‘The Ordinary Acrobat’, by Duncan Wall

At time of writing, this is the most recent publication on circus history and, theoretically, the most up-to-date.

The book is in memoir form, of the author’s year spent at the French national circus school; Wall’s introductory experiences and revelations of circus life, in the face of his own preconceptions, segue cinematically into colourful historical accounts of the art’s development.

In a genre which abounds with books written either from the point of view of a performer’s life or from outsider scholars, Wall holds the honour of authoring a work which draws on both first hand insider experience and academic research.

The title is something of a misnomer, as the author’s physical acrobatic training isn’t granted any special attention as might be expected; instead, various circus disciplines and cultural values are explored through conversations, philosophies and historical contexts.

Wall is winningly honest about his naïvity in approaching his subject, and is able to appreciate and share both sides of controversial debates such as those on the value of traditional .v. contemporary circus, and on Cirque du Soleil’s current position in the circus world.

A comprehensive index is included, but I was disappointed to find no bibliography after the number of sources cited in the text. A couple of errors relating to clown teacher Philippe Gaulier, which no doubt had Wall ready to strangle his editor, will hopefully be corrected in further editions, and will ensure that any other references I take from the book are carefully cross checked.

This is an accessible read to those with no prior circus experience and, for those with a deeper understanding of the arts’ cultural heritage, carries valuable anecdotes and thought-provoking comment from contemporary pioneers and high-flyers.

Wall, Duncan The Ordinary Acrobat (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2013)

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