Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VII, No. 8

From the Big Top to the Opera House

If we were to look at the path trod by the American circus from its beginnings to the present time, we would see how  this unique form of entertainment moved from  being presented in semi-permanent buildings into tents, and then into bigger tents and from there into even bigger tents and finally back into buildings, considerably larger than the ones in which it started.  The pace of these changes has recently accelerated at an alarming rate, and the path into the future has been made uncertain by the departure of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from the field of play.  Despite that loss a certain hope for the future can be seen and sensed in recent developments, so that what once seemed a disaster may eventually turn out to be a victory of sorts.  To get a sense of that we would do well to look to the opera house where the circus’ future has the potential of being  more glorious and rewarding than anyone could ever have suspected.  This move into a new venue may not be so far-fetched as it might seem, for there is growing evidence that this is where the circus will eventually find renewed glory.

The opera house has been  a goal to which the circus, perhaps not consciously, but in its secret heart has always aspired.  Its first expression can be found in P.T. Barnum’s efforts to upgrade the circus’ public image.  He couldn’t get his circus into an opera house, but he could dress it up with the trappings of the opera house hoping to suggest a favorable comparison.  As early as 1880 he set 10,000 luxurious opera chairs in place under his big top and dressed the staff that dealt with the public in new civic and military uniforms.  Apparently it worked.  By 1884 his success in raising the stature of the circus was plainly evident to the press which reported Barnum’s audience to be filled with  nothing less than “a throng of opera goers, philharmonic frequenters, theatre patrons, lovers of music and the drama, people prominent in society and professional circles, leaders of fashion and men and women foremost in all that pertain to the life and material interests of Brooklyn.”  Having to face denunciations from pulpits across the land,  Barnum was attempting to make the circus as unassailable as the opera.

Looking at the Big Apple Circus Big Top from the Lincoln Center Plaza. The Met is to the right. Photo by Paul Gutheil.

The closest the circus ever came to achieving that goal came many years later when the Big Apple Circus moved into Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park right next door to the Metropolitan Opera House, giving it greater cache, and the show never missed an opportunity to exploit its position shoulder to shoulder to one of the world’s great cultural institutions.  Ever since the flirtation with high art has grown increasingly more intense.

Why the opera house?  Because it has proven the surest way of increasing the stature of the circus art, earning it respect and acceptance as a true art form.  Opera is probably the closest thing in the pantheon of high art that most resembles the circus.  It is an art form that has much in common with the circus.  Both are virtuosic, spectacular and both project an elevation of the human spirit that goes beyond ordinary human experience.

So it seems only natural that even before moving into the opera house circus artists began borrowing elements of operatic production.  Vilen Golovko of the Flying Cranes once told me he hoped to stage a new flying act to the music of Philip Glass, a serious composer.  Sasha Pavlata who worked with both the Big Apple and Circus Flora loved  staging his aerial acts to operatic music.  Many of the acts of the spectacles staged by the Canadian National Circus School use operatic music to amplify their effect, and   Dolly Jacobs ‘much admired aerial act is performed to the operatic solos sung by Andrea  Bocelli.

The next move the circus made in realizing the ultimate goal of playing in an opera house came in the mid ’80s when Karen Gersch and her Symfunny Circus  shared the stage with numerous symphony orchestras across America.  Joining forces with a revered cultural treasure was the next best thing to being in the opera house itself.    Cirque Èloize was the next to produce a performance in  collaboration with such an institution.  It has been followed at various times by Circus Flora and Cirque Mechanic and others of whom I am unaware.  Most recently Circus Sarasota has done these productions one better, staging an annual event after their regular season, dubbed Cirque des Vox.   It combines circus acts with a symphony orchestra and a choral ensemble.

Finally the opera house and its equivalents in performing arts centers around the country began inviting the circus onto their stages.

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music I have attended performances of Sweden’s  Cirkus Cirkor, James Theirre’s  The Frog and the Toad, Switzerland’ s Daniele  Finzi Pasca has been represented there with his surrealistic Verita,  and most recently Australia’s Circa staged their production Humans.  All of these circus oriented productions appeared, in recent seasons,  as part of BAM’s New Wave series.

Waves have been much in the news of late.  Hopefully we are seeing the beginnings of the circus’ New Wave.

That which has been good enough for  such a prestigious opera house has also been a frequent visitor to similar venues such as NYU’s  Kirball Cultural Center, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre and many other such local venues throughout the country are happy to host productions of  Canada’s  7 Fingers and Cirque Èloize, both of which play these venues consistently.  In addition France’s Compagnie XY was seen in the Frederick P. Rose Hall of the highly regarded Time Warner Center in New York City, and  Cirque Mechanic is on the verge of touring such centers as well.

When these companies play the grand halls of America they always attract large audiences, often playing to sellouts, and the reaction of audiences, as I have seen first hand,  is a delight to behold.  It is as if they are seeing these skills performed for the first time, and, of course, many of them are.  In any case they seem blown away by the revelation of the skill level and artistry the circus arts bring to these cultutal centers.  Invariably the artists  are greeted at the end of their performance by rousing standing ovations.

Do I need to point out that only one of these companies noted above is American? America needs to do more to nourish and encourage the establishment  of home grown companies comparable to these imports , and they must do it by creating high quality training programs capable of producing world class artists.   In the meantime we have the visitors to inspire us as the great theaters of America stand ready to welcome the American circus when it is ready.

All this seems a natural progression for any art form.  When the vaudeville circuit disappeared from American stages, the skills and talent that graced them did not disappear. Tap dancers, singers and comics adapted their talent for use in other forms of the performing arts and gained added stature thereby.   I think it is not unrealistic to expect the same will happen with the circus arts.

What is the likelihood of circuses playing such venues more often in the future? As the productions become more artistic, that is to say as they become the kind of  ensembles I have suggested in the previous Editor’s Fanfare, and as they develop more theatrical means of presentation as Cirque du Soleil has done, the opera houses will be eager to have them on their stages.  And it will be in the opera house that the circus will find the new audiences it needs to survive.