Changing Direction

A common question in the contemporary circus world right now seems to be “where are all the circus directors?”

People are researching and writing, looking within and without for an answer. But the answer is actually pretty simple if you think about it. They are all in Russia, telling people what to do.

Valentin Gneushev
Valentin Gneushev, Russian artistic director, choreographer. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev.

That seems to be the major issue at the heart of the “modern” circus director. If circus now is all about the individual, their personal desires and motivations, then what role is the “director” meant to fulfil? Heaven forbid that the director should tell the artist what they should actually be doing!

I do describe one part of my work as “director”: but it very rarely takes the form of the kind of work that we expect from a film or theatre director. And indeed, strange new job descriptions have emerged as the circus community tries to define the role of circus director. “Outside eye” being one of my personal favourites… Or we try to avoid the issue altogether by bringing in dramaturgists or choreographers rather than directors.

The most successful contemporary circus directors seem to be those who create shows that they claim to be based around honesty and realism and individuality: made with and for the specific artists involved. Yet strangely, most of those shows also seem to carry on working well with replacement casts and new disciplines. Is it possible that these contemporary circus directors are more about spin than content?

Some of the most successful modern circus shows in our brief history have been the product of the French school system. Shows where a theatre director or dance choreographer were brought in to create a show with the students. Here perhaps the director’s role is more real than in many productions, but even here the artists were already “booked”, the skills already fixed. So even in these cases, the director’s role was to mould the material given to him, rather than to start with his own pure artistic desires.

This is not to say that the power of the artists personal values should be entirely¬†discounted. Looking to the East, Moscow’s Valentin Gneushev [1] was incredibly successful in the late-80s to mid-90s with his modern circus act productions. He started with a concept, often inspired by paintings or other artworks, and then sought out the artist that he wanted to make the act with. Having worked in Variety shows with many of “his” acts, I feel strongly that the most convincing of these acts are those where the artistic concept meets the personality of the performer. In other words, those cases where Gneushev found exactly the right artist to personify his concept. Obvious of course, just as a film director also looks for the right leading man for his movie: but in both cases, the original concept comes from the director, NOT from the performer.

So where does that leave us today? We do need circus directors who can listen to the sensibilities of the circus artist: directors who can find the core within the individual and help to bring it out. But at the same time, we need directors who can take responsibility for the content: to make artistic decisions, and to use the artists themselves to communicate the directors intentions.

We need circus directors who, when neccesary, aren’t afraid to tell circus artists what to do.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentin_Gneushev

3 thoughts on “Changing Direction”

  1. Cracking article Luke. I am loving the summary sentence at the end because it made me remember a recent Cirque Du Soleil show I saw. Without direction on a scale that large, despite each skill act etc having the feeling of separation, an overall theme will not be cohesive. Despite the need for direction, some individuals can compose a piece or show themselves and still have the same impact, for example Michael Karas and Jen Slaw in “Perfect Catch”

    I struggle to think how they can direct themselves to adapt to the show idea unless it is meticulously planned from idea conception.

    Am I missing you point at all?

  2. Great article Luke. The comparison with Cinema is an interesting one especially when you remember that film directors work with casting directors whose sole responsibility is finding the right person/people to work with. How often is the casting process so well staffed in circus?

    Also, where do you even go to find a director? (ignorant English perspective)

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