Death is a complex thing to be close to. The experience can be held in a cradle of apparent paradoxes: both profound and boring, both sad and hilarious, both repetitive and surprising, both numbing and very, very sharp. At the same time as it is relentlessly real—unerring, in fact, at dismantling fantasies surrounding heroic emotions—it connects us with existential questions that transcend the physical and the observable. It is exactly this combination of the real and the abstract, this meeting of detail and depth, that provides fertile ground for the artist.
For a long time there has been a line of thinking that establishes death as the major source of circus’ fascination and power, with risk and physical danger interpreted as smaller indicators pointing to the larger abstract. Such ideas can be overlaid quite cleanly on more traditional circus forms, but if we look at the range of work produced by the field today are these theories still useful? More precisely, if embodied instincts, cultural assumptions and personal experiences around death all strongly influence how an audience member experiences a circus performance, then what social or philosophical role does circus have to play as it makes these connections?
The nihilistic view that dwelling on our mortality will make us gloomy and anhedonic is not consistent with the majority of observations, which suggest that contemplating death might in fact be one of many keys to a more deliberate and satisfying life. In this context we can ask what circus has to say about ageing and death, and attempt to set any discussions within the larger cultural perspective of a western society that talks little about death and has profound systemic problems around ageing.
With this bigger picture in mind, the second branch of this theme looks at a connected issue: how circus artists age.
The deterioration of physical ability, while often slower than expected, is inevitable if we measure ability in athletic terms. Yet manifestly other artistic qualities mature over time, and do so within the framework of the numerous shifts of context, identity and perception that occur throughout an adult life. As the circus field expands and begins to create new pathways for artists either transitioning out of performance or looking to significantly alter the direction of their practice, a pivotal question might be: When technical skills decline, what replaces them?
Additionally we can ask what it means to age when identity is so highly invested in physicality, and look at whether the staging of youthful vibrancy, in becoming a recognised path to commercial success, poses an obstacle to alternate approaches. A discussion of these topics needn’t be morose or complaining, and can touch on the richness of possibilities opening within contemporary circus as the sector, itself, ages.