This piece is a response to Sebastian Kann’s article Running away to the studio, what does dance have that circus doesn’t? My response will make much more sense if you read his piece first. I would like to thank Seb for the help that he, and the rest of the Circus Now team have given me in clarifying my thoughts and opinions in this piece.
Circus has changed a lot over the past generation (1980 – present). It became the target of activists against animal cruelty, and whilst there were – and still are – many industries that treat animals in a despicable manner, the image of the circus elephant chained in a small back garden became ubiquitous despite being the exception and not the rule.
Public opinion shifted; the press suddenly had an easy target in the tented circus, playing on antique prejudices of the traveling family and UK borders. It became unacceptable on the whole to go and see a circus show without feeling somehow ethically compromised. A vicious circle began: The old guard felt attacked for their way of life and circus started to stagnate, becoming entertainment for children rather than entertainment for all – thus fulfilling the new bias presented by the UK press. Generations of artists coming up through circus schools after this felt they had to stay away from tradition in order to survive.
In this departure from tradition I feel that circus could be losing sight of its roots. I do not mean sequins and ring masters but the innate reality and risk that makes circus so distinct. By trying to push circus to follow the path of other performance art, I feel we are losing what makes circus “circus”. We do not necessarily need to ask questions of other, more developed art forms to find answers about our own.
Circus can be as “deeply reflective as the best contemporary dance,” but does it need to be? Deeply reflective pieces can be deeply disengaging: they feel self-indulgent, made to satisfy an individual’s ego rather than to satisfy an audience. My opinion is that Circus should be made for the audience, and we must consider them whenever we are making work. This does not mean we must create shallow work that poses no questions or has no purpose; rather that creating work with the audience in mind simply means we must consider how every moment will affect the onlookers. I went to see a show recently that was described as “contemporary dance and circus skills”. This description genuinely scared me: if our art is only a set of skills, then we simply become additions to other art forms, or just demonstrators of physical technique. Our art – our ability to express – comes from the ability to master the technique and then to manipulate it, to communicate through it.
Circus is populist entertainment and in my opinion there is nothing wrong with that! Just because something is entertaining doesn’t mean it has lost any artistic value. It puts me in mind of a quote from Marshall McLuhan;
“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either”.
If your audience is entertained they are more likely to remain attentive; they are more likely to care about you and what you are presenting. For me, the universal accessibility of circus is something that should remain a distinct feature of the art form. Circus must still come from the artist to be extensive, but I believe that by pursuing ‘high art’ we will lose this accessibility.
Tim Etchells is a British artist; writer and artistic director of pioneering experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment. In his article on risk and investment Etchells speaks about the lack of risk and investment from artists in performance:
“Investment is what happens when the performers before us seem bound up unspeakably with what they’re doing – it seems to matter to them, it appears to hurt them or threatens to pleasure them, it seems to touch them, in some quiet and terrible way. Investment is the bottom line – without it nothing matters, and we don’t see half enough of it.”
Substantial investment is inherent in all circus disciplines; you cannot perform a 5-meter drop towards concrete or throw and catch seven objects without complete investment in what you are doing. And this investment has a quality of honesty and proximity in that the artists themselves are in a position where failure is as real, non-negotiable and tangible as the possibility of success. Therefore we can say that audience necessarily responds differently to circus. We, as circus artists, need to examine the effect that this level of investment and risk has on our audiences, whilst pursuing questions of creative constraint and dramaturgy – there is no reason that these issues be mutually exclusive.
Modern circus is a young art form and its history is blurry and vague, but I believe we have much to learn from past practitioners and the growth of circus throughout the world. Pierrot Bidon, P.T Barnum and Gerry Cottleare just a few of the practitioners who were essential to the growth of the art-form, but I rarely hear their names mentioned in circus conversations. I am not from a circus family and I do think its very exciting that there are so many new people from different backgrounds coming into circus, but we cannot ignore the history. We must examine our own form to define it and not look to others with completely different histories and completely different practices. Jean-Paul Zaccarini is a practitioner whose dissertation on Circoanalysis contained this quote:
“multi-disciplinarity was becoming more and more common and was held to be a necessary step forward for all art forms to take if they wanted to retain their cultural valency. I propose that in doing so circus, younger than dance, younger than theatre responded perhaps too hastily to the exigencies of the period and by passed one crucial step. In ‘keeping up’ it left behind something of the very nature that drove it to be in the first place. Circus began to fly before it could walk.”
I interpret Jean-Paul’s proposition to be that by rushing to integrate with other types of performance art, we forget to really look at what circus was and is, and by doing so we may forget distinctive and valuable parts of our art form. I think blurring the lines between different art forms is exciting and is an avenue to be explored, but first we need to understand what sets circus apart and why it is an art in its own right.
Luke Hallgarten was a member of the London Youth Circus from the age of nine and is currently studying on the degree course at the National Centre for Circus Arts (Circus Space) in London.
 (1967).‘The New Education’.The BasilianTeacher Vol.11(2),pp.66-73.
 (2013) “Circoanalysis: Circus, Therapy and Psychoanalysis” p: 20-21.