What are the boundaries of “circus”? Is it defined by its apparatus, its history, a set of forms? Do we accept and demand a certain type of virtuosity or overarching structure? Can circus appreciate small moments on par with spectacle? Could it be framed as an outlook… a mission to transcend human limits?
Anandam Dancetheatre, Toronto’s cutting-edge collective entity under the direction of choreographer Brandy Leary puts the term “circus” to task, creating work that occupies disciplinary grey spaces. Rightfully so, with grace and force the company draws from a deep well of eastern philosophy and movement, earned through Leary’s significant intercontinental immersion in Indian culture. The company’s aerial rope-infused theater resists traditional classification, often assembling large ensembles and a minimalist aesthetic that connects ground and air, while experimenting with technology, light, and sound; site-specificity; and alternative audience engagement.
To understand the heart of this work one has only to look to its linguistic roots. “Anandam” is Sanskrit for “liminal bliss,” but more accurately this is a space prior to awareness, as Leary describes, “Before the brain makes any kind of rational or concrete judgment.” Operating out of Collective Space, an intimate rehearsal space and venue, the company recently co-hosted Toronto’s third Contemporary Circus Arts Festival withA Girl in the Sky Productions, manifesting a consciously broad-minded view of what circus is and can be. Polish is not always the goal, setting Toronto aesthetics apart from nearby circus magnate Montreal. While the latter puts youth and acrobatic athleticism atop its formal pyramid, it is clear from the scene in Toronto that virtuosity is an entirely different animal—deconstructed, layered, valued as heavily as concept and artistry, and evaluated by the communicability of its embodied form.
All involved, one would hardly argue that Anandam’s work is not spectacular. Recent project Cascade overtook the former site of the Toronto Circus School, The Globe and Mail Press Hall, installing 60+ independent rope artists in a duration based exploration of the slow act of falling, held for the length of festivalNuit Blanche Toronto. Featuring a unique disco-ball projection scheme by collaborator Eamon MacMahon and meditative score by composer James Bunton, the work cultivates a peaceful immersive space where one could get lost in the micro- and macrocosm of human form as it generates and harnesses mysterious internal force.
One of the strongest threads in the company’s work is its enhanced, often participatory viewer experience. Beginning with Seismology and continuing through several new projects, Anandam has chosen to engage a unique “Audience in Residence” program supported by the Metcalf Foundation. This allows the company to evaluate audience relationship through continual in-process feedback, which in turn changes and shapes the piece. This should prove vital for the show Weather, to be installed at the Bata Shoe Museum in 2015. In this piece, new-media collaborator Jacob Niedzwiecki developed augmented reality applications, adding images and sound to live performance through the use of mobile devices. It’s a playful artistic hijack, welcoming the pervasiveness of modern hand-held technology and the attention-drift that accompanies it.
The Bata Shoe Museum installation continues Anandam’s expanded dialogue between architecture, the body, and public space. Here Leary speaks of the fluidity of working with site that initiates a change in expectation, an opportunity for intimate moments, and a different audience that ultimately gains access to the work. In relation to theater, she comments on the challenges and opportunities of re-visioning a space, that performance in “museums, streets, and warehouses have a different life or edge to them. There’s not this over-riding context that holds it in one place and time.”
Careful not to “put practices into silos,” Leary emphasizes the importance of cross-genre training and artistic viewpoint. Her education received in India was invested in the “experience of your body in the work”, rather than “viewing the body-as-machine, as a form to be exercised,“ says Leary. "This comes from a place of “ritual, myth, and spectacle, where the cosmology of the body is sacred.” Leary advocates around contemporary circus culture, while ultimately invested in the concept of a “post-disciplinary” environment. This orientation sets Anandam apart, allowing the company to occupy a unique space and presence. Adopting the tools of circus, yet going beyond perceived limits, Anandam creates work that reveres tradition while contributing to its evolution.