Jess Hill of Big Teeth Performance Collective Discusses Myths, Monsters, and ‘Ordinary Creatures’

Big Teeth Performance Collective’s exploration of monsters without and within, Ordinary Creatures, is coming to Baltimore for one night only Saturday, July 13. Earlier in the day, the members of Big Teeth will be teaching workshops in conjunction with In the Dark Circus Arts, the resident company at Mobtown Ballroom. I had a chance to chat with Jess Hill, who with Molly Graves, Naomi Ullian and Catherine Jett comprise Big Teeth, about myths, monsters and stretching.

Molly Graves and Jess Hill of Big Teeth Performance Collective. Photo by Anastasia Strange/Seriffim Photography.
Molly Graves and Jess Hill of Big Teeth Performance Collective. Photo by Anastasia Strange/Seriffim Photography.

Chris Griffin: How and when did Big Teeth come together, and why “Big Teeth”?

Jess Hill: Company members had been working together in a variety of pairings for a good while. In the fall of 2017, we coalesced to build a show around the idea of monstrosities. We wanted to see more women and queer folks on stage making resonant acrobatic work. “Big Teeth” comes from the line in the story of Little Red Riding Hood: “My, what big teeth you have!” We chose the name because it connects to our research around creatures we often define as monsters.

What’s the story behind Ordinary Creatures?  

Ordinary Creatures is a show all about monsters and monstrosity. We explore the so-called monsters in the world around us, and the monsters we hold within ourselves. We ask questions on the nature of beauty and the grotesque.

How do you devise a show? 

In a variety of ways! We ask questions, we improvise, we conduct research, we impetuously try things out and on, and we edit edit edit. We also do a lot of pull-ups and stretching.

Does modern circus have a responsibility to address social issues?

We think so! The body is a primary site of conflict and healing, and it is also the primary artistic tool of acrobatic performers. We hope to bring as much realness to the stage as possible, the entirety of our days and months as well as the transient beauty of a single moment. We also hope to see more and more folks take the stage making explicitly feminist, anti-capitalist, transformative performance.

How did you come to circus?  

We came to circus from a variety of backgrounds. Some of us used to be gymnasts, and some studied ballet or other dance. All of us have experience in other careers besides circus, including anthropology, birth work, farming, herbalism, social work, writing, and public health research.

Big Teeth Performance Collective. Photo courtesy of Big Teeth Performance Collective.
Big Teeth Performance Collective. Photo courtesy of Big Teeth Performance Collective.

You’ll also be teaching workshops beforehand – what apparatus do you teach?  What level are the workshops?  

We each have different specialties! We’ll be offering four workshops with In the Dark:

  1. Fission & Fusion: Split Fabric Techniques, for intermediate and advanced aerial fabric students, led by Molly Graves and Jess Hill
  2. Handstands & Inversion Technique, for all levels, led by Megan Gendell
  3. Collaborative Creation & Partner Acrobatics, for all levels, led by Naomi Ullian and Catherine Jett
  4. Exploration of Dance Trapeze, for aerialists with some trapeze experience, led by Naomi Ullian and Catherine Jett

If someone’s never tried circus before they should try it because…

Circus can be incredibly empowering and can offer so many opportunities for connection and trust-building with yourself and others. It’s a great way to have intentional play, and it has the potential to be both theatrical and athletic.

What makes a good circus act?  

Opinions certainly vary here, but to me, a good circus act is engrossing. It makes me interested in what’s happening and what might happen next. It evokes emotion in the audience. Virtuosity is certainly one pathway to a good act, but alone, it doesn’t cut it…I almost don’t care what “tricks” you are doing if you keep me interested and emotionally invested.

What’s the greatest gift circus has given you? 

It’s an art form that is at once intensely collaborative, creative, and physical. I’d found all those things separately before, but circus hits them all. And I love that as a teacher, I can share that gift with others!

Ordinary Creatures, presented by Big Teeth Performance Collective, performs July 13, 2019, at In the Dark Circus Arts/Mobtown Ballroom, 861 Washington Boulevard, Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available at the door or online. Intended for a teen and adult audience. Wanna give circus a try? Find Big Teeth’s aerial and acro workshops here.