Born Every Minute – Creativity at the Circus

Big Apple Circus - Lift

Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob Jagendorf

Once upon a time, I ran away to join the circus. Not a big-top-style circus with elephants and lion-tamers, but a circus nonetheless. And no, I’m not speaking figuratively. About 11 years ago, when we still lived in Canada, I got a call from an old friend who asked me if I would be interested in moving to Europe and playing piano in a show that he had been working in for a while, for pretty good money. The catch was that I had to be there the following week.

If that’s not a test-your-fearlessness moment, I don’t know what is.

As it happened, my then-girlfriend (now my wife) and I had ‘put the idea out there’ not long before that we would like to do some more traveling. But not in the backpack-and-railpass kind of way – we’d done a fair bit of that already; we were interested in living and working somewhere else for a while. And here was an opportunity to do exactly that.

So we took the plunge and, although much water has flowed under many bridges since then, we are still living in Germany a decade later. And while I left that particular show 6 years ago, I find myself working for a very similar outfit again now, and it’s given me a few things to think about – yet another lens through which to look at the endless subject of creativity through…

The Spice of Life

These shows are an interesting hybrid of dinner theatre, cabaret and a particularly European form of circus known as Varieté. This latter can be thought of as a sort of small-scale, intimate version of a Cirque du Soleil show, and indeed was likely the major influence in Cirque’s development. It focuses on human-only, acrobatic and/or aesthetic ‘numbers’ – solo or small-group – including juggling and other manipulations, balance, contortion and various aerial forms.

After playing nearly a thousand of these shows, and seeing many more, I have seen some amazing stuff, and my sense of the limits of human skill and co-ordination have been greatly expanded. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting and working with some outrageously talented people. Many of these embody a kind of professionalism that I find amazing – they will work exhausted, sick, even injured (and I have done so as well). The show must go on!

Another thing: while they may have a wide range of skills, these performers have typically focused their work on a single finely-tuned, choreographed, and precisely timed act, lasting 5 to 10 minutes or so. After creating this act, they practice and hone and then perform it, exactly the same way, hundreds and thousands of times.

It may subtly evolve, they may add new tricks here and there and retire old ones, or even improvise at certain moments, but for the most part consistency is the name of the game, and for people doing what in many cases are physically astonishing things, they are extraordinarily consistent.

This couldn’t be a whole lot further from my own highly improvisational, eclectic, be-in-the-moment approach, and it fascinates me. What motivates the profound focus that all of this requires?

Of course, part of it is market-driven – to get work in these shows, especially the more prominent (and better paying) ones, you have to deliver a predictable experience, and to do remarkable things predictably they need to be deep in body memory, unconscious and second-nature. And, to keep amazing a paying public who in many cases will have seen similar shows and acts before, you need to keep pushing the envelope

Old Dog, New Tricks

Of course, that’s one of the key components and driving forces of creativity. Whatever the motivation might be, whether we’re trying to earn a living, impress a particular person, or make our mark on the world, some people seem innately driven to do more, test the limits, expand human potential, achieve the seemingly impossible.

I recently watched a fascinating TED talk by Chris Anderson (the one that runs TED, not the Wired magazine / Long Tail one) about Crowd Accelerated Innovation. Among his numerous examples of how the Internet has changed all the rules is a 6-year-old YouTube breakdancing sensation known as ‘Little Demon‘. The dance moves he executes are not something 6-year-olds generally do, but it seems that someone forgot to tell him that. And so, he posts his routines and berates us to “Step our game up.” Indeed!

Anderson’s point is that social media, online video and other internet technologies have vastly expanded access to information, and democratized the ability to publish that information in a way that can be searched and shared; and the result has been that all manner of incredible things that people do have been brought into the light, made available to enormous crowds.

And of course that means that countless other people will not only see it, they will be able to respond to it, whether through appreciation or – and this is the kicker – by trying to do it themselves… and maybe, eventually, inevitably, to outdo it. Certainly this is the case with the circus arts – a YouTube search for, say, ‘amazing jugglers‘ will lead you down a rabbithole of mind-blowing feats of co-ordination – fuelled by the very possibility of doing something that’s never been done before, posting it, and being recognized for it.

The system self-perpetuates. Today’s ‘impossible’ things will be seen by countless people who would previously never have seen them, and among those countless people will surely be amazingly talented individuals who will be inspired to emulate and, inevitably, move the bar themselves – in ways neither we nor they could otherwise imagine.

In ways, to put a finer point on it, that no-one might otherwise have imagined…

In any case, the process of innovation is likely to be accelerated exponentially. This excites me. I’m hugely excited by the possibilities held out by all of this new and unpredictable connectedness in all realms of creativity – whether artistic, entrepreneurial, technological, philosophical, or hitherto unknown variants or combinations.

The Mesh of Creativity

This last point is something that has begun to dominate my thinking lately. Creative endeavour has a tendency to ‘clump’ into categories, so that poets are primarily interested in emulating and learning from other poets, juggles from other jugglers, and so on. We are drawn to a particular form, idiom or tradition, inspired by its masters, and motivated to innovate within that form. Or we are led by personal circumstance to a particular kind of problem.

But what if we were to expand our frame of reference, draw inspiration and ideas from completely disconnected sources? What if we open up the game? What unimaginable new forms might the amazing innate creativity of the world’s legions of potential innovators take? What if the three-ring circus were a seven-, eight-, nine-billion-ring circus?

I’ve written about collaboration before, but what’s exciting me now is the notion of collaboration across all boundaries, expanded and accelerated by technology. Without giving the game away, I’ll just say that this much-expanded concept of collaboration is a theme to which I’ll be returning quite soon…

But for now, I’ve got a show to play! (So, please bear with the somewhat slow post rate. I’ll continue to do my best to make them worthwhile!).

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of the above, in the comments below!