The circus performance EZ pulls you out of your comfort zone and raises uncomfortable questions such as: what do we agree to without knowing it, and: what do you do when someone on stage voluntarily tortures and manipulates themselves? In their performance, the non-binary Elena Zanzu, a graduate of Montreal's National Circus School and master in philosophy at the University in Bologna, makes us think about power. Is there room for empathy within the confines of a theatre performance? What is trust based on? And who cares for whom?
The stage is bare, apart from a few props such as ropes for Elena Zanzu to hoist herself into the air, a tub of water, a long tube for breathing through and a hairdryer dangling from a rope (to dry Zanzu's hair). The artist himself also does not draw too much attention and, apart from a silver metallic T-shirt, is dressed soberly. Everything seems to be in the service of the experience, something Zanzu then fully indulges in. That makes it easier for us, to do the same.
Theatre De Nieuwe Vorst in Tilburg is full. The audience is of all ages and very international. Zanzu soon puts quite a bit of pressure on by hanging upside down on a rope for a relatively long time with its head in a tub of water. After a while, there is some shuffling back and forth in the hall, but nobody does anything.
It feels uncomfortable. Is this part of the performance? Is the artist expecting someone from the audience to intervene? After a while, Elena stops automatically and looks piercingly at the audience. Do we see disappointment because the audience remained passive and did not care? Or is this precisely what Zanzu wanted to achieve? Either way, it feels less safe.
Vulnerability, BDSM and Siri
During the rest of the performance, Elena Zanzu uses various techniques, such as Shibari (an ancient Japanese technique where people are tied up with ropes) and the so-called 'hair hang', a circus act where performers are hung by the hair and perform acrobatic poses. Since Zanzu has short hair, they achieve the same effect by stretching ropes around the head.
The performance is full of BDSM elements, such as consensual (consensual) torture. When Zanzu asks a volunteer from the audience to cooperate, they agree on a signal that allows the latter to stop the scene if she does not feel comfortable.
All the pain takes place internally: we hear nothing about it, and nothing can be seen on Zanzu's face. The artist is silent, while a Siri-like voice instructs philosophical questions in English, such as: "How can we create a safe space to enable vulnerability?" The voice also frequently asks, "Is this a monologue?"
The volunteer from the audience gets himself a harness to serve as a counterweight in the act for Zanzu, who carries the whole weight with the bound head. That must hurt, and Zanzu announces as much.
Outside the group
In the audience, meanwhile, we wonder why no one chooses to interrupt Zanzu's agony. How different is this from the street, when in an emergency we are more inclined to grab the camera rather than intervene? Perhaps we trust the performer and surrender to the experience. Or on the contrary, are we afraid of falling outside the group? Quite something to think about
At the end of the performance, the front row is given a long piece of rope, tied to Zanzu's head via a pulley on the side stage. When Zanzu lies down on the ground, the spectators immediately start pulling with the rope, without being told.
Later I heard that Zanzu was quite surprised about this quick action. During an earlier performance in France, it took no less than 15 minutes before the audience dared to do so.
Thus, the performance ends with the grim feeling that we knowingly contributed to Elena Zanzu's torture. Or was this also the intention?
Elena Zanzu (she/he) is a performer and researcher. Their practical and theoretical interests revolve around gender, disability and various aspects around vulnerability.
Elena is a researcher at The Circus Dialogues, a project at the interface between practice and theory, supported by KASK University of Arts, Ghent. Since 2015, she has been teaching on gender in circus at the Public University of Barcelona (UAB).