Circus and Its Others Conference

Circus and its Others — Conference, July 15-17 2016, Montréal

From Pink and Britney Spears’ stage shows to American Horror Story to Cirque du Soleil’s status as the world’s most successful live performing arts company, circus in the early 21st century has undeniably gone mainstream. While this is positive news for circus companies, artists, and audiences with a taste for thrilling, high-performance entertainment, it also raises questions about circus’s historic status as a site for the celebration and exploitation of differences, from stagings of exceptional performing bodies to the display of “freakery.” While contemporary circus has put considerable distance between itself and the display of bodies whose exceptionalism is born rather than acquired, Erin Hurley has influentially argued that “all circus bodies carry in them the residual mark of the freaks of the fairgrounds.” To what extent and in what ways, then, is circus always-already different, and about difference? How does the mainstreaming of contemporary circus affect its status as a haven for the different, the outsider? In what ways are contemporary circus artists and companies embracing and exploiting (or not) difference in their practice?

The Circus and its Others research project, under the aegis of the Montréal Working Group on Circus Research, was launched in 2014 to explore these questions. The project is organizing a three-day conference in Montréal on the final weekend of the 2016 Montréal Complètement Cirque festival. The conference, organized by Charles Batson (Union College), Karen Fricker (Brock University) and Louis Patrick Leroux (Concordia University) will include a plenary speaker; two roundtable discussions involving circus artists, producers, trainers, and scholars; and three panels for the presentation of scholarly papers.

Towards these panels, we invite proposals for papers that address questions of difference and otherness in the context of contemporary circus, in Québec, Canada, or internationally. Possible areas of inquiry might include, but need not be limited to:

Histories of circus and its others

What hidden histories of circus practice may be located in the visual archive?

What are the histories of areas of circus practice that today are considered other to the mainstream, such as the use and display of animals?

How do the histories of circus practice intersect with histories of colonialism and imperialism?

Social circus – the other of professional circus?

How are circus artists and researchers using the circus arts to intervene in the lives of, and support, those othered by mainstream society?

What are the power relations between social circus and professional circus, and how do questions of race/class/gender/ability figure in this?

If social circus has become a conduit for those still considered other from the largely white European talent base to enter professional contemporary circus, what is the relationship of this flow of bodies to historical and current power relations between Global North and South?

Travelling otherness

What happens when circus talent and circus acts travel outside their cultures of origin and become “other”?

To what extent do circuses use their national/regional/linguistic/ethnic difference as branding to enable their circulation in the global entertainment market? What practices of exotification and self-exotification may be employed in this?

Circus bodies: Normal, extraordinary, other? 

In the shift to modern and contemporary circus, bodies born “other” (eg circus “freaks”) were ostensibly sidelined in favour of bodies that become other thanks to exceptional skill, artistry, and training. What are the implications of this for circus arts such as contortion which arguably carry the historical baggage of “born otherness” with them?

What is required and expected of the bodies of today’s elite circus artists? With their toned, strong bodies do they now represent a societal ideal rather than society’s outsiders? How do circus trainers as well as circus artists deal with questions of body image?

Gender and queerness in contemporary circus

How are circus artists and companies resisting commodification and mainstreaming to keep the freak and queer in contemporary circus?

Are women circus’s perennial other?

To what can we attribute the strikingly limited nature of Québec-based circus artists’ participation in the current international wave of women’s and feminist circus practices?

Please send 300-500 word proposals to Charles Batson (, Karen Fricker (, and Patrick Leroux ( by 15 December 2015. We will reply to all applicants by 15 January 2016. We are applying for financial support for the conference, and travel bursaries may be available.

Conference partners include the Montréal Working Group on Circus Research and Concordia University.

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