Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® present
Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA
August 8th, 2012
I have always made a clear and definite separation between dance and acrobatics. Though I can concede that each genre uses aspects of the other from time to time, they just seem like very different entities to me. However, I’m starting to re-think this demarcation a little bit. With the combination of Olympic gymnastics coverage and my recent trip to the circus (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® “DRAGONS”), the line that I have drawn in my head between dance and acrobatics is getting fuzzier and fuzzier.
Typical for a circus show, “DRAGONS” was broken into two halves, each comprised of six to eight short ‘acts’. Some of these were traditional, old-school circus stand-bys: large cat exhibition, tight rope, clowns, etc. And then there were the acrobatics: trapeze, human pyramids and aerial work. It is with this last category that I began to reconsider my somewhat static opinions surrounding acrobatics and dance. And this time, I noticed much more cross-over between the two than I had in the past. One particular sequence really drove this idea home. Performers were suspended high above the ground in clear, transparent orbs that were engineered to toggle between being closed and open. This allowed for a range of movement from gymnastic backbends within the closed orb to more dance-y split jetés, separating the two hemispheres. Throughout this dynamic scene, it was clear that all of the participants were doing both aerial dance and artistic acrobatics. They used every part of their body to counter balance and create shapes in space, and moved flowingly from one pose to another with transitory awareness. As I watched their routine, I became fascinated with a duality. The movements were so similar to those used by San Francisco modern dance companies who specialize in aerial choreography. But at the same time, this was clearly a circus act.
In any event, this experience got me thinking more about the blurry and complex relationship between dance and acrobatics. And in this case, external forces like intention, context, format, costuming and location determined the movement’s categorization. If I had seen the exact same variation on the side of a wall in San Francisco, without a doubt, I would characterize it as aerial dance, but here at “DRAGONS”, I was definitely seeing circus acrobatics. Interesting how outside factors have so much influence on perception.