The Otherness of Czech Contemporary Circus - CircusTalk

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The Otherness of Czech Contemporary Circus

Czech contemporary circus is in many ways a unique phenomenon. Having been born of the will of theatre actors and directors, dancers or actors of physical theatre, it is frequently perceived as non-verbal or experimental theater within the Czech cultural environment itself. Theater actors and dancers, though nowadays more often than not in association with gymnasts and international artists, still influence and determine the aesthetic qualities of Czech circus. As an art form, Czech contemporary circus is very young: its lifespan is still best measured in years rather than in decades.
Defining Czech Circus

The division between traditional and contemporary circus in the Czech Republic has always been clear-cut. The operation of traditional Czech circuses falls under the Ministry of Agriculture (due to animal husbandry issues); as such, traditional circuses are therefore not legally recognized from any cultural policy point of view. Czech traditional circus differs from Czech contemporary circus not only with respect to its legal status, but also in terms of the values it recognizes, the philosophy it embodies and, above all, the origins it has emerged from. Traditional circus is obviously older and, unlike contemporary circus, inextricably linked to animal training and menageries.

From a Czech cultural policy standpoint, contemporary circus falls within the purview of the Ministry of Culture and, at regional level, under the administration of various municipal authorities; contemporary circus activities are generally administered as theatre, dance or nonverbal/physical theatre activities. Nevertheless, no currently active contemporary circus ensembles or organizations are state-subsidized entities, all of them belong to the non-profit NGO sector.

Czech Contemporary Circus History & Its Cultural Popularity
Brothers in Trick perform Funeral. Photo courtesy of Frantisek Ortmann

Czech contemporary circus is strongly linked to theatre; after all, it began with actors and with the theatrical notion of the stage metaphor. It is difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the relationship between Czech circus and theatre. It may well have occurred even before the rise of the Czech avant-garde of the 1920s. However, the key figure who successfully brought the two together appeared much later.

In 1974, the Czech actor, director, mime, clown and teacher Ctibor Turba erected a circus tent in Letná Park in Prague, a location once used for the big tops of traditional circus companies. Into this small patched-up circus tent the playwright placed a theatrical production entitledClowneries.

The production, inspired in part by Tristan Rémy’sClown Scenes, was composed of a series of individual acts, or independent sequences, which followed one another without causal or logical connection. The clown was presented as a human figure, a humanizing component of the circus world.

This was perhaps the first time that circus poetics appeared on the Czech stage in such a sophisticated conceptual form. The purpose of  Clowneries  was to communicate the circus topic and form in a theatrical dramatization of individual clown characters. The traditional circus area, i.e. the ring, was in effect transformed into a theatrical stage.

Theatre and circus were subsequently interlinked by the Forman Brothers Theater, which made use of circus both as a theme and as a principle to be shaped and transformed on the stage. A variety of circus forms are to be found in productions such as  La Baraque(1997) and  Obludárium(Freak Show, 2009).

Within the context of the development of Czech contemporary Circus, we should also mention the first of several productions by Continuo Theater, an international ensemble focusing on street and site-specific theater since 1992. In the 1990s, the ensemble began experimenting with new theatrical forms, in some ways approaching a contemporary circus format, especially when employing the circus arts as a means of theatrical depiction.

Currently, while contemporary circus may be considered a minor art form in the Czech Republic in terms of the number of ensembles and individual artists, it has achieved great popularity in terms of spectator interest. This is evidenced by the number of performances staged annually in the Czech Republic as well as by the growing number of cultural events featuring Czech contemporary circus. In spite of this, defining the Czech contemporary circus professional, i.e. a professional contemporary circus artist, remains problematic. There is currently no professional circus school in the Czech Republic capable of producing certified  experts in the field of circus arts.

Many contemporary circus artists hold university degrees from a range of areas outside of artistic or sports-related fields. However, in the past three years, the number of Czech students enrolled at international universities with accredited circus courses has increased; Czech students are now to be found at e.g. Codarts (University of the Arts) in Rotterdam or at AMoC (Academy for Modern Circus) in Copenhagen.

Unfortunately, no Czech university with a dramatic arts program (namely the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno) currently implements a program facilitating a full-fledged circus education. However, both academies do have a field of study which incorporates circus disciplines in preparation for a graduate’s professional career, whether it is in the area of pantomime, physical theater, drama or musical.

The Room, by Collective Momentum. Photo courtesy of Frantisek Ortmann

Interest in contemporary circus has been steadily increasing over the past decade. Several non-profit organizations implementing circus arts as leisure-time activities have emerged. In 2008, the Cirqueon Center for Contemporary Circus was established in Prague; it has since become the umbrella organization for contemporary circus in the entire Czech Republic. Its activities are dedicated to supporting and developing contemporary circus, in particular through international creative and educational projects and by providing information on contemporary circus events. It has a center which annually implements two semesters of circus courses. The center also includes a research and education department and a library and video collection focusing on the circus arts.

Kulturní dům Mlejn (Mlejn Culture center), a second organization dedicated to the leisure-time circus education of adults and children, provides cultural and educational activities for the Prague 13 district and beyond. Educational and creative activities are also taking place outside of Prague. Cirkus LeGrando, based in Brno at the Lužánky leisure center, was established in 2005 as an experimental project focusing on circus arts, street theatre, juggling and aerial acrobatics.

An Emerging Field

Although it is impossible to put an exact figure on the overall number of professional artists active in contemporary circus in the Czech Republic, there are most likely 60 to 80 Czechs and a small number of foreigners currently active in the field.  A survey, conducted by Cirqueon in 2017 and scheduled for publication by the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague in fall 2018, established that a majority of contemporary circus professionals participate in physical theater or dance projects. From a professional standpoint, contemporary circus constitutes a fluid environment populated by artists active in a range of other areas.

Most circus educators are to be found in Prague, especially around Cirqueon. The emergence of organizations supporting and developing the circus arts stems from popular demand and interest. There is also a growing need to establish a professional circus school in the Czech Republic, dedicated to educating circus professionals. In order to develop circus both as art and as craft, the Czech Republic requires a circus school. And while the function of such a facility may be supplemented by circus activities conducted by leisure centers in the short term, their capacity and pedagogical background cannot replace a professional educational institution.

A majority of currently active Czech contemporary circus ensembles emerged after 2009.Notable ensembles include Cirk La Putyka, active on the Czech contemporary circus scene ever since its 2009 productionLa Putyka, which turned into an international success story (especially after its showing at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival). Cirk La Putyka is the largest and currently most popular Czech ensemble professionally dedicated to contemporary circus.

The Hunt by Brothers in Trick. Photo courtesy of Frantisek Ortmann

In terms of the number of performers, Cirk La Putyka is matched only by Losers Cirque Company. Selecting performers from among the ranks of dancers and acrobats, Petr Horníček and Zdeněk Moravec established the Losers Cirque Company, whose activities began with the 2014 premiere ofLoser(s). Subsequent projects produced by the ensemble clearly point to a specific style, refined in collaboration with theatrical directors and dance choreographers. A cooperation with the directorial tandem SKUTR (Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský) and Jana Burkiewicz resulted inWalls & Handbags, a project merging dance and acrobatics. A third production,Beach Boy(s), was directed by Jiří Havelka and a fourth,Collapse, was produced in collaboration with director Tomsa Legierski.

Smaller ensembles include e.g. the artistically progressive Cirkus Mlejn, active since 2010. The ensemble is dedicated to staging original works exploring the various possibilities of scenic expression. Sources of inspiration include the visual arts, dance, physical theater and various extra-artistic movement activities. Cirkus Mlejn founder and art director Eliška Brtnická is also engaged in artistic research, currently within the scope of her doctoral studies at the Department of Nonverbal Theater at HAMU.

The Adam Jarchovský and Václav Jelínek juggling duo have been active in the Czech Republic since 2009. In 2010, they teamed up with Kristýna Vlčková, a tightrope walker,  juggler and graduate of the French circus school École de cirque de Bordeaux. This cooperation led to the establishment of The Trick Brothers ensemble and the production ofRiverside. This, as well as subsequent productions –Funeral(2016) andHunting(2018) – was developed in collaboration with stage director Veronika Poldauf Riedlbauchová. Adam Jarchovský and Václav Jelínek thus successfully transitioned from brief scenic projects (and street theatre) to full-length productions of a multidisciplinary nature.

The TeTy ensemble, consisting of Kateřina Klusáková a Pavla Rožníčková, is yet another Czech contemporary circus duo. Their productions – frequently humorous while maintaining a capacity for addressing serious topics such as interpersonal relationships – feature acts utilizing the vertical rope and double cloud swing as well as trapeze and aerial silks.

The Czech Republic has also become a creative base for e.g. the Czech–Swiss ensemble Compagnie des Pieds PerchĂ©s, whose primary domain is aerial and ground acrobatics. Although founders StĂ©phanie N’Duhirahe and Morgan Widmer are originally Swiss, they only met at the École supĂ©rieure des arts du cirque professional circus school in Brussels (ESAC).

In addition to the above mentioned ensembles, the following are all currently active in the Czech Republic: Holektiv, Squadra Sua, Amanitas Fire Theatre, Bilbo compagnie, Cirque Garuda, Divadlo Kufr, Long Vehicle Circus, Pa-Li-Tchi, Sacra circus, Vojta Vrtek, V.O.S.A. Theatre, Cink Cink Cirk, tYhle, VĂ­t Neznal a kol., and Feel the Universe Circus Company.

Brothers in Trick perform Funeral. Photo courtesy of Frantisek Ortmann

Unlike traditional circus, contemporary circus in the Czech Republic holds the status of a recognized art form. However, it is not firmly embedded in any single performance arts area. For example, ensembles presenting themselves as contemporary circus bodies are associated with either theater or dance in dealings with grant procedures administered by the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic.

As a field of human endeavor, contemporary circus in the Czech Republic may be generally regarded as artistically stabilized. This is evidenced by the number of performances annually shown in the Czech Republic as well as by the growing number of cultural events featuring Czech contemporary circus: the Letní Letná Contemporary Circus Festival, Cirkopolis Fest, Fun Fatale (all Prague), Cirk-UFF (Trutnov), a big top featuring an international circus program managed by National Theater Brno, etc.

As stated previously, the Czech Republic lacks a professional educational institution (be it a secondary or vocational school or university) capable of producing certified circus arts professionals. At present, Czech students interested in a circus arts education must enroll at a circus school abroad. By comparison, most currently active contemporary circus artists have been recruited from among Czech actors, dancers and athletes, or come from backgrounds not directly associated with either the arts or sports.Professionals are thus limited to various forms of self-education, master classes and workshops (frequently abroad), which they must fund themselves; the financial costs associated with acquiring an education – essential for any further development of the entire field – are thus significant.

Contemporary circus is undoubtedly an artistic area with enormous development potential in the Czech Republic. This is evidenced by audience demand (sold out performances in Prague and elsewhere) as well as by a significant degree of interest in circus-oriented leisure-time activities. However, the measure of interest is in no way matched by sufficient infrastructure capacity. But as the activity of Czech artists does not stop, it is quite likely that in a couple of years a the Czech circus academy will be established. To stay in the picture with what’s happening in the Czech contemporary circus, we will regularly bring you the news from the Czech contemporary circus field on CircusTalk.

Main image of Losers Cirque Company. Photo courtesy of Frantisek Ortmann.
Veronika Stefanova
Academic, Editor, Educator - Czech Republic
Veronika Štefanová holds a PhD from the department of theatre studies at Charles University in Prague, exploring contemporary circus as a dramatic art. She occasionally teaches at Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and is in charge of the circus magazine, library, documentation, and research at CIRQUEON, the umbrella organization for the support and development of contemporary circus in the Czech Republic.


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Veronika Stefanova

Veronika Štefanová holds a PhD from the department of theatre studies at Charles University in Prague, exploring contemporary circus as a dramatic art. She occasionally teaches at Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and is in charge of the circus magazine, library, documentation, and research at CIRQUEON, the umbrella organization for the support and development of contemporary circus in the Czech Republic.