For Dominique Jando, hybridity – where circus meets theatre on a small-scale stage – is the death knell of tradition. And end of tradition could signal the end of innovation.
– Kathryn Syssoyeva, Editor
Kathryn: I’m thinking about the question of what constitutes circus tradition in the minds of many young American practitioners, versus what constitutes circus tradition more broadly conceived. The goal in having several short pieces on the subject is to open up this theme – to start thinking more globally. So that when we talk about circus here in the US, we can be thinking about something that goes beyond this idea of the Golden Age of the American Circus, of Ringling, of three-ring spectacle.
Dominique: The idea of “American three-ring circus” as traditional is a misconception, because the original American circus was like every other circus: one ring in a building.
It became a three-ring circus only because W.C. Coup, who was P.T. Barnum’s partner, thought – with the blessing of P.T. Barnum – that this could make a lot of money. Circus was the most popular form of entertainment in 19th century America, and into the first half of the 20th. So the idea was to enlarge the capacity of the tent. And technically the only way to enlarge the tent was to elongate it. So they made these elongated tents, and now the problem was that at both ends of the tent, the ring was very, very far away. And what they did was to add two more rings – at most, it was four stages and three rings, which means seven acts working together. But that’s just an avatar of the circus: it’s specifically American, it was purely a business decision, and it produced quite a bizarre structure.
The advent of the three-ring circus changed the aspect of circus in the US, more than it did the art form itself. But it did change the form a little bit, because the circus turned into a sort of organized mayhem, and at the same time became associated with carnival because of the sideshow, the traveling menagerie, and that kind of thing. Nonetheless, the American three-ring circus is not tradition. It’s something that went astray.
The dynamics of space:
ring and height beget form
Circus is a relatively recent performing art, created in 1770 by an equestrian, Philipe Astley. It was performed in a circular arena – now called the ring, but originally called the circus – because of the horses. Astley was an equestrian; he did trick riding. Originally horse shows were done in an open field, with performers going back and forth – not very good for visibility. The ring, which was invented before the circus itself, gave the audience a better view of the riders, who could circle in a more focused space. The ring also allowed for centrifugal force, making it easier to stand on a galloping horse.
So, if you want to be a total purist: the circus is a performing art, presented in the round, which is principally an equestrian show into which are added acrobatic acts, clown performance, juggling, and all kinds of specialties which came from the fairground. It is the mixture of all that – in the round, thus its name – which defines classical circus.
In a way, a show like Cavalia, in the US, is absolutely pure circus – although it’s not called circus. The same in France, with the equestrian Bartabas, and his Théâtre Equestre Zingaro. Zingaro is pure circus, although Bartabas doesn’t call it circus – it’s an equestrian show. Probably the purest of them all, in modern form, is Cirque Alexis Gruss, in France (mostly Paris) – one of the greatest equestrian families, along with the Knie family in Switzerland. Their show is mostly equestrian – one equestrian act out of two.
But at core, the classical definition of the circus is the ring: the circus, le cercle, the circle. And if you perform on the stage, you are not a classical circus, or a “circus” anymore – you are just a variety show, as it were. There is confusion now between circus, variety, physical theatre – all that gets tossed in the same bag, together with this idea of the American circus with its menageries and sideshows.
But the circus is something performed in a ring – sometimes in a tent, sometimes in a building. In Russia you have many circus buildings – two in Moscow alone. There are circus buildings in all Eastern-European countries, and many in Western Europe: Paris, for instance, has the Cirque d’Hiver, the oldest circus building in the world, and still active; Amersterdam has Theater Carré, a former circus building, which still offers a circus season in winter.
The problem with all so-called circus performance on stage (unless you have the Radio City Music Hall stage, which is very high, and very wide) is that you cannot play a real act in that kind of space. Think about the height of the circus in Moscow, which is the biggest circus building in the world: thirty meters high, with three thousand five hundred seats. Think of a flying act like The Cranes. Their act was a metaphor for war, performed on the flying trapeze, in an enormous space. It was a ballet in the air, in which you could catch triple and sometimes, quadruple somersaults, performed without any announcements whatsoever. And it was so gorgeous – even without subtitles to explain the theme, you didn’t care – you felt it. I saw it many times – and I never saw it performed without a standing ovation at the end, even if it was part of a whole circus show. For me that’s where circus arts can go. Not somebody hanging on a tissu, or juggling three balls – for me, that’s nothing.
But in recent years I’ve become so used to seeing small shows on small stages that I am beginning to forget what an aerial act means.
You cannot do acts in a small space – with the exception of acrobatic acts like hand-balancing, hand-to-hand – things that don’t require much height or space. Even juggling: in the juggling world, when you see an act with three or four clubs, for instance – it’s hardly juggling. Serious juggling starts with five clubs, nowadays. But if you want to juggle five clubs, you need height. And you don’t have many stages with height. People like Anthony Gatto, who can juggle eleven rings, need enormous height to do that. So nowadays, you see more and more ball juggling in rebound: it doesn’t require height or space; but it is also very limited.
The stage has strangled the circus tradition. With rare exceptions, companies that perform on stage are very, very, very limited. They create a sort of mediocrity in relation to the circus arts.
Circus arts in physical theatre
To use the stage properly is to adapt circus technique to something else. And it doesn’t usually work so well. The only stage troupes that are really successful are troupes like Les Sept Doigts de la Main – and (founding member) Gypsy Snider would be the first to say she is not doing a circus show; she is doing a physical performance with a theatrical undertone. You also have Cirque Éloize, a Canadian troupe which travels the world; they play pretty big theatres, they adapt circus to the stage format, and they’ve done that successfully. They didn’t try to replace what they cannot do with some sort of dramatic play and very little circus, the way most of the troupes do.
There are also the shows of James Thierrée. Thierrée is the son of Victoria Chaplin, grandson of Charlie Chaplin, and great-grandson of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Thierrée has a very good stage show. He knows circus skills; he is trained: he can do swinging trapeze, he can do hand balancing, he can juggle, he can do all kinds of things. And he is an actor. He does this wonderful show using circus skills. And again it’s the sort of performance that people call circus. It’s not; it’s physical theatre – it’s different. But because James Thierrée has both great skills and great talent as an actor, it becomes interesting.
Kathryn: James Thierée is coming out of a complex set of traditions, because his grandfather comes from vaudeville. Not from circus. And Victoria Chaplin’s work is also a stage show. So Thierrée’s whole framework for understanding the use of aspects of circus arts on the stage is partly rooted in the variety theatre tradition.
Dominique: But the Cirque Imaginaire of Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée (1974-1990; since 1990, the couple has performed as Cirque Invisible) started under a tent. And Victoria, Jean-Baptiste, and their son James –
Kathryn: and their daughter, Aurelia Thierrée –
Dominique: they all know circus pretty well, they know shows, they know what they are speaking of. The same with Gypsy Snider, who saw, together with her parents, I don’t know how many shows; they went to any circus show that passed by. Big, small, good, bad – just to cement her education. And that’s why she is so adept – and why she is saying that she is not doing circus, she is doing something else: because she knows the difference.
The fact that this kind of physical theatre is considered to be circus is a problem because it stops the evolution of real circus arts which, in order to evolve, need a much larger space. Not long ago, I was at the Paris festival. That festival is a real circus festival: you have a lot of acts, thirteen, twenty-five of them, in competition – but the last time I attended, eight of these acts were hand-balancing or hand-to-hand balancing. It just became boring. The problem comes from working on stage. So-called circus schools create this kind of act because it can work in a little show on stage.
This is a big problem: the circus, right now, is in total stagnation. The exception is Russia, and China as well, of course; they don’t perform on small stages, and they are still creating extraordinary acts.
First you have your classic forms,
and then you have innovation
One of the obstacles comes from teaching. So many so-called circus schools now are run by people who have no clue what a real circus is, have never performed in a circus, have sometimes never seen true circus. They’ve just gone to “circus school,” done three or four dates, little bits on stage, and after just a few years, become teachers. Since their own teachers may have done the same, it becomes a sort of inbreeding, generating increasing mediocrity.
A very good comparison is the relationship of classical ballet to modern dance. Bad modern dance – anybody can do that. However the great modern dance troupes, including, for example, the Martha Graham Company – are run by dancers who have a solid background in classical ballet, so as modern dancers, they can do extraordinary things. They have the basis, the technique. I like ballet, and I like dance. But I have seen so many bad modern dance troupes that are like bad New Circus troupes – plenty of them.
This is something that people must never forget: first you have your classic forms, and then you have innovation. You must have skills at the highest level to start with – then you can do anything. And that can be taught only by those people who themselves have the highest level of experience and skill.
The great thing about the Moscow Circus School, which was the first professional circus school, created in 1927, was that they had the idea of taking the best circus performers they had, and bringing them together with a support team of gymnasts, ballet choreographers, acting coaches (corporeal acting). They surrounded those great coaches with people from other disciplines – supporting the coaches, not taking the place of the coaches. All of that went into creating the Russian circus in all its glory. It was ensemble work, with each person contributing particular skills to creating an act.
When you speak of classic circus today, most aspirant performers have never seen it; they have actually seen very little, if anything. Imagine that you are studying acting, and you have no idea who Sarah Bernhardt was, who Lawrence Olivier was, and who Al Pacino is, Kenneth Branagh – great actors of the day. You don’t pay attention to that, you have never seen them perform, you have no idea who they are. You are not going to be an actor.
It is the same in the circus: you hang on a tissu and you have never seen a real aerial act, you have never seen the great circus performers of the time, you don’t know the history of circus performance, you have no idea what a circus performance of high value is. Unless you have some extraordinary ingrained talent, you will never make it in the circus.
Circus contains such a variety of arts, of circus acts, of specialties. But people don’t see much circus – especially here in America. The acts that people see, by and large, are tissu, static trapeze, swinging trapeze, aerial strap, and single point trapeze. There are at least twenty other aerial specialties that most people don’t know – not to mention acrobatic specialties.
Most people who do what they call “New Circus” don’t know the old circus; they don’t know what real circus is. I have seen that so many times. When we had a professional training program here in San Francisco, at Circus Center, I showed the students films of great circus shows and festivals, so they’d know what high-level circus performance looks like. I remember once showing Circus Roncalli, a very good German circus, super-traditional, but beautifully done: a 19th-century look in every detail, from the tent to the last living trailer, absolutely gorgeous. And the show is a good show, it’s not the most extraordinary show, but it’s a very good circus show, classic, but with great production values. And I remember one guy came to me at the end of the projection – I had just screened the entire show, the whole two hours, and he came to me and he said, “What was the occasion?” I said, “It was no occasion – it was a show.” And he said, “Oh – but where are they?” I said, “They travel, it’s in a tent, they tour.” He said, “They travel with this show? But that’s incredible!” It was, you know, not really incredible. It was just a good circus. He had never seen one. And that’s a problem.
So: this is where classical circus comes in. Tradition. You have to know it. What you do with it, and what you do with your skills, that’s your business. But if you don’t have great skills, if you don’t know the basics? You won’t make it.
Dominique Jando began his involvement with performing arts more than five decades ago in his native France, when he first stepped into a circus ring as a clown at the legendary Cirque Medrano in Paris. Later he pursued an artistic and administrative career in both the theatre and the circus. In 1974, as General Secretary of the Paris Cultural Center, he participated with Alexis Gruss in the creation of France’s first professional circus school, and of Le Cirque à l’Ancienne, which eventually became the French National Circus and is considered the catalyst of the “New Circus” movement.
He moved to New York in 1983 to join the Big Apple Circus, and served as its Associate Artistic Director for nineteen years. He then worked as Creative Director of the Circus Center in San Francisco, California. He is now an independent circus arts consultant and writer, and is Vice-President and Artistic Director of Lone Star Circus® in Dallas, Texas. He is also founder and Curator of Circopedia.org, an international online circus encyclopedia funded by the Big Apple Circus. A circus and popular entertainment historian, Dominique has published several books and written many articles on these subjects, both in Europe and the US. The Russian translation of his Histoire Mondiale du Cirque is used as a textbook at Moscow’s Circus and Variety State College and GITIS theatre institute. He often lectures on circus and popular entertainment, has taught classical clowning at Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory, is the International Circus Consultant for Guinness World Records, Ltd., and is a founding member of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, an international circus competition that has been held each winter in Paris since 1977.
Dominique is married to trapeze artist and aerial arts coach Elena Panova. They presently live in San Francisco, California.
- Histoire Mondiale du Cirque (Paris, Delarge, 1977-ISBN 2711300544-published in Russia as История мирового Цирка, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1984
- Histoire Mondiale du Music-Hall (Paris, Delarge, 1979- ISBN 2711301362)
- Clowns et Farceurs [Co-author] (Paris, Bordas, 1982- ISBN 02441780)
- The Great Circus Parade [Co-author with Herb Clement] (Milwaukee, Gareth Stevens, 1989, and Odyssey, Hong Kong, 1989- ISBN 0836801598)
- Big Apple Circus-25 Years (New York, W. W. Norton, 2003- ISBN 9622177247)
- The Circus (1870-1950) [Principal writer] (Cologne, Taschen, 2008- ISBN 9783822851531)