Picture the word impressario, and you will have a perfect image of Pascal Jacob, Vice President of the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Almost courtly in manner, and quite dapper, he is also a deep well of circus knowledge and much more than a producer or director of circus.
Jacob’s CV may be a heavy tome, but his bibliography is even longer. This French author has not only written 31 books (and contributed to scores of others), but he has also directed circus, presided as a juror in festivals, designed costumes and curated museum collections, establishing himself as one of the most sought out circus historians. Jacob has even taught circus history for years at circus institutions like National Center for Circus Arts (CNAC), ENC, Fratellini andCircus Arts of Rosny-Sous-Bois (ENACR). And those were just his day jobs. In recent years, depending on the season, you can find him traveling around the globe looking for circus talent, or presiding over the circus events at Cirque de Demain and Cirque Phenix in Paris.
In Jacob’s heart of hearts though, if you ask him, he is foremost a collector–a collector of paraphernalia based around circus– of costumes, texts, words, photos, apparatus and decor. It is just this penchant for collecting that has gotten his name emblazoned on “The Pascal Jacob collection” at Tohu and ENC in Montreal, a collection of over 5000 pieces of circus ephemera from over the ages that he personally curated. Regarding his penchant for collecting, Jacob says “When I was a kid, I was really waiting for circus. I was collecting a lot of things and one day decided to collect things about circus. So it’s something really important in my life. Some decisions you make when you are 20, 25, 30. But for me it was a really organic thing.”
I was waiting every morning just to check if the circus was coming.
So, it may not be surprising then to learn that like many circus fans, the man who now presides over one of the most renowned circus festivals was once a little boy who hung around a circus lot. “At five, six, seven years old during vacation in Brittany, I was waiting every morning just to check if the circus was coming. Later, I was able to wake up at five or six in the morning just to be there before the first truck and then stayed there for the day. There was nothing to see, nothing to do, but I was always checking and looking–the circus has a kind of strange perfume in a way.”
At the time Jacob was ready for college, academic majors in circus were not very common, so he studied what he considered to be the next best thing, theater and performing arts at the University Sorbonne. He hoped that by studying theatre, he’d meet other like-minded circus lovers, but he was dreaming a bit big, no one at school was interested in circus like he was.
Still, he preferred academia to the performer’s life. “I never wanted to be a circus performer. For me it was not even a desire and it was a perfect possibility because when they open the school in Paris in 1974, I was 12 years old. So a few years after that, if I said to my parents (I want) to go in a circus school, I’m sure they’d say ‘Yes, why not?’ So, I was really more of a witness. For me, it was more interesting to be on the edge– not to be inside.”
Through a lucky coincidence, it was at the university where he discovered his second greatest passion in life, opera. He entered the world of opera focusing on scenography and costume and eventually became a director, but he never entirely gave up on circus. Jacob says circus remained a true love but for 10 years opera was a way of life and to this day it is the only music he listens to in his free time.
In the 1970’s there were many circus books published and the young Jacob devoured them all, exploring Chinese and Russian circus as deeply as European–and ultimately getting his masters degree in American circus history. It meant a lot to him, but his colleagues at Sorbonne didn’t know what to think. “So people were studying theater in a very serious way and they didn’t care about the other forms and circus was something for kids.”
One day in 1989 he was searching for extras for the opera when he met an acquaintance who remembered he studied circus at university and she told him about a job at CNAC. So began his long stint as a teacher of circus history. It lasted for 20 years and took him around the world to share his expertise. It wasn’t until 2009 when he accepted a job offer to work with Dragone that he decided he needed to phase out his teaching. His work as a published circus historian began in 1992 and drew him away from opera back towards his first love of circus.
Jacob’s historical love for circus runs so deep, that, while describing a visit to the stables of a Soviet era circus building, he says things like this: ”We went in the stables and it was exactly like in the 19th century. So, you smelled the perfume of the horses from the day, but you can still see the ghosts. And for me (that) was really important, the circus history. It’s all about ghosts and I can try to project myself in the time when you are in the perfect building for that.”
Although it may be all about ghosts for Jacob, his work necessitates him keeping up-to-date on what is happening in the circus world, especially his casting work for Cirque de Demain, the ‘circus of tomorrow’. The Festival came under fire in 2018 from the contemporary circus sector for not being as forward facing as the times demand, due to a shortage of both people of color and women in the competition–a point they attempted to adjust in this last 50th anniversary edition of the Festival by including more diversity.
Jacob confides that his huge annual competition is actually a small, tight knit operation which functions year round with a tiny core staff and a devoted army of volunteers. He knows all about these volunteers, because that is exactly how he began his work with Cirque de Demain–back when it was at Cirque D’Hiver. Since 1977, Jacob was close to the festival, volunteering often. He started selling programs and books, and stuffing envelopes. “I grew up in the festival!” he proclaims fondly, and to him it is a second home. Although he had made a name for himself by being a reliable volunteer, a historian, and a teacher, it was while volunteering there in the 90’s when his real big break began.
“We decided to create a small library. So we opened a small booth in the stable, and because it was a little bit sad, I put up some sketches. I was always sketching and drawing some costume drawings. I remember during one day in the afternoon I was alone and between two shows and a man came to me and he said, ‘What is it? Who did that?’ So I said ‘I did them.’ And he said, ‘Do you know who am?’ I said ‘Yes…who are you?’ He was the talent scout for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. He said “Do you have more?” I said ‘Oh yes I have a lot.”
The scout returned the next day and invited him to New York in March for the premiere of the spring show, saying he should bring his sketches along. Jacob flew to NY, saw the show, and went backstage to meet Mr. Feld as a circus fan. He clutched his book in the Madison Square Garden basement. They looked at his sketches and said thank you for coming. Then he got a backstage tour. He left happy to have even had a chance to see the show. But a few months later they called and asked him to do some more sketches. He met them again and shared his new sketches and they thanked him again. This happened a third time, a fourth time. Each time he brought his new sketches and remained undeterred and hopeful. “Finally, I gave my sketches and he said, ‘Well, okay, I think it’s time to work together. What do you do next year?’” One time, Jacob recalls with a laugh, they looked at his sketches of ladybug costumes and someone said “Ooh, how French!”
Given his love for and good eye for costume design, I asked Jacob how he felt about the current contemporary trend of costume as clothing or streetwear. He says he is not bothered at all, because the costume is about the art work and has to fit it. “I’m not a full time costume designer. It’s interesting for me, the circus is a sense…the meaning of the thing. So if the perfect meaning for a show or an act is to wear a white shirt and gray pants, it’s fine.”
He acknowledges the ornamental styles connecting to a moment of time or fashion are great, “But for me it’s more interesting to make some sense, to put something behind the costume. It’s not only to wear something, but I think it has to be connected with a story. “
Although Jacob has worked with all of the big circus companies over the years, directing and designing, I wanted to know what project still eludes him. His answer didn’t disappoint as it hearkens back to his first love of collecting and curating,”To build a circus museum, that’s (been) my goal for a long time now. I would love to do that in France or anywhere. I started to talk (to people), but I know it’s not so simple. But (I think of) a circus museum in Sarasota in Florida, the John Ringling house and museum and because they have a beautiful building and site. So I would love to create an European wing in this museum. I told them if you can find a way to build a space I will bring 200, 300, 500, 700,000 items if you want. We can create a real historical European space. And it would be connected with the story of the Ringing Brothers because they were French. They were coming from Europe. This is something I would really like to too.”
It will be a way to use circus acrobatics and maybe humor and movement to tell stories and to be really linked with the world as it is today.
Although some may be tempted to view Jacob as the old guard, he is surprisingly open and frank about the current direction circus is taking. This is because he takes the long view of the art form, and although he likes to look backwards to spot his ghosts, for the most part, his job keeps him facing forward. I asked him what trends he predicted taking root in the circus of tomorrow.
“It will be more and more connected to real life. It will stay an entertainment form, but it will be more connected with the status of the world. I don’t know if it’s a question of being more intimate–but it will be more connected with problems in the immigration, violence, urban violence, women’s rights. I’m sure it doesn’t mean it will be heavy and complicated. It will be a way to use circus acrobatics and maybe humor and movement to tell stories and to be really linked with the world as it is today. And not to be so disconnected. But the circus has been an agent for reform for centuries.”
When I asked him how the circus of old was involved in societal change, he said “I think in the beginning of the 19th century circuses were connected with society in a way, and they were more involved in a political way, but as propaganda.”
He elaborated, “You know that the king is a king, but somebody has to say, ‘Hey, you are the king, but you can die. Know that.’ So I think the circus has always been the incarnation of human perfection. You can involve people, men and women who are able to jump, to do somersaults to juggle with 10, 12, 14, clubs or rings. You know, it’s kind of exaltation of the human power.” Hopefully Jacob’s admiration for that exaltation will continue to manifest itself, through further studies of circus history, and the further embracing of new practitioners of circus who continue to innovate in their field, and maybe, one day, his collector’s heart will be rewarded in his curation of a European circus history collection wing in a circus museum.
Check out one of Jacob's latest publications to catch up on your circus history, The Circus: A Visual History by Pascal Jacob (Bloomsbury). All photos and sketches courtesy of Pascal Jacob. Feature photo of Pascal Jacob (third from right) as part of the jury for the Festival de Budapest.
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