With a series of artistic research phases known as Bêta Tests and an academic line of enquiry lasting several years, the Gynoïdes Project is a wide-ranging operation aimed at creating alternative, feminist strategies for circus creation. Here the artistic director, Marie-Andrée Robitaille, talks about the project's objectives, about the expectations and pressures placed on women in circus, and about the sonification of circus equipment – a strategy developed during Bêta Test V.
The Gynoïdes Project started from an intention to understand circus practice from a female perspective. Or in a way perhaps it started with my own experience of being a circus artist – of going through dance school, then circus school, then being part of creations, and of always wanting to do something other than what was expected of me. I was always very interested in the thing I was not allowed to do, and even though circus is generally thought of as having a very permissive community, and is seen as a form where you can break the rules and where anything is allowed, I actually found through my own practice that this wasn't true: there were norms, there were codes.
When I was training at the École nationale de cirque in Montreal, I was supposed to do a tightwire act but I wanted instead to train Chinese pole. At that time, in 1996-97, Chinese pole was considered a discipline that was practiced only by men and I didn’t have the possibility to specialise in it. So after two more years spent at the École trying to fit into other disciplines, I left and started to transgress the established gender order of the time by performing a solo on Chinese pole. In 1998 I became, as far as I know, the first woman to perform a solo act on this apparatus.
As a woman in circus there are many assumptions about the type of discipline you do, the way you present yourself on stage, and perhaps also your status within the hierarchy of an artistic group. You are formatted in a certain way, and there are a lot of expectations weighing down on you. Employers expect things of you, audiences expect things of you, and I think you put a lot of expectation on yourself also – to please the audience, to attract applause, to conform to stereotypical models.
With the Gynoïdes Project the aim is to generate alternative or feminist strategies in circus composition, and the premise of the work is that the problem lies within the structure of the practice of circus itself – so it is the modes of creation, production, distribution, the culture of competition, and the education system which are pressuring women to a meet a particular norm. It's not my intention to condemn existing organisations or institutions, as I'm part of this community and contribute as well to the good and the bad of it, but if we want to be more aware of the ways that we are formatting and limiting ourselves then we need to question and examine the structures that surround the artform. Gynoïdes has two strands to work on this: one is an academic research activity, which is currently gathering statistics on the status and position of women in circus, focusing on the numbers of female directors and artists as well as gathering testimony and facts on how women understand and experience the questions of gender and the representation of women in their work; the other is an artistic research process that we're developing through a series of Bêta Tests.
The Bêta Tests are periods of one or two months of research and creation where I work with one to six female circus artists. We've had five Bêta Tests so far, with the sixth happening in December 2013. Each time we start from a dialogue, from a discussion, about the representation of women in circus and about the artists' own practice in relation to it. My goal is to start the practical work from a point of neutrality. 'Neutrality' is a term that can be endlessly debated, but I mean it in the sense that in the Gynoïdes Project we don't engage in creating any character or personification, nor are we ourselves within what I call existentialist circus – meaning the style of performance, which I think has been the trend for the last ten years, of being yourself on stage with your jeans and your nonchalant attitude.
To achieve neutrality we try to take away the layers of information that the artists have put on their work by habit or because they think it is the right thing or is what's expected of them. For example, we take away any layers of costume. Or there's still a costume because I'm not working with sexuality or with nudity, but there’s neutrality in the sense that they have a costume that’s skin-coloured and where you can see the shapes of the different bodies. What you see is based on their personality; their own shape, the forms of their bodies, and the way that they move are the basis from which we communicate with the audience.
For some of the artists this is a very challenging process. At the beginning of the Gynoïdes Project, when the artists first had to think about going on stage with that costume, there was already resistance from them. I knew that this would happen, so I was ready to be patient. I was educated in the dance sector, and for me to dance with this type of costume has been natural; in dance it's often so much the body that speaks and we don't necessarily exhibit it to impress the audience. It's much more about an internal journey, and it was often the case that I had performances where we wore very neutral outfits. With the circus artists I felt a resistance – they are used to theatricality, and they expect, they want, so much to make people laugh or applaud that to put themselves in a vulnerable place was upsetting to them. Suddenly they were not being asked to be cute or beautiful or flirty and it was a zone that I felt some of them hadn’t fully experienced before. But they thought about it, and they did it, and it's through the enthusiasm of the audience and the community that they have come to feel, I think, a kind of relief – the artists told me after that it was a big step for them to go on stage with this costume. Some artists have, in the past, refused to wear the costume because it leaves them too exposed, even though in another artistic context they might wear a much more scandalous or sexualised costume. The costumes/anti-costumes of the Gynoïdes Project always generate passionate debates, and in a way they serve as an initial point of departure to discuss questions related to the representation of women with more depth.
After stripping back the costumes we concentrate on looking at what happens with the simple practice of circus. So what happens when we don't try to suggest any metaphor, when we don't try to tell a story, when we don't apply any additional scenography. We strip back the things that the artists are used to presenting with their acts, and then we start from within the practice itself to try to rebuild the act of circus. This means that for the moment we work from within the artists' existing acts. Even though people say that we should break through the format of circus acts, in a way it's really difficult because there's a level of virtuosity that requires years of practice and years of centering yourself on your own body and the control of your body in relation to a piece of an equipment or a prop and the safety factors that come with it... so all this becomes a very egocentric practice where you spend so much time on rehearsing every small act of virtuosity – every trick and skill, within a certain style – that it's then really hard to strip back the presentation.
So we're kind of a little bit stuck in our own structure. Also if you want to – let's say – perform a Russian barre act, then there's a certain number of tricks that can be done in a certain amount of time. You can't ask an artist to jump and flip for one hour and a half non-stop; in that sense, we are the product of our skills. To go away from the format of the act is maybe not the solution; instead we maybe have to embrace it and see what are the elements we can change within it. In this way the Bêta Tests are trying not to fight the practice in itself but to understand the elements of the practice which belong to and are specific to circus. We ask what makes circus circus and not dance or theatre? And then we keep those elements and rebuild from them alone. So very early in the Bêta Tests I was not fighting the format of the seven-minute performance act; what I would fight is the music that you would put over it, or this thing of flirting with the audience, playing with objectification and/or the sexualisation of the body – all those habits that are also part of the practice but which are superficial and, in my opinion, not necessary.
So in the research we step back to a detached position and I start to develop strategies to avoid oppressive habits. It's not that circus artists are fundamentally resistant to new ways of re-presenting themselves; it's that we are so formatted and so used to doing what we are used to doing: now I'm reaching my arm out to the audience, and then I look at the audience, and then I fall back into myself, and then I look out... I understand why it's like this, I'm not denigrating it, but I'm looking for a more authentic expressivity. To achieve this we develop strategies such as having the artists perform their act in slow motion. Or we work with sound, as in the video extract. Working with sound has been a breakthrough for me in that I found something that is both a method and a very powerful aesthetic.
Bêta Test V was focused on exploring 'the organic sound of circus', so we looked at different ways we could capture the acoustic source of the sound of circus and explored various ways of working with the sound it generated. Sometimes I go to performances and the level of music is so high and detached from the stage; of course there are cues to sync the music and the movement, but you still lose a little bit of what the artists are doing because the music takes over.
Removing the prerecorded music the artists would normally use for their acts and replacing it with the sound of the circus action itself was an aesthetic choice, part of my ambition to strip things back to the bare bone, but I quickly realised it could be a method as well: every time the artists touched their equipment they would have to hear the sound that they were producing, and this prevented them from simply repeating a movement on autopilot. They became very aware of what they were doing. For the audience as well there is a kind of heightened awareness: they can see the sound and hear the movement.
The scene here is performed by the Québécois artist Sarah Lett. She studied at the École de cirque de Québec, and since then she's worked with many different circuses – among them Circus Monti, Cirque du Soleil, and Les 7 Doigts. When I first started working with her there were still a lot of gestures that she used because they were set in her body, and so we started to explore her own gestural language. We worked for example to remove a lot of the shapes that were mainly for posing and tried to go through every movement she was doing to make sure it was either to move the Cyr wheel or to transport herself into it. As I understand it, the impact working with sound had on Sarah is that she discovered or rather developed a clarity concerning being inside the circle, and a lucid sense of the fact that what happened in that centrifuge area was the core not only for the sound but for the expressivity. Her performance became more internal than demonstrative, and her way of dealing with the material in-between the technique shifted as we focused on what was happening at the core.
We tried different ways of capturing the sound. At one point the microphone was on the acrobat, and we tried a contact mic and different shapes of mic to see technically what was best. In the end we placed the mic on the wheel itself. The sound is generated by the artist manipulating or touching the wheel, the motion of the air rushing past, and the friction of the wheel on the floor, and then we used different technologies to manipulate the sound, give it a bit more depth, and amplify some of the core things that are happening inside of it.
The challenge here is that I want to stay true to the ‘real sound’ but as soon as the sound is captured we automatically impact how the sound will be perceived when it’s sent back to the receiver. The challenge is in balancing the desire to stay true to the inner sound with what we consider to be authentic to the physicality, the energy and pure motion of the artist performing. One should not forget that the exercise is to return to the core of the practice itself and to not fall into the same method of starting from a preconceived sound concept. Embodiment and enactment are the key concepts and theoretical positions from which I conduct the Bêta Test experiments.
When starting to work with sound in this way there was an immediate positive impact. It has automatically lead to a revision of the way of designing a circus act as the artists were suddenly listening to what they were doing. In the execution of movement it developed an awareness of every moment and every movement’s detail; the execution slowed and there was an economy of movement. The artists started to lose their habits and to create with greater precision: their focus was on what needed to be done rather than on how things should look. The audience experience was also influenced by the immersivity of the performance. The artists’ physicality was magnified, amplified, creating a ‘real’ sensory experience for the audience as they witnessed an artistic work that was unleashed from within rather than developed from a preconceived concept.
Marie-Andrée Robitaille is the artistic director of the Gynoïdes Project, and the head of artistic studies for the Circus BA at the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm. She is a senior lecturer in circus; her research examines the structure of circus through a female circus practice and explores feminist strategies in circus composition. In December 2013 she curated the Women in Circus Consortium, a feminist and circus lecture series, with a collection of circus performances on the topic of gender, in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Gynoïdes Project is supported by: the Swedish Arts Council, the Swedish Art Grant Committee, Stockholm Stad, KTH Royal Institute of Technologies, and the University of Dance and Circus.
Marie-Andrée Robitaille was interviewed by John Ellingsworth 25 October 2013 at Le Circ in Auch during Festival CIRCa.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.