In the West’s collective consciousness, the circus is first and foremost performance art. Some see it as a deeply-rooted, and perhaps even immutable, form of expression, and are campaigning to see it gain a place on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. For others, its innate artistic inclination makes it destined to remain forever changing and incomplete. But both sides agree on this notion of “genre”. As global conversations have intensified, notably thanks to the Internet, and as the contemporary circus community has begun the process of dismantling categories, this Euro-centric vision is being left behind, with the focus shifting to a widening of perspectives in time and space.
Let us start at the beginning. Historians generally claim 1768 to be the year in which the genre was born, naming it modern circus to differentiate it from the Ancient Roman circus games that once took place. Historian Caroline Hodak nevertheless prefers the term equestrian theatre, using the word circus to describe later developments from 1850 on. Sure enough, in 1768 Lieutenant Philip Astley treated London to an equestrian show peppered with acrobatics and clownish antics, in a wordless narrative that wove a story. The circus’s theatrical structure in the sense of a series of breath-taking miscellaneous acts with no common narrative thread only emerged in the late 19th century on. But before the circus, “circus arts” already existed: the art of acrobatics is 6,000 years old, juggling has been around for 4,000 years, tightrope-walking dates back fewer than 3,000 years, and dressage can be traced back to time immemorial. Clowns have existed for as long as humanity itself, it might appear, although the Elizabethan theatre character we know today took shape no earlier than the 16th century. This ancient past might lead us then to consider the modern circus genre as nothing more than a fleeting chapter in a long-standing history, although when describing them in generic terms, referring to the concept of later circus arts is necessary – hence the quotation marks.
In terms of the space they occupy, a similar approach to contextualising the question must be taken. Today’s circus spans the globe in six overarching ‘families’, which I will list here before providing a concise summary of them all:
1. The modern circus genre, which ironically, we tend to refer to as - classical circus, or more often, traditional circus;
2. Cabaret, which shares many traits with the aforementioned genre, such as a succession of virtuoso acts, but differs in having a narrative thread;
3. Contemporary circus, which resembles the two above genres in terms of the type of performance given, but draws on other art forms, and experiments with, or reinvents, the ‘rules’;
4. Community circus, which is not a type of performance art, but rather a social and educational technique, although performances are sometimes given;
5. Chinese variety art, a genre that differs widely from the four listed above, but draws on the same “circus arts”, or more precisely the same concepts, which would appear to be universal: extremely rare or virtuoso talents, white-knuckle risk, and the aim of serving up pure spectacle;
6. A patchwork of ethnic practices that are all entirely self-contained and separate (such as Mongolian contortion and the Mexican Voladores). In fact this sixth category cannot truly be considered as a whole due to its miscellaneous nature, and even less so as a genre: the activities it encompasses are not even united in their conception of performance. Yet now in the age of globalisation and a new, rejuvenated vision of “circus arts”, they have their place here in their quest to push bodily expression to extremes.
Some practices such as tightrope-walking on steel cables or slacklines (elasticated webbing), fire juggling (which is extremely widespread) or “juggling meets” and other large-scale gatherings of amateur practitioners are difficult to include in this category, unless you consider them to be ‘ethnic’. Perhaps recent inventions on the contemporary circus scene, such as screen circus and new magic, which we will look at later, and even fakirism, might add yet more texture to this palette of different styles: let us not forget that the circus arts today come in thousands of different shapes and sizes, some static, some mobile – and the process shows no signs of slowing down. Let us take a closer look at the categories currently in existence.
Du théâtre équestre au cirque moderne avec Caroline Hodak (France Culture - Podcast - avril 2014)
The six overarching families
Traditional circus: now seen as “classical”, with various acts that absolutely must be included in a “line-up” deemed “essential” by its proponents: horseback acts, clown appearances, wild animal dressage, juggling, aerial acrobatics, and so on. It goes without saying that some of its supporters are conservative: to them, if a show does not comply with a lengthy list of narrative and aesthetic (and possibly even moral) rules, then it isn’t circus. Die-hard devotees of the ring, described as the “circus’s raison d’être”, and of the big top and circus tent by association, they work with the image and imagery of the circus that most audiences have in mind, and nevertheless find themselves in an awkward position: the history of traditional circus shows that it has endlessly reinvented itself, and that this “traditional” brand is in reality a recent invention. Today’s landscape is illustration enough: from its English cradle, the genre was exported around the world in the late 18th century, taking root across Europe and the United States, before spreading further still in the early 20th century, adapting to different cultures along the way and resulting in quirks such as the three-ring American circus, and Brazil’s circus-theatres. In fact, “gypsy-style” travelling circuses with no wild animal numbers is deeply anchored in the collective consciousness as a well-established strand of the genre. The biggest blow erupted in Canada, with the animal-free neo-classical Cirque du Soleil, now an institution responsible for the greatest live performances of all time. Today, drowning under new financial difficulties and under threat from changing environmental sensitivities that reject the use of wild animals, this form of circus seems to face stiff competition from cabaret (internally) and contemporary circus (externally). To reinvent itself while staying true to its roots, traditional circuses are forced to revert to “razzle-dazzle” formulas such as musicals, inspired by myths or pop-culture musical references with mass appeal.
Cirque du Soleil / AVATAR
Cabaret: Performed in indoor venues sometimes laid out to look like restaurants rather than in a tent or under a big top, this genre’s roots lie in the traditional circus’s arbitrary succession of acts, yet with a looser narrative structure, although the fact that food and drink are served at the audience’s tables creates very specific artistic and financial constraints. Extremely popular in Germany and in the United Kingdom’s music halls, its legacy lives on in France in the Plus grand cabaret du monde television show. A high number of performers are busily attempting to breathe new life into the genre, including in a big top setting, such as the Cheptel Aleïkoum company and its Repas show – this formula proved to be a roaring success and might have run for miles longer had the writers not tired before the audiences.
Cheptel Aleïkoum, « Le Repas »
Contemporary circus: Almost all contemporary circus performances are shows designed to showcase one or several circus arts, which is enough to differentiate it from the first two genres. And although some may see it as a mere linear evolution of what has come before, contemporary circus has drawn on dance, theatre, and philosophy as much as – if not more than – the circus in its original form. However, as we will see in the coming chapters, its differences significantly outweigh its similarities and direct inheritances, making it an entirely new genre altogether. This circus style is synonymous with creativity, sparked by original thought and resulting in diversity.
HorsLesMurs - Clip des esthétiques
Community circus: Not so much a genre or aesthetic as a tool for supporting participants living in social and financial hardship. Widespread in Latin America, it remains relatively little-known in Europe, or at least under this name, because in reality many artists and performers work with struggling communities (in hospitals, prisons, refugee camps, and beyond).
Chinese variety art: This ancestral art form is not well-known among Europeans, in the same way that most Chinese audiences are unfamiliar with the ‘circus’, although the unparalleled talent of the Chinese acrobats showcased in western cabarets and circuses is without compare. Yet Chinese ‘acrobatics’ and ‘opera’ are complete hybrids, incorporating a range of different expressive styles evocative of the western tradition of mixing genres: the traditional circus’s now legendary role as a melting pot in which dance, music, theatre, and gymnastics collide has become just as ‘traditional’ as the post-modern legacy of mixed media, in which cutting and combining different forms is celebrated.
The ethnic melting pot: Who in France is familiar with jultagi? This 12th-century Korean combination of tightrope-walking and clowning, a practice that has been a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage-listed art form since 2012, remains incredibly popular. The average French person would need no convincing that jultagi is indeed a “circus art”. Mexican Voladores, Mongolian contortionists, Indian Kalaripayattu practitioners, Brazilian capoeira dancers, the martial artists and monks who practice Shaolin, and perhaps even the Senegalese fishermen and their casting nets all hail from far-flung cultures where the European concepts of circus, juggling, and acrobatics are unknown, and where the people practice ‘circus arts’ entirely unknowingly. Yet contemporary circus, similarly to the traditional circus from which it was born, deftly absorbs them, either by retaining nothing but the gestures, or by adapting their culture, religion, practices, and sense of entertainment to fit the West’s vision of art.
Le Jultagi, marche sur une corde raide
The rise of contemporary circus has been a key phenomenon that overhauled circus as we know it fifty years ago, the full, now global effects of which have only been felt in the last twenty years. Despite the facile conflations drawn by the media, which use the Cirque du Soleil’s success as shorthand for this revolution, it must be clearly noted that this Canadian company had legitimate ties with nouveau cirque upon its inception, yet now embodies nothing more than a Hollywood-tinged riff on traditional circus, minus the animals.