by Pascal Jacob
In 1780, a certain Mr Dawson performed at the Astley Amphitheatre in Paris on what was described by the accompanying text as a "slack rope." This technique, also described as slack wire, uses relaxed movements and floating as grounds for showing skill. The rectitude of the tightrope obviously contradicts the "slack" element of the slackwire, which is curved, but which can also be practiced in swinging mode, providing an alternative physical receptiveness.
There is a long list of rope dancers and acrobats who made instability their reason to live on a daily basis. The soft rope – which became the slackwire after the original plant based weave was abandoned for a thin metal cable – is probably the simplest way to practise a wire discipline.
"The tight circus top, in blood red cotton (…) shows your musculature exactly. It envelops you; it fits you like a glove, but, from the neck – open and round, cut clean as if the executioner were going to behead you this very night – from the neck to your hip, a scarf that is also red, but with floating sections, fringed with gold. Your red pumps, scarf, belt, neckline and the ribbons under your knees are embroidered with gold sequins. No doubt to make you sparkle, but above all so that on your way from your dressing room to the ring, you drop a few badly-sewn sequins in the sawdust, delicate emblems of the circus. During the day, while you’re at the grocery store, they fall from your hair. Sweat has stuck one to your shoulder"
Jean Genet, Le Funambule, 1958
It is also perhaps the most natural technique, derived from liana bridges, and improvised structures used to cross rivers and precipices. The slackwire is a blend of balance, lightness and instability, swinging continually, brought to life by a permanent swell, half cloud swing, half hammock. The curve is everything: the wire or rope, curved, symbolises both the hollow and a refuge, but this wrapper is artificial, as it greatly modifies the perception of the void for the acrobat working on his apparatus. Although the tightrope authorizes and encourages work based in rapid traverses and jumps, the slackwire, on the other hand, is more about balancing, and uses different accessories to the tightrope walkers. Although the parasol and the fan are their "classical" partners, slackwire practitioners prefer to integrate more unexpected objects into their acts: strait or curved ladders, and unicycles etc. In 1877, in the Cirque d'Hiver ring, Oceana Renz performed a juggling act on a soft rope, twirling plates on bamboo poles while throwing knives. This exercise was taken up again a century later by the Tornados duo. At the end of the 19th century, Amalia Travaglia, a trick rider and tightrope walker considered by Alberto Zucca, a theorist of acrobatics, as a "little prodigy," performed a slackwire act in which she executed glides like those of ice skaters, as well as all the classical figures of the discipline, including hanging from one leg.
Staging a fall
In 1919, Germain Aeros created a slackwire act in which he portrayed a drunken vagabond who has decided to venture onto this strange instrument that reigns over the stage or the ring, depending on where he performed. After hesitating somewhat, he pulls himself up onto the wire, before immensely pleased audiences, who saw this humble figure grappling with doubt and instability as a metaphor for many everyday situations.
Germain Aéros was doubly skilful as he was, above all, an exceptional balance artist capable of acting clumsily and performing multiple falls and slides, punctuated by a comic leitmotif: "My word, what an adventure !" This was not a new register as clowns used it continually, but it was unusual in a discipline that usually demonstrated heroism, elegance and grace.
That, probably, is where the strength of the work lies, in finesse and rupture, fascinating through its physical engagement, which was quite close to that required by the comic equestrian acrobatics that were so popular in the 19th century. Mastering the fall in an art that abhorred falling and challenged it, was a formidable paradox and an illustration of the human capacity to overthrow the strictest conventions, including when technical requirements were synonymous with precision, if not perfection.
The slackwire is usually a solitary act, but in the 1930s, the Revheros added a new dimension by creating a three-man act, in which accessories were piled up in borderline obsessive fashion, as they tried to outdo each other, but the act was always elegantly accomplished. Certain figures are a wire adaptation of the juggler Enrico Rastelli's figures, especially when to balances on one arm and spins hoops and balls with is feet and free arm, while clasping between his teeth a slender baton on which a final accessory balances.
Based on the "Ever stronger !" principle, these naïve and spectacular forms have developed, presented with special attention paid to the progression of effects and degrees of difficulty. Archetypes of pure skill, these acts fascinate audiences with their level of performance and the infallible impression they make when perfectly mastered. One of the most atypical performances of the discipline is probably that of Andrei Ivakhienko, a tightrope walker directed by Valentin Gneouchev in the 1990s. He was dressed in a strange red costume covered with spikes, points and cones, both a metaphor for HIV and a practical support for catching the rings that were used in the act. The aesthetic research that characterised this short piece paved the way for humour and quirkiness in a technique that rarely saw such elements.
Chinese acrobats have danced on ropes for thousands of years, and although the tightrope was not their favourite discipline, the slackwire, in contrast, enabled several exceptional acrobats to move the technique forward by crossing the few remaining barriers that were supposedly insurmountable. Cong Tian, Zhang Fang, and Li Wei are perhaps the most significant representatives of this exploration of the confines of human skill. Gold medal winners at numerous festivals, these acrobats performed numerous, improbable balancing acts, integrating accessories and pure technique. They even implemented a new and spectacular mechanism for Li Wei, which enabled him to raise himself several metres off the ground, while balancing on the wire on one arm. Two young acrobats from the Shanghai Acrobatic Company developed a slackwire duo, in which the apparatus were layered, enabling them to pass from one wire to another, and to work on symmetry.
In 2009, Maud Grüss, heir to a long dynasty of tightrope walkers, created a wire number in which she practised the three disciplines, linked together with a clever technical device that enabled the tightrope to become slack as she moved along the cable. This voluntary situation of imbalance and the assumed constraint further reinforced the acrobat's lack of stability.
Although it has led to relatively few dedicated shows, the secular and contemporary slackwire remains one of the most attractive disciplines, if only because there remains so much to work to be done, so much to discover, and so much to perform.