So far, something seems quite apparent in the archives of circus literature and the minds of contemporary society. There is a schism between the traditional vision of circus and the more recent developments following the nouveau cirque of the 1970s (or cirque nouveau – the terms appear to be used interchangeably, regardless of the original French).
On the one hand are traditionalists who believe a circus should be held in a tent, in a ring, with glamour, sparkles and animal acts (yes, there is debate around the thorny animal issue, but too much for this meagre blog post to begin on). The other hand tries to separate itself by cloaking its origins in more ‘respectable’ art forms such as dance and theatre.
And it’s not just aesthetic issues at stake, but ideological ones too. Some people sneer at the infamous Cirque Du Soleil for their corporate, globally dominant nature; others aspire to the mass appeal their theatrical productions generate.
There are widespread negative assumptions among the UK public regarding the populist image of tenting circus: vulgar; for children; con-artists; second-rate; scary. Unfortunately, the mass media does nothing to dispel those views and, more often, reinforces them. Barnz Munn, chief rigger with NoFitState for many years, and founding member of Pirates of The Carabina, admitted to me that ‘I hated circus until I started working in circus. They’re scary aren’t they?’
Obviously not scary enough to keep him away, once he broached that initial barrier!
The semantics of the word itself seem to be the issue. Preconceived notions about what to expect that will actually be confounded when presented with any modern circus, whether traditional or contemporary.
A raft of UK companies have tried to separate themselves from those unfortunate connotations by omitting the dreaded ‘circus’ from their name, or by opting instead for the trendy ‘cirque’. Still others, such as So&So Circus, refuse to abandon their heritage despite a distinctly avant garde approach to making performance work.
When I head out to the Humorologie Festival, I will certainly be keen to discover if similar semantic distinctions apply in countries whose first language isn’t English. (I wonder what the French is for ‘cirque’? Boom Boom.)
In the 19th Century, American circuses tried to win over audiences by flamboyantly labelling their shows to outdo competitors. ‘Hippolymiad’, ‘Cirqzooladon’, and ‘Equescurriculum’ were all pseudonyms for the humble circus; even P.T.Barnum launched his full circus career with a ‘Grand Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome’.
So, perhaps this diversification in name is a passing fad that will eventually revert to the 230 year old ‘circus’, coined by Charles Dibdin to unite ‘the business of the stage and the ring.’ Providing of course, that neither element is allowed to slip into the history books entirely.
Perhaps the best definition I have come across so far, is that ‘circus, then, is the spectacle of actuality.‘ The best circus performances – nouveau or traditional – give us something real, physically present and without pretence at their heart; something that even the staunchest Brechtian theatre producer remains unable to achieve with a play, whose heart is, after all, a fiction.