A couple of decades or so ago, circuses underwent a transformation. They started thinking about sex. Trained elephants and surly, mustachioed ringmasters haven't gone away completely, as a trip to see the Ringling Brothers next time the company rolls into town will prove. But a slew of recent circus productions celebrating sensuality, the body, and sexual relationships suggests a new emphasis in the world of performance acrobatics on exploring the emotional side of human physicality as opposed to the purely stunt-driven. Cirque du Soleil's racy, adults-only spectacle, Zumanity; the combination of stripping and high-wire in shows by New Zealand's Heavenly Burlesque; and the fetishistic fantasies conceived by the Scottish troupe La Clique all point to a new trend: The big tops of today are enfolding their audiences in a secluded embrace, whereas in the past, they served only to keep out the rain.
“It becomes clear that this particular circus has grown up — or at least reached adolescence,” wrote British journalist Stephen Armstrong in an article for the Sunday Times last week about the sexing-up of circus. Armstrong was referring specifically to the French ensemble Collectif AOC, but his comments could equally apply to many companies around the world, from Australia's Circus Oz to the Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main. But AcroSports City Circus' new “circus play” I Hate You, A Love Story goes further in one way than many of its counterparts in the sexual circus revolution. Not only is the show literally about adolescent romance, but it's also performed by a bunch of teens.
Written and directed by City Circus artistic director Tim Barsky — who rose to local fame a few years ago with his flute- and beatbox-infused performance piece, Bright River — I Hate You features a 13-strong cast of clowns, acrobats, jugglers, aerial dancers, and contortionists all under the age of 21. Barring one or two very junior members (Reuben Kessler wears a top hat that's almost as big as he is to emphasize the point) the performers are, I would guess, either at or approaching that stage of their lives where they no longer consider sex and romance as being equivalent to, say, eating worms, but rather as activities worth fantasizing about, even exploring. Yet for a show about teenage sexual angst, I Hate You is curiously innocent.
The loose narrative revolves around stock characters from the Commedia dell'Arte tradition. Oddball adolescents Francesca and Pierrot hold each other in such low esteem at the start of the show that they can barely stand to be in the same room. But when they are both unceremoniously shunned by the objects of their lust, a couple of aloof classmates named Paulo and Isabella, this latter-day Beatrice and Benedick eventually discover that they have more in common than surviving the ignominy of being dumped via cellphone text message.
As embodied by Olivia Weinstein and Anatoly Koshelev respectively, Francesca and Pierrot spend most of their time fighting like a couple of cartoon mutts. They expertly trip each other up and push each other over, sniggering all the while at each other's misfortunes. Sensuality — never mind sexuality — is completely absent as each of them takes it in turn to perform a standard mime set-piece in which an empty overcoat becomes an imaginary partner by slipping an arm into one sleeve. Weinstein spends most of her date with the overcoat contorting her face into unreadable expressions, while Koshelev (who has the makings of a terrific clown) is more intent on practicing his juggling than paying attention to the overcoat sweetie on his arm.
A dreamy sequence set in a Japanese tea garden complete with a kimono-wearing gardener (a delicate Annie Mitchell) and her four flower children takes innocence to an extreme. The performers, including a couple of burly lads, all contort themselves into expert lotuses without a care for the fact that they're sporting matching skintight Lycra leotards and fabric flowers on their heads. As refreshingly unselfconscious and skillfully performed as the scene is, it's hardly the stuff of hot teen romance.
Given the tender age of the performers, it's no surprise that I Hate You is completely devoid of nude trapeze acts and patent leather boot-clad clowns with whips. However, the show does manage on occasion to be sweetly sensual. Flirtatious musical exchanges between composer/beatboxer/DJ Carlos Aguirre and the circus performers rise above the stock nature of some of the physical shtick. A simple juggling routine suddenly bounces with rhythm and humor when treated as a conversation between a beatboxer and a clown. For a moment, we are able to forget the challenges of creating a story around a series of slightly scrappy circus acts and immerse ourselves fully in the characters' flitting emotions and deepest desires.
Other scenes offer similar transcendence. A hectic ensemble juggling routine against a painted backdrop of city lights suggests the excitement of going out on a first date with a cute girl or boy. Meanwhile, a solo “aerial tissue” act featuring performer Elizabeth Sheets entwined in a pair of black and white dangling satin “ropes” breathtakingly embodies the idea of falling in love for the first time. As the young aerialist gets herself tangled up in knots high above the stage and then plummets violently to within an inch of the floor, our hearts almost miss a beat. It is at these moments that I Hate You stops being a naïve and mildly narrative-driven showcase of young people's circus skills and truly expresses something of the emotional roller coaster that comes with being a teenager in love.
But the truly passionate parts of the show are few and far between. I Hate You rarely penetrates beyond the shallows of these young people's romantic feelings, despite the physical prowess of the performers.
From leaping through rings of fire to walking the high wire, circus acts have been used time and time again in literature and other art forms as metaphors for passionate human relationships. The circus movement has, on the whole, only lately begun to grasp this fact, with adult troupes currently in the throes of a belated adolescence. AcroSports, meanwhile, seems happy to carry on in a demure state of pre-pubescence. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, unless you're planning on making teenage romance the subject of a show.