The Exploded Circus

Circus entertainment goes high-tech

Image credit: Photo Eric Richmond, design

250 years after the world’s first circus was held in Britain, we look at the new digital face of the popular entertainment.

The handstand contortionist bends into shapes you wouldn’t dream existed; the Cyr wheel duo spin and spin until your head hurts; you worry the crossbow stunt artists might just make that final, fatal mistake.

But you’re safe in your sitting room watching the world’s first circus made specifically for 360 VR audiences.

This circus has the same thrills, the same frisson, the same awe-inspiring physical feats you would gasp at in the ring. It’s still all the circus acts you’ve ever wanted to see – but there’s no heady scent of sawdust, and your chin won’t get sticky with candyfloss. Brooklyn-based Hideway Circus has produced a 21st-century show, where new technologies are harnessed to provide ever more extraordinary acts for increasingly astonished audiences. Circus and technology are flying high together.

This year brings a significant anniversary for the circus. Exactly 250 years ago, showman, entrepreneur, retired cavalryman and exquisite equestrian Philip Astley gathered a series of remarkable physical acts – jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strongmen, tumblers, bareback riders – and, on an abandoned patch of land in London’s Waterloo, marked out a ring. This was the world’s very first circus. Every circus, anywhere in the world, can trace its origins back to this moment in 1768.

When the retired war hero laid out this first ring, he was creating something no one had ever attempted before. 250 years later, this astounding international art form continues in Astley’s radical spirit, using new technologies to amaze. And instead of being killed by the iPhone generation and technology, as some critics claim, circuses such as Hideway are galloping along with it.

From its earliest days, circus embraced science. Astley experimented with different sizes of rope ring, looking to discover the best diameter for standing on horseback while riding around a circle. His fearless wife Patty too performed a horse act, where she rode around the ring smothered in a swarm of bees. Astley found that 42ft worked best, due to the centrifugal forces. Circus rings have been 42ft (12.8m) in diameter ever since – whether or not they have horses.

Everything else, though, has been transformed. Now an international circus festival doesn’t mean a village of tents and stripy big tops on the village green. Remy Archer, circus artiste turned filmmaker, was working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when he went to the hospital to see the Dr Clown Smiles Project at work. “I found it very moving,” he says. “I thought – this is something people should see. How can we get them to see and feel about things they can’t go to?”

Virtual reality crossbow tricks are surely less dangerous than the real thing?

After working with social circuses (circuses whose aim is to alleviate poverty, distress or disadvantage rather than solely to create artistic work) in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Palestine, Archer set about capturing their work using 360° cameras to create a ‘fly on wall’ virtual reality (VR) 360 film experience. Called Zoetrope, after the moving image device, this 360 documentary is being presented this April in an installation at the Roundhouse London’s annual CircusFest. “It’s a much more emotional experience than you would normally get, as it places the audience within the context of the story they’re watching. Because you’re plunged in, it’s very powerful as an agent of empathy,” says Archer.

Josh Aviner and Lyndsay Magid Aviner, creators of Hideway Circus, used VR to enable acts from all over America to perform for an audience of one – the viewer. They now aim to produce a new virtual show every two years that can be “downloaded for a dollar – just as you used to see a circus show. The big top would be virtual but the performers would be real,” says Aviner. Everyone, whatever their budget, may have a ringside seat to this spectacle. The only thing preventing that happening right now, says Josh Aviner, is the low number of people who have personal VR headsets.

‘Travelling circus shows embraced electricity before theatres’

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground and Circus Archive

Sound, too, is a key component of the virtual circus experience. London-based composer and musician Quinta – the pseudonym of Katherine Mann – is working with contemporary circus company Mimbre on developing their show The Exploded Circus, premiering in May. Exploded purports to “capture a moment where an explosion has been frozen in time, the remnants of a big top caught mid-air, and everything – circus ring, sequins, fairground horses – suspended above ground. Using acrobatics, aerial feats and juggling, six female performers seek order in the chaos and create a new normal.”

The ‘explosive’ nature of this show and its multiple props, giving a large number of unusual sound opportunities, particularly attracted Quinta. She used the widely-available MaKey MaKey trigger technology, patched with software program Max MSP, to enable performers to trigger sounds and create music, on top of the soundtrack, through movements during the show.

Exploded Circus is an innovative show, built around a moment where an explosion has been frozen in time, with six performers providing order in the chaos

Exploded Circus is an innovative show, built around a moment where an explosion has been frozen in time, with six performers providing order in the chaos

Image credit: Photo Eric Richmond, design

“This project sees the musical element integrated from the very outset. It will also be a chance to incorporate live music, making the set itself into one giant musical instrument. It creates live performance tools that all performers can access. If you’re touching the conductive surface and then hold hands, the holding hands can be closing the current and sound comes out. It’s quite dramatic,” she says. Artistic direction remains important.

“It needs quite a specific movement for this kind of technology, otherwise the audience just thinks it’s the sound person triggering it. We want people to think, ‘Wow! They’re doing it themselves!’” says Quinta.

Quinta has also turned to using Mogees – a contact microphone that attaches to anything and picks up vibrations – to enhance the audience experience. “You can train it to read your gestures, for example knocking or scraping on a table,” she explains. “So you could make a table sound like a xylophone.”

Filmmaker Archer believes circus is better than other live performance for incorporating new technologies. “Circus tends to be very dynamic, with lots of depth and height, horizontally and vertically. This lends itself to working in a medium that operates on these planes,” he says.

Technologists like Jeremiah Ambrose, an expert in gaze-controlled VR, is working on the XR Circus: Extraordinary Circus Project at the University of Brighton, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Circus performers have been invited to be part of a period of intensive lab experience into how immersive technologies can be used to augment or capture performances. The action-research will create five new ‘immersive experiences’ using video, virtual reality, haptic and data-driven technology.

Working alongside Ambrose and a group of circus artistes is former Nasa scientist Professor Kelly Snook, co-founder of the Mi Mu collective of specialist musicians, artists, scientists and technologists developing cutting-edge wearable technology for the performance and composition of music. Professor Snook is co-inventor of the Mi Mu gloves, which have been used by popstar Arianna Grande and musician Imogen Heap among others.

Making sound using hand gestures: Imogen Heap demonstrates Mi Mu gloves

Making sound using hand gestures: Imogen Heap demonstrates Mi Mu gloves

Does circus really need high tech when it has a tent-load of tantalising turns? “It’s important for circus to keep up to date,” says Archer. “There’s a notion that circus is on the edges of nostalgia and old-fashioned. By using a medium that’s so new and so allied to the future, it repositions circus.”

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, circus historian and founder of the National Fairground and Circus Archive, demurs: “Circus has always invented new methods and used new technologies to put on a show – from the canvas big top, which Purdy Brown introduced in 1825, to the purpose-built stage for Cirque du Soleil holding 1.5 million gallons of water. Travelling circus shows embraced electricity before theatres. Circus continuously innovates, constantly surprises and always updates.”

Embracing new technologies is vital, says historian Gillian Arrighi. “Producers of circus entertainments recognised that the survival of their venues depended upon the presentation of acts that were newer, harder, cleverer, more extreme, more gorgeous, and more technically complex than the previous year’s programmes, or the programmes presented by competing managements. Narratives of ‘new-ness’ and ‘for the first time’ were intrinsic to the promotional utterances of circuses... Descriptions of acts that ‘never were before attempted’, acts that were ‘new feats of activity’ or were performed ‘in a manner different from all others’ are legion among the advertisements for Philip Astley’s shows.”

The Cyr wheel is dizzying enough, without introducing the fisheye virtual reality lens

Circus folk are quick to counter the portrait of their world as backward-looking and technology-resistant. Ringmaster Chris Barltrop, whose one-man show Audacious Mr Astley is touring the UK this year, personally remembers how rapid changes have affected performers: “Circuses have constantly adopted new methods of automation to make tenting simpler and less dependent on straightforward man-power. Tents were lifted by block and tackle, with teams of men heaving the pull-rope in a tug-of-war with the canvas; now, they rise at the touch of a button on electric motors. Transport has moved away from slow, cumbersome tractor-and-trailer combinations, replaced by modern articulated lorries, which can move fast from town to town.

“And, of course, the same technology has revolutionised communication for people who have no office. We used to take a bag of 10 pence pieces to a phone box to order the next set of posters; now we go online wherever we are, and negotiate sites and contracts by email and mobile phone.”

In 2018, this fabulous art form will be celebrated throughout the UK in over 200 shows, exhibitions, events and activities. Science institutions are joining, including the Science Museum in London and Cambridge Science Centre, recognising that circus makes difficult scientific ideas easy to comprehend for wide audiences. Bristol’s We The Curious science centre has a different circus act projected on to its big screen for 250 days during 2018.

So why have circus and technology been so enmeshed for over two centuries? “Circus has lots of scope for play,” says Quinta. “There are traditions – but there’s a sense of openness to play as well. Electronics and trigger technologies can inject a bit of wonder into a show, as people can’t tell how things happen. You sit there with your mouth open. That’s what we hope to conjure.”

Dea Birkett is ringmaster of Circus250

The Exploded Circus opens at the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing, in May and then tours.

Audacious Mr Astley, a one-man play, tours from April.

The National Fairground and Circus Archive is at the University of Sheffield.

Zoetrope is at Roundhouse CircusFest until 6 May.

Hideaway Circus

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