On Vulnerability: How Contemporary Circus Arts Teach Us to Feel

By Kathleen Livingston

The show was an intimate affair, a supportive gathering among fellow performers and friends. Smoky lights, silken costumes, deep mauve lipstick made from melted crayon. I was debuting an act on duo silks with my creative partner Erin Garber-Pearson. You know how most people assume a particular pose, or stance, when we go out into the world, and when we come home, we can take it off? The act was about that moment of vulnerability.

Being tender-hearted

The question of how to manage one’s level of vulnerability, or exposure, is a significant one among performers. While some of us relish the feeling of being seen, others must store up our courage and prepare our tender hearts.

After the show, a feeling twisted up in my stomach that felt like fear and sounded like run. I messaged Anna McGarry, co-founder of AuxWerks Dance company in town and asked if she’d ever felt too vulnerable while performing. Anna sent me a link to “Heart and Solo” [http://articles.latimes.com/1998/feb/01/entertainment/ca-14173]. The LA Times article by Eleanor Reynolds, about Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1998 solo piece “Heartbeat: mb,” describes “a bare-chested Baryshnikov, dancing to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat.”

There I was, feeling unique and alone in my feelings, and Anna was telling me that vulnerability is a thing among even the most seasoned performers. Vulnerability is a thing we at the Ann Arbor Aviary, as a circus community, could talk about.

 Performing takes guts

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness,” researcher Brene’ Brown explains in her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” “but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

I believe her. When we are vulnerable, we come home to ourselves, back into the realm of the body. When we are vulnerable, we must ask ourselves what it is we truly want and need. When we are vulnerable, there are real risks involved. The risk of opening up. The risk of being known. Not to mention the risks unique to circus performance. As we swing and flip and twirl, we choose to put our lives in each others’ hands.

Circus arts have opened some bound up place in me, both watching them and performing. Performing takes guts. To perform is to believe your strangeness worthy to be seen. It takes guts to put your craft in front of an audience, to use your body to speak with only the voice you have. It takes guts to call back memories and emotions, to channel them, re-make them, put them to good use. It takes guts to open up and trust people with a bit of your story.

Negotiating vulnerability requires lifelong learning. Still, it made me feel better that Baryshnikov’s heart still beat hard for his work, after all those years. It made me feel better to know, no matter how the terror of being known seems to rise in your chest whenever you feel vulnerable, to be vulnerable is to have a finger on the pulse of joy.

The Ann Arbor Aviary is located at 4720 S. State Road, Ann Arbor 48108. For more information about classes in aerial arts, dance, hand balancing, and flexibility, visit www.a2aviary.com or email us at contact@a2aviary.com. Kathleen Livingston claims to be more comfortable on her hands than feet. Her classes in trapeze, hand balancing, and flexibility offer courage, support, and strategies for your practice. For acrobatic and writing-related inquiries, contact her at ka.livingston@gmail.com.

Posted on June 4, 2014 .