In the first half of the last century, circus meant one thing only—a tented show, with acrobats, animals, and clowns. These shows were pure spectacle, displays of unusual skill which transcended the day-to-day experience of their audiences. 

Beginning in the 1970’s, however, the definition of circus began to stretch and change, as the opening of circus schools in Europe brought fresh, contemporary perspectives into the ring. Although the traditional circus has remained—to some extent—alive, Cirque du Soleil has without a doubt replaced the traditional circus as the layperson’s main reference point for circus today. Because of Soleil, most Americans are now comfortable with the idea of a circus that looks, sounds, and feels completely different from the circus of the early twentieth century. 

Yet the contemporary circus—which strays even farther from the historical norm than Soleil, challenging not only the traditional aesthetic of circus but also its structure—remains practically unknown in the US. This might soon change. 

Arts Council New OrleansNew Orleans recently became the first American city to recognize Circus as a grant category. This is incredibly important for the development of a contemporary circus in America. Because the process of creating contemporary circus requires a lot of time in the studio, and not all circus artists at the beginning of their careers can take six months off from their day jobs to do unpaid circus research, grant money is absolutely essential. Although the New Orleans grant is pretty meager—only $2500 can be accorded to each project—it is at least a start, setting the precedent for other American cities.

When New Orleans decided to recognize circus as a grant category, they defined the art form for official purposes. This New Orleans definition is not the only one possible, and I think it can and should start a conversation in America about what circus is today.

Circus is a form that has become almost impossibly diversified. Today’s circus—at least the circus that responds to, and is a product of, our socio-cultural position in 2014—is not “The Greatest Show on Earth,” or even the circus from Dumbo. So what is the one common thread that holds it all together? What definition could unite the multiplicity of viewpoints and artistic goals represented in the circus world today? In this post I would like suggest a definition, but mostly I am interested in hearing proposals from our readers. Circus is just beginning to shift into focus in American culture—now is the time to decide how we want to present ourselves.

In New Orleans, circus has been defined as: “a form of performing art in which the instrument of artistic expression is the body’s precise movement, which is based on circus technique and is combined with objects or instruments from a circus discipline.” I see some problems with this definition. The first clause, which says that the main focus of the performance is the movement of the artist’s body, excludes clown, juggling (in which the main instrument of artistic expression is the manipulated object), and animal acts. The second part of the definition, which talks about circus technique and apparatuses, excludes contemporary takes on the apparatus (people who juggle ice, wind, clay, etc., or perform balancing acts using wooden boards perched on gas canisters, or who use a spare tire as a teeterboard fulcrum, and so on). It also, bizarrely, seems to exclude acrobats who work without an apparatus. 

This is my attempt at a more accurate definition: “Circus is a performance of practiced physical skills whose subtext is always the element of physical risk involved. It also includes other forms that have evolved around these performances of physical skill, such as clown and animal training.”

There are three separate ideas in this definition. The first is mostly self-evident—if you don’t need some kind of physical training to do it, it isn’t circus. This is what separates pure theatre work and performance art from circus work that may borrow from these two fields.

The second part of my definition is slightly less obvious. The subtext of a circus performance is always the element of physical risk. In other words, it should be easy to formulate what the circus performer is risking. Most of the time, this risk is gravity-related: either the risk of falling, or the risk of dropping a prop. Of course, sometimes the movement quality of a circus number is the remarkable part, rather than the physical risk involved, but in such cases the audience appreciates dance-like components of a circus number (just as a particularly acrobatic choreography, during which the audience feels the dancer is in some way at risk, brings a circus-like component into a dance piece). Risk is also what separates circus from musical performance.Poodle Act

The last part of my definition is necessary so as to include traditional circus forms that have evolved out of or in tandem with more acrobatic circus disciplines, but have moved away from the element of risk. These include clown and animal acts, sometimes performed by daredevils but not necessarily nail-biting endeavors (think poodle acts). Some people might argue that these are old-fashioned disciplines with no place in the contemporary circus world, but I have seen evidence otherwise and am excited to see the future of these “other” circus forms.

The contemporary circus is just beginning to be recognized in America. At the moment, most people’s conception of the circus doesn’t go beyond Ringling and Soleil. But judging by the news from Louisiana, the contemporary circus is finally on the verge of more mainstream acceptance in the US. What is your definition of circus? How would you like expectations of circus in America to change?

Sebastian Kann
Sebastian Kann is from Connecticut, and a graduate of the National Circus School in Montréal. His dream is to co-create an original circus show. Sebastian has lived in Europe since 2012 and is currently based in Belgium.