Over on Tumblr, I track the circus tag, and I’ve been coming upon a lot of so-called animal rights activists getting all up in arms about how much they hate circuses – some of them even protesters on the side of PETA. I have been ranting about this a bit, and at the request of one of my followers, who admitted ignorance on different kinds of circuses, etc., I have written up a very basic comparison of some different kinds of circuses. It is by no means entirely comprehensive, but I thought I would share with this community, since my show is so heavily based in my ideas about the circus arts.
Without further ado, my post:
All right, so I actually just sent in a grant application (two days early, no less), and I feel as though I am justified in posting more circus info now.
By request, I am going to do a bit of a write-up on circuses, and what circus is all about, and how it’s probably more than most people think it is. Once again, I have to let everyone know that I am no expert, nor do I claim to be. I am going to be speaking on my experience, and based on my views of how others interpret circus.
First of all, I think it is extremely, extremely important to realize that “circus” has a different definition for everyone. I have a very distinct and personal idea of what the circus is, and what sort of potential it has, and that’s very much based on an amalgamation of the different kinds of circuses I’ve witnessed or researched, as well as other art forms or performance methods I have come to know.
In the United States, it is my impression and understanding that most people, when they hear the word “circus,” think of two completely opposite organizations: Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Cirque du Soliel. Both are very legitimate circuses, and both are very different. Let’s break them down, shall we?
Ringling Brothers is a very, very old circus. It hails from the long-standing American circus tradition based in early equestrian shows. It showcases great feats of human ability alongside quintessentially American clown acts and animal-training acts. As an old circus, it is extremely well-established, and much cleaner than most other circuses in a similar tradition.
Cirque du Soliel is a newer circus, born – if I remember correctly – in the 1970s, in Canada. At its roots, it was more a mom-and-pop organization, specializing in the collaborative efforts of performers and artists, more concerned with a thing of beauty than with shocking an audience. It has more in common with European circuses, and is a part of the “cirque nouveau,” or “new circus” movement that centers on human-only acts and theatricality. It has become immensely popular all over the world.
So, once again, Ringling and Cirque seem to be on extreme sides of this scale – but I would argue that they are more alike than one might think. Both companies are just that – companies. They are the big businesses of the circus world – extremely expensive, extremely commercial. Even Cirque du Soliel, so praised for being a work of art, hires out for its acts and creates its stories in a conference room with a board of directors. Both of them produce great works in their own way, but they are not, by any means, the be all and end all of circus – nor do they even get to what I believe circus is really all about.
And what do I believe circus is all about? This is a tough question that I’ve grappled with, and a question whose answer I find evolves the more and more I take part in circus activities.
Circus is an art form, and therefore a form of expression. It is a collection of off-kilter folks with varied talents (everything from expected circus talents to the studio arts, musicianship, and the gift of gab) who come together to inspire, delight, and in some cases inform an audience. Circus is not, in my definition, theatre – though it can certainly be theatrical, and it can certainly have narrative qualities. (I do not have anything personal against theatre, just that I do not see myself as a practitioner of theatre, and circus has certain needs that the theatre does not provide. There are other circus folk who will disagree with me on this point, and that is fine. I just think that circus needs to have a realm of its own, and not be shoved under the theatre umbrella.)
So, I’ve told you about the two biggest circuses I can think of, and I’ve given you my own definition. I’d now like to introduce a couple other circuses who are not entirely unknown, but who do not have the raging popularity (or income) of the circuses I have already mentioned.
The first is Cirque Mechanics. I believe they are also Canadian, and they are staffed by extremely professional performers and artists, many of whom have worked with Cirque du Soliel, within the Russian circus circuit, etc. These guys are the real deal – but with a smaller show and a cheaper price tag. And they are INCREDIBLE. I have had the immense pleasure of seeing Cirque Mechanics live twice at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center – their shows “Birdhouse Factory” and “Boomtown.” They have this great talent for taking definitive time periods and making them completely fantastical. A huge selling point of this troupe is their excellent use of their set and props – anything and everything can and will be used as a circus toy. That chandelier? It’s an aerial hoop. That round cart? Not only is it a circular bicycle contraption (what?), and a platform for the contortionist, but one side unlatches and it becomes a German wheel! Tadaaaaa. Really wonderful group, and one I respect very highly.
Now, Cirque Eloize. Also Canadian (there are a lot of those – blame the cirque nouveau movement), also the absolute best of the best (I would argue better than most Cirque du Soliel performers, honestly). I have not had the chance to see them live, but I have seen a recorded version of their show “Nomade.” I was, very honestly, completely floored. Not only do they have the shock-value factor of Ringling and the skill set of Cirque du Soliel, but they have the most incredible music, the most earthy-but-beautiful costumes, gorgeous sets (and this is a stage show, by the way), and – oh my dear God – the most perfect clowning I’ve ever seen. Clowning is also something I feel very strongly about, and while I think that clowns are where a huge amount of circus ignorance lies, I really feel as though I don’t have time to talk about clowns as much as the subject deserves in this one post.
Moving forward a bit here, we come to the Bread & Puppet theatre which hails from Glover, Vermont. B&P has, I believe, very similar roots to Cirque du Soliel in terms of artistic vision with one very important difference – they still haven’t sold out. They are politically-charged, hugely environment-conscious and sustainable (their home base is a farm), and completely in support of the cheap art movement. Their merchandise never exceeds $20 (have I even seen anything that expensive at a show?). Yeah, definitely not Cirque. And they are brilliantly funny, they are great at talking about politics or social issues in a funny, provocative way, and they really, really like papier-mache (and so do I, so I’m in favor).
There’s honestly so much more I could say (and probably should say), but this post has already become extremely long. In an effort not to bore anyone to tears or inundate everyone with far too much info, I’m going to call it a day on this one. I am more than happy to answer questions and write follow-up posts if there is interest.
(And just a note for those who have been keeping up with my frustrations with animal rights activists – only one of the circuses I have mentioned in this post utilizes animal acts.)”
I would like to extend the same courtesy to those reading on WordPress – if you have any questions, or you want me to post any follow-up writing, please do not hesitate to let me know. This subject is something that is very important to me, and I enjoy dispelling stereotypes and informing others in a polite way.