No Elephants in This Circus: Lauren Rile Smith talks about Tangle Movement Arts’ circus-theater cabaret TELL IT SLANT

Before she took up trapeze, Lauren Rile Smith was an awkward ground-based poet. Now, as ringleader of feminist circus group Tangle Movement Arts, she guides exploration of female experiences several feet above the ground. Ahead of the groups new show, TELL IT ALL, Lauren tells Phindie what she likes about circus and how a feminist mindset informs Tangle’s work. [Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street] March 12-14, 2015;

Lauren Rile Smith.
Lauren Rile Smith.

Phindie: Did you want to run away and join the circus as a kid?

Lauren Rile Smith: Actually, circus wasn’t on my radar at all during my childhood. I come from a family of artists with a particular interest in classical music, so I was exposed to a lot of performing arts as a child, but my only association with circus was an illustration of clowns and lion tamers from children’s books.

Phindie: How did you get into circus?

LRS: I was first introduced to circus arts via LAVA, a feminist company based in Brooklyn which performs acrobatic dance. I had no experience with dance or gymnastics, but I instantly knew that this was something I wanted to be part of. I’ve been fascinated ever since with circus performance as a way to mix storytelling with movement, put strong women onstage, and challenge expectations for both genre and gender.

Phindie: What else about it appeals to you?

LRS: Before I fell in love with trapeze, I was a poet with no athletic background at all. For most of my life, I’ve had chronic joint pain which made me consider my body to be an uncomfortable, unreliable place I occupied—instead of something I could deliberately shape or use to make art. I couldn’t do a single push-up when I started taking circus classes. But over time circus reframed my body into a project, a partner, a challenge, and a source of pleasure and self-expression. Now I do pull-ups for fun!

Photo by Mike Ermilio
Photo by Mike Ermilio

Phindie: How did Tangle Movement Arts come about?

LRS: In 2011, I gathered a group of seven other feminist circus artists to create a new show for that year’s Fringe festival. At that time, the only real opportunities to perform circus in Philadelphia were in a sideshow or burlesque context—I respect those disciplines, but I knew I wanted to create a full-length show that connected circus with dance and theater. I had never produced anything quite on that scale before, and wasn’t sure how it would be received—but we’ve had an amazing reception in Philly, and we have gone on to create new two full-length shows each year plus a number of smaller projects, like our pop-up performances in public places. TELL IT SLANT will be our eighth full-length production.

Phindie: How does Tangle’s emphasis on queer and female experiences inform its art?

LRS: Tangle’s core project is telling stories about women’s lives, whether that be stories about individual experiences or stories about the many possible relationships between women. Our highly physical art form is a great tool for upending normal expectations of what bodies are supposed to do—and not just in the obvious ways, like a person upside-down spinning 20 feet in the air! Tangle’s shows foreground women who literally support themselves and one another, lifting their own bodyweight and that of their friends, as well as creating stories that convey a physical intimacy that ranges from passionate to platonic. In TELL IT SLANT, one vignette explores the joyous abandon of a new relationship as two women fall in love sixteen feet above the ground. Another piece portrays seven women who dance up and down a rope at a crowded party packed with friendship and drama, and a third follows one woman’s emotional journey in trying to become pregnant.

Phindie: TELL IT SLANT is described as a “circus-theater cabaret”. What elements does it take from each genre?

LRS: Tangle’s work is part of the contemporary circus movement, which puts traditional acrobatics into new performance contexts. Using the physical vocabulary of circus arts, we borrow storytelling tools and approaches from dance and theater. TELL IT SLANT is a cabaret in the sense that it is comprised of a series of vignettes which each tell individual and distinct stories. Generally, each year our fall show features a single continuous narrative through-line, while our spring show is a showcase of separate acts which each connect to a larger theme—this time, personal stories of female strength and relationships. TELL IT SLANT combines the intense physicality of circus, the storytelling of theater, and the bold and varied nature of cabaret.

Phindie: The title is from an Emily Dickinson poem. How does it fit the show?

Photo by Mike Ermilio
Photo by Mike Ermilio

LRS: Nice catch! Our show’s title, like most aspects of Tangle’s work, was developed via a consensus-oriented conversation among all the active members of the company. We were drawn to Dickinson’s injunction to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as a template for sharing personal stories in the format of performance. TELL IT SLANT is a mosaic of human stories told in the surreal, sideways language of aerial acrobatics, ranging from very personal memoirs to broader portraits of our communities. One vignette uses six high-energy aerial dances performed simultaneously to dramatize the urban experience of of people whose lives run in parallel, with only rare moments of intersection. Another trapeze solo asks how a woman’s personal history could be shared across centuries via a cryptic embroidered message. Finally, one of my favorite ensemble pieces packs all the camaraderie, flirtation, and gossip of a West Philly dance-party evening into five high-impact minutes, with six dancers using a single aerial rope.

Phindie: You include some guest performers for this production. How does their work complement Tangle’s?

LRS: I’m excited to feature several guest artists in this show, including longtime Philadelphia-based collaborators Caitlin Donaghy and Nina Giacobbe, who contribute their unique choreography to several of our ensemble pieces. I’m also really pleased that TELL IT SLANT is joined by Megan Gendell and Lauren Feldman, internationally-performing circus artists who have recently performed in venues including the Topsy Turvy Queer Circus in San Francisco and the Golden Karl International Circus Festival in Latvia. They’re joining us straight from an intensive creative residency in Montreal at one of North American’s top circus venues, and I can’t wait to share their new duo trapeze act in TELL IT SLANT.

Phindie: You’re also featuring sculpture by Julia Wilson. How did that collaboration come about and what do you like about this interdisciplinary union?

Julia Wilson s sculptures at the last Tangle show.
Julia Wilson s sculptures at the last Tangle show.

LRS: Julia is a fiber artist and multimedia sculptor who I met a few years ago at an exhibition which featured her frame and yarn Woven Constructions. I was drawn to the physical contrast between her frames’ sturdy wood and the delicate yarn, which builds heft and strength as it’s woven into fabric—and instantly felt her work would resonate with Tangle’s. Tangle first worked with Julia last year for our show Loop, where she contributed sculptural frames strung with hundreds of feet of rope.

I particularly enjoy the visual interplay between Julia’s sculptural use of fiber and fabric, and the cotton ropes and nylon cloth of the equipment Tangle uses to suspend ourselves in the air. I also think it’s interesting that—historically—fiber arts and aerial acrobatics each have an ambivalent relationship to fine art, and a gendered association with female bodies. The set Julia built for TELL IT SLANT digs into those associations, with an interplay between weighted, woven ropes and lighter-than-air tulle.

Phindie: What’s the one joke you’re tired of hearing when you tell people who do circus work?

LRS: promise, we don’t have a single elephant onstage.

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