“I discovered a radical potential in circus arts to challenge our assumptions about relationships, gender, and what bodies can do.”
Tangle Movement Arts has been creating a distinctive brand of circus-dance-theater for the past few years now, and from May 16 to 18, they will be taking over The Sanctuary at the Rotunda with their new show Invert! (TICKETS!) We caught up with Tangle’s founder Lauren Rile Smith to learn about the show, the company, the burgeoning circus scene, and what it takes to put a show like Invert! together
FringeArts: How did Tangle Movement Arts come about?
Lauren: I formed Tangle in 2010 with the goal of making circus-dance-theater with feminist values. I discovered a radical potential in circus arts to challenge our assumptions about relationships, gender, and what bodies can do. Aerial dance is a context in which women can build muscle, men can move gracefully, and everybody can defy gravity. This inspired me to found Tangle—I wanted to make collaborative performance in that radical spirit!
So I gathered a group of seven collaborators with similar visions to embark on the project of making our very first show for the 2011 Philly Fringe. We collaboratively devised Ampersand, which was a sold-out hit, and since then we’ve continued to make aerial dance theater. Our work includes both full-length shows created by company members, and our popular, free outdoor showcase series, tinycircus. We’ve been so honored by the reception we’ve gotten—there’s been an explosion of interest in circus arts in the past few years, and Tangle’s interdisciplinary mix of circus, dance, theater, and live music has connected us to diverse communities in a way that fuels us.
FringeArts: Tell us about the new show Invert!
Lauren: Invert! is an evening of all-new aerial dance theater. With a nod to queer history, “invert” being a 19th-century term for gender nonconformists, as well as the basic image of circus arts—a body upside-down, Invert! aims to upend viewer expectations. Using trapeze, aerial hoop and rope, and acrobatic partner balancing, Invert! features vertical flirtation, glittery sequins, eerie reflections of inner strife, a spoken-word monologue performed on trapeze, a celebration of campy drag traditions, and a tribute to Rosie the Riveter complete with on-stage power tools.
We have found that in mainstream storytelling, relationships between women are often erased or turned into stereotypes. Invert! counters that by projecting intimate and dynamic relationships between women who perform alongside each other and literally lift each other’s bodies. The dynamic aerial and partner acrobatics of Invert! will be interspersed with tango solos by Juilliard violinist Caeli Smith—we’re excited to bring this show to the majestic and rarely seen Sanctuary at the Rotunda.
FringeArts: How do you determine what pieces fit into a Tangle show?
Lauren: All of Tangle’s work is collaboratively devised by the members of our company, through a long-term cooperative effort. Without a central director or choreographer, Tangle makes creative decisions as a group, sharing input on all aspects of the rehearsal and performance process. Our creative process is based in group and solo improvisation, a continual dynamic of group feedback, and planning sessions in which we develop the structure, written and musical accompaniments, and conceptual framework behind a show. In planning for Invert!, we brought together inspirations as diverse as female WWII engineers, Greek statuary, the tango music of Astor Piazzolla, and a Marilyn Hacker poem.
Across our work, a consistent theme has been gender and embodiment—our aerial acrobatics require so much muscle-building that the topic is never far from my mind, but it’s also a feminist commitment that has been foundational to our work. It’s always really important to us to reflect diverse images of female strength in Tangle’s shows. Our performers have a range of shapes, gender presentations, and relationships to disability. In our last Fringe show, You Don’t Say, one woman performed a dazzling trapeze solo while eight months pregnant! This exploration of what female strength can mean or look like is always a central part of our process.
FringeArts: What are some of the most common traits of people who are circus artists performers?
Lauren: The trait all circus performers have in common is a stubborn commitment to an art form that bruises and burns you! Circus transforms your body, and not just in that you build muscles—I leave rehearsal with rope burns from my trapeze and bruises from my duo rope partner’s hands.
Beyond that, one of the things I love about making group work in this context is how diverse my collaborators are. Several Tangle company members do have backgrounds in dance or gymnastics, which, of course, is valuable to us—but so are the skills brought by other members, including as a comp-lit grad student, a nurse, a poet, a textile designer, a professor, a craftsperson, a singer-songwriter, and a law student. Tangle’s work is so interdisciplinary that the multitude of perspectives is essential to us.
FringeArts: There seems to be a burgeoning circus scene here in Philly. What’s responsible for this?
Lauren: There’s certainly a sea change happening in the world of circus arts—Philly’s growing interest in circus is really reflective of a national and international trend. In terms of performance, the contemporary circus movement has brought circus out of the traditional big-top and into conversation with other performance disciplines like dance and theater. This fertile cross-pollination is exemplified by Montreal’s Seven Fingers, which brought hugely popular shows to the 2011 and 2012 Live Arts festivals.
As the visibility of circus rises, access to training has also shifted—now, performers tend to be trained in circus schools rather than by traditional circus families. In the U.S., more regional schools like PSCA [Philadelphia School of Circus Arts] are established each year, which has led to an explosion of interest in circus training—whether it’s for recreation—certainly, trapeze is the most fun workout you can imagine—or performance. Philadelphia has an increasingly strong and diverse circus community, from jugglers to sideshow artists to aerial dancers. It’s exciting to be part of that energy—and for Tangle’s interdisciplinary work to help shape Philly’s growing circus scene.
Thank Lauren, can’t wait to see the show!
And here’s a time-lapse video of Tangle installing their portable aerial rig at the Rotunda in preparation for Invert!
Tangle Movement Arts
May 16–18 at 8:30pm
The Sanctuary at The Rotunda
4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104
Tickets: $10–$15 with discounts for artists, students, seniors, and groups. Purchase at the door or online.
More info: www.tangle-arts.com