2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Modern Circus as we know it today, a birthday widely celebrated in UK and Ireland as Circus250. Since 1768, this art form has been constantly shifting, changing and re-imagining itself, taking its audiences on new adventures and all the while pushing the boundaries of risk and human endeavor. Let’s look at the extraordinary journey of the art form of Circus and most particularly focus on how Circus sometimes flirts with other art forms such as Opera. Ockham's Razor artistic director Charlotte Mooney, was one of the four guest speakers to join us at our recent Circus250 Focus in Wexford Arts Centre during the Wexford Opera Festival. She talked about 'Circus and Opera' and depicted some of the stunning shows she has been part of. Enjoy the read!
Our Circus250 Focus event was generously supported by the Wexford County Council Arts Department of Wexford County Council.
About Charlotte Mooney
Charlotte Mooney is Co-Artistic Director of UK contemporary circus company Ockhams Razor, an aerial theatre company who combine circus and visual theatre. She has been devising, directing and performing with the company for 14 years. Their 6 shows have toured nationally and internationally garnering awards, and critical acclaim and the company has established a reputation for innovative, arresting, accessible performances.
In 2007, Charlotte was one of the original members of the skills ensemble in the ENO and Met production of Philip Glass’ Opera Satyagraha directed and designed by Improbable theatre. She has reprised this role several times most recently this year with the ENO.
As well as working as a circus director on numerous projects she also guest lectures on the MA at Circomedia and BA at NCCA.
Charlotte Mooney – My (brief!) experience of Circus and Opera
I was lucky enough to be invited recently to Wexford to speak as part of ISACS Network's event recognising 250 years of Circus. As it was held during the Wexford Opera Festival, ISACS' own irrepressible Lucy Medlycott asked me to speak about my experience of Circus and Opera. I can't claim to be an Opera aficionado in any respect – my experience is that I was part of an ensemble of circus performers, puppeteers and actors who performed in an Opera called Satyagraha for a number of years. But I was very happy to speak about that experience and what I learned from it – how it opened my eyes to how circus and opera are such compatible art forms and how it was one of my deepest, most formative experiences as a performer and maker.
But before going on to speak about opera I wanted to give an idea about who I was, the sort of circus shows I make.
I am one of the artistic directors of a contemporary circus company called Ockham's Razor. We have been making and touring shows since 2004 and are primarily known for 2 things: that we re-interpret traditional circus equipment and that we use the movement and relationships of circus to tell stories.
We have made a range of equipment over the years from simple floating platforms to giant hamster wheels. The equipment that we create enables us to explore original circus movement but also acts as a set and as a world in which to create stories.
Picture: ARC by Ockham's Razor | Nick Mackey
For example, our 2012 show Not until we are lost featured a perspex box with a Chinese pole attached to the outside. The movement in the box was really exciting – it worked a little like a climber bracing themselves in a chimney or narrow crevice – we could climb and contort within it even turn 360 degrees and because of the friction of the skin against the perspex we found we could also slide down just by pressing our palms against the walls. We were able to adopt more traditional acrobatic/aerial/climbing movement to make original choreography. There was also the possibility of adapting Chinese pole vocabulary playing between the pole and the perspex on the outside.
This tower and pole also created a very strong dynamic between performers. In the show, one of the performers – a man, began trapped inside the tower. He is literally climbing the walls, contorting himself like a big fish in a tiny tank. Then the other performer arrives from the world outside to the pole and she has all this space and freedom in her movement. They connect through the glass and eventually, she climbs up the pole into the tank, pulls him out onto her and carries him out through the hole in the roof of the tower, down the pole and to the floor where they walk their separate ways.
Picture: Ockham's Razor show NOT UNTIL WE ARE LOST by Paul Blakemore
There is a very simple story there about someone being liberated from a situation. And although audiences were drawn in by the technique and skill of the circus – the sheer joy and strangeness of watching someone climb and slide over what looks like glass, it was the relationship and the emotion of liberating someone that really seemed to resonate. On tour, so many people told us that they found themselves unexpectedly, suddenly crying as they watched this. How it reminded them of times, sometimes desperate times, when they were trapped within their own heads or in a situation and the people, friends or family who managed to drag them out of it. Ultimately, it was very easy for audiences to read the perspex box as metaphorical, as a situation or state of mind. And so, something simple struck a deeper chord.
" This is what I love about circus, that it can do both things at once – offer us the thrill of the skill alongside the emotion. "
While also subverting expectations and stereotypes, essentially the piece is an image stolen from Snow White where someone is liberated from a glass coffin with the genders reversed.
ENO SATYAGRAHA ENO Chorus Alan Oke credits: Donald Cooper
To bring this idea back to Opera and Satyagraha: the way the circus functioned in the opera – to build worlds and metaphor, was essentially similar. The opera was originally a co-commission between the Met and ENO in 2007. It is a Philip Glass opera about the political awakening of Gandhi and the movement that he started. The production was created by Improbable with design from Julian Crouch and direction by Phelim McDermott.
I was one of an ensemble of 12 circus performers, puppeteers and actors and our job essentially was to use very simple objects: newspapers, baskets, withies, Sellotape and our skills: stilt walking, aerial flying and acro-balance to build worlds, sets, huge towering puppets, animals and warriors around the chorus and principle singers. These were sometimes the world that the characters were literally in and sometimes the world of their imaginations.
An interesting element of this opera is that the libretto, all the words, are passages from the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. So, when we see Gandhi on stage tussling with the idea of whether he should start his movement, the actual words Gandhi is singing are a section of the Bhagavad Gita about a mythic battle between two armies. And what you see is the ensemble gathering bundles of newspaper and baskets to create two warriors to represent these two warring sides of the mythic battle but simultaneously of Gandhi's mind. These puppets destroy each other, fall apart, are recreated again and again and grow each time until eventually, they fill the vastness of the stage, as the battle rages within Gandhi and also on the mythic battlefield. Ultimately, the warriors disintegrate, transform and become the image of a holy cow wandering the stage.
"The visual set pieces like this within the opera using traditional circus skills: stilt walking, aerial flying, rope, acro-balance alongside puppetry and ensemble movement are a way to create images to further the narrative – develop or deepen the story. The circus is a toolbox for image creation. And it is a useful complementary tool as it offers breadth and scale. The sheer ability of circus to fill the air of a stage makes it incredibly at home on the literal huge stages of opera and alongside the huge images and emotions that they demand."
In Gandhi's movement, his followers created protest out of what they had. The fact that the ensemble creates towering images from very humble materials appears magical and also is essentially tied to the reality of the subject.
"I also believe that the use of circus plays into this element of Improbable's design and direction. There is an honesty in the physicality of circus. Circus can be a virtuoso display of skill, but there is also an honesty in the simple struggle of lifting someone – of climbing, which appeared on stage and contributed to the narrative."
Ockham's Razor show THE MILL | Nick Mackey
As I said I am not an opera aficionado, but in the little, I have seen circus crops up frequently.
"The scale and extremity of circus movement seem to suit opera, the scale, the colour, the versatility of the performers and the grandiosity make sense. I also think there is something about this ability to evoke emotion, relationships, metaphor and story which can also serve opera well."
In opera, you have a text but it isn't said it is sung. Already it is not naturalistic but heightened – you are already in an altered, metaphorical world. The way that it is sung shows incredible virtuosity and people go to the opera to witness this skill, this feat. And simultaneously the way that it is sung gives the emotion and the meaning – tells the story of the opera beyond the words. It functions in much the same way as circus can, where someone flying through the air can be demonstrating immense skill while also communicating a sense of joy or release. In this way, they are close bedfellows, artforms which require intense physical training and skill and which celebrate that and draw audiences to witness that. At the same time art forms which can use the physical very simply to resonate metaphorically on deep levels.
I hope I get the opportunity to work again in opera and explore this art form further. For the interested, the following link tells you far more about Satyagraha.
Also, the other Opera in the collaboration between Improbable and Philip Glass Arknaten uses juggling and opera with the glorious Gandinis in similar ways.
Charlotte Mooney – Ockham’s Razor Co-Artistic Director
Ockham's Razor show EVERY ACTION... | Nick Mackey
What’s next for Charlotte Mooney?
Ockham's Razor Show BELLY OF THE WHALE | Mark Dawson
"unique and quietly thrilling" - Theatre Things
"a kind of living sculpture, it's a sight to behold." - What’s on Stage
"a visual and aural feast - catch it if you can!" - Theatre Box
Ockham's Razor show TIPPING POINT by Mark Dawson Photography
“a terrific show” - The Guardian
"playful and poetic - this is a class act.” - The Times
“mesmerising and breathtaking - their best show yet” - Total Theatre
Find out more information on the Ockham's Razor’s website.