The art of climbing ropes. Generally held in polite and intelligent company to be the finest and bravest of the aerial disciplines, corde lisse appeals often to purists: against the relative complexity of trapeze or the accidental effects and built-in prettiness of tissu, its aesthetic is subdued, minimalist. The suspended rope is an axis by which the aerialist describes angles – a vertical plane – and in this sense corde lisse has a close relative in Chinese Pole, though the Pole is a rigid surface to be kicked off and lends itself to much heavier aerial styles than the rope.
In recent years much of the innovation in rope has centred on increasing the acrobatic vocabulary associated with the discipline – the release moves – though there have been smaller, subtler advances in complex, neutral, transitional movements – the connections between the standard positions and the ways in which drops are wrapped. The artform has also seen technique imported from Mallakhamb, an Indian gymnastic art that uses a thinner rope and goes heavy on toe drops and holds. (Mallakhamb favours quick, snapping movement and much of it appears to be technically possible because the practitioners are pre-pubescent girls and weigh about 90 pounds; nonetheless, dedicated aerialists have found a way to adapt and translate.)
Corde lisse literally means 'smooth rope', and is a discipline distinct from Web/Spanish Web (where the aerialist climbs to a small loop and threads through a wrist, ankle or neck ready to be spun extremely fast by a partner whipping round the rope at the bottom). Ropes are generally cotton, not as soft as you might think/hope/like, and divide for the most part into two types: a loose, flexible three-ply knit; and a denser, stiffer braided style.
Perhaps unusually given the depth of circus activity, there's not very much corde lisse practice in France, and there's actually far more going on in the discipline in the UK, the Scandinavian countries, and the pockets of America that have dedicated aerial communities. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that French artists are trained as generalists, with a great breadth of skills, when rope particularly welcomes those with no previous training background by permitting great deviance in technique and movement (in other words: style).
Compared to silks, corde lisse doesn't have such commercial/corporate value, but rope artists don't care.
a.k.a: Rope / Vertical Rope / Cuerda / Vertikalseil.
At a first encounter, the characters of Box of Frogs all feel like they’re about ten years-old. Kaveh Rahnama talks constantly and inconsequentially about his mania for collecting circus-themed toys and knick-knacks, shouting with delight when Amazon finally deliver his King Tusk elephant and enthusing how this proud and mighty creature is (brilliantly) equipped with a foot strop to secure its plastic rider — an innovation without precedent in the history of toy manufacture.
'My piece Habitat, performed by six aerialists on six ropes, was inspired by watching videos of gibbons in their arboreal home swinging gracefully and efficiently in the forest canopy. Their natural locomotion evolved in relation to their environment. I’m currently doing an MFA in choreography and through that became reacquainted with the computer lab, where students spend countless hours sitting and staring into a computer screen. Habitat examines the effect of our built habitats on our movement. I was questioning how our built environments (in this age of digital technology), constructed solely for human use, dictate the movement of the body. As we become more dependant on technology do our movement patterns become smaller and smaller?'
American choreographer, artist and director Kevin O'Connor on ensemble aerial, Axis Syllabus, contemporary circus in the USA, and the inspirational movement of gibbons.
The Circa essence is sort of this: there are ideas and concepts and emotions that inhere in circus and they fly out in the moment of performance. Trust, risk, failure, pain, vindication, joy, hardship, strength.
'Every artist has a story about themselves. 'I always knew that I was a mover'... 'I could never sit still in school'... 'I just couldn't write, knew that I had to move' – and this story is not enough for me. I always try to go deeper and find what their motivation was. Often we come to a breakpoint, the moment where they took the decision to become a circus artist, and I try to make them remember that breakpoint and what was important for them at that point and how it has changed since.'
Sideshow talks to the director Marie-Louise Masreliez about her devising method, Motion Participatory Choreography, and the piece What About Charlotte.
Sideshow profiles Finnish aerialist and dancer and not-a-theatre-maker Ilona Jäntti and her un-British body of work.
'I'm not really saying that it's a bad thing to work in narrative, but I was not theatre trained and I just feel that there are so many things in circus that I'd rather explore than how to tell something. I'm just really interested in what you can do with your discipline or with your body, other people, objects you've got within the space you're in. What can you do? I don't think there always has to be a story. I don't think the circus disciplines have to be forced into a theatre format somehow.'
Unquestionably CirkVOST have an excellent wheel. Built from dark metal, two towering rings are joined by an intricate tangled network of ropes, pulleys and looping bars. Old hanging lights cast their glow in the centre; a dark plane of netting stretches the bottom.
It's all about the carrots. In a carrot-driven society where everyone wants more carrots and is not content with the carrots they have, human beings are reduced either to unthinking automatons or to cruelly acquisitive, carrot-hungry Machiavellists.
'When I first started developing the act I was thinking, OK I want to make something really pretty, something really beautiful and, you know, in quotes, "pretty". And I started working that way and it just wasn't clicking and it wasn't coming together and I realised i'm not a pretty artist, it doesn't work for me. I don't have long arms and long legs. I'm powerful like a gymnast, so I have to make something that's powerful like that. And that's how I've always loved to move. I don't love to move in a dancerly way. I love to move in an aggressive way.'
Aerialist Shayna Swanson talks to Sideshow about her Mallakhamb-influenced rope solo Inbetweentime.
There's a disorienting scene in Mue where a woman with a mask on the back of her head—a mask with shoulder-length hair that obscures her ordinary face—climbs a rope, straddles and inverts and turns.
Last year I saw and reviewed the first part of Muualla, a collaboration between exceptional Finnish aerialist Ilona Jäntti and animator Tuula Jeker, and was broadly charmed by the world it created—a child's realm of exploration and pantomime danger where both the pleasures and the threats were imaginary.
Extending roughly from the what if premise of what if Layla had known her Saudi Arabian father and grew up under different cultural conditions, the piece is less committed to a thorough exploration of that scenario than a strategy of dissonance and subversion that unseats any single narrative before it can dig in.
'We go into the circus because we know that there isn’t a script. We’re not playing someone else. I know actors will say “when I’m playing Macbeth I’m not playing someone else, I’m playing the Macbeth inside”, and that’s one school of acting. But essentially we go into circus because we don’t want to do someone else’s thing. We want to do our act. So what we’re doing is telling a personal—a really personal—story there. So why do you need another story?'
Circus and rope artist John-Paul Zaccarini talks about Circoanalysis—a blend of circus and psychoanalysis that aims to strip everything back to find the metaphors and stories at circus’ heart.
Opening the circus stage on a brutally hot Sunday, Circomedia presented a short variety style line-up mixing degree and BTEC students. The clear standout was Steven Allen’s corde lisse routine—no gimmick, no overlay, just beauty in movement, and a blend of influences that borrows from other artists while retaining something of Steven’s own character.
Ilona Jäntti is a tremendous aerialist. She’s been in circus a long time and has the consequent deep well of physical resources, but it’s style, really, that sets her apart: graceful but not too-clean, having an all-body approach where elbows, teeth, anything can be used to keep her in the air.