Contemporary circus – a rebel or a continuator?
The origins of contemporary circus (known as “cirque nouveau”) have been lost somewhere in the mists of the 1970’s. Most often it is believed to have been born in France, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The most important thing is that contemporary circus tries to convey a theme or a story, in contrast to the traditional circus which fails to present a story of any kind, usually comprising a set of acts of consecutive artists. Contemporary circus shows try to tell a story using circus and juggling disciplines as the narrative language. Other differences enumerated most often include only occasional use of animal acts and presentation of performances outside the circus tent.
To begin with, it should be noted straight away that these differences began to be pointed out in order to define the new phenomenon rather than to determine basic constituents of the new form. There is no aesthetic manifesto or set of innovative theories laying the grounds for its existence and there is no charismatic figure setting out rules of the new movement. Few people realize that the cirque nouveau phenomenon has not emerged in the opposition to modern circus in general, but only to the fossilized form of its latest incarnation (the so called traditional circus). Contemporary circus surviving to present times has had a number of incarnations.
Speaking about the departure of the modern circus from the concept of a tent (the word ‘circus’ does not describe the tent as such but it comes from Ancient Rome where a circus referred to a building enclosing the hippodrome; in modern times the word ‘circus’ was used for the first time by the Franconi brothers in 1806) and the circus ring (also in the mental sense – the entire order and ritual of a circus show), and choosing the street or a theatre as the new venue, we should consider the reasons for taking such a direction. Holding a performance inside a circus tent involves a number of conditions which from the point of view of a single small-scale performance are physically impossible to met (the circus tent should be erected from scratch, an amphitheatre and the stage should be constructed and the character of the interior carries some quite specific restrictions). It is quite simply easier and less expensive to do the show in a rented theatrical hall or simply in the street. It should be mentioned that the difference between a traditional circus and modern circus has become entirely outdated over the past few years. Large modern circus troupes and circus companies have generally begun to return to circus tents as a presentation space, and it has not only been a question of venue – this return affected the shift from a stationary to travelling character of circuses, moving, as before, with their own tents erected in successive cities. The only difference lies in the fact that circuses are usually invited to festivals and have a previously contracted number of shows. Therefore, current trends observed in the West are perceived rather as a return to the traditional space and mode of operation which is of course adjusted to the new situation.
Another difference put in the first place and treated by some as the major difference between traditional and modern circuses – and being a kind of manifestation and objection against the traditional circus, consists in the abandonment of animal acts and the use of animals whatsoever as a part of their performances. Actually, it is really hard to say whether the fathers of contemporary circus abandoned animals and animal acts to express their objection against the physical suffering of tamed animals or only because performing animals are a poor narrative means (it provides limited narrative capabilities). When presenting this argument, it should be remembered that there are troupes and artists belonging to the cirque nouveau movement whose performances feature animal acts and prove a great success.
The main difference which, in my opinion, should be highlighted in particular is the changes in approach to circus and juggling disciplines originated by the contemporary circus movement. Cirque nouveau initiated the opening of the closed and fossilized forms and disciplines. There was an outburst of sorts. Activities that used to be tightly fixed to the circus arena, such as acrobatics, juggling and clown acts, have become extremely popular forms of entertainment, losing their aura of uniqueness (or even mysticism) to the benefit of wide availability, gaining however a freshness and extreme reach.
It seems that in order to discover the origins of the cirque nouveau movement, we should begin our search from individual artists – circus performers who have had enough of doing the same acts over and over again. Artistic nature got the better of them and as professionals with unique skills they simply started to use them as a means to convey stories.
Circus is therefore new in the sense that a parent taking their child to a circus tent may be disappointed (or pleasantly surprised) to watch renderings of contemporary texts instead of successive acts of middle-aged jugglers dressed in funny leotards.
It seems that contemporary circus is just a topical circus that corresponds to the spirit of our times. Contemporary circus, as well as other areas of art and culture, continues to develop, search for and surpass subsequent limits. It is just the circus of our times.
Still not known in our country, it has been instilled in Western popular culture and continues to set further aesthetic, cultural and social trends and directions, just as it used to do before.
By: Rafał Sadownik