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Feel/Transcend: Beyond The Big Top

By Adele Wong

I grew up listening to my grandparents’ stories from their decades-long career as circus acrobats. It was a three-generation, family-run circus that started in China, thrived in Malaya, and eventually retired in Singapore. I grew up fascinated with performance arts, and cherished the magic that modern circuses like Cirque du Soleil would offer. Yet a part of my being retains the memory of my grandparents’ words. My Nai Nai said the difference between an acrobatic troupe and a circus, is that the circus had animals. My Ye Ye stands at any circus grounds he visits, counting tents and assessing the height and thickness of the centre masts of the big top. You see, they went from performing on the streets, to performing in a big, hundred-member-strong circus. That was a victory for the post-war performing scene in Malaya.

I have been exploring the question — what does a modern circus without animals, or a big top, look like? What does it offer that still carries the culture of the word ‘circus’ as we know it? I found some answers in some of the performances at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) and Esplanade’s Flipside.

The first and most obvious heritage from the traditional circus is how modern shows evolve the craft and artistry of human acrobatic abilities with aerial acts, contortion, and movement. This was evident in Humans 2.0 by Circa Contemporary Circus where the power of human physicality was pushed and showcased on the Esplanade Theatre stage. I felt a strange familiarity with some parts of their programme, albeit presented with their unique twist and interpretation. During their powerful performance, I was hit with a sudden bout of nostalgia during one particular performance routine. This photograph of my grandfather on stage, next to a visual from Humans 2.0, shows that the circus is, at its core, about the people and the artistry of the craft.

Photo credit: David Kelly

A mass acrobatic performance item known as "Da Wu Shu” at the Tai Thean Kew Circus.
© Adele Wong, Life Beyond the Big Top: Stories of the Tai Thean Kew Circus, 2015

Moving away from animal-centric shows allows the modern circus to prioritise human performers. There is more creativity in exploring and pushing the human body to mastering exceptional acrobatic skills and executing them with extraordinary precision. The costumes for Humans 2.0 were simple, optimal for movement and showcased the form and definition of the human body, as opposed to the ornate costumes of a traditional circus.

Modern circuses also continue the tradition of non-verbal storytelling. They elevate this immersive experience with improvements in technology for effects created by music, lighting and set design. There is a shift from merely presenting individual acts, to employing more sophisticated storytelling techniques and weaving programmes together with a cohesive and narrative-driven show. Bornfire Circus’s Forget Me Not, staged at the DBS Foundation Outdoor Theatre as part of Esplanade’s Flipside festival had a theme and a story. They constructed a message about tackling the issue of consumerism and excess through their performance. Performers entered the audience space with waste materials, initiating audience interaction as performers did in traditional circuses. The beauty of their performance was cleverly juxtaposed against a backdrop of ugly waste materials for impact.

Forget Me Not
Photo credit: Rogan Yeoh

Also performing at Flipside this year, was Circus Park from Taiwan’s Circus Gate. Their presentation sought to reimagine the word ‘play’ through basic acrobatic acts using everyday objects. This playful show also employed techniques of mime and non-verbal comedy to entertain the diverse crowd that had gathered to watch them at the Esplanade Forecourt Garden. After the show, they opened the space for children to interact with their props, like their huge bouncy landing pad which became a bouncy trampoline.

Circus Park
Photo Credit: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

This reminded me of how circuses have always brought generations together with shows that provide family entertainment for the young and old. Traditional circuses were typically huge. My family’s Tai Thean Kew Circus consisted of a more than 100 members who lived and worked together. There was a huge focus on community. The modern circuses do not have this strength in numbers, but they build community by focusing on an inclusive and recreational angle, inviting anyone who would like to learn acrobatic acts to join them for classes and courses for fun and for exercise.

Watching Andrea Salustri’s Materia, part of this year’s SIFA line-up, at the SOTA Studio Theatre stage, further pushed my reimagination of the contemporary circus. Materia was a mesmerising work of object theatre which utilised polystyrene, the most common form of plastic. How could just one man (acting as performer and facilitator) armed with polystyrene, wind, water, light and sound, possibly represent elements of a circus?

In actuality, traditional circuses also involved small-scale acts by only one or two performers, interacting with unique props and materials. This could be anything from juggling, fire-eating, Chinese diablo... the list goes on. A light switch flips in my mind — like a traditional circus, the contemporary circus continues to capture the attention of a live audience through highly focused performers living in the moment with precision and mastery over his or her materials. The ability to captivate our human curiosity with a show of material manipulation is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. 

Because art imitates life, contemporary shows explore contemporary themes. Both Materia and Bornfire Circus had a message about sustainability and recycling of materials used in their shows. This evolution of the relationship between humans and our earth, is also the main reason why the traditional circus had to move away from the cruelty of animal-centric shows.

The contemporary circus highlights the possibility of mobility and agility in the modern world. Without the traditional big top, a three-hour-long circus show can now be deconstructed into different performances, and dispersed over many types of alternative venues. 

These programmes presented by SIFA 2023 and Flipside showed me that the modern circus may no longer have the traditions of the big top, and the awe-inspiring yet awful animal performances, but it still carries the ethos of human performances. The modern audiences have their breaths taken away (and their attention spans captured) by live moments of human acrobatic mastery instead.

The circus today utilises sophistication of technology and contemporary wisdom to explore our relationship with our bodies, our materials and our planet through art.

This piece is also published on Esplanade Offstage, which features content about the performing arts and culture in Singapore and Asia.

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