There has been an explosion in contemporary circus at Edinburgh in recent years.Circa have taken up residence every August for the past few years with a string of hits, including this year’s Closer. The huge success of Knee Deep has seen Assembly putting on more circus shows including, this year, Attrape Moi and Grace at Assembly Checkpoint. The arrival of Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows in 2015 sealed the deal: circus is now mainstream on the fringe. For the last two years, the Total Theatre awards have recognised circus in its own category. It’s not just the fringe: this year the Edinburgh international festivalhosts the extraordinary James Thiérrée with The Toad Knew, a fantastical new creation that mixes circus, dance and theatre.
Joli Vyann’s Imbalance at the Circus Hub pushes aside the boundaries between acrobatics and dance with a graceful and elegant show that considers our digitally obsessed world, and what it does to personal relationships, with intelligence and impressive skill. Emma Serjeant’s one-woman circus show, Grace, at Assembly Checkpoint may struggle with dramaturgy and needs to find more clarity with its storytelling, but its impetus to use acrobatics to explore the trauma and confusions of a woman who has been hit by a car is a good one that, with less repetition and surer direction, may yet deliver.
Edinburgh audiences are up for anything. People who wouldn’t go near a particular genre for the rest of the year will take a chance in Edinburgh and this allows circus to thrive. One of the best circus sequences I’ve seen at this festival is a straps act about domestic violence in the subversive hip-hop and burlesque show Hot Brown Honey at Assembly Roxy. Perhaps Hope in the Circus Hub, meanwhile, is themed around climate change as Rockie Stone and Vincent van Berkel seesaw their way to oblivion. There is an extraordinary sequence in which Stone builds a tower out of bottles, which rises upwards and leaves her stranded like a crop-haired Rapunzel.
Subverting expectation … Hot Brown Honeyat Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh.
One of the issues for circus in Edinburgh is context. As it proved last year withSmoke and Mirrors, the Assembly Checkpoint space is good for aerial work. But it doesn’t suit a show like Grace, which takes place largely on the floor. The audience just can’t see enough of what’s going on. The Circus Hub may provide a home for circus and works perfectly well for traditional shows such asThrowback, the likeable but unchallenging young British circus show structured around the loose theme of twentysomethings’ nostalgia for their childhoods, but the unshowy thoughtfulness of shows such as Perhaps Hope and Imbalance doesn’t necessarily thrive when competing with the disco beat of the fairground. Or when it’s presented in a Big Top context in which the audience are looking for thrills and spills rather than introspection.
There is a bigger issue around gender, too, both in terms of balance within companies and of representation. Hot Brown Honey subverts expectation, but many of the circus shows I’ve seen this fringe perpetuate traditional roles. Casus’s latest show, Driftwood, in Assembly George Square, is as skilled up as you could want, if a little generic and soft focus, but unlike their previous piece, Knee Deep, it does little to challenge ideas around female strength and physical prowess in a company of three man and two women. Likewise, the eponymous star of Grace comes a cropper while eyeing up a man she fancies. And in Throwback the men wear jeans and shirts while the women are kitted out in tight little shorts and dresses and drenched with glitter.
This year’s circus shows ask thought-provoking questions, but those behind the shows need to think more about how they present themselves on stage and the messages they send out about what contemporary circus is and wants to be.