Definitions of the word presence are surprisingly wide-ranging, and in the performance world ‘presence’ has developed a particular nuance. For the stage artist it is the power of command, both a codified skill centred on posture and projection, and, more abstractly, a state of mind in which the artist is absorbed completely into the hereness and nowness of their work. For actors especially the experience of presence can have an ouija quality—to become lost in the performance, to be possessed by its energies, to forget the world outside.
In circus, presence is assumed to be a factor of physicality. Rather than a skill learned as a separate set of techniques, people speak of it as though it arises fundamentally from the extremity of the action itself. Artists themselves can talk of the total concentration their work requires—the impossibility of being anything but present given the reality and demands of the circus gesture—and there is an aesthetic line which presents circus with a deliberate visual and conceptual purity, almost in a state of isolation. In such works there is a bareness—an attitude that says ‘this is all there is’, yet an attitude that is perhaps seldom confronted with the question of whether ‘this’ is enough, or whether the colossal attention paid to the physical detail of circus action has come at the expense of a concentrated exploration of its purpose.
A discussion of presence in the circus field might therefore be richest when expanded from the artist’s experience to a larger social matrix. As an audience member, what does it mean to be present—present in the physical space, mentally present, attentive? How can the presence of the audience be interpreted as an act of assembly, and what are the dynamics of this in the ring and in the round? What, at a performance, are we in the presence of?
An exploration of presence will also dig into the roots of circus in ritual forms, and perhaps here we can open a larger dialogue with traditions in which a cultivated ability to be present is combined with contemplative practice, and in which the union of body and mind is both a virtue in itself and the preparation for a larger work. In the grandest terms, a sustained awareness of presence can bring us closer to confronting questions of existence and identity; in smaller ones, it creates space from automatic thinking and first impulses, promotes the appreciation of novelty, and guides us in forming a more mature relationship to our own consciousness and a more realistic relationship with the people around us.
Overarching this theme, then, is a final point on how to develop a wider and more complex understanding of the relationship between presence (attention to the present moment, awareness of the body) and conscience—what activates the better aspects of our selves, controls empathy, and morally bounds interactions and behaviour. In this way a discussion of presence might cross wider conversations about our cultural epidemic of inattention—conversations that are taking place in behavioural science, in ecological discourse, in the various struggles against the colonisation of public space by advertising, and in relation to both ancient and modern practices of mindfulness.
In short, if the challenge is to engage with this larger picture, then how can work in the circus field look past pure sensation, as well as vague ideas of ‘being in the moment’, to understand that the significance of the experience of presence might lie in our ability to relate it to our social, political and spiritual lives?