Editor’s Fanfare Vol. II, No. 2

Looking Into the Future

On Thursday, January 31, I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.  It was held  in conjunction with their fine exhibit “Circus and the City.”  The title of the discussion was “Suspended in Thin Air:  Future of Circus in America.”

In addition to myself, the panelists were Dominique Jando, formerly of the Big Apple Circus, now associated with the Circus Center of San Francisco and Keith Nelson founder and director of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.  Both of these men expressed a good deal of pessimism about the circus’ future in America, despite my own view that the circus of today is more vibrant, more varied and more interesting than it has ever been.  As evidence I offered the following.

Since I began publishing Spectacle magazine, first  in a print format now in digital, I have watched the circus change in ways that the American circus I described in my book The New American Circus in 1995, would be almost unrecognizable.

We have seen numerous and significant outcroppings of what Kenneth Feld once called  boutique circuses.  Companies like Cirque Mechanic, 7 Fingers, and Cirque Eloise now regularly tour the United States and the world, staging their shows in prestigious art centers and theatres.   We have seen specialized circuses like the all-aerial circus Les Arts Saut and equestrains shows like Cavalia, as well as shows aimed principally at African-American audiences like UniverSoul Circus, thus expanding audiences in general.

Countless smaller companies and individuals survive on playingcircus-based  corporate gigs where suddenly the circus is a popular form of entertainment.

Circus schools, principally the The Circus Center in San Francisco and the New England Center for Circus are providing pre to professional training.  In addition we have seen a proliferation of youth circuses, like Circus Harmony, Circus Juventas, Circus Smirkus, Redlands and Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana, who also provide ore-professional-level training and whose performances rival those of the much more heavily financed shows.  These new youth programs seem to be springing up exponentially all over America.

Ringling has adapted to changing tastes and experience by bringing out entirely new shows each season, and Cirque du Soleil, despite recent news of cut backs in personnel, keeps sending out new productions to tour the world or entertain audiences in Las Vegas.  Cirque Productions (not associated with Soleil) also continues to gain a larger and larger share of the market.

All this can only mean one thing:  the public’s interest in the circus and circus performances is increasing, and that certainly bodes well for the circus’ future.

But, of course, there is reason for some degree of caution if not pessimism.  Jando’s view, one that he has espoused for the past several years now, is that the students graduating from the various training programs around the country and even those around the world are not sufficiently trained to be top-ranked circus artists.  Their training lacks the discipline, experience, and skill level achieved by the old Moscow Circus School of which Jando’s wife Elena Panova is a notable product.  So he is not optimistic that these graduates will make any great positive impact on the circus of the future, except for those snapped up by Cirque du Soleil.

Nelson, an independent producer, has understandably been frustrated by the difficulty of funding his projects.  The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities has explicitly written off the circus (lumping it with carnival) as having no possibility of gaining funding, and the local and state arts councils have more or less followed suit.  So entrepenuers like Nelson have had to try to go around this exclusion by finding educational programs that can be funded and at least provide them with some income and work.

To make matters worse the federal government has no equivalent of what we find in many European countries, a Minister of Culture, whose function is to promote and protect the arts including circus.  So the circus must go it alone and win respect one production at a time.

The one note of optimism came from panelist Amy Cohen, executive director of the American Youth Circus Organization.   That organization is continually gaining new members and its consitutents are creatively engaged in fighting the battles of funding and raising the skill of its participants.

Another thing that is missing in American, noted by choreographer Jonathan Cerullo,  is the branding of circus.  Ringling and Soleil have done that with their own individual products, but nothing has been done on a broader scale as has happened with the theater and the branding of Broadway.  The problem here is that there is no one organization that has the wherewithal or passion to mount such a coherent project with the unstinting backing of all its member circuses.

The Bard event was very well attended by a variety of people who have a vested interest in seeing the American circus grow and prosper, and the exhibit “Circus and the City,”  curated by Matthew Wittmann has proven to be a popular attraction with New Yorkers and other visitors, drawing more than 20,000 people during the course of its run.  And that, too, is another sign of health for the circus and hope for its future.


Print vs. Digitial

Many people have told me how much they miss the print version of Spectacle.  I share their feelings, but recognize that in this new format the magazine’s audience has tripled and expanded in almost all parts of the world , most of which were out of the reach of the print version.  The only consolation I can offer those who would like to read the magazine in bed is that others have told me that it is possible to down load each issue, and in that way it can be perused at one’s leisure.

The feature story in this issue, an interview with the Monte Carlo festival’s technical director, Enrico Caroli, provides a bit of a preview to that event with more to come.

Coming Attractions

In the next issue I will review the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival and present an extensive photo gallery from that event.  there will also be reviews of Circus Sarasota and other shows and events.