By Sarah Muehlbauer

CCAFT 2016 Festival Dramaturge

The Contemporary Circus Arts Festival of Toronto coalesced in year four of its existence, like any social organism, responsive to its environment. 2016 was a year to mine artistic practice guided by an invitation to move deeper into skill and mastery through multi-day intensives. While outwardly it appeared as a contraction—rather, this structure reflected a self-conscious choice by festival producers Leary and Leonard to offer a limited number of classes with greater sensitivity; this was a call to the community to dig deeper roots.

Founded by Anandam Dancetheatre’s Brandy Leary and A Girl in the Sky Production’s Rebecca Leonard, CCAFT was designed to cultivate the Toronto circus arts sense of community while addressing accessibility issues in the educational environment. Leonard and Leary came together as pioneering and established artists who had, at their own risk and expense, traveled widely in pursuit of skills and experiences to accomplish a high-achieving performing arts path. Understanding that this investment was not universally possible (or at least, not perceived to be so…) they gathered world class professionals from their networks to bring training home to their local environment. The first three festivals featured 2-3 hour workshops in a variety of disciplines, introducing a wide set of tools students might use as future creators. Initial years emphasized a sense of grounding in the mechanics of healthy movement as well as rigging, prioritizing responsibility and ensuring the protective environment necessary for growth.


“Emerging Artists” Valerie Arthur and Sara Greenberg, curated by Emily Hughes photo Ken Dobbs

In the years since CCAFT’s launch, the Toronto circus community has grown continually and recognized the value in curating outside influences. The collective scene has stepped up to invite continued short-form workshops, which has allowed CCAFT to shift its role and to ask new questions. This year we saw the development of the festival’s new “Catalyst” program, launching late 2016 and spanning across 2017, is designed to support emerging Toronto artists by providing resources; this includes a micro-grant, access to studio space, mentorship, and an opportunity for the  artists to present their work in CCAFT’s artist showcase for the coming 2017 festival. This new and ongoing program provides a crucial support package, a link in the chain between “emerging” and “established” artists, and a platform to raise the expectations and output of the community at a pivotal time in personal and collective development.

Another goal of this year’s festival was to continue emphasis on artistry beyond skill. 2015’s gathering introduced the process of the “Creation Relay”, a co-led 5-day immersion which hacked artistic technique and unsettled an already uneasy definition of circus. With this year’s workshop offerings, we saw the immersive structure opened up to the entire community. Andérane Leclerc presented “Contortion for All”, a deep and subtle investigation of interiority and bodily limits. With direct and sophisticated cues to build awareness of healthy joint mobility and space within the body, Leclerc presented a grounded yet phenomenological approach to building a contortion practice. With a fundamental focus on the cleansing of the spine, a deepening of the core in all dimensions through the use of spirals, figure-8’s, and half-circles reminiscent of the foundations of gyrotonic, Leclerc’s process emerges from an intuitive standpoint that reflects a depth of conceptual research in her own practice. This combination provides a unique perspective and example for artists with interest in extending flexibility into the concept of their work.


Andérane Leclerc’s “Contortion for All”

Sonia Norris’s “Circus Devising and Dramaturgy: Creating New Work” challenged artists to continue independent creation concepts under the guidance of an accomplished Toronto director and dramaturge. Through writing, acting, and invention, artists were provoked to develop rigorous attention to detail and storytelling which in many ways is foreign to the teaching style traditionally available to local community. Artists were questioned to justify lyrical movement, to dissect plot and gesture, to clarify thought leading to action, and to dance between concrete narrative storytelling and the inherent dramaturgy of skill. As circus artists, many of our tools are plastic forms which must be seamed together, and in many ways skill’s inherent shape dictates a finite capacity of interpretation. But with a heightened consciousness of our audience’s experience, we are able to actively construct meaning based on the limitations and opportunities we co-create.

Aimée Hancock’s “Mixed Aerial Apparatus: Research and Creation” held similar motivations, with perhaps a greater emphasis on skill as primary form. Beginning with a fundamental teaching philosophy of tenderness, Hancock facilitated play and stage-sharing on apparatuses that so-often develop in solo. From this safe space, she troubled a level of skill already developed, challenging students to ask better questions of their motivation and practice. Breaking down form into phrases, positioned with language, visuals, and music as translation tools to provide clarity and structure, she gently guided choices to engage both internal and external awareness. Smaller classes translated to a more individualized learning experience, and in the end festival reflections revealed a desire for more time, as if an invitation to practice more deeply only increases an artist’s thirst.

As was true in the Creation Relay of last year’s fest, a move toward immersion is a step away from the immediacy of skill and product. CCAFT has taken an active role in supporting the cultivation of unique voices and the development of practice, which serves a different responsibility than what artists are often called to put forth in the economic spectrum. This choice is not to suggest a hierarchy, but to present a broad continuum of style and function instilled with a sense of awareness, purpose, and dedication to an audience in whatever context we present. It is less to define “what is circus?” but “what are we doing with it?” Here we find the space that allows for work to be “embodied, political, and full of failure”, fundamentals of socially conscious art.

True to this mission and the dedication it takes, we can celebrate that this was the first year that CCAFT received government funds, moving towards its intended goal of achieving ongoing economic stability for artist’s presentation and development. This year also extended an invite for local curators to select presenting artists for the festival showcase, continuing a commitment to shared leadership and the diversity of voices at all levels.

CCAFT begins and ends with a closing circle open to anyone willing to join and share their experience and visions for the future. We come together with collective breath and at each exhale there is an emptying. A sense of balance is achieved through a reflection on what was, a ceremony for what is, and a commitment for what is-not-yet, but should be.


CCAFT 2016 Sonia Norris’s Devising and Dramaturgy


Relay Rewind: A look at the process of the CCAFT 2015 Creation Relay

Rail path

Caption: West Toronto Rail Path 9/30/15

If you’d like to meet us here, you can start by walking backward.

On the third day of CCAFT’s Creation Relay, ten artists and two facilitators met at Equinox, the twice-yearly perfect balance of light and dark hours. This alignment highlights the abundance that comes from solar energy along with the anticipation of release. This was the harvest, and the peak of one very densely considered week of artistic creation. We began the morning walking backward on the West Toronto Rail Path, retrograding our practice of forward locomotion. As a group, we felt a fresh acknowledgement of the territories we de-prioritize. As we flocked together, we found a way to follow the path.

I feel hesitant to choose labels for what unfolded here at Collective Space, but I’ll do my best with words to relay a living picture of the “Creation Relay”, an experimental incubator program led by Brandy Leary and Manu Cyr. While circus is a central unifier and common language, we were asked to look directly at it and to explore the periphery of its form.

But where are the boundaries?

It feels entirely appropriate that our days began with a collective circle and an act of giving—to ourselves and to each other in performance practices based in ritual and community. We started on a material level—addressing the body as flesh, fat, and fluid, spirit and psyche. We adopted shamanistic practices to equally question and cull them into existence. We worked to heal ourselves and each other. Through aggregate shaking, rubbing, sharing, stretching, treating the body as sacred, Brandy Leary led us through the subtle body toward the big picture: our impact on energetic, material, and social levels.

From inward to outward focus, we found our edges through a balance of weight and pressure, pushing against bodies in contact improvisation throughout the week. We studied our gaze and its effects on our audience. We worked in the studio, we worked outside. We connected as community, as human family… the kind that circus in its most traditional form whole-heartedly represents.

Days after the Relay, I followed the Rail Path backward in solo, relying on the tactile difference between concrete and brush to signal when I moved too far in one lateral direction. I noticed the plant life that grows over the concrete, making the edge-line fuzzy and broken, slightly permeable—one step between wild and cultivated.

Mornings spent with Leary set up a state of receptivity, an ethic of care, and an open mind, allowing us to disconnect from our habits in performance. Our afternoons were guided by Emanuel Cyr, who challenged our prowess and multi-disciplinarity while capturing attention with tools of improvisation. Offerings ranged from clown, to martial arts, to dance, and Manu’s own creative fancies (…can one trace the lineage of a performance-art rock show?!). One of the first exercises was to toss out and re-write our biographies—mining quirky, intimate traits to create movement. Pieces were immediately shared, recycled, pulled apart, and re-created—worn on each other’s bodies, exaggerated, and layered with various intentions. We learned to detach from the results of our exploration, to let seeds spread and root in calculated chaos, comfortable in the grey space, dirt, and grit of formation.

Through all of it we were primed and led toward a more perfect state of presence, using our skills and learning when to leave them behind. We transformed, we questioned “character”. We examined narrative from a place of rhizomatic association, leading us to unexpected overlaps, absolute failures, incredible breakthroughs, and formal surprises. Leary and Cyr were remarkable artisan leaders, transmitting skills both practical on “stage” (in all its layers of deconstruction) and in relationship. The sense of freedom, possibility and support was pure and precious. Arriving at authenticity through embodied presence, seeing through fresh and foreign eyes, we found ourselves as much as we discovered performance.

Our public “process sharing” at the close of the week was a mix of the sacred and absurd. We healed unicorns and considered rational philosophy. We excelled in our disciplines, sublimating our habits and exalting our virtues. We celebrated circus and collective rebirth. We twerked (a lot!) in a post-colonial fashion. We gave our audiences things that were beautiful and things to think about. Things to question and to laugh at. If I were to assign a movement this process belongs to, it’s an example decidedly post-postmodern, arriving at what I propose as a style of re-constructivism—a simultaneous act of form and questioning.

Here we expose ourselves as artists resetting our awareness in the act of creation—awakening our definitions of what we will and will not become.


by Festival Dramaturge Sarah Muehlbauer

cre·a·tion re·lay CCAFT 2015

2015 CCAFT FB Banners DRAFT B3

(r e / l a y)


(n): the action or process of bringing something into existence.


(v): receive and pass on information or a message.

(n): a track and field event in which athletes run a pre-set distance, carrying a baton before passing it onto the next runner.


Our handoff starts with a conceptual invite from Brandy Leary, co-director of CCAFT—summoning the emergence of a 9-person collective for next week’s intensive Creation Relay. The work of the diverse team is facilitated by Anandam Dancetheatre’s Leary and Emanuel Cyr, Montreal-based founder of company Manu C’yrk and co-founder of festival Carmagnole Cabaret.

With an intense list of accomplishments and experience between them, Relay’s founders share responsibility for steering personal and universal questions about creation, form, virtuosity, and the hierarchies of space, time, and leadership. Together the group seeks aesthetic and conceptual confrontation, considering circus arts within a dynamic public sphere. Cyr and Leary set a radical ground and course for paths of creation that may become straight or narrow, sharply cornered, abruptly ended, serpentine, or circular.
Unlike the relay of athletic spectacle, whose goal is to arrive “first at the finish”, CCAFT’s Creation Relay reveals its value through a self-consciously democratic offering, a “public sharing” followed by an open discussion and community potluck on the night of September 25th. The presented activity of eight artists and two directors will map a particular constellation of form, with multivalence on display as a risk, a reward, and a living question. Creation here emerges as a fractal infinitude, like light bouncing off a shattered mirror.

CCAFT 2015 Creation Relay Artists

Mark Segal, Holly Treddenick, Alissa Bonneville, Kirsten Edwards, Scotty Dont, Zoey Gould, Eric Liu, Louis Barbier and Christina Vega Westhoff

Written by CCAFT 2015 Dramaturge Sarah Muehlbauer

CCAFT 2015. This is a participatory experience.

Contemporary Circus Arts Festival Toronto :Creating Context

2015 CCAFT FB Banners DRAFT B2

This is a participatory experience.


I am a contemporary circus artist practicing out of (your city). I’ve been working quite hard at my (your primary discipline) and finding that I want to express more, but I’m not quite sure what.

This might be a silly question. (No, it’s not silly…) What color is the sky? I haven’t seen it lately since I’ve been working so hard at my studio in (your city). I think there’s a scientific reason, but it seems complex. Something to do with light and reflection, materiality, and perhaps…. geography? If you have any insight, please do share. 


Sincerely Anonymous

What brings us together? What do we have to celebrate? What do we have to share?

The 3rd Annual Contemporary Circus Arts Festival of Toronto, co-produced by Anandam Dancetheatre and A Girl in the Sky Productions, draws together local and international artists to perform and create, thinking cross-culturally about the nature of their experience.

This year CCAFT’s special focus is on alternative artistic process, encouraging the exchange of research and discussion by providing community space, free events and subsidized programming. Offerings include a wide variety of master classes; for prices on par with local training, participants receive instruction with highly-skilled specialists from near and far. Groups like En Piste and Circus Now (US) will host gatherings, and local and traveling artists present works under, and in tangent with, the festival headline. This includes an exciting Big Top presentation by Vague du Cirque, performances by the festival’s official artists, a show by local Upside Down Theater, and “Undercurrents”, a curated, contemporary practice showcase at Round Venue.

CCAFT also offers an innovative “Creation Relay” co-directed by Brandy Leary and Manu Cyr, which will put into practice a radical style-exchange, an exquisite-corpse incubator with a small assembly of artists. Work made over the course of a week will be presented publicly as “process”, a demonstrated act of questioning with wild abandon, furthering discussion about process and product, means and methods.

It is interesting to consider CCAFT as a meta example of community building, and as a direct act of creation which reflects back on what it is we desire from our field. The festival prioritizes high skill, accessibility and inclusion, multi-disciplinarity, and a balance of the physical and intellectual realms. It considers what we seek not only as creators but receivers of art, asking questions with intensity and focus, collective energy and momentum.

Bound by our common interest in spectacle, which forms the core of what we consider circus, we are placed in context—up against our edges and those of the “other”; seeking reflection, seeking alliance, dreaming our realities. Building and saving space for what furthers our comprehension and expression—we are an ocean reflecting the same sky from different places.

written by Sarah Muehlbauer as the CCAFT 2015 Festival Dramaturge

Sacrificing Choreography

Walking practice to Tibetan Drum Meditation with Theta Brain Waves.  Allowing the body to take time and be with space.  Letting it soften and tune, letting it listen.  Allowing the body to settle and in that settling to become all eyes, all ears, eyes and ears that want nothing.

A friend of mine, Victor Ladron de Guevara, wrote these lines in a writing/performance workshop I was in this summer (I hope I am quoting him correctly…the funny thing about memory’s impressionist and revisionist nature)

“he danced a waltz that tasted of nothing”

In the same workshop I wrote

“this is the kind of silence that can only come after a great noise”

These lines filter through my head, my body as I explore the walking practice. Animal, human, animal, human. Ritual. Sacrifice (I guess we are literally sacrificing the traditional notion of choreography in this process/piece) These also haunt my practice. The ritual of walking: as pilgrimage, as meditation, as protest, as a continuous experience of space and time,

Also other things: nervousness, excitement, doubt …and like all other ideas/ voices or judgement of uncertainty I allow them to have their space, acknowledge them democratically as any other possibility on the spectrum of possibilities and I continue to pour, morph, mold, listen and receive with my body from and to yours.  It is all sensation and clearing and in these spaces are flashes: of images, of small sections, of future visions, somehow, in some way, revealing what we are making, what it may be, what it could be.  It feels like you are more and more in the room with me each time.

xxo b

Air, sacrifice, ritual

Hi Brandy,

These past 2 rehearsals have shifted into a time and space to explore ritual and the sacred. walking ritual, prayer, sacrifice are some of the things I’ve invited into rehearsal.

The sounding body morphed from human to animal, from animal to human. Crawling, bowing, prostration…

I remember Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice in Islam.

Eid Al Adha

I’ve been continuing my stumbling dance practice, being pushed around by invisible forces, losing my footing.

Air, flying, suspension and flow have crept in also, making their way into the room with me, seeping in from traces of your aerial practice perhaps…

Do you know Lena Chamamyan?

I’ve played with costumes, which I rarely do… trying on different outfits…

The wall has been attracting me, a surface to place my body on, parts of the body, a vertical surface perpendicular to the floor, the meeting of the upright and the horizontal…

I’m sensing a warm presence from you, reassuring. I am now excited about our upcoming performances, but also nervous about the unexpected, meeting your body and presence in this new space that we will share together in a couple of days – all in front of an invited audience. Sharing intimately for the first time, you and me, with friends, peers and strangers alike.

See you soon.

xo meryem

the sensational presentation of the body suspended in space


Dear Meryem,

Rough and Smooth. Messiness and falling. Geometrical instability. Verticality and Horizontality. Visibility-invisibility.  If I cover my eyes I can still see (sense) you.

Aerial is a technique that often worships the vertical, a thirst for height, the sensational presentation of the body suspended in space.

Even though it appears to be a vertically orientated practice from an explicit view, for me it has always felt way more  horizontal and related to floor work than an uber mastering of verticality.  For me it is a subversion of vertical-ness, a reclaiming of an ancient way of sensing our world that traversed much more dynamic environments than our current state of built urbaneness.

For me the practice works on leaning and listening, on that ever slant, or being in a (collaborative) place of resistance.  This is how I have always worked with the form….never having any interests in tugging my audience along on artificially constructed (yet incredible real in possibility) feats of strength or death. I am incredibly drawn to this much older, much more multi-dimensional way of organizing our body to move through space: climbing, swinging, hands and feet, arms and legs democratically equal in terms of availability for motion and support.   Something ancestral in its quality.

Work in the air relies on so many different landing pads, resting places, yielding, adjusting qualities of tonicity to slide through space giving unrestricted organizational priority to hands, feet, hip folds, crooks of elbows, backs of knees, back of the neck, under the arms.

I remember being confused by stage directions in my younger years: quarters, halves, up and down.  I always wondered why we organized ourselves in set space or why we took the space as a reference and not our own bodies.  That is the beauty of working in the air for me: space multiplies and manifests… there is no front, no fixed and perceived right viewing point…. Mostly because there is un predictability about which direction you may end up facing.  So for me in the incredible constructed space of a theatre that has a verticalness or a hierarchy about how or best practices to should/could organize things for our audiences gets subverted  through creating in the un used, often un noticed upper spaces in the hanging sphere.

Today I worked with soft and smooth surfaces, organized and disorganized, functional and non-functional.  I alternated between a walking practice and a climbing practice examining them as evolutionary chapters in the physicality of the body.  I worked with sight and no sight to alternate sensing.   I seem to oscillate between these evolving practices in this process.

  1. Walking
  2. Morphing
  3. Climbing
  4. Writing
  5. Sitting

When I sense you in rehearsal it is like a vibration very specifically in my bone marrow.  As I move through my day I get flashes of images of what the piece might be, just small snippets.  They come on unexpectedly and without warning, just a flash.  So thrilling and strange.

Organized body, disorganized body


Dear Meryem,

Today I played with messiness, or at least with not obsessing about clean, clear lines flowing through to the impossible end…..ok, actually I have never been that interested in clean, clear lines, I like messiness, unfinished-ness, movement  resolving itself by being unresolved, I guess essentially, by morphing.

Organized body, disorganized body.

It is all from where you are looking, a view point, a curiosity, a filter on where one stands in organized/disorganized spectrum?  I remember working with dancers years ago, in the most naive way, thinking I could easily share the techniques I had been practicing for years in India with them in a very short time simply because they were dancers.  Clearly it did not work, the reaction was full effort and enthusiasm with an aura of strangeness, a why-ness, a this does not make sense-ness about the inquiry.  So I decided to look underneath the forms I was training in. See what was below the lines and places, how they organized the body and space (or disorganized them) to articulate something different that was not dependent on the repetition of a strictly defined technique but could offer a way of questioning, a way of seeking, a way of experiencing.

I am interested in how things self organize: I rarely ask my body to yield to some outer form, or a form pre imagined or strived for….not that I have never chased those dreams or followed those practices.  They are important, they make a base of grammar for the body, an evolving language; physical and energetic. But to be honest I have had more fun allowing those forms and rules to fall away over the years only to discover that they are still there, strong and resonate when needed and soft and messy when not.

Today’s rehearsal: Walking practice. Morphing Practice. Climbing Practice. Climbing with a jacket over my head (I am pretty into changing senses and body architecture in these past few rehearsals).

Here is some automatic writing from rehearsal

Walking Practice

Measuring space with my body. Space measuring my body. Advancing, retreating. Something that seems so linear but actually pours sand through my body. Subtle weight shifts. A ricochet of oblique-ness. A present-ness. A worshiping of simplicity. An easy sway. Warm tissues.

Morphing Practice

Big toes up.  Lines through the center, radiating.  Like a toy on its collapsing base; somehow always able to pull back up but the whole physical mirage just does not support ideas of fixedness, of strengthening through fixing or placing, but rather softening.   Hands, palms, weight, pressure, energy, expanding out into space, following the memory of a movement.

Climbing Practice

Something old about this way of moving. Hands and feet make the ends of a constantly shifting spine.  A falling upward. Palms of hands. Souls of feet. Spaces of toes. Easy breath. Changing view. No view, no direct sight. Body sight. Breathe sight. Absolute sensation and no context of ground or air. The hotness of a head covered and the challenge of breathing.  Leaning and resting, working with function and not an idea or aesthetic. Finding support by leaning, by being in places of slant, a state of resistance that can be challenging but cooperative, collaborative in a way that I will not fall (again from Stumbling dance).  Subverting verticality.

Also ps. I was totally sick yesterday………



Different relationships to Effort and Mobility

Dear Meryem,

I have been working with verticality and horizontality, with messiness, and with virtuosity.  I have been exploring Mallakhamb, a style of Indian aerial rope that I had a brief period of engagement with in 2010 but have never gone back to.  It does multidimensionality and virtuosity and depends entirely on the grip of the big toes to support you, which is so delicate but is meant to hook into a deep internal line of power in the body….it actually is quite painful at the start but there is something beautifully simple about it and it moves in such opposite ways to most other styles of aerial work that is it great to have an interruption to the way I approach movement.

I am continuing to unpack from your last writings, taking those notions into rehearsal. Wondering about colonized bodies, about settlers bodies, about nomadic bodies. I am interested in the idea of the giving up of verticality , the question of what happens when one gives up the privilege of the vertical and enters into a different relationship to effort and mobility. (from Stumbling dance: William L’s crawls)

Here is some automatic writing after rehearsal. (3min practice)

The big toe line.  Gently lifting my big toes, allowing my feet to round and cup, feeling the pull up through my bodies centre, some deep energetic line of the body, like a magnetic pole, a pulling , and organizing, a subtle but deep internal support.

Climbing a rope, propelled by my toes, this line active.  The lift of my big toes does something that lifts my body, propelling it upwards, strength, delicacy, horizontal engagement for verticle propulsion, upward, sideways and around.  The soles of my feet remembering the palms of my hands, my head remembering the space of my pelvis as the body inverts and changes position orientating itself around memory spaces.


Clearly this is not what I am doing but there is something about using verticality in a subversive way that brings in the different relationship to effort and mobility. xo b