With the launch of Circus Talk News came the unfortunate announcement of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey closing up shop, as well as the bankruptcy and consequent sale of the Big Apple Circus. And let’s not forget the retiring of the elephants at Ringling that preceded these events. No matter how you look at it, American circus has had some big shake ups and changes over the past year.
To the layperson, it might seem as if circus were a dying art–but to those who still work in the ring, to circus educators, directors and producers, things look quite different. Recreational and pre-professional circus participation and social circus initiatives are at an all-time high. Two top notch recreational/pre-professional institutions (NECCA & Circadium -as an offshoot of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts) are in a race to be the first to establish a professional program in the USA.
There are mid-sized contemporary and traditional big tops circus companies like Cirque Mechanic, Circus Harmony, UniverSoul Circus, Acrobatic Conundrum and Circus Sarasota fighting to establish their work as a heritage or modern art form in the eyes of culture seekers, donors and arts funding programs alike. This July in Washington DC, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will bring circus arts and its history to the national mall for the public to explore. In less than a week, Circus Now in association with NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts will host its third International Contemporary Circus Exposure event which brings together performers, presenters and a sophisticated arts fan base for three nights of world class and local contemporary circus.
What do these mixed changes foretell about the future of circus in the United States? While the nation and circus performers alike mourn the end of an era, we thought it would be interesting to give professionals from various facets of the industry the space to share their insight and perspective about the adjustments American circus is undergoing. The old adage is ‘When one door closes, another opens’. So we asked each professional to consider the question: Where is the next door of American circus?
Crossing Disciplines and Cultures
“It’s a pivotal time for circus arts in America. Traditional companies like Ringling Bros. and Big Apple have led the American circus form for decades, yet in the last several years there has been a rapid growth in the popularity and influence of international contemporary circus in America. Our company, Only Child Aerial Theatre, creates ensemble driven aerial theatre where aerial acrobatics are a tool for heightened storytelling. We’re part of a movement toward the diversification of circus and its integration with other genres such as theatre.
As we Americans are beginning to find our voice in the international circus landscape, our socio-political atmosphere is in tumult and our arts funding is in danger.
As we Americans are beginning to find our voice in the international circus landscape, our socio-political atmosphere is in tumult and our arts funding is in danger. Lyndon B. Johnson said while signing the National Endowment for the Arts into existence: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to each other the inner vision that guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” We hope American circus creators will interpret this as a call to action from which we will see the emergence of a diverse American aesthetic. And we hope that when people see American circus work they know it is American because it is urgent, it is relevant, it is inclusive, truthful, and brave.”
-Nicki Miller and Kendall Rileigh, Co-Founders Only Child Aerial Theatre, NY, NY.
ASYLUM, their first full length show, is being featured in the 2017 Circus Now: International Contemporary Circus Exposure at NYU Skirball in NYC March 3rd.
“I join the mourning of the passing of what had been for so long an emblem of American circus. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey helped craft a community of fellow spectators, who found themselves sharing pleasure experienced by many other audience members across vast geographies and time. Knowing that I was seeing a company my grandfather had seen added to my joy in going to the shows myself.
I would like to see a “next door” in new communities of shared experiences and circus-going joys. Might those communities be forming in a few seed cities across the country? Looking briefly at NYC: I am heartened that there is an annual tradition of contemporary CN:ICE shows, that a young company just had a sold-out run ofnouveau cirque style shows, and that circus-flavored offerings have appeared both on and off Broadway, some (not all, I’m painfully aware) for successful extended runs. Even as problems remain for exploration and study, I find promise in knowing that there are ever-larger numbers of spectators exposed to contemporary circus forms.
It is perhaps instructive to remember that Québec, for example, was not always a recognized home for the circus arts that it is now, with its own communities of contemporary circus spectators. We do well to remember that those communities were supported by political will and financial power. I fear we in the arts will suffer in the coming years. I want to find hope, however, in the knowledge that circushas come to town, and that audiences have felt the power of the craft of our contemporary circus artists. I see the possibility that the “next door” is literally next door, next to us in our cities, our communities. I certainly know that the art and the artists are there already.”
-Charles Batson, Professor, Union College, Schenectady, NY
Co-editor. Cirque Global: Quebec’s Expanding Circus Boundaries.
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
Keeping Up with the Times While Keeping the Heart of Circus
“Circus is an age old artform. My family started in the 1780’s–that’s over 200 years and Ringling was 146 years old. So, circus will continue on no matter what. I think the challenge that circuses has struggled with is keeping up with the times and changing with the times in every sense of the word, whether it be the way they run their business model to the actual production of the show. It is interesting how Cirque du Soleil has run a circus like a business and they have been very successful. There are very few if any circuses in the United States, including the biggest there are or were, that are still primitive in the way they run their circus. Cirque du Soleil has been incredibly successful because they have adapted to the times in every sense of the word. They treat their performers like professionals. I don’t want to say that they are pampered but there is a masseuse there every day and they are paid a good wage with insurance, etc. They’ve also kept up with the times by changing the way they produced their shows to bring it to a new demographic and being willing to invest the money that it took to do that. I think this is where circus has struggled.
But circus will continue on. There are a lot of shows out there right now like Cirque Italia and Circus Vargas that are packing the house every single night and even here at Circus Sarasota we sell out very often.So, there is still interest and passion for circus. It’s just about getting it to the right demographic. Sometimes there is a condescending attitude about what circus is and how it is presented, thanks to the media and a little bit thanks to circus producers in the past. That image is entirely up to us to change so that the next generation comes and says ‘Wow I’ve never been to a circus but I’m so glad I came and I’ll continue to go now.’”
-Nik Wallenda, King of the Highwire, Sarasota, FL
“Can Ringling figure out another way to develop artistically? What will Big Apple look like? Are circus people running it or only corporate types? These are my questions. But I think the future belongs to the innovators like 7 Fingers in Montréal.
I think a lot of the problem with Ringling did have to do with the non-domesticated animal training. I personally am so torn over the issue because I can see both sides, but I have never seen a circus animal being abused. I never thought that Ringling Bros. worked well in the arenas – arenas are unattractive spaces and it’s difficult to hide that fact. And the presentation always looked so old-fashioned. Some people think that in a few years Ringling might also have another chance to perform. But the exciting work is being done elsewhere.
Circus art doesn’t stand still – it changes quickly sometimes. Just when you think you have seen everything, you find out that there will always be people with imagination to show you things that are completely new. And the classics like Ringling Bros. still need to recognize that the public’s tastes change.”
-Judy Finelli, Original Pickle Family Circus Member, Co-Founder of Circus Center, San Francisco, CA
“Circus is not dead. Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey dropped the word ‘Circus’ from its title years ago. Circus existed before Ringling started and will continue afterwards. There are acrobats depicted on ancient cave paintings in Crete and jugglers featured in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Circus was the original internet. It was through circus that people got to see animals and people from other parts of the world. The death of circus was mourned before in 1956 when John Ringling North stopped presenting Ringling Brothers in tents and moved to buildings. Yet, Ringling continued and there are still tent shows in the United States and around the world today. The passing of circus and other forms of live entertainment was bemoaned with the advent of TV and then computers. While these certainly had an impact, in some ways they made seeing something live more of a special occasion. Like print media and the music industry, circus needs to learn new ways to maneuver to make a living in the digital age.
Circus exists because it is an archetypical art form. Circus is about being super human—flying, communicating with animals, controlling objects. Circus is about the triumph of people over the basic bond that holds us in everyday life: gravity.
Circus schools are sprouting up at an astounding rate. The more people learn about something, the more they appreciate it. These schools develop new circus arts and artists. For example, Cyr wheel and Russian cradle are new additions to circus arts. There are more circus festivals and circus companies performing in a wider variety of venues around the world than ever before.
Circus exists because it is an archetypical art form. Circus is about being super human—flying, communicating with animals, controlling objects. Circus is about the triumph of people over the basic bond that holds us in everyday life: gravity. Circus is humans accomplishing the impossible. It speaks to our deepest aspirations and is why it will continue to grow, even through the cracks of our increasingly digital society!”
Founder, Circus Harmony and St. Louis Arches, St. Louis, MO
and Founding Member, Big Apple Circus and Circus Flora
The Humanity of Circus
“As the world has changed, the business model of a big top circus may have become unsustainable, but more than that, I think audiences have been hungry for a circus that is approached more like an art form – capable of telling a story or shedding new light on a facet of the human experience. Cirque du Soleil and similar big spectacle shows are incredible, but when human beings are so far away and in such elaborate costumes, there is an other-izing in that spectacle. I remember hearing a woman complain to me, saying that if she was going to pay that much money, she didn’t want to see the juggler drop the balls! When audiences begin to see the human beings in circus performances as having value directly related to the success of their tricks, they miss the point of circus — to fail is human, to overcome that failure is what makes each of us a hero.
At Almanac, we are circus outsiders, trained more in theatre and dance. But we create intimate human spectacles in which audiences can engage with human beings who are honestly challenging the edge of their abilities. I think in this way, a basic circus trick can be as exciting as one that it takes a decade of training to do. I think audiences are ready for circus that is not just about virtuosity and spectacle but for circus that uses that virtuosity to tell a story, to say something complex and nuanced about human nature. It is exciting that now, more people will have the chance to be exposed to an intimate contemporary circus when they are looking for something amazing to see and do.”
-Ben Grinberg, Almanac Dance Theater Circus, Founder and Creator/Performer, Philadelphia, PA.
Their work Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes is being featured
in the 2017 Circus Now: International Contemporary Circus Exposure at NYU Skirball in NYC on March 4th.
American Circus Shifting toward Contemporary European Models
“Contemporary circus, which is thriving beautifully in Europe and Canada, has not found its footing in the U.S., and this is partly because the aesthetic of Ringling Bros. has loomed so large in our history. Traditional circus grew and flourished here as a commercial spectacle. Its success in that endeavor – continually outdoing itself in size and color and excitement – blotted out most other possibilities for circus artistry. And it was an ultimately unsustainable model.
It has taken decades, in other parts of the world, for circus to emerge as a true art form. But it has done so. It has become an artistic medium, an expressive tool, with tremendous variety and creativity. Circus is presented in universities, analyzed by academics, supported by governments, and valued by directors in every type of performing art.
We need daring, edgy, avant-garde circus. We need circus that is experimental, that tells stories, and that challenges audiences. It’s at our fingertips… the door is opening now.
In the U.S., we also have this opportunity. To see it, we’ll need to clear away the smoke from the cannon, brush aside the feathers and sequins, and let the sound of the lion’s roar fade away. These are memories – they are precious, and important, and they are part of our collective past.
We don’t really know what American contemporary circus is going to look like. There have been fits and starts; a few notable brilliant artists and companies; but nowhere near the critical mass that we need to transform circus’s image. We need daring, edgy, avant-garde circus. We need circus that is experimental, that tells stories, and that challenges audiences. It’s at our fingertips… the door is opening now. And our task, in the community, is to support new artists as much as we can – through education and residency programs, discussion forums, new venues, and media attention – and especially, by being supportive audiences.”
-Shana Kennedy, Executive Director, Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, Philadelphia, PA
Circus Always Reinvents Itself to Fit the Times
“Where is the next door? Where aren’t there doors! American circus, while clearly in a state of flux and change, is thriving more than ever. Though many are saddened by the news ofRingling’s closure and hopeful of the news thatBig Apple has been purchased, Lyndsay and I are first and foremost excited for what’s to come. Circus is being reinvented for the umpteenth time in history; from the streets, to outdoor theaters, to tents, to indoor theaters, to Youtube and now to virtual reality. The evolution of the form continues.
For example, the American circus education system is growing more rapidly than ever before. With programs like Circus Smirkus, Circus Harmony, and NECCA’snew expansion in New England, today’s youth have more high quality training options than any other time in American history. In that same vein, we are seeing professional programs in Philadelphia and Chicago and creative residencies from organizations like Circus Now and The Muse Brooklyn. There are new companies popping up across the country like Jo Pinzon’sShort Round Production’sand their first showFilament, Acrobatic Conundrum based out of Seattle, and our Brooklyn-based company Hideaway Circus with our latest creationSLUMBER.
Circus is an ever-changing beast– it must be in order to stay alive and relevant from generation to generation. Without change the circus becomes irrelevant. And to that point, if you can’t find a door, make one.”
-Josh Aviner, Co-Founder & Co-Director HideAway Circus & Podcast, NY, NY
Main Photo: Julia Halpin (Featuring Only Child Aerial Theatre,ASYLUM.) Photo of Judy Finelli: Chad Benjamin Potter