TheatersWeekend

Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok

by Christine Shan Shan Hou on September 2, 2012

Circus Amok jugglers

Circus Amok jugglers (photo byShenani Fernando)

“The circus aesthetic is born in a queer world from queer artists and disrupts the normative at every turn. The lady with the beard is the ringleader and not in the sideshow … a bridge into this magical world.” —Jennifer Miller

It’s a hot Friday afternoon. Inside the LAVA Studio in Brooklyn, six bodies take turns tumbling on a large blue mat: forward rolls, cartwheels, back handsprings, backward rolls into handstands. They cheer each other on throughout the warm-up. Their bodies are strong, their energy joyfully palpable.

This is Circus Amok, the “one-ring, no animal, queerly situated, political, circus extravaganza” led by the ferociously savvy bearded woman, Jennifer Miller. It’s been four years since Circus Amok’s last performance, and this year, Jennifer has returned with Ashley Brockington, Cathy Weis, Carlton Ward, Greg Corbino, Sarah East Johnson, and Victor Vauban, Jr., for MOO.

Miller founded Circus Amok in 1989, with their previous performance, Subprime Sublime, taking place in 2008. Since then, Miller has staged two plays, Cracked Ice, or The Jewels of The Forbidden Skates (2009) at PS122 and The Golden Racket (2011) at La MaMa. Making plays has always been an interest of Miller’s. They also served as a break from the heavy production involved with the Circus’s public performances.

Funding has played a large part in the Circus’s hiatus, but so have Miller’s own feelings of being “burnt out.” “I’ve never had a full-on production manager to take care of the details,” such as renting trucks and attaining permits, she said. “I wake up with a pit in my stomach about how I’m going to get those stilt costumes finished.” Fundraising can be a full-time job unto itself. In February, she launched a Kickstarter campaign for the production and touring of MOO, the Circus’s 19th show. Miller raised $1,600 more than her stated goal of $17,500 with the support of 257 backers. In the eighties and nineties “people weren’t burnt out by life. We could all have shit jobs and come to rehearsal for free, but people are so exhausted from paying the rent now. It takes more work hours. The balance has shifted.”

A Circus Amok performance

A Circus Amok performance (photo by Andrew Lichtenstein)

MOO will be performed nine times with a live band under the direction of Jenny Romaine, in six New York City public parks over the month of September. All performances are free and open to the public, an essential aspect to the Circus’s mission of providing “free public art addressing contemporary issues of social justice to the people of New York City.” The park Miller is most looking forward to: Tompkins Square Park, “our hometown crowd.” For each show, she takes on a political theme, “issues that are of local concerns for audience members in parks around the city.” In the past, the Circus has addressed the housing foreclosure crisis and the healthcare system. This year, MOO takes on stop-and-frisk, a policy that has raised serious concerns over racial profiling, illegal stops, and privacy rights.

“I’m not as young as I used to be … and public space is not what it used to be,” she declares in her grand, ringleader persona (Miller is actually relatively small in stature). She stands in the middle of a blue tumbling mat in a red tank top and sweatpants.

The performers situate a purple trapezoidal box with painted white stars between a trampoline and mat. One by one they jump and flip over the large box, eventually piling on top of it like a stack of pancakes, Miller, at the bottom, flails her arms with a mime-like panic, her eyes wide and head bobbling in cartoonish delirium. I thought I had grown out of my enjoyment for clowning and slapstick humor. Now, encountering it with this group, I found myself laughing along. Is it possible for me to be nostalgic for a time that I didn’t live through? Or is this a yearning for community?

Circus Amok blurs the lines between spectacle, political theater, and performance like queerness blurs the lines between sexuality, gender, and identity, both actively challenging preconceived notions of what it means to be normal. Circus performers have always been looked at as anomalies, or outsiders. However, they are confined to their assigned roles while following the direction of the ringleader — typically a white man with a whip.

Circus Amok performers as ice cream cones

Circus Amok performers as ice cream cones (photo by the author)

Miller’s circus is entertainment informed by politically charged atmosphere. It is also a continuation of a community that grew out of the 1980s East Village performance art scene. In “The Queer Frontier,” C.Carr’s 1985 article on the work of Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, and the team of Robin Epstein/Sarah Schulman, she writes: “Anything that injects new dimensions in queerness into the culture is vanguard labor, even when it remains invisible to the mainstream.”  Invisibility goes against the grain of what we often think of as a key element to activism — making a difference, having an impact. However, change does not happen overnight, nor is it immediately visible. If anything, queer thinking has shown us that it is not about reaching an ideal; rather, its emphasis is on methodology, the process that is used to continuously expand and challenge the mainstream.

Born in California, Miller left for New York in the eighties, becoming a part of the improvisational dance scene at PS122 along with Ishmael Houston-Jones and Yvonne Meier. She recalls, as a high school student, watching Deborah Hay dance, and cites Epstein/Schulman, Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Fred Holland, Ethyl Eichelberger and Johanna Boyce as influences. It was “a world of loving everybody’s work…real estate was low, commoditization was down, everything was an adventure,” one that was eventually “devastated by AIDS.”

In their early years, Miller and a tight-knit group including Jenny Monson, Scotty Heron, Cathy Weis, Salley May, DD Dorvillier, and Clarinda Mac Low formed a “constant whirlwind” of activity. AIDS shattered this inwardly focused community, demonstrating a need to make queer performance art visible in the mainstream. The Queer Nation Manifesto handed out in the 1991 march on Washington comes to mind:

We must fight for ourselves (no else is going to do it) and if in that process we bring greater freedom to the world at large then great. … Remember there is so, so little time. And I want to be a lover of each and every one of you.

We are once again in a time when performance has taken center stage in the artworld and performance artists have become valuable players. While, uptown and downtown, those tiring aesthetic divisions, refuse to die, and the gap between the haves and the have nots widens, Circus Amok comes not as a fame-seeking alternative, but as a long-awaited reunion among old friends. “We’re coming back as adults,” Miller says.

“How do we have the energy to go on in the midst of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin?” Of course we have the Occupy movement, a strong point of contrast, which is still going strong but has unfortunately lost its media visibility. But Circus Amok, though addressing similar political issues, poses different questions: Can unified political struggle take on the form of celebration? Can political struggle be simultaneously entertaining and serious? Making art is not the same as political action, (although it is not uncommon for them to overlap), nor should it replace it. Instead, political — and in the Circus’s case — public art can be seen as the equivalent of planting a seed, a means of prompting curiosity and asking questions.

Circus Amok performers

Circus Amok performers, from left to right: Carlton Ward, Cathy Weis, Ashley Brockington, Jennifer Miller, Greg Corbino, Victor Vauban, Jr. and Sarah East Johnson (photo by the author)

For MOO, Circus Amok has partnered with the grass-roots campaign, Milk Not Jails, an urban-rural alliance, looking to dairy farming as a replacement for the prison economy in upstate New York. Milk Not Jails will provide Circus Amok’s first ever midway — an area for games and concessions prior to and during the show.

In one section of MOO, Brockington, Ward, Corbino, Johnson, and Vauban, Jr., melt over like wax figures on all fours, their feet and bottoms encircling Weis. They arch their backs up and down while rotating around her. “They’re supposed to be cows.” Jennifer tells me, “all except for Cathy. She’ll be wearing a yellow dress.”

During the tumbling routines, stilt-walking and juggling, Weis sits on the side and observes. She has a mysterious aura like a crystal ball reader: the Circus’s clairvoyant. At one point, Weis improvises a bewitching solo with a raggedy yellow ribbon. She looks like a possessed marionette; her limbs entwine the air with deliberate articulation and subtlety. In another scene she lets out a series of frightful screams while Miller enthusiastically encourages her from the side: “Again, again!” she mouths, waving her arm excitedly.

Corbino, originally from Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater, brings a marvelously wacky presence to the show. He particularly shines while dancing on his stilts. He also plays Carol Channing, a Broadway actress, singer, and comedienne, who also happens to be one of Miller’s muses. “Look up: Carol Channing Jam,” Nini Ayach, one of the Circus’s roustabouts tell me with a smile on her face, “and you’ll see … ”

There is a sense of openness, humor, and mutual camaraderie in Miller’s choreographic process. In another vignette, Corbino, Ward, Vauban, Jr., and Ayack (standing in for Brockington) clown around while holding human-sized cardboard ice cream cones that reveal only their legs. They experiment with “pony legs,” “crab legs” and “pogo-ing.” There are moments when the performers collaborate with each another to move the scene forward while Miller chimes in with the occasional suggestion. The rehearsal feels much like an open conversation, an elastic band that stretches and encapsulates all shapes, sizes, genders, and personalities.

“Are you writing about how loving we are with each other?” Brockington, asks me while I’m scribbling in my notebook.

I am.

But I am also nostalgic for a time I didn’t live through, a phantom nostalgia that overwhelms me when contemplating the history of political action. A nostalgia that is also a yearning for community, a desire to be a part of that “vanguard labor,” visible or invisible.

MOO will be performed at various dates and locations in New York throughout September. The full schedule can be found here.

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