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Inside the Ring

Is the circus art?

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the varieties of underappreciated artist, circus acts might just have it the worst. Their technical virtuosity is taken for granted, but is what they do actually art? In 1893, Paul Cinquevalli, one of the greatest jugglers of all time, succeeded in catching an egg on a plate without breaking it. It took him nine years to learn the trick, and he soon dropped it from his routine, because audiences weren’t particularly impressed. Lillian Leitzel, the most famous aerialist of the early twentieth century (she could do 17 pull-ups with one arm), got the greatest applause not when she was walking upside down, but when she pretended to faint at the end of her show.1

This question—is the circus art?—is at the center of Duncan Wall's book The Ordinary Acrobat, a history of the circus up to the present day told through a memoir of his year at a circus school in Paris. Each chapter introduces an aspect of the circus as Wall encounters it, so we learn about the origins of the flying trapeze, for instance, when he finally screws up the courage to enroll in his college’s trapeze class. On the way, Wall interviews performers and other writers about their approach to the circus. Their various opinions are in the foreground rather than a larger theory put forward by Wall himself. This approach, although at times frustrating, is in the spirit of the present-day circus that he describes: Whereas the circus is often seen as a closed and mysterious world, Wall shows how open and inclusive circus schools and troupes can be, and how receptive they are to new ideas about performance.

At the beginning of the book, Wall is no more attuned to the finer points of the circus than most people. If anything, he admits, he was mildly disdainful of a type of performance that seemed trapped in the past by its own conventions: “An act lasted five to seven minutes. Ringmasters wore red clothes and riding boots. Clowns had red noses.”He changed his mind when he began to go to circus shows in Paris during a study abroad year. What he saw there was nouveau cirque, or “modern circus,” a more self-conscious, artistically ambitious type of performance that has flourished in Europe and North America since the 1970s. Nouveau cirque acts are built around traditional circus skills, but they might be used to create and explore a mood, or to tell a story. Wall’s description of one troupe makes their work sound more like experimental theater: “The acrobats were unshaven and dressed in ratty black suits with cuffs rolled up ... Shortly thereafter, a juggler strutted onto the stage, juggling five oranges and reciting what sounded like poetry but turn out to be Proust.”

From that moment, his enthusiasm mounts, and he decides to enroll in the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque, the French National School of Circus Arts.2 Infiltrating this world is surprisingly easy; once he is in, however, it is not easy at all. Even at the most basic level, acrobatics training at the school is “humbling,” “dispiriting,” and “physically punishing” for Wall, while many of his classmates have been practicing for years. But, as a latecomer, Wall is a charming guide, who can explain exactly what each move requires in the way that is only possible for someone who has not picked up vaulting himself. He becomes a knowledgeable observer, a critic, and a historian of the circus.

Wall and almost all of the performers and critics he interviews in this book insist that the circus is an art form. “What we do, it’s not just divertissement,” one of the instructors tells him. The curriculum is rigorous and encourages the young performers to draw on other disciplines. Students in the advanced program have to learn a musical instrument and a foreign language, to study poetry and physics. Perhaps most importantly, Wall and the other students take a class in critical appreciation of the circus, called “analyse du spectacle,” taught by a former theatre critic who is also employed by the French Ministry of Culture to report on the state of the art.

Wall’s appreciation of the circus is deepened by his understanding of its long and distinct history. In explaining its subtle character, he draws on a particularly useful definition of the circus from historian David Lewis Hammarstrom, who calls the circus “an artistic model of ... a festival atmosphere.” It was the establishment of annual, commercial festivals across Europe from the sixteenth century that allowed the first traveling circuses to develop, Wall writes, because they could hop “from one fair to the next,” following “consistent schedules,” and their extraordinary acts suited the mood of abundance and merriment.

The power of the circus to conjure this mood is captured beautifully by Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend: “Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A Circus passed the house—still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are out.” Wall does not include this in his book or many other examples of the circus’s wide-ranging cultural impact, but if he had, it could only strengthen his case for the circus as an art form. He could also have mentioned the recognition thatnouveau cirque has been gaining more recently among followers of other arts: late last year, Robert Lepage, who has created shows for Cirque du Soleil, produced Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera. His production opens with dramatic trapeze-work, as Ariel swoops and whirls from a spinning chandelier.3

It could be easier for circus acts to gain recognition by presenting themselves as a sub-genre of experimental theatre, but there have always been important differences between the stage and the big top. Historically, circuses have had to focus on the physical because licensing laws meant that only theaters were allowed to stage plays with dialogue. This is why it would now seem strange to watch an act where two clowns engaged in conversation with one another: Clowns either speak to themselves or address the audience directly. The distinction between theater and circus is best characterized in The Ordinary Acrobat by Hammarstrom, again, whom he paraphrases: “Whereas the theatre is mental … the circus is physical. Theater treats the conflict between humans; the circus treats a human’s struggle with himself or the environment.”

Wall finds Hammarstrom’s description too narrow, but it chimes with the way that many of the performers he meets think about what they do. Jérôme Thomas, a French virtuoso juggler, tells him that juggling “participates in the mysteries of gravity and the cosmos.” Thomas delights in the effects of gravity and in trying to defy them. In a performance in St Petersburg in 2010, he chose to juggle with green polythene bags.4 They gape and rustle, and they move in unpredictable swooshes, picking up static charge. But it is these unpromising properties that intrigue him. Later in the show he starts to throw feathers, and “catches” one by drawing in his breath sharply through his nostrils. Near-weightless objects give a juggler almost as much trouble as objects that fall very quickly.

Many of the brilliant circus acts performing today let Wall into their rehearsal rooms and personal libraries, but the book could still use more description of their performances. In The Ordinary Acrobat, we can read about the theory, the history, and the people who make the circus, but we don’t quite grasp the exuberance or the subtlety of some of the best acts. The most convincing argument that circus acts can make art, after all, is seeing the show. The ringmaster has a solution for that: Roll up, roll up!

Laura Marsh is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books. Follow @lmlauramarsh.

  1. In this archival video, she is billed as “The World’s Foremost Lady Gymnast”: Flipping her body as she does at 1:41 made her wrist permanently scabbed and often badly infected.

  2. Learning circus skills, whether for fun, as exercise, or as professional training, is popular in France. Over 150 institutions are registered with the French Federation of Circus Schools, and the French government allocates €9 million in funding to circuses every year.

  3. You can see the acrobatic opening of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest in the trailer.

  4. Jérôme Thomas’s performance with the polythene bags is online here.