For the past fifteen years or so, the term “contemporary circus” has been used to describe an artistic movement that was in fact born fifty years ago. In truth, it would be more accurate to label it “creative circus”, or “artistic circus”, in light of its long-standing traditions and its “trademark” techniques.
Having remained unlabelled up until 1985, contemporary circus was initially named nouveau cirque, a term still in use today in France and elsewhere. However, it would be more accurate to save this label for the genre as it presented in its early days, which ran from 1968 to 1995, at which point a new concept emerged as dominant until 2005: the circus arts. Since then, we have now entered its third age, the age of “contemporary circus”. Some commentators believe this period is on the wane, arguing that the word “contemporary” is either too restrictive or too vague to encompass the full complexity and diversity of the forms of circus that currently exist. Let’s look at some of the key developments that occurred along the way.
Nouveau cirque (1968-1995)
Looking back, we might consider that Jules Cordière’s Palais des Merveilles (1968), marked the very first animal-free “creative” circus show, soon followed by the Bonjour Circus, where “soap bubbles were crushed by hammer” at 1971’s Festival d’Avignon. What was this “other circus”, as it was called when it first broke onto the scene? Initially, nothing more than a handful of young performers with an interest in the circus, the vast majority of whom were not from circus families. Acrobatics, juggling, and trapeze work were all learnt through workshops or sessions with circus artists that were described as “non-traditional” up until 1985, or through “books”, as Bernard Kudlak, founder of the Plume Circus, recounts. It took until late 1974 for the very first circus schools to open. Imbued with a deep respect for the old ways of the circus, these performers initially had no intention of challenging or revolutionising it. Instead, they aimed to harness its techniques and rules, such as using music or theatre in their highly political performances: shows with a “point of view” as was said at the time, shows for the people, in the public sphere. They didn’t know one another, but formed an ideological and artistic movement that included the very first “street theatre” companies. It wasn’t until 1978 – thanks to Aix, Ville Ouverte aux Saltimbanques, an event that brought together the “pioneers” of this movement, and the 1980s companies kick-started by graduates of the very first circus schools – that a collective awareness of serving as representatives of a new genre began to take root, before they then shifted into embracing their differences with “traditional” circus. It didn’t take long for a vocal ideological, but not commercial, competitiveness to arise between the two sides. The companies at the time (Archaos, Les Oiseaux Fous, La Compagnie Foraine, Le Cirque Plume, Le Puits aux Images, which went on to become Cirque Baroque), remained faithful to the ring and circus tent, but performed no animal acts. Other common ground emerged, such as their clear taste for theatrical narrative, or at the very least staging that broke with the tradition of using acts, preferring instead to focus on vignettes linked by a “common thread”, and “prowess for prowess’ sake”. Nouveau cirque was long defined by its differences with traditional circus because of the difficulty inherent to finding a clearly visible overarching ‘meaning’ to the many facets of its unique expressive forms. And yet this ‘meaning’ can be described in a single word: creativity. By this we mean two things: that the performances of a single company differ from one to the next, and that the style of a single company visibly differs from one to the next. Diversity is inseparable from nouveau cirque, because it fundamentally stems from the core value of art in the western world: originality, with all the many factors that go with its (writers, works, signature styles). The pioneers of nouveau cirque, initially entirely privately funded, were soon clamouring for acknowledgement of their “mainstream” artistic value, long granted to theatre and dance, in addition to access to public grants and funding. In France, they received the recognition they sought in 1982, and shifts in how circus art evolved became intrinsically bound to cultural policy (see Chapter Five).
Le Palais des merveilles (INA)
Circus arts (1995-2005)
In 1995, one performance met with spectacular acclaim: Le Cri du Caméléon, Josef Nadj’s final-year show as part of the seventh graduating year of the CNAC (France’s National Centre of Circus Arts, established a decade earlier). An intricate combination of dance, theatre and circus, this performance art was impossible to pigeon-hole, and heralded the dawning of a new age: combined arts. Yet the starting point for this combination was not “the circus” in the sense of a series of rules and hallmarks (a big top, a ring, a variety of disciplines), but rather “circus arts”, each of them breaking free from the circus itself, giving rise to single-discipline shows that became the new norm. Most were “small-scale” affairs performed solo or in pairs, but this chapter also saw the emergence of “large ensembles” bringing together a number of performers: the Arts Sauts (a show performed by the eponymous trapeze art troupe), Le Grand C by the XY acrobatics company, Rain/Bow Arc Après La Pluie by juggler Jérôme Thomas, and in late 2005, Le Fil Sous La Neige by Les Colporteurs, the first ballet performed by high-rope artists. This phenomenon swept across the circus arts, including the most original among them: diabolos, BMXs, contortion, balancing acts, and beyond. In a symbol of the unprecedented scale of this revolution, the notion of circus arts in the plural crept into the names of companies and institutions: The École Nationale des Arts du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois, the Syndicat des Nouvelles Formes des Arts du Cirque, the Année des Arts du Cirque (2001/2002), a major highlight organised by the French Ministry of Culture, that would go on to lastingly elevate the symbolic and economic status of the circus in France.
Le Cri du caméléon (Josef Nadj / Année 1995)
Contemporary circus (2006 to the present day)
The direct descendant of the two aforementioned movements, contemporary circus is now supported by a specialist network of public institutions working to create, perform, showcase, and promote shows. The unprecedented rise in the number of circus schools, students, companies, shows (roughly 500 in France), pro-circus theatres, circus-friendly cities, and festivals, now make it more closely defined by its diversity than ever before (see next chapters). European-wide networks of platforms (venues, festivals, schools) have widened its market considerably, with the Internet doing the same for its audience. The number of major shows showcased in prestigious venues is rising year after year. A community of researchers, academics, archivists, and critics are continuing to build awareness of its power as an art form in sections of society that had until relatively recently considered it to be minor. In short, the circus has been elevated.