The Art and Work of the Contortionist

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A contortionist, posed in studio, ca. 1880. From the George Eastman House Collection.

First, let’s dispel the double-jointed myth. Joints don’t come in multiples; however, they do come with what science dubbed hypermobility or joint laxity, both terms for people who can stretch and bend naturally farther than anyone else at the cocktail party.

In certain cultures, or in certain eras – such as the heyday of the American circus at the turn of the 20th century – hypermobility offered a ticket to elite schooling, training muscles, ligaments and bones to configure into impossible-looking shapes, with body parts of all sorts touching each other in some wild game of solo Twister.

The contortionist, the old saw goes, is the only professional who really knows how to make ends meet.

Contortion came to the west from the east during the weird days of colonialism, when European men wrote the narrative of “exotic orientals” and festishized flexibility. Contortionists found work in circuses, in freak shows and wowed their Puritanically-influenced counterparts with what appeared to be a “born that way” aberration of body mobility. What the narrative omitted included the cultural tradition of contortion schools in China and Mongolia as well as the yogic traditions of India that codified a strict curriculum of training, breath work, strengthening exercises and spiritual discipline. That discipline and training required years, starting in childhood, eventually incorporating a fluid artistry to create a serpentine dance of the human body. Contortion emerged, in its home turf, as an exquisite commitment to the belief that the human body is limited only by the smallness of the mind.

Contortion as an art form requiring study and practice caught on in western civilization, leading to a cadre of contortion professionals who continued to try to educate the public about the fact that they looked like rubber people not because they were rubber people but because they spent hours a day, day after day, year after year, training their bodies to put their feet next to their ears. Apparently, other public misconceptions this group faced were assumptions that they had access to special treatments that would give them flexibility advantages. Perhaps they soaked in special Chinese oil or bone-softening chemicals. Ted and Jean Ardini, well-known Australian contortionists, penned an article for Acrobatics magazine in 1971 attempting to stop, once and for all, the outlandish questions spectators asked contortionists about how they could do what they do: “The answer to all the above questions and others too numerous and ridiculous to mention is DEFINITELY NO.” No exotic salves, no chemical baths, no secret elixirs, no sleeping in a bathtub filled with oil. The disappointing truth, the Ardinis revealed, was that contortionists “were all people, quite normal people, who enjoy our work.”

As a rule, the greatest contortionists still hail from Mongolia, a country so steeped in its monopoly on exceptional training that Cirque du Soleil hires Mongolian contortionists almost exclusively. The trainer for their acclaimed water show O is Angelique Janov, a former student of Tsend-Ayush, arguably the most influential contortionist of the 20th century. The magnificence of the cultural heritage imbued in contemporary training inspired a steering committee of Mongolian nationals to nominate Mongolian contortion for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage in 2011. The organization has yet to add it although remains flexible to the idea.

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The art of contortion is believed to have originated from Buddhist meditation practices and poses imitating animals. (Photo: Christine Schindler)

China, too, continues to turn out unforgettable contortion artists who work in the country’s legendary acrobatic circuses that perform all over the world. With its origins in traditional Buddhist Tsam dances and influenced by Buddhist animal poses, contortion reflects its spiritual roots in modern performances. Audience members who know what to look for have a greater appreciation for performance as art versus mere spectacle.

In America, contortion stayed within its prescribed circus limits even though the performers themselves knew they were operating at a physical and artistic level often under-appreciated by general circus-going folk. Because of well-founded concerns for animal welfare and a growing shift in tastes for the American public, the circus entered a new era, and the term “circus arts” began to float in the mainstream. Silks, aerialists, strongmen/women – and contortionists – now find themselves on the cusp of widespread acceptance of their disciplines as performing arts instead of gewgaws in a traveling show. In metropolitan areas, studios offer contortion classes and workshops. In recent years, the profession formalized, hosting a regular International Contortion Convention. The last one took place in Las Vegas in 2016.

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The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China.

You’ll have a chance to exercise this new appreciation for the artistry of contortion at
China Soul: The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China. The show features the beloved favorites of the art form from one of the most well-known acrobatic troupes in China: juggling, gymnastics, Shaolin kung fu and, of course, a handful of people bending to the will of their superbly-trained hypermobility.