The word circus can be used positively or negatively: to describe an artistic event or, as the dictionary states, “a frenetic disorganized (and often comic) disturbance suggestive of a large public entertainment.”

Positively, we have “circus” as art form: a performance in a tent with traveling artists performing various acts from the three categories: juggling, equilibristics, vaulting. These categories are based on Newton’s third law – that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Juggling is concerned with reaction; vaulting with action; equilibrium with the interplay of action and reaction. Animal acts, clowning and sideshow performance are also included.

The experience of attending a circus is quite particular, and for many it is an event associated with childhood and fond memories. A nostalgia of bonhomie, popcorn, candyfloss, the aroma of sawdust, burning tungsten lights, and animal droppings. Images branded in the mind – of roaring lions jumping through flaming hoops and beautiful aerialists carving out spaces high over the audience. A cacophony of unrestrained sounds, shiny objects, smells all achieving a synthesis. The audience comes to gawk at the rawness of bodies engaging in absurd challenges against the laws of gravity. Our hearts race as we watch artists defy the laws. We wonder if they’ll succeed, burst with applause when they do, and through this catharsis we find a deeper value in human life. The circus brings an audience closer together through the geometric shape of a circle to watch a dance between jeopardy and resolution.

Negatively, we have “circus” as public disturbance. Consider South Africa’s recent state of the nation address: Fights broke out, rules were broken, the house became unrestrained, the speaker tried to regain order, groups of hefty patrons dressed in their parties emblematic bright red were herded out of the chamber by force, onlookers in the gallery jeered. The following day newspapers unabashedly splattered the term “circus” everywhere they could:

“While Parliament has been turned into a circus this evening, tomorrow the nation’s electricity crisis remains, unemployment remains, and crime continues to plague our communities,” (Mail & Guardian SAPA Staff reporter).

“Parliament has degenerated into a circus with a few hundred clowns each earning a salary of a million rand of taxpayers’ money per annum, contributing nothing to the improvement of the lives of ordinary people,” (AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel).

Here, circus is used to depict degeneracy, disorganization, disappointment, blame, shame. The extraordinariness and audacity of law-makers breaking their own laws publicly.

What do the two events share in common?

The audience gawks at rawness and absurdity. We bay for politicians’ blood and socially we bond in our catharsis that the wound in our government is out in the open for us all to look at. All is revealed. The magician has nothing up his sleeve. And yet we still have a deeper value for human life as we watch this dance between jeopardy and resolution. Hoping for the circle to be closed so we can applaud.

So what does an audience anticipate when you call a show a circus? Clowns on a good day. Clowns on a bad day.

shaunShaun Acker is an actor and musician based in Cape Town for the past five years. Apart from appearing in local South African theatre productions (The Unexpected Man, Get Kraken, Dogyard, Swoop, King Lear, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Kardiavale) he has also appeared in international television series (Black Sails, Women in Love) and commercials (Rolo, Chexmix, B&Q, McCoys, Robinsons Squash, Carling Black Label). Shaun is co-founder of the Balkan brass ensemble, “The Phax Trio”, in which he composes and performs the saxophone and clarinet. He holds a masters degree in aerial choreography through the department of drama at Rhodes University, and, though more infrequently, has choreographed two short aerial dance works: Somnambul and in/apt: a contemporary hanging for the Baxter Dance Festival and the public arts festival, Infecting The City, respectively. Shaun has recently returned from Dublin, Ireland where he performed Fleur Du Cap winner, Nicholas Spagnoletti’s, Oscar* nominated work Civil Parting at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. Shaun grew up on Boswell-Wilkie circus in the late 80’s and took solo trapeze instruction from Stanley Bower, catcher of the acclaimed flying trapeze troupe, The Star Lords.