own story, a bold adventurer rather than the passive waif that Hans Christian Andersen was so fond of portraying in his stories. And Vicki Amedume of Upswing Aerial Dance continues her tour of the delightful The Ramshackle House. Interesting that all of these female-led works have a strong narrative drive and story at the heart of them. And there are more brilliant women emerging, including all-female cyr wheel troupe Alula, whose rapport as performers is matched only by their physical strength (they’ll perform Hyena as part of CircusFest this spring), and Aislin Mulligan’s company Circumference (who’ll perform Staged, also at CircusFest) whose work fuses technical skill with a physical proximity to the performance that creates an extraordinary sense of intimacy. These five organisations make wildly varied work but they all share one common feature – the way in which they represent women and their bodies on stage.

Alula Cyr (Jessica Ladley, Lil Rice, Fiona Thornhill) perform Hyena. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Alula Cyr (Jessica Ladley, Lil Rice, Fiona Thornhill) perform Hyena. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The disappointing truth is that beyond these companies, many contemporary circus shows continue to perpetuate the tropes of sexy lithe female aerialist and strong powerful male acrobat. It’s become almost a given that in a company of six or seven (the standard cast size of a ‘main house’ circus show) you can expect to see an all-male company bar one female performer. And so often she is required to be sexy on an aerial hoop. In a decade of circus watching I have never seen this pattern in female-led work.

Aside from the physical virtuosity and visual spectacle of their work, what is so exciting about the work of these female circus makers is their intention, be it implicit or explicit (as it is for Metta) to disrupt these traditional gender norms and model ways of being that celebrate the female body for many other things – being strong, being resilient, even being sweaty and hairy! In the past a trip to the circus with the family meant messaging along ‘old school’ gender norms. Girls you must be pretty and flexible. Boys you must be strong and powerful, or occasionally you may be funny instead of being strong. But changing this dynamic is hugely important, especially for work like our Mermaid, which appeals to family audiences alongside adult ones, and it benefits children of all genders. I’m a parent myself, with a household of two small boys and a household with a pretty progressive attitude towards gender norms. (In fact it’s almost gone the other way, with our three year old telling me as he prepared for a ‘ballet show’ on the living room floor that I couldn’t wear a tutu because tutus were ‘only for boys’.) As the mother of boys who feel comfortable expressing themselves in what historically would be thought of as ‘feminine behaviours’, it’s fundamental that they can see a diversity of male behaviors and role models represented on our stages. In our Mermaid the character of the Prince is unsure of himself on land – a 1950s world of rigid gender norms and binaries – and only finds a sense of belonging in the sea where he can express his vulnerability and natural grace without fear of reproach.

Of course, feminism in circus isn’t as simple as just inverting traditional gender norms – but there is for me there is an undeniable thrill in seeing a female acrobatic base ‘flying’ a male acrobatic flyer, precisely because a lot of those ideas that men are strong, women are small and dainty and made to fly through the air are fairly entrenched in our collective consciousness. The standout highlight of Company XY’s Before Midnight at the Roundhouse in 2017 was the all-female four-high (when four people stand one on top of the other, on each other’s shoulders), a trick I have never seen performed by all women before.

Compagnie XY in performance. Photo: David Levene

Compagnie XY in performance. Photo: David Levene

This is where Mimbre’s work is so powerful because an all-female company assume all the roles, types and tropes. A woman can be many things – strong, flexible, funny and able to throw and catch a large number of objects. She can be everything. What a brilliant message to send to young women.

But I’m conscious too that in an increasingly gender fluid age we’re moving beyond the binaries of male and female, masculine and feminine. As our Mermaid project has developed it has become increasingly important to me that the distinction between the world below the waves and the world on land is not a divide between the feminine and the masculine, it is a divide between a reality of fluid gender norms and one in which ‘traditional’ attitudes around gender not only prevail but are strictly upheld. And for any trans and non-binary children in the audience that they also see themselves reflected, represented and celebrated.

The female body is a political statement in itself and will perhaps always come with historical baggage. So many of our iconic images of women from the 20th century onwards involve a type of ‘male gaze’ sexualisation and female characters are so often reduced to being sexual objects. In the current long awaited, almost explosive feminist awakening these images have become even more loaded, recontextualised in the wake of Weinstein and Me Too. And many women are unpicking what it means to present themselves in this brave new world, where maybe it could be possible to own one’s own sexuality and not be forced towards the unhelpful false dichotomy of virgin or whore. Circus can be a powerful tool here because at its beating heart, circus is an artform that elevates the human body. The work of these women transcends ‘objectification’ because we are interested in these bodies for their strength, for their skills, for their ability. And therein lies the beauty of all circus artists. If circus is a celebration of humanity then the rise of this diverse group of female circusmakers is a great opportunity to celebrate the female body.

Poppy Burton-Morgan is Artistic Director of Metta Theatre. Little Mermaid tours the UK from March 23rd – August 12th 2018. More info here. 

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Poppy Burton-Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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