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The Sensational Body: A Spectatorial Exploration of the Experience of Bodies on Stage in Circus, Burlesque and Freak Show
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Culture and Aesthetics.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-7677-5767
2019 (English)Doctoral thesis, monograph (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

At the end of the 20th century, the three genres circus, burlesque, and freak show were revived after a long period of decline. Seemingly something in the genres still has a strong appeal to the spectators. The revival brought with it a new framing and a realignment to contemporary values and beliefs, but the core of the genres is still the sensational bodies on stage.

The aim of this dissertation is to explore the attraction of these genres by focusing on the spectatorial experience of the bodies on stage. The questions that guide the exploration are what experiential meanings do the bodies create, how does the meaning appear to the subjective consciousness, and how is the experience informed by the situation and the context.

Starting from an embodied understanding of phenomenology, as the body is the place from where we experience, the focus is on the meaning created through the experience, both as thoughts and emotions. Using a method of performance analysis and autoethnography shifts the focus from the performance to the experience of the performance. The experience is then discussed from three approaches: the cognitive approach, focusing on the meaning created intellectually; the embodied approach, focusing on how the meaning appears in and through the body; and the relational approach, focusing on the experience of intersubjective relations.

The first chapter focuses on experiences from contemporary circus. By approaching the cognitive experience, the first theme is about entertainment and how attention is kept by balancing novelty and familiarity in the acts. This is followed by an exploration of the political, and the potential of utopian moments. Approaching the embodied experience, the first part is about feeling motion through kinesthetic empathy. Elements of risk are then discussed through the sense of suspense and surprise. From a relational approach, the contact with the performer is considered using the concept of phenomenological empathy.

The second chapter explores the experience of contemporary burlesque. From a cognitive approach, the popular is reconsidered. The focus then turns to aspects of subversion as beauty ideals and norms are challenged by bodies on stage. From an embodied approach, laughter is discussed, followed by the experience of desire by challenging assumptions of a male gaze. The relational approach focuses on the experience of being in the audience and the sense of community.

The third chapter focuses on experiences from the freak show. From a cognitive approach, the first focus is on the staging of the acts and how they create curiosity. The following theme is liveness as an essential quality of the spectacular. From the embodied approach, the visceral feeling of disgust when the unwanted comes too close, and the uncanny with the uncertainty of the familiar and the strange, are discussed. Finally, the relational approach focuses on the experience of the ‘Other’ and the self.

By focusing on the embodied experience of meaning, both as thoughts and emotions, and relating them to the situation and a broader cultural context, the study shows how the spectatorial experience is intricately intertwined with previous experiences, societal norms, and cultural images that are circulated throughout our culture. The study shows the significance of the spectator’s experiences and reveals the potential of using the experience as an analytical tool to broaden the understanding of theater and performances.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University , 2019. , p. 267
Keywords [en]
circus, new circus, contemporary circus, burlesque, neo-burlesque, boylesque, freak show, sideshow, bodies, phenomenology, spectatorship, popular culture, performance analysis, autoethnography, experience, body/mind
National Category
Performing Art Studies
Research subject
Theatre Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-166100ISBN: 978-91-7797-690-5 (print)ISBN: 978-91-7797-691-2 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-166100DiVA, id: diva2:1299875
Public defence
2019-05-18, Auditorium (215), Humanistvillan, Frescativägen 24, Stockholm, 10:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2019-04-24 Created: 2019-03-28 Last updated: 2019-05-21Bibliographically approved

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