Expanding Circus Arts Opportunities for BIPOC Artists

Photo credit: Stacy Salter Moore

I am thrilled to share with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections an interview I recently conducted with Monique Martin.

Monique is currently the Director of Programming for Harlem Stage, a performing arts center that commissions and nurtures artists of color while celebrating the indelible impression the unique and diverse artistic legacy of Harlem has made on American culture, as well as the world.

Known as a propagator of art, culture and ideas, Monique utilizes her passion and experience with the arts to activate and elevate the communities where she works. As an independent curator, producer and marketing consultant, Monique also has partnered with and produced for several cultural and arts venues, including Joe’s Pub (Public Theater), Disney Theatrical Group, Apollo Theater, New Victory Theater, Southbank Centre/UK, Hip Hop Theater Festival, HBO and numerous Broadway and Off -Broadway theaters.

In addition to these major accomplishments, Monique has been blazing trails and opening doors for BIPOC artists in the world of circus arts. I hope you will find our conversation as instructive and illuminating as I did:

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: Monique, please define for the readers of Arts & Culture Connections the arts careers associated with the circus? Where are these artists?

Monique Martin: Contemporary circus is an evolving genre which incorporates physical theater, dance, clowning, manipulation, aerial and acrobatics. The primary distinction between contemporary circus and traditional circus is the absence of animals.

Contemporary circus also is known to be narrative-based; it begins with a premise or a provocation. Traditional circus, on the other hand, may have a theme, but it is built on “acts.” The audience’s experience during a traditional circus performance is a mélange of acts knitted together to create a show, which may or may not have a theme.

Donna: What does the training involve?

 Monique: Most artists are trained in circus schools. Quebec, France, Sweden and Belgium produce many of the circus artists we see on stages. Circus artists also come from the gymnastic field. Some artists also have unusual and specialized skills, such as finger puppets or soccer dribbling, which can be learned outside of circus school training and integrated into a show.

Donna: Among your many, major accomplishments, you have devoted a significant part of your career to circus arts, primarily for people of color. How did you begin and what have you learned?

 Monique Martin: I was invited to Completment Cirque in 2011 by the Quebec Government to attend the largest contemporary circus festival in North America, which takes place annually in Montreal during the month of July.

What began as an exploratory research trip, to understand the depth of this exciting and burgeoning art form, resulted in a complete immersion into the exhilarating and magical world of circus. I experienced solo performances, cabaret, Cirque du Soleil, and companies of all sizes from across the globe. There was one company I met during that trip–Kalabanté from Guinea, West Africa—which I later presented during SummerStage 2016 in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.

The year after Montreal, 2012, I traveled to France, Morocco, Finland and the United Kingdom, attending festivals, meeting with artists, and participating in workshops designed to strengthen the sector. What I quickly discovered was the lack of diverse talent represented.

The primary contributor to this disparity is economic. The cost of attending circus school is expensive—more than $40-thousand for a two year program. However, African-Americans and People of Color (POC) across the globe have a long and complex history with circus arts.

There also are many circus artists of color who simply are not being cast. My response to this disparity was to commission artists in New York to create new work and present local and international companies of color.

And on my return trip from Montreal to New York in 2011, I also began writing a circus. The project is now in year two of a residency, and it’s evolving beautifully. Stay tuned….

Donna: Why has it been so difficult for people of color to get cast in leading roles in this field or to have leadership positions in management or administration?

Monique: Just as all arts and cultural sectors are grappling with the effects of biases and structural racism that have been amplified during this “pause” instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic, so, too, is the circus field responding to the experiences of BIPOC artists, who have had limited opportunities. Circus Talk, an online market resource center for circus performers, recently hosted a three-part series on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in circus, which was quite sobering.

Many artists expressed frustrations with being eroticized, racialized and cast in stereotypical roles with tired tropes that many BIPOC artists face in the theater and film industries. The tide is shifting—we have recently seen the closing of Cirque du Soleil, a formidable leader in the field.

Donna: Are there places where artists of color are more prominent in this field?

In March of this year, I attended the Circus Festival of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. This festival presented brilliant artists from that country, Gabon, Senegal, Madagascar, Guinėa, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. The representation of these technically-skilled and culturally-rich companies sent a clear message that the continent of Africa is a dynamic contender in the field of circus arts.

Donna: How many people of color would you say are involved worldwide?

Monique: That is a great question. National and international collectives are forming as we speak. The Montreal Completement Cirque had to cancel this year’s annual July festival, and moved its marketplace to a digital platform. Artists, agents, programmers, and journalists from around the globe attended webinars designed to learn of new work through pitch sessions, build community and strengthen the sector.

The BIPOC artists organically formed an affinity cohort which will amplify the voices from this underrepresented community. Of course, there are regional collectives across the globe. We are now intentionally galvanizing our cultural capital. As more awareness of companies led and created by BIPOC artists increases so will the opportunities.

Donna: Have you seen/experienced a rise in these artists demanding opportunity, equity, diversity and inclusion?

Monique: Inspired by the BIPOC Theater Artists Open Letter, circus artists are in conversation now to respond to the lack of equity and demand structural changes with a clear multi-year plan.

Donna: What types of changes are they seeking?

Monique: Funding, residencies, commissions and presentation. These are standard resources that every artist needs to sustain and deepen their work. There will be more information forthcoming on this issue.

Donna: How has the pandemic impacted BIPOC circus artists?

 Monique: With touring suspended and venues closed, the current “pause” has required artists to become more innovative and entrepreneurial. They are now speaking directly to audiences, colleagues and supporters about their work. This is an unprecedented time’ a time where BIPOC artists are mobilizing to support the creation of new works that reflect their personal narratives and experiences.

Donna: What do you see as the future in this field?

Monique: More traditional performing arts centers will embrace the form as audiences return expecting to be immersed in an experience, rather than being a proscenium spectator. The future of contemporary circus will be far more inclusive as consumers demand an authentic representation of humanity and all of its beautiful cultures. There will be more women creating and producing contemporary circus. We are seeing leadership of women internationally. I expect to see the United States create more space for the voices of women.

I have co created a network of more than 20 programmers across the country, who have presented companies from France and Sweden in several successful national tours. I am currently co-leading a cohort of 130 national and international artists, programmers, agents, journalists and teachers who are committed to advancing the contemporary circus sector in North America. The cohort represents the experienced and brightest leaders; the dreamers and doers in the field. This is a thrilling time!

Donna: Thank you so much, Monique, for being a Champion of the Arts, opening doors for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access in the circus arts, along with helping to create opportunities, for these dynamic and talented BIPOC artists.

To my readers, what did you learn from this dialogue that you feel is important to share with others? I look forward to your posting your thoughts below. Be safe. Be well. Be strong.

4 thoughts on “Expanding Circus Arts Opportunities for BIPOC Artists

  1. What a rich and informative conversation! BIPOC circus artists have the opportunity to bring their deep connection to the traditional stories, myths and folk tales of their countries, along with their contemporary points of view on history and politics that are more rooted in a self-determined and authentic voice. I’m looking forward to seeing works that do not cater to the European, white American or post colonial gaze.

  2. Insightful and informative conversation. I notice there was no mention of Universoul Circus, so I’m wondering if this is a Black-owned enterprise and where does it fit into this discussion. Or does it?

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Universoul Circus is traditional circus i.e. Big Apple or Ringling Brothers. They still use animals in the productions and the work is presented in big top as a circular experience. Contemporary Circus employs no animals and can be presented in a proscenium, outdoors or under a big top.

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