Performer Ellie Dubois lifts the lid on her unique circus show

The major growth area in the Fringe in the last five years is circus. It now has its own listing in the Fringe programme '“ 'Dance & Physical Theatre' has become 'Dance, Physical Theatre & Circus' '“ and a dedicated venue, Underbelly's Circus Hub, which seems to grow bigger every year.

Ellie Dubois' unconventional circus show 'No Show' is showing at Summerhall. Picture: Contributed

That means plenty of opportunities to see sequins and spangles, gravity-defying high-wire acts, awesome acrobatics. However, as circus performer and theatre-maker Ellie Dubois points out, as audiences at the circus, we enjoy the wonder without considering what it takes to produce such marvels, that the person currently executing a perfect double somersault is a human being, just like you or me.

“I trained as a circus performer, but when I see circus performers on stage, even to me they are like gods and goddesses, they’re so superhuman in their abilities,” says Dubois, who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the National Centre for Circus Arts (formerly Circus Space) in London. “I was interested in a way of trying to show circus performers as more human.”

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Dubois, whose debut show, Ringside, a show for one audience member and one circus performer, was highly acclaimed when she performed it at Summerhall in 2015, is back this year with her biggest show to date. In No Show, she directs five female circus performers, demonstrating all the skills and discipline one expects from circus, but also lifting the lid on some of the secrets of the big top.

“In circus, the illusion is that the tricks are easy, that it’s effortless, but that’s because we’ve rehearsed those same five tricks and no others for a year,” Dubois says. “When I was at circus school, I saw people training all day every day, constantly striving to be the best, and predominantly failing, because in order to get better you have to do it wrong lots of times. I’m interested in finding a way to show that failure, show the effort and the work that goes into the tricks on stage.

“It has to mean something. I could do 30 back flips for you now and you wouldn’t care, but if I give you a reason to care suddenly it becomes a lot more exciting.”

In No Show, the five performers will tell elements of their own stories, which is highly unusual in the circus world: when did you last hear a circus performer talk?

“That’s been a real journey,” says Dubois. “Getting them to be themselves, and to understand that their stories are interesting has been a long, fascinating journey.” They will also reveal a little inside knowledge about their craft, the risks, the injuries, the hard physical graft.

Francesca Hyde, for example, will talk about the old circus art of hanging from her hair (clue: yes, it hurts), and Lisa Chudalla will describe the intricacies of cyr wheel, where the performer spins inside a rotating metal wheel. “We explain everything that can go wrong in a cyr wheel act, because normally it looks effortless, floaty and beautiful,” says Dubois. “You have no idea that it takes effort to do it. This thing weighs 30kg and at any point it might land on her head or crush her fingers.”

Dubois points out that, despite the glamour of the women in the big top, circus remains a male-dominated environment. Even getting work as a female circus performer is hard: many troupes have a dozen men and only one woman.

“When I was training, I could see that my options to perform on stage were pretty depressing. Often, in circus shows, female performers are not allowed to do their best tricks because they would rather you did pretty, sexy tricks and didn’t wear very many clothes. I could see female circus performers who were so talented and so amazing, and wanted to create a show where they could perform to the best of their ability.”

It taps into deeper ideas about masculinity and femininity, she says. “When you see a male circus performer, his body conforms to all the ideas we have about perfect masculinity, he’s got a six pack, he’s confident, sexy. When you put a female circus performer on stage, her body is covered in muscles, it’s powerful, it’s strong, and we expect women to be waif-like and weak.”

Originally from London, Dubois moved to Glasgow to study on the RCS Contemporary Performance Practice course but fell in love with circus. Looking for “a bit more of a physical challenge” she took lessons with Glasgow-based aerialists, Aerial Edge, and the now-defunct Glasgow Parkour Coaching (“I spent two days a week jumping off walls, it was brilliant.”) “At college, I felt like we were trying to make work that was risky, but sometimes it felt like we were creating risks that weren’t really there. What I really love about circus is that when someone stands on someone else’s shoulders, it’s a controlled risk but it’s still a risk, there’s still a danger. It just made me feel really alive.”

At the National Centre for Circus Arts, Dubois spent two years perfecting her chosen discipline, aerial straps, with gruelling daily one-on-one tuition. “Sometimes, you’re so exhausted you can hardly keep going, but it felt like a total privilege to have that time to do nothing but train.” After graduating, she knew she wanted to make her own work, combining what she had learned about making experimental theatre with her circus training.

Now living with her partner and baby in Argyll, where she runs a circus school for local young people, she talks excitedly about her ideas for the future: Little Top, a circus show for 0-24 months, currently in development with Starcatchers, and a show featuring a juggler and acrobats: “Every time the juggler drops a ball, the show has to start again. It’s a crazy idea but a little bit of me thinks it could be brilliant.”

While the lack of circus infrastructure in Scotland can be a challenge, she enjoys being away from the “London circus bubble”. “There is a lot of pressure there to please other circus performers. When I make shows up here, I get to make the most experimental things without worrying about what they’ll think. But, actually, I think most circus performers will like No Show. I think a lot of them will see themselves in it, the men as well as the women.”

No Show is at Summerhall until 27 August, 4:15pm