"Challenging traditional circus showmanship" - No Show @ Spielman Theatre

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By Amy Iles, Third Year Theatre and Performance Studies

There is something rather unpolished about Ellie Dubois’ contemporary circus piece, No Show. And yet, that seems entirely the point.

This performance deconstructs the façade of circus show business, interrogating the smiles, glitz and glamour and questioning the boundaries that are pushed to reach flawless physical feats.

"what might look effortless takes much more talent and strength than the audience are often permitted to see"

Despite a fair few wobbles, which give the performance an amateurish aesthetic, the prowess with which the young women perform is undeniable. The slip-ups, which the performers make little attempt to cover, serve to reveal the true complexity of these acrobatics, strengthening the overall message of the show: what might look effortless takes much more talent and strength than the audience are often permitted to see.

Despite challenging traditional circus showmanship, in no way does the piece lack breath-taking and hair-raising feats- a statement that can be considered quite literally when one of the performers is lifted by her hair to perform graceful aerial movements.

Each young woman (Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Alice Gilmartin and Camille Toyer) has their own specialist circus trick with which they spellbind the audience. Toyer’s work with the Cyr wheel (a large steel hoop in which the performer rolls and tumbles) is particularly spectacular. It is made all the more nail-biting as McWilliam narrates the dangers of the act during the stunt, reflecting the intense physical ability required by these performers.

McWilliam’s own solo act is the most moving part of the piece as she intersperses formidable tumbles within a personal narrative of her professional circus career. She reveals that during filming routines for a TV show, while male acrobats were allowed to show off their ‘power tumbles’, the girls were encouraged to perform ‘dainty, feminine aerial routines’, the praise they received being ‘good… for a girl’.

"the candid flippancy with which the women talk to the audience is often strained, as if stuck between script and improvisation"

Although sometimes Dubois’ directing risks losing the point in the more abstracted sections, the simplicity of this moment is spot on in reflecting the inequality in expectations for female circus performers. This is a theme that was subtly hinted at throughout the show; the smiles on the girls’ faces frequently appear fake and Gilmartin’s recurring attempts to talk directly to the audience are consistently interrupted by strict instructions for her to perform. Although eliciting humour, the poignancy of the female performer’s sadness at being unable to do as she would wish is clear, and gives another blow to the constructed imagery of the circus.

I am left somewhat conflicted. Despite the acclaim that was evident in the gasps and cheers from the slightly over-enthusiastic audience, the pace of the show is occasionally disjointed and the candid flippancy with which the women talk to the audience is often strained, as if stuck between script and improvisation. There are several clumsy moments which give the piece an unrefined feel and some of the gymnastics are limited by the lack of space in the studio theatre.

However, to criticise the piece for these reasons would be to miss the point. This is not a performance that tries to be perfect but rather aims to show the discrepancies in the circus industry, particularly for female performers, and this message is certainly conveyed. The opening of the new Spielman Theatre certainly started with a bang and I am excited to see what other innovative performances are to come.

★★★

Feature image: Unsplash / ckturistando


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