Circus is Not Dead

tenacious

waist-high dandelions at roadside, Montreal

Two weeks ago I was in Montreal connecting with Jeremie Robert, a super-talented acrobat and circus performer currently performing with Compagnie XY.

Jeremie and I met through his work with ArtCirq, an indigenous circus in Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada.

I have been applying for grants to travel to Nunavut for about two years now (still no luck) and would love to write about these performers in the Arctic. It’s super-expensive to get to the far north, though.

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Image via ArtCirq

Climate change is occurring in the Arctic twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, with a predicted 5 to 7 degree Celsius temperature rise in the next century.

Igloolik is a community on the front-lines of climate change, and also a place deeply invested in the healing powers of performance art. I can’t imagine a better place to record stories.

What is circus, anyway?

I asked this question to a Compagnie XY acrobat at a barbecue a few nights before their first show.

“Almost anything can be circus in the right context,” she said, “and there are whole theoretical classes at circus school devoted to this exact question. Circus art is something that you have to train and study for years in order to perfect.”

(I’m familiar with this line of questioning, though I’m usually on the receiving end of it: What is Folklore & Mythology?“)

Circuses are generally performed in round tents, too––or so I learned from a mini-exhibition at TOHU.

Ringling Bros. is dead, but circus is not. Modern circuses don’t have animals. It’s more about skill and training than flashy oddities.

flying

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If I decide to go to grad school in the coming years, Performance Studies is a field I’m considering. I love the idea of wrestling with the circus question, and interviewing / writing about performers in this sphere.

👣

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Montreal though, what a place. Light tastes different in every city.

circus-ing

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My favorite thing to do in Montreal was just wander.

c'est moi

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Montreal is spiral staircases on the outside of homes.

(I love walking up and down these kinds of stairs. It feels like being inside of a seashell.)

island full of curvy staircases

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…long afternoons in the park, eating fruit and watching the world go by,

long summer days mean more time for adventures 🌞

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… rainbows everywhere,

🌈

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I will take all the rainbows, please 🌈

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… and of course, poutine. (Pro tip: poutine tastes best after drinking local beer in the park with a new friend, and will keep you full forever & ever.)

baby's first poutine 👍🏽

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I think I’m falling in love with public spaces / places where people can picnic. Afternoon light. Fists full of blueberries — blue blessings.

Montreal is full of bicycles. Jeremie let me borrow his for the week.

borrowing my friend's 🚲to explore the city on 2 wheels

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In attending a few performances at Montreal Completement Cirque, I learned that I’m fascinated with flying… maybe because I know it is something my body won’t do.

Is it too late to learn?

#rouge #montrealcompletementcirque

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Why do I travel?

To see more fully. To be surprised. To search for the blessing that sits just outside of my comfort zone. To begin over and over again.

When I travel to a new place, the days are long. Empty and waiting to be filled.

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Before I left the states I bought myself two rings, one for the middle finger on each hand. My left hand is a tree, to remind me to stay grounded:

growing roots

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The right is a feather for flying free. Serendipity.

When I visit a city, there are always layers––the detritus of cities I have been. The shape of houses in Montreal is not unlike DC. The parks that make me breathe deeper remind me of Paris. And anywhere I feel disoriented in language has an odd similarity––I could be in Fiji, or Tuvalu, or Thailand again.

I’m grateful for the sense of dislocation that not knowing a local language can provide. I get lost in the recesses of myself that I didn’t realize were still there.

I am the postcard monster.

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Montreal, I’ll be back. I want to connect with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) this fall, where I have been an affiliate for three years.

… and maybe find some Canadian folks to collaborate with on the audio map in progress.

cautionworkinprogress

still one of my favorite signs — spotted in Suva, Fiji, 2014

More soon. Here’s to living the questions.

~

 

Folklore & Mythology

For anyone who wonders what the heck I mean when I say I studied Folklore & Mythology, here’s a glimpse: https://vimeo.com/114376106

The background in ethnography and the art of storytelling (and story-listening) that I gained in this course of study has upended the way I interact with the world in the most wonderful possible way––I listen more closely.

Everything from conversations with my grandparents to a talk with a Kiwi car mechanic when I’m pulled over in his shop to get out of a rainstorm takes on a whole new life.

Turtles, all the way down.

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Storytelling and Community

elaineblanchard

“Here comes an interesting person.”

I’m sitting with my legs folded under me on the maroon couch at Elaine Blanchard’s house in Memphis, cradling a mug of ginger tea between my hands. There are four women scattered on sofas and armchairs in the room. A fifth is about to enter through the screen door.

“This used to be a gathering for clergy women,” Elaine explains, folding her knees under her, “but now it’s expanded to interesting women.” She stands up to greet the newest guest and offer us carrots with tzatziki and glasses of bubbly, her movement fluid and confident.

~

Elaine Blanchard is a fabled storyteller in the Memphis area. She has written and performed in two one-woman performances: “For Goodness Sake,” a story about oppression and redemption, and “Skin and Bones,” about body image and eating disorder.

In addition to her solo work, Elaine facilitates a creative writing and performance program, Prison Stories, at Shelby County’s jail for women. Each class of twelve meets for four months during which participants share their life stories. Elaine writes a script based on the stories shared, which is then used by professional actors to create a performance for the entire community to attend.

This past summer, Elaine met for twelve weeks with a group of clients from Friends For Life, a service agency for people living with HIV and AIDS in Memphis. Elaine provided them the opportunity to tell their stories and wrote a script, “Positive Stories,” which was then performed by professional actors.

It is always wonderful to connect with a person who devotes their energy to understanding the art of storytelling, and who pays that love forward by listening and sharing the gift that words and narrative can be. Elaine is a light in the world. Her energy and warmth––a soft yellow glow––is contagious. I strive to pay that goodness forward, to be the best listener and storyteller that I can be.

She is hope incarnate.

~

When everyone is settled with beverages in snacks, Elaine regains her seat on the couch and settles into a story.

“Well I just got back from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough with my students from Memphis College of Art. Have you heard of it, Devi?”

I nod over my tea. The storytelling festival is an event that I read about in my Intro to Folklore & Mythology course freshman year in college (and dreamed about, because that’s what you do when you are a Folklore & Mythology student). It feels wonderful to be sitting here, just one degree of separation away from the national stage of storytelling itself. I don’t know if I’ll be back in the states in time for the festival next October, but goodness knows I would love to be a part of it in the years to come.

Elaine recounts a story she heard at the event: a mother at an internment camp in the Holocaust saved 55 children left to die in the woods by sneaking them soup under her coat.

The conversation turns to church matters next (this did, after all, used to be a gathering of clergy women) and somehow we end up back at stories of water and climate change.

“It’s odd that you’re doing this here,” one woman chimes, “––in the middle of the country, I mean. Things are slow to happen in Memphis. People are slow to care. We have the buffer of the coasts.”

~

If/when I have a place of my own, I want to invite people over regularly to tell stories as Elaine does, to chat over food and drink.

~

In my sophomore year, the Harvard College Women’s Center Mentorship Program matched me with Roxie Myhrum, Artist Director at the Puppet Showplace Theater. Roxie introduced me to many pockets of art and performance in the Boston area. One of my favorite events that we would attend was SOOP (Stories of Our People) in Jamaica Plain.

Before SOOP disbanded––the organizer, Aimee Rose, needed to focus on her acting career, which is perfectly understandable––Roxie and I would take the Orange Line out to gather along with forty or more strangers in the apartment that Aimee shared with a few other artists. The ticket to enter was an item of food: a loaf of bread or a vegetable or a bottle of wine or a block of cheese. Three or four people would be on duty to chop up the vegetables and get two big pots of soup started straight away. In the meantime we munched on the bread and cheese and wine and met the other folks in the room. While the soup was cooking, its smell permeating the house (sometimes aromatic with sage, other times deep and hearty), a few hours of storytelling would ensue.

Folks sang. There was interpretative dance about mother’s coming to visit from Wyoming, stories of visiting an ex the weekend before. A smattering of classic fairy tales. The occasional puppet.

My favorite spot to watch was perched on the countertop in the back of the room where I could see both the performer and the audience’s reaction. I had just finished taking a class called “Race, Gender, and Performance” with Robin Bernstein and seeing the performativity of everyday life juxtaposed with storytelling on stage set my mind working for days. I loved this new framework of viewing the world through performance, and community through storytelling. The stories we tell make us, in a very human way, who we are.

You know those moments when everything feels suspended, perfect, just for a glimpse of a second? Jill Dolan calls it “utopia in performance.” I remember being held there. The room held me. The community did. It happened once, in December, in the middle of a new friend’s dance piece.

Two months after I started coming, SOOP came to an end.

~

“Devi, you’ll love this,” Myah starts.

I’m in downtown Memphis, digging through my backpack to find soap and conditioner.

“So I went down to Mississippi to visit my nephew for his birthday,” she continues. “His one wish was to have s’mores for dessert. We made a campfire out back, and everyone sat around the fire. He pointed to his aunt and said in the cutest little voice: ‘Auntie, tell me a story.’”

Myah’s eyes light up. “And she did! It was the best rendition of the Three Little Bears I ever did hear. Of course it was my turn next. I didn’t know what to talk about, but The Twelve Dancing Princesses was always my favorite story so I did my best to remember the whole thing. It was probably the worst telling of all time, but he loved it! And I did too. It made me think of you.”

After telling stories, Myah’s family sang “The Wheels on the Bus” and feasted on marshmallows. Stories like this make my heart grow three sizes too big.

Community comes out of food and storytelling––of being together and fully present to share our lives with one another. If that isn’t a radical act, an act of love, then I don’t know what is.