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In Singapore, niche art forms such as circus arts are usually overlooked and lack exposure. Since 2016, the Esplanade festival Flipside has been one of the few platforms to give circus arts the avenue to shine.
In 2020, due to COVID-19, Flipside was brought online as Circus Weekend. Circus arts by its nature is a physically demanding art form with a high amount of social contact among performers. During this time of social distancing, some local practitioners found a way to film circus performances and bring the playfulness and light-heartedness of the form to the digital screen.
This article summarises the points of discussion from three artist chats on circus arts, two of which were part of Circus Weekend 2020, involving Singapore artists from the group Bornfire Circus and the Circus Weekend’s Aerial Open Stage programme. The third is an audio recording from 2019 where three arts groups—Bornfire, Phare from Cambodia and Wise Fools from Finland—engaged in a passionate and illuminating conversation about the circus in their respective countries. The artists also talked about the skills required for the myriad forms of circus arts, other disciplines that the circus crosses, what pursuing a career as a circus artist entails, and the circus arts scene in Singapore as well as its future.
Instead of group rehearsals that are typical during the preparation for an upcoming performance, the artists from Bornfire had to be content with individual training, some of them even without their props, which could only be picked up during Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker. As such, many of them ended up focusing on static practices where they worked on their handstands and other conditioning exercises.
With social distancing restrictions in place, Bornfire’s artistic processes became more reliant on digital platforms as the artists brainstormed ideas virtually. Some of these ideas were based on COVID-19's impact on their lives, such as missing the colours of the sunset, and this yearning for what was absent translated into the purple and orange lighting for their performance in i.i Alone | Together. Having to practise with one another virtually also proved a challenge, no thanks to technology. Synchronising acts was difficult due to network lag, and everyone had to work around being “off” in their timing.
Aerial is one the most common aspects of circus arts besides juggling. As an artistic practice, it is akin to dancing, but in the air. Connecting with the fabric and flowing as one while being suspended mid-air appear easy and effortless but in truth it is extremely demanding physically and requires a skilfulness that can only be mastered after long hours of training and getting up again after countless falls. The harmonious flowing movements in the air of an aerialist share similarities with the gracefulness of a ballerina. However, as much affinity as aerial silks have with ballet, it is very different from other forms of dance, especially contemporary dance where one must roll on mats or on the floor and is thus very grounded.
Beyond its craft, the beauty of aerial lies in storytelling through the use of choreography to interpret and portray visually the emotions that the accompanying music evokes. Using aerial as a storytelling tool in theatre or plays can result in powerful art and it is also a way to bring aerial and circus arts to a wider audience, to those who might have been ignorant of it, and those who do not want to merely see tricks in the air.
Every art form has its practitioners. Despite being relatively obscure in Singapore, circus arts has managed to attract some artists through its close relation to dance and its diverse nature. Both Etienne Ferrère and Xyn Foo from Bornfire have backgrounds in dance. Etienne is a ballet dancer who was inspired by Cirque du Soleil and fell in love with aerial silks. Xyn graduated from contemporary dance and was captured by a fire performance she saw and the power of circus arts to gather people together.
The circus arts also attract amateurs who love overcoming the physical challenges that come with its other forms such as juggling and aerial hoops. Wesley Mok, the youngest artist in Bornfire, got into circus when his mother gave him some juggling balls as a Christmas gift when he was 12. Amanda He from Aerial Open Stage is a dentist by day.
Xyn Foo, Artistic Director of Bornfire,
on encouraging aspiring artists to pursue circus arts seriously
Being an arts professional in Singapore has always been difficult. Pursuing one in circus arts might seem even tougher. The cultural expectation of tangible returns for time and effort invested frequently results in a lack of support for youths who rehearse for hours to put up a show that does not yield monetary returns. As for those artists who have embarked on this journey for some time, some have had humbling experiences from busking and suffered countless rejections when seeking funding and support for circus arts. Despite these challenges, many practitioners encourage aspirants to chase their dreams by inspiring them with their passion as well as giving practical advice on the business aspect of the art form.
Circus arts in Singapore is a small but growing scene, especially in the aerial arts. A decade ago, it was difficult to find people or places that do aerial. Venues where aerial activities are conducted were usually other types of dance or exercise studios that incorporated them as a side project. However, there has been a significant increase in the number of studios focusing on the teaching and practice of aerial arts over recent years. One reason for this could be the growing interest in aerial as people start to experiment with it as an alternative sport akin to rock climbing.
Despite this, aerial arts still face serious obstacles in the area of performance exposure mainly because many venues are unsuitable, and few places have the expertise to prepare safe rigging for aerial performances to take place.
Some suggestions that could increase public awareness of the circus arts beyond aerial are busking and to change the perspective that this form of art is expensive and only for the elite.
Within the circus arts, there is a variety of forms. Globally, there is an assortment of circuses, their styles influenced by the different environments where each is located. In Europe, circus performances come alive through audience engagement. In Taiwan and other Asian countries, the storyline plays an important role. In Finland, it is common and popular for young people to join and develop a career in circus. In Cambodia, Cambodian culture and identity flow through every second of the performances.
In order to broaden their horizons and learn from practitioners all over the world, some local circus artists actively participate in overseas circus workshops and conventions. They bring the most brilliant ideas from these exchanges back to Singapore to share with the local community and new tricks to show the audience.
The circus is a fascinating art form that is versatile, all-encompassing and a powerful tool for storytelling. As awareness of circus and aerial arts increases among audiences as well as art creators looking for additional means of expression, many practitioners in Singapore hope that it will grow beyond a bag of tricks, and as how Yin Mei Lenden-Hitchcock put it so beautifully, “into something more than a spectacle”.