Circus and BLM while the tent is dark

Circus and BLM while the tent is dark

So much has happened in the world this year it’s enough to make your head spin. While we’re experiencing so much rapid change good things are happening and voices being shared that may have been silent previously. The intention of this article is to give you some insight into voices currently speaking up and contributing to what the future could look like. 

In our own home SANCA has formed a DEI team which is working on short term and long term changes to provide a sustainable change in the organization. Their most visible work with the circus community is the continuation of Blackout Tuesday. Rather than just posting a black square to signal the disruption of whiteness in our social media feed, SANCA DEI teams wants to highlight a Black circus artist on social media weekly. This effort is done to continue the dialogue of social justice, equity, and increase the visibility of Black artists. 

Noeli Acoba added her voice to pushing this conversation in the beginning of June when she released this video that went viral about her experience with racism and circus. It includes her personal experience as expressed through a very powerful rope act. She suggests the circus industry could learn alot of Hamilton where actors of any race or background can portray any character and fill any role without limitations of needing to fit the right “look”. There is also a follow up

Circus Talk has launched a series of panel discussions called Wake Up Call For Inclusion to listen to voices of our BIPOC international circus community. Noeli appears on this first panel. It’s moderated by Jonathon Lee Iverson, the first African-American (as he self defines), ringmaster of Ringling Barnum and Bailey. Iverson hosts another recent launch to Circus Talk, In Center Ring, where he interviews other community members. He also shares his experience and story with the podcast Hideaway Circus here

Wake Up Call’s  first installment is highly informative and touches on so many points of question that are echoed in many podcasts and interviews lately. Marco Motta, a Brazillian circus artist comes from a background in break dancing and is an award winning straps performer. His act and the article linked are relevant to this discussion as well. He mentions with his body type his lines differ from the balletic ideal of technique. The group discusses how can we move away from holding this Eurocentric dance form as the ideal and as more valuable than others. I also want to mention here, only this year has the pointe shoe been manufactured in more than one skin tone. Tights and leotards in a fuller range of skin tones without custom dye jobs haven’t been easy to find always either. Majo Cazares, a Mexican circus artist in Belgium, and Joseph Pinzon, an American Filipino Circus artist, bring up both the sides of stereotyping in shows through the lens of colonisation. How it is painful to experience jokes being made at the expense of your culture while being asked to perform these stereotypes or have other performers make jokes about your culture? Cazares mentions why is it okay to use sombreros to make fun of Mexicans still on stage? Why the impulse to keep trying to cast her as a fiery Latina and comment on her French being excellent instead of broken?  Motta brings up often being cast half clothed and in chains. They all question how can you take power back at the same time without closing doors or approach management to question these choices? Pinzon tells a story about being asked to do Kung Fu in a comedy act, creative didn’t listen to his concerns. He found yelling things in different Asian languages during this act cathartic to his pain in the joke. There’s much to digest and think about. This one hour talk also goes into typecasting disciplines based on body types, how to do better, and includes personal experiences that range from being asked to perform stereotypes from cultures that might not be your own to forming your own company to be able to share different voices including your own on stage. Pinzon started his company in response to being up for multiple roles coming out of school with Cirque, but after speaking with casting and seeing who got jobs were all female. It’s a great frank and open start to listening to voices from many backgrounds in ways we can grow inclusion and varied experiences. This series is ongoing. Installment two focuses on organizational structures in circus. Installment three explores biases and barriers to the industry for women of color. 

Shenea Stiletto, included on installment three of Circus Talk’s Wake Up Call, has spoken out about her experiences in her recently launched podcast, Live like an Acrobat. She is a two time world champion gold medalist in acrobatics, a USA gymnastics hall of fame member, and was a principal handbalancer in Varekai. She has multiple episodes sharing her experiences in gymnastics and circus and also interviews other community members. Her series is deeply emotional, honest, and heartbreaking at times. She shares one story of being on a contract where they wouldn’t costume her to fit her body type because they assumed the next person who would be wearing it would have a different shape. She tells of contracts where directors have only spoken to her in Spanish, assuming she’s Latina, not Black. She also relates times she’s had an easier time on contracts as a Black American than Brazilian or African artists who she’s seen be exploited. She comments on finding out at times from talking to her castmates sometimes her starting offer has been lower than that of other castmates. Cirque tried to recruit her when she was underage, she didn’t work for them till later.  This show was not her first time working for Cirque. She had 12 days to learn this large part as an emergency replacement, on new equipment before being onstage. She goes into detail about instead of feeling celebrated as the first African-American in this role, she was not treated well on this show and repeatedly she wasn’t the right look for the role. 

Veronica Blair moderates the third installment of Wake Up Call. She tells her story and hopes for the future to Iverson here. Blair is not only a performer, she runs Blackaerialist on Instagram and formed the Uncle Jr Project in 2010. Uncle Jr Project was named for Emanuel “Junior” Ruffin who worked his way from protege tier trainer to the center ring and was the first Black American inducted into the Ring of Fame.  His story inspired founder Blair to start collecting the history and voices of Black circus performers past and present. Current Exhibits include aerialist Susan Vouticky and clown Robert Dunn. 

article by Christine Denker