Expressing Yourself Through Circus: How To Convey Different Emotions Through Performance

By Maia Castro-Santos

“Artistic expression” is a term that is often heard and used in the worlds of both performing and visual art. Expression can mean portraying a certain thought or feeling to the viewer/audience, or it can be a more introspective method for an artist to explore their own emotions. Often times, these two definitions overlap, and the artist’s portrayal of their internal emotions is what captivates the audience. In both traditional and contemporary circus styles, the art of performance is enhanced by the performer’s ability to express or convey some type of emotion to the audience. Whether the act draws laughter, tears, anger, or any other emotional response from the audience, this emotional connection enhances the audience’s experience of the performance. But how do you create an act that effectively conveys a certain feeling to the viewers? The following techniques are a few that have helped me with this question:

1. Music Choice:

Music choice is one of the hardest parts of act creation for me. The song sets the tone of the act and carries through the entire performance. A piece of music that compliments the style and mood of an act can clarify the choreographer’s desired message or theme. You could choose a up-tempo, bright, jazzy song, or maybe a slow, violin based, instrumental piece of music; maybe you want the song accompanying your act to have a soaring melody, or maybe you want a steady down beat. When I am choreographing an act, the song that I choose greatly influences the quality of movement and the emotion that I try to channel through my act. The way that a song builds and rises and falls in intensity can also influence the order in which you decide to sequence tricks. If there is a large build up, towards the end of the song, maybe you would decide to save a particularly crowd pleasing trick for that moment.

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2. Color and Lighting:

In visual as well as performing arts, different colors often evoke specific emotions. The psychology of colors has a very influential role in an audience’s experience of a work of art. Generally, the warm half of the color wheel (red, orange, and yellow) evokes more energetic feelings, while the cool colors (blue, green, and purple) generate calmer emotions. Red is a very intense color. Some of the many emotions that it can represent include love, anger, and power. Yellow and orange are typically joyful and energetic. Blue can represent sadness or loneliness as well as tranquility. Purple is also a calm color and can signify mystery. Green often connects the audience with nature and the earth. All of these assumptions about the emotions associated with colors are generalizations, but they can be helpful guidelines when costuming and lighting an act. The two pictures (one above and one below) are from the performances at the end of two circus camps I was a part of last summer. The theme of the lyra act in the photo above was sunshine (our showcase was themed “weather”). My partner in the act is not shown, but we decided to both wear yellow shirts and each wear one yellow leg warmer. The song we chose was “Blue Skies” by Frank Sinatra. The bright sound of this song, combined with the positive lyrics and yellow costumes helped us to convey the joy of sunshine to the audience. The second picture (shown below) is from a latin themed solo lyra act. The song I chose was a jazz song with elements of tango, and I wore a red leotard with a red flower braided into my hair. The color red worked with the music to create the happy and sassy character that I was hoping to portray in this act.

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3. Movement Quality:

Movement quality is another technique that can be used to create the mood for an act. Sharp movements usually have a higher level of energy and intensity, while slower, smoother movements are often beautiful and calming. The Laban effort actions can be a useful tool for identifying what type of movement will have the desired effect in your act. The Laban effort actions categorize different types of movement based on different qualities of weight, space, and time. These qualities are:

heavy / light

direct / indirect

bound / free

sustained / sudden

Different combinations of these qualities create eight movement types: glide, flick, float, slash, wring, punch, press, and dab. The chart below is helpful for understanding how these movements are categorized.

Of course these movement types are just guidelines, and you can create your own versions and combinations of all of them. An exercise that I find helpful when creating an act is picking one of these movement types to practice my choreography to. Then I pick a completely different movement type and see how that one feels. This exercise helps me explore different “feels” for my act that I might not otherwise have pursued.

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4. Facial Expressions:

Facial expressions are probably the most obvious way to express emotion in an act… but this is often easier said than done. “Concentration face” is definitely something to be aware of. When you are tired, sweating, and nervous about hitting your next big trick, it can be really difficult to remember to smile! Your eyes are critical for expressing emotions and connecting with the audience. You don’t need to make eye contact with your audience, but if you choose to, be intentional about it! Choreograph moments into your act where you can open out your focus to include the audience. These moments of connection are just as important as performing really difficult skills.

There are many more tips and tricks to creating a more emotionally authentic act then I have listed here, but I have found these four techniques to be a good starting place.

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