‘Contemporary Circus’, by Katie Lavers, Louis Patrick Leroux and Jon Burtt

The latest addition to the circus shelf at the bookstore is a welcome reflection on current circus practice as it has evolved through the last couple of decades. The authors interview 24 international artists from a diverse range of circus practices and arrange these interviews into themed sections that let us in on the artists’ perspectives directly. Theory has emerged from the artist interviews, and each of the four main chapters is introduced with an authorial overview before presenting illustrative sections of those interviews that led to the descriptive introductions.

In academic terms, this research approach is called ‘grounded theory’, because it starts from the subject and puts together the evidence from the ground up to see what it reveals, instead of beginning with an idea and trying to find evidence to prove it. What this book does particularly well is presenting the research in a way that works both for academic and non-academic readers. The chapters are clear and avoid complicated jargon, but an extensive system of endnotes provides more detailed references for those who want to look deeper.

The four main sections investigate contemporary approaches to Apparatus, Politics, Performers and New Work. The title of ‘contemporary circus’ turns out to mean more about the current period of time than a particular circus form, and the diversity represented in the book is an important reminder that the idea of contemporary circus ‘depends on who you ask and where you go‘, as author Louis Patrick Leroux explains at a book launch event held at Circomedia this month. ‘It’s what’s happening…it’s co-temporal and its emerging‘. A small niggle, then, is that none of the interviewees represent work in current forms of classical circus, as those voices are also part of the contemporary circus landscape. The guiding theme behind selection of artists and interview topics has been ‘contestation’ – things that are being changed or questioned. Perhaps this is less prominent in classical forms of circus but it’s a shame that we aren’t offered these perspectives too.

The authors are on tour with a series of launch events, including panel discussions with some of the book’s interviewees. They acknowledge that it’s impossible to include every angle within the space of one book, so maybe there will be a follow up in the future. That said, the scope of the work the book does cover is still impressive and reveals a great range of approaches that circus can take in the 21st Century. These are types of circus that are often invisible behind the pop-culture prominence of big tops and bright colours that generate the majority of public perceptions, which in fact only makes up a portion of the total circus fare available.

In the introduction to the launch event, Circomedia director Bim Mason described the book as a helpful move away from discussions of ‘The circus’, with a definitive label, to ‘circus‘ and the diversity it entails. Importantly, he praised the book for letting directors and practitioners speak, with the academic framing following their lead. Jon Burtt, one of the authors, moved from teaching circus into academia, and felt ‘like there was a gap where academics weren’t talking to practitioners‘. This feeling of needing to merge the worlds of research and practice was echoed by panel speaker Firenza Guidi, who expressed that it took a long time to be able to reconcile the scholar and practitioner parts of her self in her work. ‘Research is creative and practice is research.’

For Firenza, it is vital that circus is allowed to be eclectic and fragmented. This book reveals many aspects of that eclectic fragmentation, proving that circus – as Firenza terms it – ‘is not a formula’. Vital reading for anyone interested in circus today.

The book cover. The bottom half of the book cover is black with the title in white, and an orange stripe that has the authors names written in. The top half o the book cover is a photo. It's a hazy image of an aerialist, taken from the perspective of someone on the ground looking up the rope to see the performer dangling above them, silhouetted against a pearly light.

Lavers, K., Leroux, L.P., and Burtt, J. Contemporary Circus (Abingdon: Routledge 2019) ISBN: 9781138680722

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