The circus was given a new lease of life in the 1970s, in a revolution triggered by the performers themselves, without the slightest input from public authorities: Annie Fratellini and Pierre Étaix, and Silvia Monfort and Alexis Gruss, opened western Europe’s first two circus schools in 1974 (the Moscow school had existed since 1928) to inject “fresh blood” into the scene. Alongside this, other performers were busy inventing nouveau cirque. Today, the situation is almost the exact opposite: the circus is able to reinvent itself through public-sector intervention.
“Circus policy” dates back to 1978, with the financial aid (perhaps even ‘rescue’) package that France’s Ministry of Culture set up for the circus. Before then, the government had zero interest in this ”art form”, with the circus’s public-sphere issues being primarily handled by the Ministry of Agriculture due to their use of animals. Three years later, and France’s socialist government took things further, laying the groundwork for an unprecedented new initiative: creating a national graduate-level circus school, ushering in a creative grant for circus writers, and providing assistance for traditional venues in innovating in their stage design. Since then, the French State’s support for the circus has been unwavering, and was even bolstered in 2001 with the ‘year of the circus’ scheme. With the exception of mainland China, the USSR, and the latter’s central and eastern European satellite states up until 1991, this strong state support for creative circus has long been inherently French. In the early 2000s, this political model ultimately won over a growing number of European heads of state, and the European Union itself: the circus is currently in the process of becoming acknowledged as a legally-recognised art form, a status that the other arts have enjoyed for years and years, some for centuries. As a result, it has taken barely a decade for contemporary circus scenes to pop up in Finland and Belgium. The European circusnext and Circostrada networks are ensuring this movement picks up speed.
Présentation de Circuscentrum par son directeur Koen Allary
Even more impactful than grants for circus performers or funding for creative spaces and venues, creating graduate-level schools is the most frequently used and most effective tool seen in circus policies: by regularly training new generations of performers, the schools naturally prompt a rise in the number of shows and new works. It must however be said that supporting the circus and establishing schools in particular is expensive for the taxpayer. It makes sense then that the government is reluctant to promote “art for art’s sake”, and takes a different angle instead, pointing to diversity of expression, and therefore the diversity of the circus, and its accessibility.
The circus arts are hugely popular, as illustrated by the extremely high number of amateur circus schools – at least 500 are currently up and running France – and the public’s taste for juggling and clowning workshops and classes. The growing success of France’s biggest festivals – Circa in Auch, Spring in Normandy, and the Biennale Internationale des Arts du Cirque de Marseille-Provence Côte d’Azur – is yet more proof of this surge in popularity
That being said, France’s circus scene often shows signs of flagging financially. Long-standing venues are closing their doors or bringing an end to animal acts, less because of the growing public awareness of the plight of animals, and more because menageries are costly to maintain. As for the contemporary circus, although the market has become highly competitive, it has its limits. Yet the situation in France remains enviable nonetheless: the country’s unemployment benefits scheme for performers is the only one of its kind in the world, and cuts back on production costs. France is also home to specialist circus institutions and two key promotional bodies: the Office National de Diffusion Artistique, which takes on a proportion of the financial risk public-funded venues face when they decide to showcase “risky” productions, and the Institut Français, responsible for raising contemporary French circus’s profile around the globe.