Where and when did the circus begin? This is a complex question with no easy answers. The circus as we would recognize it today is most often credited to the ex-cavalryman Philip Astley. Circa 1768, Astley opened his first outdoor amphitheater on the outskirts of London. In those days, it wasn’t even called a circus. However, it was an entertainment featuring high level equestrianism, acrobatics, a clown, trained dogs, human pyramids, slack rope walking, etc. A variety of acts was presented, audiences responded favorably and the popular family entertainment called the circus was born.
Perhaps some of you are asking: “I thought the ancient Romans invented the circus. Didn’t they have something called the Circus Maximus? And wasn’t there a book called The Circus from Rome to Ringling? Wouldn’t that lend credence to the idea that the Romans invented the circus?” Earl Chapin May did write a book, The Circus from Rome to Ringling. Philip Astley only had one intimate ring, which he called a “Drive.” By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after John Bill Ricketts brought the circus to America, that one ring had become a mainstay. It was Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey who expanded the circus into a three, and sometimes five, ring extravaganza, thereby putting forth the idea that when it came to circus, bigger was better.
However, the presumption that the Latin word circus means the same thing in Latin as it does in English is false. To a Roman, a circus was a chariot racetrack. The Circus Maximus was an enormous Madison Square Garden. The people wanted bread and races, not the often mistranslated phrase “bread and circuses.” The track was elliptical and attendees could in fact buy bread to eat at the games. And that wasn’t all: gambling, prostitution, con artists, and all manner of vice surrounded the Circus Maximus. Confusing the issue further is the fact that, in the center of this racetrack, there was a space for entertainment. However, it is unlikely we would recognize this entertainment as anything that might have appeared in an early 18th century circus, much less a modern one.
Nonetheless, much of what we might now think of as circus arts indeed long predate the circus of Philip Astley – and predate the idea of a ring. There are depictions of circus artists in frescos, mosaics, jars and urns, as well as on cave paintings from the antiquity. The earliest images of jugglers that exist are in the tombs of the Beni Hasan necropolis from 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Chinese records indicate that acrobatic shows might have taken place 5,000 years ago when its civilization ceased hunting and gathering and transitioned into an agrarian age. People had more time to pursue such performing arts. Acrobatics in Africa is thought to be at least that old, although there have been few scholarly studies of African acrobatics and stilt-walking in English.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the late 1960s. During that time of social ferment, young people – I was one of them and remember well – did not care about anything that looked old-fashioned or dated. Circus acts had sometimes become formulaic, with tricks presented in a preordained order. Young circus practitioners in the 60s did not merely want to replicate the past, they wanted to impress their own unique stamp on the circus. The message was simple: the circus was a beautiful art form, but its beauty had been undermined when Ringling Brothers – with its insistence on three rings for the sole purpose of increasing revenue – decided to expand. This single decision to have three-ring spectaculars had steered the circus in a direction far removed from its origins. As the theatre critic Clive Barnes once wrote about three-ring circuses, “Would you present ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘Oklahoma!,’ and ‘Carousel’ on the same stage at once?”
In this new era – the age of New Circus – everything about circus seemed up for grabs. The costumes of New Circus performers rejected the glitzy and sexy spangles of Hollywood and Las Vegas. They sometimes wore rehearsal clothes, underwear, or occupational costuming. I recall working on Circus Vargas when Clifford Vargas was still alive. I was part of the Osmanis juggling act. We were a female trio juggling four and five balls, five rings, and four clubs. I was in a circus that got caught in a time warp. This was the New Circus era, around 1980. But Vargus didn’t cave. Like many shows, he never converted. We sported old-fashioned glittery and sequined costumes, extra padding, hair-pieces, and glamorous makeup. I learned to negotiate in treacherous platform heels on uneven turf. I would catch sight of myself in a trailer mirror and start, asking myself, “Is this really me? When did wearing sexy costumes become a circus tradition?” The nature of circus movement was sensational, in as much as it was an acceptable way to admire the bodies of male and female artists. I performed the act easily, and it was fun to work with Ingrid Osmani and Yvonne Larson (they were terrific partners). But their dream was to open for Wayne Newton in Las Vegas, while mine involved challenging myself with more comedy and innovative tricks.
If you examine how the New Circus performers acknowledged applause, you can see the striking change that had come about. In an earlier era performers were limited to expressing joyful emotions; this was called “showmanship” or “styling” (not to be confused with “stylin’”), while in other languages it translated as “taking (or making) a compliment.” But beginning with the New Circus era, artists discovered they could express the full range of human experience. New and Contemporary Circus performers did not want to resemble their nightmare vision of bored and unhappy-looking performers with tacked on artificial smiles. Contemporary Circus artists often projected an anti-showmanship sensibility, or abandoned smiling for dramatic effect.
The young circus performers of the 1970s and 80s also experimented with atypical settings. These backdrops might be in outer space, under the sea, on Beckett-inspired landscapes, or in haunted houses. If performers had a different, or unusual, idea that did not immediately have any traditional connotations, they would attempt it. One of the most endearing qualities of circus performers is their renegade spirit.
In order to experiment and explore, the New Circus performers oftentimes rejected the past. It was not surprising that some of these performers, having avoided learning about the previous 250 years of circus history, might have thought they were creating something revolutionary and new, only to find out it had already been done years before. That happened sometimes.
Before performing in the Circo dell ‘Arte in the late 60s, I remember thinking the circus needed to be liberated by stripping it down to its essence before proceeding. That’s exactly what the Circo did. Their shows were paired down to the essentials: juggling, balancing, vaulting, and comedy. Nonhuman animals, tents, sexist costumes, elaborate spectacles, and brass bands were out. Shorn of excess, audiences could finally see what a circus really was up close. And they could see how much we loved performing. The audience formed a natural ring around us. The distance between the performers and the audience was bridged by a new intimacy.
With time, however, I began to think about the place of history in the creation of new shows. Sometimes, as artistic director of Pickle Family Circus, I drew from historical sources. An account of a famous vaudeville act, “An Animated Supper at Maxime’s,” caught my eye, which I reimagined as “Café des Artistes.”
At some point in a given culture, or within any craft that spans generations, a distinction must be made between a convention and a tradition. A convention is an expected manner of presenting an act during a specific era, but a tradition is a belief or behavior passed down through time. For example, fashions change yearly and so do circus costumes. Today’s circus does not don the same costuming as Astley’s original shows. Once Astley’s successors began using a ring, it became a tradition that continues to this day. New Circuses, like Cirque du Soleil (and even a unit of Ringling Brothers!), rejected the ring. (Even though Cirque du Soleil is under a modern tent, it plays like a stage show with state-of-the-art sound, lighting, and props.) Without animals, there’s no need for a traditional equestrian director, and in some shows, there’s no need for a ring.
The reason the circus ring is about 44 feet in diameter is because that’s the size that’s optimal for galloping a horse at full speed in a circle. So that’s why there was a ring in the first place: for the horse acts. Smaller would have been impossible, and there was no reason to have it any bigger. Way back when everybody had a horse, it was meaningful to see performing horses. But today, it’s just an idea that horses are lovely creatures, they’re nice to look at – but it has less meaning. With the demise of equestrian acts in many places, the ring is less a tradition than an entrenched convention. This shattering of traditions and conventions has been necessary for a popular entertainment to transition into a full-fledged art form.
There are numerous examples of excellent acts growing out of the New and Contemporary Circus. Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi took the tradition of a Chinese pole act and remodeled it from the all-male act into a male-female mutual seduction scene, in which acting and dancing became as important for telling this couple’s story of as the circus tricks. Their circus skills were, at times, subordinated to the dramtic throughline of the act. Their “vertical tango” stood the tradition on its head, but because the execution of the tricks appeared so effortless, they simultaneously paid homage to the original Chinese pole act and the New Circus. In fact, the act was so completely transformed it was unrecognizable to the traditionalists in the Monte Carlo Festival, and they argued that it wasn’t even a circus act! Of course it was – and this reaction shows you how entrenched old ideas can become.
Epitomizing this new era are Helene Turcotte and Luc Martin, of the groundbreaking double trapeze act Movance, and Seven Fingers, which became the fluid and mobile circus fulfilling the experimental mindsets of Gypsy Snider and Shana Carroll, and giving the world wildly experimental productions. During the Soviet era, predating the New Circus movement, Russian acts also experimented with character and imaginative settings. One such act, Spartak, presented the rebellious Roman slave, Spartacus (Gunnar Katkevitch), and his true love celebrating their union in a stunning aerial act. The Soviet tradition of innovation continued through master juggler Sergei Ignatov, Elena Panova, (who reinvented the swinging solo trapeze acts), the clown Slava Polunin, and many other acts and performers too numerous to mention. Despite significant economic changes, the Russian circus continues to redefine the art form to this day.
I see a rift between new and old school circus performers. To heal this rift I propose that youth circuses and contemporary circuses seek out older and retired performers, contact them, and if they haven’t done so already, propose an alliance. These exciting artists should be invited to speak at new circus events. Don’t be surprised if they have modern ideas about performing, born of years of experience.
As far as disagreements surrounding the use of animals, methods of rigging, costuming and style, I also propose opening a dialogue. I’ve observed on Facebook that discussions in which people disagree often deteriorate to name calling or worse. This sort of thing cannot help the problem. Only civil disagreement – because with communication comes deeper understanding. I’ve known many excellent animal trainers who treat their animals humanely. Cruelty towards circus animals has been greatly exaggerated. I can also see that the critics of animal training have a point as well. Perhaps nobody can win these arguments. But I think they need to happen.
Look at the changes that other arts have experienced. Dance, opera, ballet, the symphony, the theatre and the art world. The arts do not stand still. They grow and develop. Each generation needs to find its own way within a chosen artform. Changes will happen. When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring opened, there were riots in the street. But now, it is considered a masterwork. Beware. Because today’s “heresies” might become tomorrow’s traditions.
After all, aren’t the old and the new two sides of the same coin?
Judy Finelli co-founded the San Francisco School for Circus Arts (now Circus Center) with Wendy Parkman in 1984. She was the artistic director of the Pickle Family Circus from 1987 through 1990. She received a BFA in Theatre, Film and Television from NYU School of the Arts in 1970, and married Hovey Burgess, one of the seminal forces behind the New Circus Movement in America. They collaborated on the book Circus Techniques (1976). She appeared in the Circo dell ‘Arte, the Electric Circus, Carnegie Hall (in a Lucio Berio concert), Theatre for the New City, and Artpark. She taught at the International Mime Festival in La Crosse, WI. Other circus credits include Merlin’s Magic Circus, Circus Vargas, and the Pickle Family Circus. TV credits include “To Tell the Truth,” “Sesame Street,” the “Leon Bibb Show,” “Helluva Town,” the “Mike Douglas Show,” and a KQED documentary about the Pickle Family Circus. She also appeared in Robert Altman’s film “Popeye.” She taught at NYU SOA, Juilliard Drama School, ACT (SF) Summer Training Congress, The National Theatre School of Canada, Dell ‘Arte School of Mime and Comedy, Brandeis, Sarah Lawrence, National Theatre of the Deaf, SUNY Binghamton, The Bathhouse Theatre (Seattle) and Ringling Clown College. She visited the Government School for Circus and Variety Arts in Moscow, National Circus School of Canada and Lecoq’s Le Central in Paris to observe classes. She is the only female president of the International Jugglers’ Association (1973-74), is the current West Coast Correspondent for Spectacle magazine. She also taught at the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco from 2005-2011 and at the Sons of Cayuga Circus Studio from 2013. She teaches juggling/ object manipulation at Sons of Cayuga Circus Studios and the Noisebridge hacker-space in San Francisco. She recently directed the coming documentary “Ability” by Lisa Denker and was interviewed for the documentary “Bizarre” [Thirsty Girl Productions] about Circus Center. She was also a guest lecturer at the Circus Now in San Francisco in 2013.