Letters to a Circus Artist

To Circus Project Students, Staff, and most notably, to Myself:

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Earlier this month I was asked to write a Circus Project Manifesto; an artistic theory which would guide curriculum development and inform the creation of performances. I failed.

Not for lack of having a clearly defined aesthetic. I’m hardly shy when it comes to articulating my artistic vision. I failed because by attempting to impose my personal aesthetic on the organization, I was inhibiting its ability to create innovative Artists.

There are a number of ingredients which must coalesce to turn a performance into a compelling piece of Art. In response to the call for definitive guidelines, I have compiled these elements in a new document entitled, Circus Project Performance Criteria.

But while the process of learning a back handspring can be broken down into concrete, methodical steps; the development of the Artist is less linear. Art requires the ability to circumvent the norm and pioneer new paths. Attempting to define it is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole; at best useless, at worst reductive. The Artist’s journey is by nature, the exception to the rule.

Thus, I offer the following principles as aspirational, not prescriptive. They are an expression of my own, evolving values and a glimpse into the vision that formed the Circus Project.

Take what is useful to you and leave the rest. But if you take anything, take the initiative to draft your own artistic manifesto: the code by which you train, create, perform, live.

We teach what we need to learn. Sometimes the lessons are realized. More often they’re not. But with practice comes mastery. And for those with the privilege of pursuing the path of Artistry, the show is the dress rehearsal for life.

In service and love,
Jenn Cohen
Circus Project Founder & Artistic Director

  • Art is the confluence of self and other, thought and feeling, spirit and flesh. With its ability to stimulate rather than dictate; to ignite and unite body, heart, and mind; and to engage performer and audience in a fluid dialogue – Art holds the key to our personal and collective evolution.

  • The Artist is the channel through which the Creative Source flows. Shape your vessel as a sculptor molds a pot; with attention, love, and patience. Apprentice yourself to your craft; the medium through which your message is transcribed. Become a disciple of Art.

  • Each of us has the capacity to become an Artist. Talent is overvalued. If relied upon exclusively, it will in fact, impede growth. Inevitably, we each encounter obstacles we must surmount. Those who have honed the ability to cultivate patience and persevere in the face of failure have a greater capacity for ingenuity and longevity. The hare may prevail in the acquisition of skill, but it is the tortoise who exemplifies Artistry.

  • Your training is your vehicle. The relentless persistence despite pain, frustration, and fatigue your fuel. The development of skills and technique takes time. You must learn the words before you can speak the language. Strive for perfection while acknowledging its impossibility.

  • Do not neglect your feelings in pursuit of the form. Learn the methods of your brush and palette, but do not forget the painter. The ability to access and express your innermost experiences with honesty and compassion distinguishes the artist from the athlete. The ability to communicate those experiences with authenticity and skill distinguishes the amateur from the professional.

  • Performance is a conversation, not a monologue. Reception proceeds expression. Learn to listen before you speak. Humble yourself to the Creative Spirits that manifest through your dreams, your relationships, your audience. Art is an invitation to the dance, not an exhibition.

  • The creative journey has many paths. Imbue the shell of choreography with feeling or ride the current of emotion into movement. The locus of initiation is irrelevant so long as the journey culminates in the marriage of form and feeling.

  • Intention is the elixir that brings movement to life. Every gesture, every expression, every utterance must serve a purpose; the organizing principle from which the story springs. The story need not be linear, nor must it be shared explicitly. Audiences don’t need to understand. They need to feel moved.

  • Strive for congruency; the alignment of all parts of yourself around a conscious intention. Grow your awareness to illuminate subtle discrepancies. Track the incomplete movement, the contrary toe, the hint of resistance like a hunter stalks their prey. But do not hunt to kill. The unconscious is the guardian of innovation. When approached with curiosity, so-called mistakes often hold the key to our greatest discoveries.

  • Welcome doubt as a trusted advisor, but do not surrender your authority. The ability to question yourself and redirect when indicated is essential to your growth. Properly supervised, doubt provides pause for reflection, elicits discernment, and assists us to see beyond our limited perspectives. Untempered, doubt can paralyze the creative process and incapacitate its maker. Assume ownership of your internal script. Invite doubt to the stage, but do not let it steal the show.

  • Bring all of yourself to the work, then get out of the way. Neither abandon nor indulge your momentary moods. Infuse your practice with their energy. Performance is a living art, animated by the mood of the performer, the energy of the audience, and the spirit of the times. The choreography may be set, but a good performer is ever present and responsive to the energies in and around them. Learn to be at once empty and full.

  • Embrace vulnerability. Resist the urge to arm yourself with the shield of ego, the Artist’s Achilles heel. When you confuse yourself with the Creative Source, you lose access to its infinite wisdom. Challenge yourself to stand firmly in your vulnerability. As the precious stone endures the chisel to reveal its beauty, so too is the Artist shaped by their experiences.

  • Art is the offering. You are the gift. Your pain and your triumphs are yours and they are not yours. Though expressed individually, they belong to the whole of humanity. The Artist’s task is to make the personal universal, and the universal personal. Like the polished stone, your power lies in your ability to be luminously transparent.

  • Live artfully. Art transmutes suffering into beauty, distills meaning from chaos, and forges community from isolation. To live artfully is a fulltime job, a never-ending work-in-progress. It requires an ongoing commitment to embrace vulnerability, communicate honestly, persist in the face of failure, give generously of yourself, and author your story with intention, resilience, and grace.

Letters to a Circus Artist
Jenn Cohen,
Founder & Artistic Director