Collaborating professors Louis Patrick Leroux (of Montreal’s Concordia University) and Charles Batson (of Union College, NY) have put together a book which compiles much of the current circus research based around Quebec circus (Cirque du Soleil and beyond) and shows its influence on the world of contemporary circus. Leroux also organizes the Montreal Working Group on Circus Research which holds regular workshops and roundtables.
What is unique about Cirque Global is that it does not dwell on the history of circus–since that has been done so well elsewhere–but instead, features the laser sharp observations of top circus researchers on the now. What is happening now in circus? How do the current trends reflect societies attitudes towards women and minorities? Where does creativity fit in to an increasingly commercial endeavor? How do politics effect circus productions? These are just a few of the questions the multiple researchers address very specifically with their studies in this fascinating read. Its a must for circus scholars and serious circus students alike. In this interview, Leroux and Batson discuss the particulars of how the book came to be, why circus research is so important and what the future of contemporary circus might look like.
How did you get the idea to produce ‘Cirque Global’?
LPL: Before the book, before the idea of the book even came about, I organized a conference in Montreal. It was the fall 2012. I wanted to gather everyone I knew or had heard of who was working on Québec circus in one way or another. We found quite a few scholars who were deeply invested in researching our circus but who hadn’t really engaged with each other yet. The conference became a meeting ground for scholars, for practitioners, for companies. The Québec circus milieu had never really gathered to think about itself in the terms we were proposing. We were taking it seriously and they were realizing how we could help them as well. Therefore, in September 2012, the circus scene and the academics met at Concordia University, McGill University, National Circus School and TOHU for a constantly moving event over two days and exchanged and agreed to keep the conversation going.
Following the conference, we all agreed that we would submit our revised papers for publication. The process was very long. I forget how many articles we had at various points, near 30, I think, 9 of them translated from French. Some of them weren’t included for a variety of reasons, peer-review mostly, others found more opportune niches in academic journals. During this process—I think it’s the semester when Charles was visiting professor at Concordia—Charles saw me overwhelmed with numerous piles of annotated papers (I was also co-editing a collection of Québec theatre scholarship and a journal issue) and most generously offered to lend a hand. Little did he know how all-consuming this project would become. At one point, for a few months, we were corresponding every day by email, sorting out photography, reprint issues, author queries, editing, marketing copy, indexing. Charles in Upstate New York, I in Montreal, and both usually traveling with our computers in tow.
We initially sent our book proposal to a number of presses, and a few were interested, but it was the editor at McGill-Queen’s University Press who made the strongest impression on us and who seemed most committed to making this book a foundational work on Québec circus studies and an important book for contemporary circus studies worldwide. Our working relationship with the press has been great every step of the way. They never allowed us to skip steps, to take shortcuts. They wanted this book to be as good as it could be.
CRB: Patrick speaks well to this process! I’d simply like to add that, very soon after that conference, we realized that a publication would be exciting, since so many threads of scholarship and thought were finding solid voice and expression. We are thrilled with the result and this foundational publication on Quebec’s nouveau cirque.
To what do you attribute the global rise in circus scholars?
LPL: A real need for deep thinking, identifying patterns and new opportunities in rethinking circus. The scholarship is coming from both traditional scholars from specialized disciplines looking to contemporary circus for new material and new ways of understanding their own disciplines (economics, sports science, dance, creativity, urbanism, sports medicine, engineering, etc.) and, at the same time, I’m seeing a very concrete interest from mature circus practitioners in understanding what it is they have been doing for the past 10-15 years and how they can convey some of this learned knowledge. The Working Group began with the former and very quickly was made more dynamic with the latter. I’m currently supervising MA and PhD students in interdisciplinary studies at Concordia who have an extensive artistic practice but who need a space and time to step back and reflect. They are the ones who will essentially define the field for the decade to come. I personally feel like a passionate pedagogue and facilitator who is giving some intellectual and methodological tools to this emerging generation of practitioner-scholars.
That said, they need to be schooled in academic language and conventions; they need to engage with other scholars and address issues rather than to simply describe experiences or make elaborate apologies for the recognition of their art form. Unfortunately, Cirque Global doesn’t show their voice directly; we had really wanted to include more, but the first proposals ended up not quite fitting the academic peer-review process. The next projects will feature more and more practitioner-driven research as they develop their writing and academic skills.
I have been reading much of the emerging scholarship, master’s theses, articles, more and more doctoral dissertations and I’m very much impressed with what’s emerging in the English world. (The French have developed this over the past twenty years). In North America, we’ve finally moved on beyond nostalgia for traditional circus or mere description of existing phenomena placed under vague labels. We’re seeing circus studied rigorously beyond its historical scope, with research into the conditions of production, paradiplomacy, creative discourse, very precise studies in current training practices, to name but a few approaches. We’re seeing appropriate academic language—yes “difficult” words and concepts, mucky ones at times—replacing impressionistic generalities. Like any artistic form, circus has its language and that language can absorb a precise academic vocabulary on its own terms.
CRB: I just wanted to add here that I had the opportunity to participate in a circus studies conference in Stockholm in December, 2015, and I was struck in particular by the large number of young(er) scholars present there from many places on this planet. It looks like this new field of circus studies is both attractive and important.
How will circus scholars help shape the landscape of circus in Quebec, or indeed worldwide?
LPL: I think that our role will be significant if we remain in contact and in dialogue with circus practitioners, students, and teachers. It’s easier, safer and less compromising to produce research in hyper-specialized silos, but to affect and especially be affected by the circus world, we need to be on-site, working alongside companies, artists, schools. This is how we will help shape the landscape of circus. But we also need to publish academic articles, chapters and books if circus studies are to be taken seriously by colleagues in academia and these will need to appear in recognized journals. We’re working on two fronts, both embedding ourselves in the milieu, and keeping a safe critical distance so that we can remain objective and link circus to our respective academic fields so that they might also be enriched by circus as circus, in turn, benefits from new critical lenses and perspectives. Otherwise we’ll become cynical and nostalgic and it becomes too easy to start ranting against current trends and vocabularies from the comfort of one’s office rather than to force oneself to remain engaged, curious and open scholars feeling the pulse of a live and fast-evolving art form.
What topics does ‘Cirque Global’ engage and explore and how are they significant?
CRB: As our foreword and introductions suggest, Cirque Global touches on a multitude of topics, showing that circus studies is necessarily interdisciplinary. History, labour relations, urban studies, dramaturgy, aesthetics, mediation, ethics, alternative practices – it’s all there, and more. To be honest, it’s quite difficult to come up with a “list” of “topics,” given that our chapters show the cross-fertilizations across multiple disciplines, topics, and fields of exploration. It is important to note, I think, that we are not all, say, historians, nor theatre people, nor sociologists: circus studies brings many threads of scholarship together. And that perhaps is a part of its significance. Another element that is hugely significant, we believe, is that the fields of dance or theatre studies, for example, have been alive and well for many, many years (centuries, even!), while a field called “circus studies” is quite new, save for a few significant trailblazers. Our contributors have been able to show us that this field is rich, ripe, and ready!
What are the top ingredients that make Quebec the perfect incubator for circus creativity? Do other locations have the same potential?
LPL: Montreal has a pride in its creativity, entrepreneurship and expertise in artistic and technical fields. Also, on the attractiveness of Montreal for creators wanting to spend time here: we have relatively cheap rent; beautiful people; great food; four universities with between 20 and 40 000 students each—so intellectual and youthful energy; a thriving artistic scene (theatre, dance, independent music); a thriving creative industries scene (video, software, gaming, film); and generous public and government support for and belief in the arts. Montreal, Québec, and Canada all fund its artists. Strictly speaking circus: the ‘Big Three’ are here: Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Éloize, and 7 Fingers, as is the annual Montréal Complètement Cirque festival which draws tens of thousands of spectators and every serious producer and programmer of contemporary circus. There’s the world-renowned National Circus School of Montreal which attracts and retains high level coaches, students, and is a draw for researchers alike. All of this activity draws artists to the city. A number of studios and various training facilities have followed, in addition to the traditional feeder schools. Basically, what I’m seeing in Montreal is the perfect storm of production companies and venues looking for quite a bit of talent for multiple touring shows, of high level training attracting circus-folk from around the world, of opportunities to train and find out who is working on what, all of this in an already thriving artistic city where one can live cheaply and feel like you have one foot in Europe and the other in America.
Other cities do have similar potential, from what I’ve seen, Chicago, with greater public support could become such a place. There are so many hubs of creativity across North America, but very few have a single company fuelling a billion-dollar a year industry. Quebec has very little nostalgia for the “good old days” of traditional circus, it barely knows its own circus history (we deal with this, in part, in the book!) and, in a sense, it offers greater freedom to constantly rethink, reinvent, and reinvest in the art form.
CRB: The one thing I’d add here is that the history of the beginnings of this thing called ‘nouveau cirque’ in Quebec reveals quite a bit about the synergies of the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec. As I mention in my own chapter, those origins were marked with cross-fertilizations from theatre, dance, and the street arts. The 1980s saw kind of a perfect cauldron of creative energies in which a thing called the “nouveau bouger montréalais” — kind of a “new way of moving” with origins in Montreal — in which artists from multiple disciplines created all kinds of shows, drawing on and creating multiple scenic vocabularies. One could argue that that multiplicity, and that spirit of collaboration, certainly informs this whole thing called a ‘nouveau cirque’ in Quebec, and serves as a model for the contemporary scene.
Where do you imagine circus will be in 10 years? Can the skill levels and artistry continue to rise or will the trend of incorporating other arts make it indistinguishable from theater?
LPL: Circus is an evolving form of art and entertainment. It is permeable to other arts and to social discourse. It is fundamentally inter-disciplinary and so is used to integrating different artistic and athletic disciplines. It also is steeped in spectacle and works best when it assumes its liveness, and engages us with a spectacle of physical and moral possibilities projected onto the performers. The level of training will increase. Artists will be able to do more and better. But more importantly, artists will reclaim responsibility over their acts. I’m seeing a new wave of creators interested in creating, not only being written into shows anonymously. With great talent, training and interdisciplinary possibilities comes expectations. I feel that circus will explode into more and more forms for a greater variety of audiences and expectations.
Tell us about the Circus and Its Others Conference.
CRB: As you no doubt heard us mention at the opening of the conference, the idea came from several conversations we had over the course of one of the festivals, when we began asking ourselves about the place for and of the “others” of contemporary circus. Circus has obviously been a home for “freaks” of all sorts, but an important question arises when the contemporary circus scene becomes mainstream, as it has in Quebec, in such a situation, where is the place for difference? We felt it necessary that we explore that question in terms that include gender, species, ethnic and social origins, handicap, etc. The many scholars that came together for the conference took those questions to heart, and brought hugely fruitful and thoughtful reflections to the table. It seems particularly exciting that this group of scholars was resolutely international (with scholars from India, Italy, the US, France, etc., as well as Canada), and that our group represented many differences of origins and perspectives — and that so many of the conferees, in our own multiplicities, spoke of finding a “home” within this Circus and Its Others project.
Among the exciting elements of this 2016 Encounters with Circus and Its Others, we can count a stimulating roundtable on social circus that included a close look at the Quebec scene and its international reach in terms of advocacy and practice in rich but challenging environments. We were also very pleased to be able to lead conversations between circus artists and the general public in talk-back sessions after a few of the shows — thus guiding conversations in such a public space towards questions of the place of difference and otherness and their place on the contemporary scene. We think it important to know that scholars, artists, and the general public have much to offer to explorations of these very important questions!
We are also thrilled to begin plans for publication as well as more meetings and conferences, on the international scene.
LPL: But that’s another project, and another conversation. To answer your final question, “Do we intend on continuing to work with circus scholars?,” yes, absolutely. The Montreal Working Group on Circus Research is continuing its scholarly and outreach activities this year (again without funding) by hosting talks by MIT Anthropology Professor Graham M Jones on his analysis of creative discourse in circus-making, looking at the specific example of 7 Fingers’ dance-circus piece Triptych. Val Wang, an author and multimedia storyteller and professor at Bentley University, will be presenting a film on the coming-of-age of Chinese circus artist Daqui who left home at age nine to train and went onto perform with Cirque du Soleil and 7 Fingers. We will also be hosting a joint meeting of Concordia’s new Working Group on Risk (with colleagues from sociology, exercise science, and many other fields) and the Working Group on Circus where issues of risk and creativity will be explored. We’ll also be hosting a seminar on defining the terms and conditions of circus dramaturgy and creativity. This day-long event, in Winter 2017, will be an opportunity for me to share my ongoing research at the mid-way point of a three-year exploration into how we “write” the contemporary circus body. I’ll propose a conceptual model which colleagues, teachers, and practitioners will be encouraged to discuss, pull apart, but especially have a say in its final presentation. There will be more events, as well, but those three are now confirmed.
As for Circus and its Others, that project which grew out of the Working Group, has taken on a life of its own and will be having international visibility very shortly. Some papers given at this summer’s conference (2016) will be published as will a few additional pieces. Cirque Global was a first, necessary step for us to establish a conversation. The next step of course is to diversify and enrich this conversation and to avoid claiming “expertise,” to always be on the lookout for what we missed, for what is changing, evolving.
CRB: Yes, to return to that question of “do we continue”: yes, and of course! In such exciting times of seeing a field grow and develop, how could we not continue! This summer’s activities point to how artists, scholars, practitioners, and the general public all can play a role in this burgeoning field, and it’s been a real privilege to be a part of it all and to have Cirque Global contribute to this field.
Dr. Louis Patrick Leroux is an Associate Professor at Concordia University and the Founding Director of the Montreal Working Group on Circus Research. He holds a strong interest in circus stemming from his practical experience in theatre and scholarly research into discourse and self- representation in Québec Drama.
Dr. Leroux has published extensively and given many international talks on contemporary circus, and has worked closely with the Québec circus scene as a researcher, collaborator, and teacher. He is an ongoing Associate Researcher and guest teacher at the National Circus School of Montreal. At the NSC he is currently working alongside students and teachers exploring the various modes of circus narratives and dramaturgical strategies. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Duke University, Charles University (Prague), and will be at France’s Centre national des arts du cirque in March 2017.
Louis Patrick Leroux is also a playwright and a director. Recent creative projects have included theatre (False Starts, Se taire, Ludwig & Mae), performative video installation (Milford Haven) and circus (Hamlet on the Wire, and a laboratory exploration with 7 doigts de la main and National Circus School).
He is currently involved in many research projects, all-team based, including a Quebec-funded project exploring circus dramaturgy; a Canadian-funded project studying physical literacy, creativity and resilience; and a Canadian-funded historical synthesis and socio-esthetic analysis of Québec theatre.
Recent scholarly collections include Cirque Global: Québec’s Expanding Circus Boundaries, coedited with Charles Batson (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2016), “North-South Circus Circulations” edited issue of Québec Studies (2014) “Le Québec à Las Vegas” edited issue of L’Annuaire théâtral (2010), and Le jeu des positions. Discours du théâtre québécois, coedited with Hervé Guay (Nota Bene, 2014). He is currently working on a book on contemporary circus creators for Routledge with Katie Lavers and Jon Burtt.
Charles R. Batson is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Union College, Schenectady, NY, where he also won the Stillman Award for Excellence in Teaching. He is the author of Dance, Desire, and Anxiety in Early Twentieth-Century French Theatre (Ashgate, 2005), co-editor of a 2012 special double issue of Contemporary French Civilization, and co-editor of 2 recent issues of Québec Studies devoted to a Queer Québec. A member of Montreal’s Working Group on Circus Research, he has published work on French and Francophone cultural production and performance in such journals as SITES, Gradiva, Dance Chronicle, Nottingham French Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, and French Politics, Culture, and Society. He co-edited with Louis Patrick Leroux a compendium of essays on Québec’s contemporary circus called Cirque Global: Québec’s Expanding Circus Boundaries McGill-Queens University Press, 2016), and he is co-leading a series of research encounters in the new field of inquiry called Circus and Its Others.