Breaking the Rules that Don't Exist

Sometimes the reason you start something doesn’t turn out to be the reason you keep doing it. I started this blog to document my journey through circus school and share my experiences as part of the first class of Circadium. A few times now I’ve discovered that I begin writing a post with one concept in mind, but rather than sharing my experience, I delve into questions I have. Writing the post becomes almost therapeutic for me, a way to process what I’m learning. This post started off with wanting to share my physical assessments over the past few months, but ended up evolving into a much deeper self-examination of how I create art. I hope some of you will find this interesting, because I’m not giving any answers here, only asking questions.

Before I jump into assessments, I want to explain a little about how our classes are broken down. After an 8am group warmup, we have 4 circus rotations; aerial (fabric, trapeze, etc.), acrobatics (tumbling, handstands, flexibility, etc.), juggling and balance, and equilibristics (wire, unicycle, cyr wheel, etc). After lunch we have theatre and/or dance, and depending on the day, academic classes which include music, writing, and history of circus/theatre/dance.

(*note - if you’re interested on the specific breakdown of the classes, feel free to check out Circadium’s student catalogue here)

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As a way to track progress during the trimester, we start the first Monday of every month with a physical assessment in acrobatics and aerial. Until the end of this trimester, that has been our main source of feedback. Right before Thanksgiving break, at the end of our first trimester, we were given a written assessment overviewing our progress in all classes. Our classes, both circus and academic, are graded as pass/fail. We are assessed in effort, improvement over term, and artistic risk-taking. Along with these assessments, each teacher has a notes section to comment on our progress and talk about our strengths and weaknesses. The overall sense that I got from my assessment was that though I work diligently, methodically and with great effort, I need to shift my focus to creative exploration and risk taking.

Ah, risk-taking. Something you’re taught from a young age you shouldn’t do. Something I never grew up doing. I was a role model child, well-behaved and logical to a fault sometimes, always thinking in right and wrong. As I grew older and studied science, that way of thinking was continually drilled into me; black and white, yes and no, right and wrong. That’s how science works (at least at the bachelor’s level I was at). But art isn’t like that. Art is about creativity and exploration. It’s about breaking the rules. And that’s not something I know how to do very well.

In writing class two weeks ago, we talked about creating memorable art. Our teacher, Lauren M. Feldman, is a playwright who has studied literature, drama and circus. The way she describes her years of academic endeavors is that she has studied the art of storytelling. She has explored in immense detail how to create a story that will bring an audience on an emotional journey. L believes that every artist has three core ideas that they bring to most of the art they create. Hers are hunger, risk and truth. When creating art that is memorable, L says it needs

  1. Hunger; an artist’s need to create that piece of art
  2. Risk; a sense of breaking past what other artists have already said and done,
  3. Truth; an honesty that people can relate to and an openness about the artist’s reality.

We examined a few other artists’ work and broke down what we thought their core ideas were. Some included joy, daring, character work, politically inclined, and fear. Then we listed what we thought ours were.

This exercise allowed me to see the disconnect between my current art and what I wanted to be creating. Currently, I want my three core ideas to be; 1. Rawness in truth, 2. Risk, and 3. An Emotional Journey. But I’m not sure if I truly hit any of them at the moment. I think I may attempt to bring an audience on an emotional journey, but I don’t know if I truly bring them on it, or just show it to them as I experience it onstage. I think I try to be vulnerable and truthful, but there’s always a thin wall there. And clearly struggle with risk.

In order to grow artistically, I need to focus on breaking the rules and taking risks. So… what does that even mean? It might seem like there are no set rules in art like there are in science or other things, but if everyone is talking about “breaking the rules,” there must be. In juggling, the rule is that you don’t drop. If you drop a lot, you are a bad juggler. That’s the rule. And yet, I’ve seen jugglers who purposely drop as part of their act. They’re breaking a rule, and yet the audience doesn’t view them as a bad juggler. I know very few jugglers, but one of the groups I can think of is Water on Mars. They break all the rules, from dropping, taping juggling equipment together, to even making lemonade on stage.

So how do you break the rules when the rules are less clear, or don’t even exist? With juggling, the rule is clear; you don’t drop. But with other disciplines like acrobatics or aerial, what are those rules? How do you take an artistic risk?

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We’ve explored risk-taking a little in theatre. During one class, we did a solo exercise in which we went onto an almost empty stage. With our only props being whatever was lying around the room (a chair, some chalk on the chalkboard, some plastic cups, etc), our task was to make the audience laugh. The most successful moments in this exercise involved my peers putting themselves in very awkward positions that they couldn’t easily get out of. Watching them try to get out of positions they had put themselves in was absolutely hysterical, and the successful ideas were often so simple. I on the other hand was absolutely miserable during this exercise. I struggled with putting myself into an awkward position or even exploring the objects in a new way that would captivate the audience.

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One of the life lessons I’ve taken to heart is “try smarter, not harder.” The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over expecting different results, so trying harder to gain strength and refine my technique is not going to make me create risk-taking art. So I’m going to shift my focus; rather than trying to do an exercise correctly, I’m going to try to mess up in a way that puts me in an uncomfortable position. I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to do that, but I am going to try.

Find what lies between yes and no. Break rules in order to try something new or have fun. Being comfortable in the unfamiliar will serve you more than doing the exercise the “right way.”
— Ben, theater instructor

To my artistic readers - where do you get your inspiration? How do you determine what rules to break, or figure out how to put yourself in an awkward position that you’re unsure if you can get out of? Where to make yourself vulnerable so your audience can connect? If you have any advice, I would love to hear it. If you’ve seen an incredible risk-taking, rule-breaking acts, please share it with me. I've linked another video below that is a recent favorite of mine for inspiration.

It’s time to break the rules that don’t exist.

Sincerely,

Circus Girl