|Does a horse and ringmaster a circus make?|
My article in Blasting News (read it here) on whether contemporary circus companies need a new name to separate them from traditional circuses has sparked a fair bit of debate. I wrote the piece in response to some comments by contemporary circus people that sought to distance themselves from what Charlie Wood of the Edinburgh Fringe’s Circus Hub called the “nasty tents” and “hack clowns” of traditional circus.
If the c-word has such negative connotations for them, I argued, why don’t they come up with a new name for a new form of entertainment that while using circus skills generally results in something that looks and feels very different from what many people would call a circus?
But can we define what a circus actually is?
It doesn’t have to have animals - the Moscow State Circus is an example without them.
It doesn’t have to be in a tent - the Yarmouth Hippodrome is a purpose-built circus building. Other venues such as the Roundhouse and Royal Albert Hall are perfectly suited to circus, and the very first circuses were in amphitheatres.
It can have themes and story lines - Giffords Circus being an example that mixes theatre with the traditional elements of a big top, sawdust ring and horses.
But for all the differences between the above shows, they have one thing in common: a programme comprised of a variety of different acts.
|Astley's - Where it all started.|
Many acts have been introduced to the circus since Astley’s time: the flying trapeze; magic; wild west displays and other historical re-enactments. The strength of the format is that it can incorporate just about anything: kung fu, performing budgies, human cannonball, motorbikes, hypnotism.
It’s the continually changing line-up - the constant search for a unique must-see attraction - that has kept the circus popular and relevant for 250 years. And it’s because of the constantly changing repertoire, as different acts come and go, that it’s hard to say any one act is essential. If a circus can have flying trapeze or not and still be a circus, it should be able to have animals or not and still be a circus. It’s the format that makes it a circus, not the content.
By the same token, individual acts are not in isolation circuses.
|Clowns are a familiar sight in the circus.|
But is a party clown a circus act?
Jugglers are a circus staple. But a juggling troupe performing at a festival is not a circus - it’s a juggling show.
Tightrope is a circus skill, but Nik Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon is not in itself a circus.
It recently pained me to read an article that described Bromance by the Barely Methodical Troupe as “circus at its purest.” By “pure,” I guess the writer meant unadorned. The show is performed on a bare stage largely without props or equipment. But the show is more an example of gymnastics than circus.
Zippos or Giffords would be better examples of circus purity, since they retain the elements of Astley’s first circus: horse riding skills, a circus ring and a variety of other acts.
The three-man Barely Methodical Troupe, to me, are comparable to an act like the Kenya Boys. The latter perform a mix of balancing acts within many circuses, but if they performed their routine on its own in a theatre it would have to be called something other than a circus, such as an acrobatics display.
The idea of defining circus as a format is not about it being traditional or contemporary, incidentally, and there’s no reason why circus can’t up date; in fact, it always has.
Cirque Berserk is basically Zippos minus the animals, dressed in a more contemporary way and relocated from a tent to a theatre. It’s a mixture of acts presented in an exciting modern way but just as much a circus as its parent.
Cirque du Soleil - the progenitor of new circus - may have linked its acts with a theme or storyline, just as Russian circuses did before them, but it too retained the format of a lot of different acts, and different types of act, being brought together into the same show - a circus.
Many of the companies calling themselves circus today, by contrast, are basically single act shows that draw on a narrow repertoire of skills (usually its a mix of acro-balance and aerial acts - you seldom see a big stunt like a wheel of death or a human cannonball). They are the ones that should be calling themselves by a different name. And why not, if the image of circus is such a burden to them that people like Charlie Wood have to battle popular perceptions of what circus is?
Instead of trying to redefine circus in their own image, why not leave the C-word to circuses and come up with a new one that defines them as they are?
Finally, to prove this is about defining different art forms, rather than saying one is better than another, I’ll leave you with Thomas Chipperfield’s An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Wow, you might think, big cats in a big top - ‘Tiger Douglas’ is going to like that! And, of course, I do. But since it contains no other acts (as far as I know) I wouldn’t call it a circus. And neither, it seems, would Chipperfield.
“What we are doing isn’t actually a circus,” he told BBC Radio Wales, “It’s animals in a show.”
Wouldn’t it be more accurate if certain other shows said, “What we are doing isn’t actually circus, it’s gymnastics and dance in a piece of conceptual theatre.”
Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.