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House of Circus' queer nights have humour with teeth #FestivalCircolo

When I was about 16 and a bit clumsy, I did a clowning workshop at the cultural centre nearby. It taught me how to trip over my own feet. Unfortunately, I haven't forgotten that since. This pretty much finished my knowledge and love of circus. For however clever it all was, I was not the audience. I had, probably wrongly, the idea that circus was something for families with young children. Neat, but a bit corny entertainment.

With Cirque du Soleil, circus became something for adults again, we could marvel at the perfect body control, at how ragingly clever it all is. I marvelled at the performers, the costumes, the lighting. It was no longer corny, but very polished. And that's what circus has remained, especially in the now prevailing minimalist trend.

Queer circus scene in the US

But where has the contrarian gone? If there is a neat mainstream, then there must be an undercurrent somewhere. And that, not unexpectedly, turns out to be in the queer and LGBTQI+ community.

Internationally, queer circuses have been around for some time, Sur Cupcake's Queer Circus for example. Founded in 2014 with exclusively queer, transgender and nonbinary performers. Their shows are full of acrobatics, clownery, dance and trapeze work, with the mission of 'lifting hearts and opening minds'. Sir Cupcake wants to give its audience strength to be able to be themselves without fear and shame.

Women with beards

Or take Circus Amok in New York. Leading lady is Jennifer Miller, a cis-gender lesbian woman with a full beard. In her circus act, she redefines what it is to be a freak, she 'de-freaks' her appearance.

She is certainly not an old-fashioned woman with a beard, like those displayed alongside other people with non-normative bodies at the turn of the penultimate century. On the contrary, Miller makes you think about who is looking at whom. Where pre-war women with beards presented themselves as hyper-feminine, Miller is her own androgynous self. She decides for herself whether her body and appearance are desirable; the audience does not have to do that for her. As ringmaster, she only introduces not the usual upbeat acts, but political hot topics like the prison system or homelessness. But then with acrobatics, because it is circus, after all.

Ballroom? no, circus!

Closer to home, we also have a queer circus: House of circus. The name refers to houses from the ballroom and vogue scene, the dance culture emerging from the BIPOC and LGBTQI+ scene in New York. The houses were and are safe places for young gay men of colour, in particular, to go when they can't at home. But make no mistake, the competitions between the houses are robust. And the scene is still alive and well and a lot more subversive than you would think based on RuPaul's programmes.

Queer circus, then, just in Tilburg, founded by Germain Charlat and Nick van der Heyden. Both graduated from the circus academy, also in Tilburg. Their shared love of circus and drag brought them together. Trapeze, clowning, balance acts, you will find it all at House of Circus, but in drag. And with glitter and dance and theatre, because minimalist it is not happy. It's loud and over the top, as only drag queens can. It is exciting that they bring together both worlds not known for their openness. Yet they see a turnaround in this themselves, both the drag scene and the circus world are looking around a bit more and taking inspiration from theatre and dance.

In the show, created for Korzo in The Hague, they show their transformation from man to drag queen, with the huge wig and fake tits. The make-up does not stay on properly throughout the performance, under the theatre lights the lipstick runs a little. Nick has lipstick on his teeth. This then fits wonderfully with how he challenges his audience: 'Do you like me better when I'm thinner and more flexible? Do you find me sexy?' It looks like he could drink your blood.

Circus looks back at audience

And that is equally the importance of queer circus. The creators decide who they are, how they present themselves and what your place is as an audience. Watching is two-way traffic. The audience is addressed nicely in a virile way. Germain (stage name Iconnee) and Nick (Hayden) want to take drag out of the entertainment circuit and bring it to the theatre with their shows. At the same time, they want to bring glitter, pomp and circumstance as well as power back to the circus. Drag should be accessible to everyone, regardless of gender or age. They have humour, but are certainly not toothless.

For Festival Circolo, they are on stage with the show Carnivale Royale, along with other queer artists. High time, because behind the scenes the openness may be there for gender diversity, but on stage or in the straw, the time of sawed-off girls is not so long ago. A tour of this year's Christmas circuses yields pictures of women in high-cut suits and men in the traditional (glitter) suits. The clowns are almost all men, the illusionists too, the assistants (who are sawed through, put through a ring or pelted with knives) women.

House of Circus does it differently. How nice to turn it around and see drag queens doing arm-balancing exercises, wig and all.

It's a lot less political than its American counterparts, but thankfully it doesn't have that whiff of formation theatre that American circuses seem to have in mind. Yes, in Tilburg it's about visibility and openness, but also and above all it's about a tasty show by two circus professionals who have been at it since childhood. And it's about humour. Afterwards, you get to dance, late into the night.

Good to know Good to know
House of Circus presents Carnivale Royale on 28 and 29 October in Tilburg. For more information and tickets, click here.

Helen Westerik

Helen Westerik is a film historian and great lover of experimental films. She teaches film history and researches the body in art.View Author posts

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