With the announced closure of the famed Ringling Brothers Circus, it may appear that a beloved form of entertainment is dying. But here in France, circus is not only alive and well, it is thriving and evolving.
With its generous public support for the art form, France has emerged as one of the world’s foremost centres of circus performance and study. While the 1970s saw the formation of two of Europe’s leading circus schools—one founded by legendary clown Annie Fratellini and the other by renowned circus artist and director Alexis Gruss—it was in the 1980s that France created the framework for the robust circus life France enjoys today.
In 1986 then-minister of culture and communication Jack Lang inaugurated the National Centre for Circus Arts in Chalons-en-Champagne. The school has become one of the most renowned in the world, and helped launch a movement toward professionalizing the circus. Today, according to the European Federation of Professional Circus Schools, there are 48 such schools in Europe. Fourteen of those are in France.
Circus schools have opened up the circus world to outsiders and, in the meantime, changed what the circus looks like.
Before the advent of circus schools, most circus artists came from circus families that traveled around France and Europe carrying their own tents, such as the Circus Knie, which was founded in Switzerland in 1803 and has been raising little Knies to join the family business ever since.
But for those who weren’t be born into a circus family yet had a penchant for juggling or clowning or even, say, the flying trapeze, there were few paths to a career in the circus—until the schools came along. Circus schools have opened up the circus world to outsiders and, in the meantime, changed what the circus looks like.
Today’s circus schools don’t teach elephant or tiger training. They reflect the evolving face of circus—New Circus, as it is widely called—although don’t try to get its practitioners to agree on a definition. Generally speaking, New Circus takes traditional circus skills and redefines them, by changing elements such as the venue, costume and music. Artists may use everyday objects as props. And most importantly, New Circus doesn’t have to be performed under a big tent, and there are never animals involved.
Masha Terentieva – Aerial Hotel Cart – Festival Mondial du Cirque De Demain 2017
The showcase of New Circus acts is the annual Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow), which is held every January under the Cirque Phenix tent in Paris’ 12th arrondissement. The rules state that artists must be younger than 25 years old and the act cannot have been performed in another circus festival, so the performers are primarily recent graduates from the best circus schools around the world. In their selection process, the organizers of the festival are looking for acts that push an art form forward in a new or unusual way.
This year’s festival, for example, included artist Remi Lasvènes, who trained at the Lido school in Toulouse. He mixed juggling with magic, as he juggled white balls that sometimes adhered to the laws of gravity and sometimes didn’t, floating in the air instead, surprising the audience and challenging the usual givens about gravity and traditional juggling.
Apesanteur – Teaser – Cie Sans Gravité
Josefina Castro and Daniel Ortiz are an aerial cradle duo—a type of act in which one performer hangs from his knees from a suspended platform and tosses, swings and catches another performer—who studied at the Superior School of Circus Arts (ESAC) in Brussels and also tested preconceptions. Theirs was a moving, intimate act that, instead of visibly aiming to entertain their audience, acted out the stages of a doomed romantic relationship. Instead of dazzling costumes they wore unremarkable gray and black clothing. The music was repetitive and somber.
EXIT 15 – Josefina Castro / Daniel Ortiz
The key here is that technically the artists had all the skill of anyone performing in traditional circus, they just moved the art form to a new place by upending norms and expectations, much in the way modern dance expanded the definition of dance.
But none of this is to say that New Circus isn’t accessible. One of the gold medals was awarded to an all-male quartet—three of whom are French—who performed a crowd-pleasing act that mixed acrobatics on the Chinese Pole with teeterboard skills. Blending in a good dose of vaudevillian humour, they had the audience clapping along as they flew and flipped in the air and performed stunts on the Chinese Pole.
38ème FMCD Cirque la compagnie
Being chosen to perform at the festival is a huge boon to the career of a young artist. The judging panel—and indeed much of the audience—is made up of the glitterati of the circus world, so most festival acts land jobs as a result of appearing there. They wind up at a variety of places, from circuses to other festivals to cabaret acts such as the Lido and the Moulin Rouge.
The Festival won’t be on again until next January, but the festival artists will continue to perform throughout Europe in modern circuses and in theaters.
ChihHan Chao. Диаболо. Тайвань. 38 Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain
Photo: Marie-Thérèse Cardoso| Cirque la Compagnie being awarded the gold medal at the 2017 Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain
Text by Monique El-Faizy
This article originally appeared onFrance24.
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