Physical Theatre Continues To Energise Audiences Across The World

31 May 2018

Trailblazing performer and producer Wolfgang Hoffmann reflects on the evolution of contemporary circus

We spoke with Aurora Nova director Wolfgang Hoffmann about the legacy and future of physical theatre and circus. As part of the 2018 Galway International Arts Festival, two circus shows will come to Galway this July: Circa's Humans, and Backbone by Gravity & Other Myths.

Silent movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton could convey a story in seconds, without a word. 100 years on, physical theatre still energises audiences across the world, crossing language barriers and challenging preconceptions about performance. At its heart - combining circus, dance and theatre - is contemporary circus. Trailblazing performer and producer Wolfgang Hoffmann reflects on the evolution of the artform

Where once ‘circus’ recalled ringmasters and tigers, contemporary circus has been melding physical performance styles since the 1970s, when it first evolved in France. But I prefer to say acrobatic theatre. Or acrobatic circus, depending on the show. Labels are always difficult.

The legacy of work done by early physical performers like Charlie Chaplin lives on in contemporary circus. In the case of Chaplin, his grandchildren Aurélia and James Thierrée - who have both appeared at Galway International Arts Festival - have embraced and updated the art form. I see much work inspired by Buster Keaton especially. And seeing James Thierrée perform is like watching Charlie Chaplin reincarnated.

Aurélia Thiérrée, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplain, performing in her show of illusion 'Aurelia’s Oratorio' at the Black Box Theatre as part of the 28th Galway Arts Festival from 11-24 July 2005. Photo: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Over the past 20 years, grassroots support for contemporary circus has grown, with schools in France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Sweden and, most recently, also in the UK, producing growing numbers of highly trained artists, who then form companies, making an increasing variety of work.

France, being pretty much the only country where contemporary circus enjoys the same recognition as theatre or contemporary dance, has over 300 professional companies, but they are touring comparatively little internationally, because they don’t have the need. Only in the last 10-12 years, independent circus companies, from Australia and Canada especially, have changed the international landscape dramatically, because they are making work that tours extensively, and inspires audiences and other artists all over the world. Strong physical theatre shows always have the ability to travel the world, because there is no language barrier.

What stays the same is that in Germany, contemporary circus is still not seen as an art form and funding cannot be obtained for it. While Germany is one of the biggest employers for variety acts, acrobats who want to make full evening shows and explore their talents artistically are emigrating to French and Canadian companies. But on a positive note, community and youth circus work is enjoying fast increasing popularity and value all over the globe.

Circa's Humans, which plays Galway International Arts Festival from 24-29 July 2018. Photo: Sarah Walker

International festivals like Galway International Arts Festival play a crucial role in introducing new trends and art forms to the general public and communicating their message also in other forms than just putting on the show. I’ve often seen that the audience of contemporary circus are experiencing the show as a visceral treat stimulation and are coming out of the show uplifted and energised. In some cases - like with Gravity & Other Myths or Circa - people come away deeply moved, overjoyed and inspired, which I find the most gratifying responses as a producer.

Gravity & Other Myths's Backbone, which plays Galway International Arts Festival from 17-21 July 2018. Photo: Carnival Cinema

The already mentioned Circa are probably the most important trail blazers for the contemporary circus art form, having created circus for various locations, like churches or graveyards, and collaborated with classical music, opera and theatre, and also for their reinvention of variety in other shows. There are many other companies who are doing very important research and working to a more niche audience, but it is hard to pick out just a few names.

Gravity & Other Myths are the strongest ensemble company, alongside Compagnie XY from France, which carries for me the most nourishingly positive message - that art can transport in these times.

Galway International Arts Festival attendees will have a chance to experience circus at its best this July when Circa's Humans and Gravity & Other Myth's Backbone transform NUI Galway's Bailey Allen Hall with their otherworldly energy. Backbone will play from 17-21 July (buy your tickets here) and Humans will play the following week from 24-29 July (tickets here).

ABOUT WOLFGANG HOFFMANN: Aurora Nova director Wolfgang Hoffmann has over 30 years’ experience as a performer and producer. He previously served as artistic director of The Dublin Fringe Festival and has programmed over 1,000 shows and events across all artistic genres. The original Aurora Nova programme of international visual theatre and dance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe won several coveted awards and unprecedented critical acclaim.