On Tuesday 30th October, we were proud to welcome to LJMU the internationally renowned and multi-talented circus performer John-Paul Zaccarini. Having already enjoyed considerable successes as a circus artist, director and choreographer, John-Paul began a foray into the remarkably different (but arguably equally as challenging!) world of academia by studying for a PhD, with his invention of the concept he entitled ‘Circoanalysis’. It was this term which formed the basis of his fascinating paper ‘Circus on the Couch’.
John-Paul began by playing us a film of a dramatic scene involving rope work from his award-winning solo performance, Throat (which can be accessed here: http://vimeo.com/39268206). The video was visually stunning and served as an excellent introduction to his previous profession as a critically acclaimed circus artist. Having retired from performing, John-Paul is now a visiting lecturer at the University of Stockholm. Exploring the idea that aspects of psychoanalysis can bed applied to the circus arts he conceived a new method of theorising circus; ‘Circoanalysis’.
He explained that his practice-based doctoral research involved ‘circo-therapeutically’ analysing more than one hundred of his students, all of whom were in the process of training to be circus artists. Driven by a desire to achieve the impossible, he elected to focus his academic research on the ‘subject’ of circus (as signified by his mapping out of the concept of ‘Circoanalysis’, which can be found at: http://www.zaccarini.org/current-projects/circus-on-the-couch) by giving a voice to the circus artist, so often the silent ‘object’ of the audience’s gaze. Highlighting the fact that he is often asked why he would wish to critically analyse an experience so intrinsic to his own identity and sense of self, John-Paul argued that it was this personal connection which motivated him to complete his research, speaking passionately of his intention to subvert common perceptions of the circus as meaningless fun and its performers as a one-dimensional, untroubled group of people. Instead he chose to focus on the more melancholic aspects of performance.
He then elaborated on his decision to use psychoanalytic techniques in order to concentrate on understanding the reasons why his students initially chose to become circus artists, articulating his discovery that parental disapproval is often a deciding factor in driving young people towards performing, which brought to mind the old cliché of ‘running away to the circus’. This desperate need for approval and self-worth, he argues, is transferred as the applause of the audience becomes a substitute for the praise of the parents. Whilst John-Paul acknowledged that this interpretation may be overly simplistic, it is the circus performers’ obsessive reliance on applause which interests him most.
I found it fascinating when he conveyed the reluctance of his participants to acknowledge that the audience is an enabling condition of their act, an unfamiliar yet omnipresent ‘Other’ who must be impressed. John-Paul underlined the egotism of circus artists who relish being the object of the audience’s collective gaze whilst they paradoxically refuse to admit to harbouring an inherent need for approval, often enjoying a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing expressions of awe and delight on the faces of the audience. This led to a discussion of the notion of the sublime; to John-Paul, circus performers are unrelenting in their pursuit of perfection, the inescapable threat of failure spurring them on. Confronting the possibility of catastrophe forces the so-called circus ‘act’ to become ‘real’, as the performer risks serious injury and even death in their often frenetic quest to achieve the sublime, thereby satisfying the audience. An examination of the pain/pleasure paradigm brought John-Paul to the Lacanian concept of ‘jouissance’, whereby transgression of the pleasure principle brings pain to the subject. He discussed the torturous expectations imposed upon the body of the circus artist with reference to ‘Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty’ by Gilles Deleuze, linking the author’s theorising of masochism with the performer’s willingness to inflict pain upon his or her own bod. In attempting to postpone the enjoyment of the audience, and additionally the performer’s own satisfaction, circus artistry can be likened to a kind of seduction.
John-Paul brought his engaging talk to a close by discussing the rise to prominence of ‘Neo-circus’, a relatively new development of the craft which he believes is less infantilised and banal than that which is practised by more conventional companies, exemplified in his words by Cirque du Soleil. Whilst John-Paul readily admitted that it was partly the success of Cirque du Soleil that inspired him to consider attempting circus performance in order to enhance his work in theatre, I was interested to learn that he has since repeatedly turned down offers to perform with them, instead proclaiming that the future lies with ‘Neo-circus’, which manages to retain the joy and innocence at the heart of more traditional forms of circus, without compromising on aesthetic choice. John-Paul’s claim that the cultural capital of circus artistry is steadily increasing was extremely persuasive and seemed a fitting conclusion to a paper which was entertaining and informative in equal measure. The circus world’s loss is clearly academia’s gain.
Krystina Osborne is a graduate of LJMU and is currently a student on the MRes programme in Literature and Cultural History