Academic journal article About Performance

Dangerous Play: "Supercrip" Aerialists and the Paralympic Opening Ceremony of London 2012

Academic journal article About Performance

Dangerous Play: "Supercrip" Aerialists and the Paralympic Opening Ceremony of London 2012

Article excerpt


Aerial(ism) is a corporeally dangerous art form, generated by the body in union with suspended equipment such as trapezes, ropes, and vertical swathes of fabric. It is most commonly, but not exclusively, associated with circus and spectacle; it has historically been dominated by performers with "trained, muscular bodies [who] deliver a unique aesthetic that blends athleticism and artistic expression" (Tait 2005b, 2). Despite significant changes in aerial aesthetics throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,1 the athletic aerialist has continued to dominate the form, working with and against a canonical body of movements that Peta Tait calls a "living history" (2005a, n.p.): movements that have passed from one aerialist to another through time.

It is possible therefore to see the aerial performances in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony (POC) of London 2012 as a radical departure from the traditional aerial aesthetic, most particularly through the multiple corporealities presented by the performers. Engaging with the conventional movement canon and various aerial apparatus, twenty-three aerialists with diverse physical, sensory, and learning impairments took part. These performers potentially challenged fundamental tenets of the aerial discipline, by demonstrating that it no longer had to be a "compulsory able-bodied" domain (McRuer 2006, 2). I argue, however, that despite this positive challenge to "corporeal exclusivity" (Smith 2005, 73), spearheaded by an "aesthetics of access" (Sealey and Lynch 2012), the process nevertheless resulted in significant risk that the performances would play into conventional stereotypes of disability and disabled performance, and that the performers would be reified as "other." Some risked representing or being perceived as "supercrips", whilst others might have uncomfortably found themselves "passing" as non-disabled.

1 must acknowledge my position as part of the creative team: I was directly involved in the training, rehearsing, and choreographing of the aerial sequences of the POC, and it is from this position inside the creative process that I write. Although experiential, my perspective on the development and rehearsal process is, however, a non-disabled one. Whilst recognising the progressive disability agenda that initially drove the project, it is also important to acknowledge that such an agenda sits awkwardly with the overriding pressures for spectacle in the context of Olympic and Paralympic Games. Although I do not write to condemn the work that was undertaken, I do offer this article as a critique of a process that struggled to harmoniously marry two very different agendas: on the one hand, a politics which sought to give agency to the performers; on the other, the expectations of large-scale spectacle, the aerial art form, and the limited timeframe with which we had to work. It is perhaps inevitable that the pressures of the latter overtook the former, as the creative process neared performance; this study therefore provides an example of just what pressures can occur in this kind of performance, and how disabling stereotypes can continue to be played out.

Despite the opportunities that the POC of London 2012 provides for critique, in my conclusion I point to several positive examples that have been influenced by it since.


In Circus Bodies, Peta Tait argues that aerialists present inherent functionality through their bodies; it is their physicality that suggests an authenticity of aerial ability. Aerial action is not possible without the aerial physique, which itself is developed through repetitive aerial action. Furthermore, the action connects aerialists to a living history traversing more than two centuries. Tait argues that "[o]nce an aerial trick was mastered there were expectations, and therefore competitive pressures, for other performers to achieve the same level of skill" (2005b, 20). Tait is referring in this passage to gender and aerialists of the nineteenth century in particular, when women were challenging the early conventions of male-dominated aerial; however, this argument is also applicable to a discussion of disability and aerial performance. …

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