Circus tends to be about spectacle. We watch, we “ooh”, we “aah”. We want to see extraordinary feats, performed by impossibly strong and glamorous superior beings. It’s distant and impersonal, yet heart-stopping in its aloof skill.
Ringside inverts that. Led into a tiny old demonstration theatre – one of those spaces in Summerhall that’s all gloom and damp and rusty surgical instruments dangling from the walls – a performer takes my hand in hers, chalk on skin. A trapeze hangs from the ceiling, the air around it vibrating with anticipation. It’s just the two of us in here, spectacle distilled down to the uncomfortably intimate. It’s still heart-stopping, but in an entirely different way.
Ellie Dubois’ miniature one-on-one show lasts just ten minutes. It feels somehow both longer and shorter than that. Cory Johnson performs each move slowly, carefully. The control is extraordinary, yes, but not superhuman. This close up, I can see each muscle strain under the skin, almost feel the effort in my own body as I watch her. She’s also glamorous, but in this small space there’s no hiding the bruises, the strapping on her legs, the tiny beads of sweat that begin to form as the routine continues.
I think about how often the spectacles we look at are women: women displaying their beauty, women not wearing many clothes, women required to make effort look effortless. There’s no hiding the dynamic of watcher and watched in Ringside. Johnson holds eye contact like a dare, her gaze unsettlingly direct. She smiles, too, a smile that hints at that feminine requirement to please in a patriarchal society at the same time as fiercely defying it.
Delicate yet robust, Ringside manages to hold a lot within its brief ten minutes. It’s also an intriguing subversion of form, innovating contemporary circus – known for its large-scale tricks and displays of virtuosity – in an unlikely direction. And it’s oddly haunting, its ghost likely to hang over the festival’s other dazzling spectacles, a reminder of what’s really going on when we gawp and gasp.