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Asking Why

I have a great respect for circus artists and their constant effort to keep trying new things.  Always asking, how can we make this better? Cleaner? Stronger?

But what about the why?  Does motivation matter?


Why does my body move? What is the intention of the movement?

To seduce…

To soar…

To free…

To conquer…

” […] in life, everything we do and say has an intent, whether conscious or unconscious.”

An intention in acting, also called a motivation or objective, is a driving force that fuels and grounds an actor in a scene.  The idea is that in life, everything we do and say has an intent, whether conscious or unconscious.  When an actor plays the intention of the character in a scene it can help give the lines a deeper meaning and a more honest delivery.

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Persephone Bound_Leda Davies Photo Credit: PhotosDeCirque.com

In circus, the lines of text are the movement and the apparatus (or other circus artists, and sometimes, the audience) is the other character on stage.  When a circus artist knows their intention, they are able to unlock the honesty in the movement and breathe new life into what is otherwise a mechanical exercise.

If the artist doesn’t ask herself why she moves, how is the performance ‘art’, and not ‘sport’?  What is the difference between a circus act and an Olympic event if the person on stage doesn’t know what they are trying to communicate to their audience?

“[…] in order to uncover the meaning the artist must ask why they move.”

In French the circus performer is often called “l’interprête”, the interpreter.  A quick search on dictionary.com will tell you that a person who interprets, “gives, or brings out meaning”.  Therefore, it is the circus artists role to bring out the meaning of the choreography, and in order to uncover the meaning the artist must ask why they move.

Triptyque par Samuel, Anne et Marie

Triptyque des 7 Doigts de la main

I recently attended a circus forum in which the speaker, Samuel Tétreault of Les Septs Doigts de la main, was giving a brief history of contemporary circus and compared it to the evolution of contemporary dance.  Contemporary circus is a rebellion from traditional circus, said Tétreault, just as the flexed foot in early contemporary dance was considered a revolt to the mutiny of ballet, not that long ago in circus a flexed foot was considered avant-garde.  Now, contemporary circus artists wear street clothes instead of leotards, and in some cases, as with the shows of Les Sept Doigts, the artists speak directly to the audience, and share personal stories.  These are evolutions of an art form. If circus is to evolve why not address the fact that these are human beings performing these death defying feats, not props or objects.  They have two eyes that look out into an audience, a heart that beats and a mind capable of desire.

“An artist’s job to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky. And I don’t get to decide what truth is.”

In season 3, episode 17 of The West Wing U.S. Poet Laureate Tabatha Fortis, played by Laura Dern says, “An artist’s job to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky. And I don’t get to decide what truth is.”

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Persephone Bound_Leda Davies Photo Credit: PhotosDeCirque.com

In circus there are many things that can captivate an audience.  The draw might be the strength of the artist, their flexibility or their audacity to hang upside-down from one’s ankle 10 feet in the air.  It might also be the large (or small) scale of the apparatus, or it might be the number of acrobats in a pyramid.  I’m all for being ‘wowed’, but personally I want more from my art going experience, otherwise it’s merely spectacle. Often times, when I watch contemporary circus -acts I can’t help but disengage from the experience. Without intention behind the movement I’m simply not captivated.

“I don’t want the glitter and fanfare if it means losing the heart, the humanity.”

I don’t want the glitter and fanfare if it means losing the heart, the humanity. The movement doesn’t necessarily have to tell a story to keep me captivated (although my mind may do that subconsciously), but the movement must have intention, because that is the difference between circus as a skill and technique and a rip your heart out, can’t peel my eyes off the stage, wondrous performance.

Intention gives a movement life.  Intention is the artist’s job.  Intention has a role in the evolution of contemporary circus. Intention is what makes movement art.  And that is why the circus arts must ask “Why”.

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The Long Lens Approach: A sustainable creation model for the future

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Léda Davies on straps in Persephone Bound, performed at Cocktail Cirquantique, April 2017 in Montreal. Photo by Louis-Charles Dumai

For the majority of (English) theatres in Canada a rehearsal period is 2.5 weeks long, the rest of the 3rd week is spent in tech and then it’s SHOWTIME! This is the standard theatre creation model.  Generally, this timeline is followed due to necessity.  Rehearsals cost time and money, and a show doesn’t start generating revenue until it’s got an audience.  However, is this the most advantageous model?  Is this model producing a high quality of art, or is there benefit in taking what I like to call “the long lens” approach?

The creation process for Persephone Bound began in the Fall 2015, and is only now entering the production phase.  Although part of this long-term process model was necessary due to full-time jobs, and busy touring schedules it has given the production multiple layers, enabled us to integrate multiple disciplines without sacrificing quality or technique and has made producing this project financially viable for the small independent company that I run.

My partner Jed Tomlinson and I began exploring the themes and artistic elements of the show in November 2015, when we participated in AER Time, a work-in-progress showcase curated by Femmes du Feu.

We wouldn’t go into another creation period until end of June 2016.  However, in the 6 months leading up to the residency I wrote several drafts of the script, and trained rigorously on the straps (the apparatus I eventually decided to use in the show), gaining as much strength, endurance and vocabulary as possible.

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Léda Davies on straps in Persephone Bound, performed at Sans-Filet, August 2016 in Montreal. Photo by Hervé Leblay

We participated in a research and creation residency with La TOHU in June 2016. Our rehearsals were split between time on the equipment at the National Circus School and time in the studio (see: Screaming Goats Collective).  The first creation residency allowed us to answer many questions about the project.  We developed our own creation process, clarified the story, re-wrote the script, defined the role that each discipline would have in the production and specified who our audience would be.   At the end of the residency I performed a short excerpt of the opening scene in front of nearly 800 people, and the feedback during the talk-back with the audience was very positive.  But still, the project was nowhere near complete.

Recognizing that I needed to develop the script further before we could complete the choreography I teamed up with Emma Tibaldo, dramaturge with Playwrights Workshop Montreal.  From November-May 2017 I wrote multiple versions of the script and would meet with Emma and Jed to update them on my progress.  This time also allowed me to research the themes of sexual consent, the laws and the individual stories of survivors which enriched the script and my own character.

This past May we began a second research and creation residency with La Tohu.  We reunited our whole collaborative team, completed the choreographic sequences and added the element of sound, which would be played live throughout the performance.  At the end of the residency we were able to perform the entire production for an invited audience.

“Like the perfect chocolate cake each layer of the process added a satisfying nuance.”

By slowly building Persephone Bound over a two-year period we were able to present a thoroughly developed story and rich characters.  Although many of the original scenes from the first workshop ended up being cut, their essence remained.  Something that was once a scene might now only be a line, but that line carried with it greater depth and importance.  Like the perfect chocolate cake each layer of the process added a satisfying nuance.

“With time on my side I was able to develop my strength, technique and straps vocabulary until the apparatus literally became an extension of myself.”

But these layers would be ineffective if the technique wasn’t there.   With time on my side I was able to develop my strength, technique and straps vocabulary until the apparatus literally became an extension of myself.  Persephone Bound features not one, but four aerial sequences and I’m literally attached to the equipment the entire 40 min long show.  From a circus perspective this is unheard off.  Most solo aerialists in a Cirque du Soleil production are in the air for 6 min IF that.  But, having the extra time to train allowed me to build up my endurance so that I didn’t get injured and I could safely execute all my skills.

“I would not have been able to produce any of these workshops if it weren’t for my full-time job.”

Lastly, this long lens approach made this project financially viable.  As I mentioned earlier, most companies can’t afford to take this much time to create a project because they need to get their shows in front of an audience as soon as possible to make money.  The difference being, I am not a large-scale theatre company.  I am an independent artist creating this project because it excites me artistically and I believe it is an important story to tell.  I would not have been able to produce any of these workshops if it weren’t for my full-time job.  This meant that I had to train after work, and on the weekends.  I would spend most of my lunch hours working on my script.  I collected my over-time hours so that I could take paid leave to produce the residencies.  I’m not saying it was ideal for me to be working a full-time job while producing and performing in a large multidisciplinary project, but when grants didn’t come through I could keep going, and I wasn’t broke at the end of the day.  For the emerging artist wondering how they can viably create and produce their own projects the long lens is a financially sustainable model.

“…the long lens approach allowed us many benefits which included developing characters, a script and movement with more depth, successfully integrating high level movement disciplines without sacrificing technique or causing injury and we didn’t go broke…”

I would like to add one more thing, and that is about deadlines.  Yes, the long lens approach allowed us many benefits which included developing characters, a script and movement with more depth, successfully integrating high level movement disciplines without sacrificing technique or causing injury and we didn’t go broke, but it’s still important to have a deadline, even if that deadline is one year away.  In fact we had many deadlines.  I would make deadlines for new scripts, and meetings with my dramaturge and the creation workshops gave us deadlines for when we would present certain elements of the play.  The time commitments kept us focused, and motivated.

All these qualities have taught me that a long-term creation plan, or “long lens” approach has many advantages and I would encourage any company looking at devised work, or interdisciplinary performance to consider adopting this model.  It just might keep the art of theatre alive for generations to come.

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Léda Davies on straps in Persephone Bound, performed at Cocktail Cirquantique, April 2017 in Montreal. Photo by Louis-Charles Dumai

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