The pandemic presents a unique set of challenges. But turning obstacles into opportunities is what circus does best, write Billy Alwen and Geraldine Giddings.
Modern circus as it is known today can be traced back to 1768, when trick rider Philip Astley discovered that when his horse galloped in a circle, the centrifugal and centripetal forces allowed him to balance on its back. He bought some land at the foot of Westminster Bridge, built a ring, hired a clown, and invited audiences to watch.
Circus has always had its finger on the pulse and been quick to react to the cultural climate. In an era before access to instant news and pictures via TV or social media, circuses would often be telling the stories first. In 1854 Astley’s circus re-enacted scenes from the Crimean War for audiences.
When TVs entered American and European homes, circus began to decline. Recessions and depressions also had an impact. When large, tented shows became economically unviable in the 1980s and 90s, many artists developed outdoor work without the need for a roof. They turned disadvantage into opportunity and today, the outdoor arts sector is an important part of the UK cultural scene, drawing an audience that is often younger and more diverse than venue-based performance. It has become the art form that launches city festivals and opening ceremonies – circus has been integrated into anything that needs spectacle.
Adapting to challenge
This year has been difficult for everyone, circus included. Cirque du Soleil filed for bankruptcy in June, cutting 3,500 jobs. With a summer of cancelled shows, festivals and events, thousands of freelance artists in the UK have suddenly found themselves without any form of income.
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