Questioning sources and artists to write a history of Western contortion from the nineteenth century to the present day

Location: S.S209 ARIA attic, Lange Sint-Annastraat 7, 2000 Antwerp

Time: 14h30-17h, unless communicated otherwise

Target audience: junior academic and artistic researchers

The talk will start with a review of the various sources – sometimes competing, sometimes complementary – that have enabled me to write a history of contortion mostly based in Europe, the United States, and Canada: press, postcards, photographs, films. I plan to focus on gender, artistic, and social issues. In the nineteenth century, contortionists (mainly men) became famous with animal pantomimes. They were then considered very close to freaks. During the 1920s, these “boneless wonders” became known as “contortionists,” and were increasingly considered as athletes and sportsmen. By the mid-twentieth century, more and more women contortionists became famous. They inspired painters and filmmakers, and their use of their body testified to a progressive and paradoxical liberation of women, through which female image was altogether eroticized and autonomized. Flexibility aroused aesthetic, commercial, and social interest. Since the 1980s, contortionists have made their way onto theatre and opera stages, in advertisements, fashion shows, TV programmes, and social networks. The over-the-top performance model, however, has been increasingly criticized as artists insist on evolving in their art while preserving their body. Moreover, flexibility has become an envied and popular quality in different arts and practices (such as pole dance and yoga).

Preparatory reading:

  1. Toepfer, Karl. "Twisted Bodies: Aspects of Female Contortionism in the Letters of a Connoisseur", The Drama Review, vol. 43, n° 1 (Spring, 1999), The MIT Press, pp. 104-136,
  2. Ward, Jacqueline C. "Bending the Gaze: An Ethnographic Inquiry into Contemporary Contortion". Summer Research. Paper 58, 2010.

About Ariane Martinez

Ariane Martinez is a Professor in Performing arts (Theatre, Mime and Circus) at the University of Lille. Her Laboratory is the CEAC (Centre d’études des arts contemporains / Centre for the Study of Contemporary Arts). She started her career at Sorbonne-Nouvelle (Paris), where she won the Sorbonne Nouvelle thesis prize (2008) for her thesis Pantomime: Minoring Theatre. A Study of Pantomime Experiments (Dramas, Shows, Essays) in French theatre from 1880 to 1945. In 2009, she was elected Associate Professor at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, UMR LITT&ARTS Lab. In 2017, she moved to Lille, where she became a Professor in 2023.

She wrote and edited the following books:

  • Contorsion: histoire de la souplesse extrême en Occident XIXe-XXIe siècles, [Contortion, a History of Extreme Flexibility in the Western World, 19th-21st Centuries], published by the Centre National des Arts du Cirque and the Revue d'Histoire du théâtre, 2021.
  • Gestes ordinaires dans les arts du spectacle vivant, [Ordinary Gestures in Performing Arts], supervisor of this special feature for the journal L'Annuaire théâtral (UQAM, Québec, Canada), n°63-64, spring-autumn 2018, published in 2020. 
  • Jouer (avec) la vieillesse, [Playing (with) Old Age], n°86 of the journal Recherches et Travaux, editor of this collective work, 2015.
  • Le Vaudeville à la scène, [Vaudeville on Stage], collective work co-edited with Violaine Heyraud, Grenoble, ELLUG, 2015.
  • Graphies en scène, [Written Sceneries], collective work co-edited with Jean-Pierre Ryngaert, Montreuil, Éditions théâtrales, 2011.
  • La Mise en scène théâtrale de 1800 à nos jours, [Stage Directing from 1800 to Nowadays], in collaboration with Bénédicte Boisson and Alice Folco, Presses universitaires de France, "Licence" collection, 2010. New edition, "Quadrige Manuels" collection, 2015.

Since 2019, her historical research on marginalized bodies in performing arts has been completed with anthropological interviews with contemporary artists, as well as art-based research with physical theatre artists (Claire Heggen, Esther Mollo and David Ayoun; Sara Mangano and Pierre-Yves Massip).​