Circus, a diversity of voices and identities

The French magazine Stradda, which covers circus and street arts, offered in 2011 an interesting dossier on “art in the feminine”. The text pointed to a metaphorical departure from figures such as the magician’s assistant or “the circus owner’s wife who parades on an elephant” to, drawing from European examples, contemporary circus work authored by women who don’t match feminine stereotypes.

As a director and researcher of the so-called contemporary circus, I admit I wouldn’t feel comfortable judging genre relations in the classical circus by observing only its scenic practices, without considering the historical context of the productions and the social trajectory of the artists. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore that certain representations of patriarchal culture have operated, historically, in various narrative elements of the circus. In addition, discussions of gender identities have been held for a longer period of time and taken on greater complexity in other areas, like the theater or music – such as the discussion of non-normative gender identities and a more established queer scene.

The relationship between women and the circus is anything but simple. On the one hand, a number of stereotyped imaginaries are still in scene – women compelled to perform certain representations of “femininity” and “beauty” (usually through the reproduction of “soft” or “seductive” gestures), or appearing as assistants, or lending their bodies as ornament in situations where men are the protagonists, etc. On the other hand, as Janet Davis (2011) reminds us, circus imagery is also associated with representations of freedom, power and nonconformity (in terms of aesthetics, physicality and lifestyle), and these also reach “circus women”, contradicting the more traditional narratives of submission and fragility.

In the Brazilian context, Erminia Silva (1996) demonstrates how women have always played different roles in maintaining the circus-family way of life, where work has a collective and communal character. Such women are involved in tasks that expand far beyond the domestic sphere (constructed as “women’s place” in the conventional bourgeois narrative), including several jobs shared with men, such as creating and assembling apparatus, costumes and props; caring for animals; sharing knowledge and skills with younger generations, etc. And above all, as Silva shows, the circus woman “from the moment she is born, will be prepared to perform an activity that requires more than fulfilling her work journey as mother and homemaker: she will be a circus performer at night” (ibid., pp. 58-9). Nevertheless, the author ponders that the circus-family structure does not escape the model of the general patriarchal regime, which reinforces the idea that this is a contradictory and complex relationship.

But, after all, why is it important to diversify narratives constructed from a masculine and heteronormative viewpoint in the circus and in the arts? Beyond the general political justification of gender equality, this theme also touches on the issue of diversity in cultural and artistic expressions, now understood as an important postulate of cultural action. If works of art reflect the conditions in which they were produced, the diversity (or lack thereof) of voices in the artistic class is certainly reflected in the diversity (or lack thereof) of the themes and aesthetics dealt with in scene. The greater the plurality of narratives, subjectivities and possibilities of existence, the richer the artistic production.

Looking at the current context, it seems that São Paulo’s circus scene is going through a moment of important transformations. In addition to an increase in projects proposed by women applying for state and municipal grants, we also see the emergence of women-led companies and/or companies that address the issue of gender identities, while a queer scene is beginning to take shape. We also see a proliferation of events and meetings produced by women, in a demand for emancipation in the modes of production. It is worth mentioning that, in Brazil, women’s clowning and street art scene play a key role in this movement, which is now unfolding into an impressive universe of female cabarets.

An important next step, in my view, would be to diversify the discourses and themes present in the works created by women, to avoid classifications such as “female art”, constructed in a stereotyped style – as what happened in the turn of the twentieth century in the context of the visual arts. In this sense, it is helpful to think of the absurdity of a “male art” category. Just as men are able to approach every conceivable subject in scene and to employ all available aesthetic and poetic references, women don’t need to be restricted to themes and approaches that are understood as “feminine”.

May we continue on the path to building plural and diversified gender narratives in the circus!

DAVIS, Janet (2011). “Brazen, Bare, Beautiful and Bearded: Circus Women and the Making of Modernity”. In: KRALJ, Ivan (ed) (2011). Women & Circus. Croatia: Mala performerska scena.
SILVA, Erminia (1996). “O circo: sua arte e seus saberes. O circo no Brasil do final do século XIX a meados do XX”. Masters dissertation. Department of History of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences of the State University of Campinas.
STRADDA (2011). “Un cirque d’un nouveau genre”. In: Stradda: le magazine de la création hors les murs. Number 21, July 2011.

Maria Carolina Vasconcelos Oliveira is a circus artist and sociologist. She has basic training in dance; circus training with Brazilian teachers (at the schools Picadeiro, Academia Brasileira de Circo and Galpão do Circo) as well as instructors abroad (such as Aimée Hancock at NECCA, USA); She holds Master’s and Doctoral degrees in sociology from FFLCH-USP. An aerialist for over 15 years, she founded various artistic groups, such as Desastre and A Penca, and collaborates with other companies as an interpreter, director and trainer. She leads workshops and creative ateliers on aerial techniques (Centro Cultural da Juventude and Tendal da Lapa), develops research on culture and arts (Cebrap) and has taught postgraduate courses on subjects such as Culture and Globalization (School of Sociology and Politics) and Cultural Management (Senac). She is co-author of Cultura e Participação: a experiência da III Conferência Municipal de Cultura de São Paulo e Políticas Públicas de Cultura.


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