Book Review Vol. II, No. 3

French Circus Dominates New Book

The Ordinary Acrobat  by Duncan Wall formerly Kevin Wall, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York price $26.95 ISBN/EAN 978-0-307-27172-3.

Kevin Wall, who has taken the nom de plume of Duncan as author of this combination memoir and circus history, confesses to have given the circus little if any thought when he was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri.  The one circus his father insisted on taking the family to left him feeling dispirited.  In thinking about that event later, he came to realize “I first encountered the circus at an historical low point.”  A few years later, as part of his college education he spent a year in Paris studying theatre.  As part of his school’s “cultural excursions” he and his fellow students were sent to a circus.  It turned out to be a transformative experience.

What the young Wall had encountered was one of those French circuses that I would probably  have called self-consciously poetic, self-absorbed, and pretentious.   But it was sufficiently appealing to the young student to make him want to see and learn more about this new form of artistry.  He had, in fact, fallen in love with this new kind of circus.

In America, Wall suggests that circus addicts are known as “gawks,” but in French they are known as “circophiles.” His own “circophilia” as he calls it, reached its peak just before he was to return to the States, from his year aboard.  It was at this point that he discovered a trapeze workshop, where he learned of a national circus school, and becomes determined to return to France to see and learn even more about his new love.

His return is made possible thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship to study contemporary circus in Paris where he was soon enrolled in one of the feeder schools that prepared students to audition for the National Circus School.  Once there his passion for the contemporary circus leads him to explore its origins and history. Along the way he meets and interviews European jugglers, acrobats, and clowns about their art.  While the history he discovers is familiar territory to those who fall into the category of “gawks” or circophiles, his conversations with circus artists is much more revelatory.

In the interest of full disclosure I must confess that I am a character, one of those circophiles, along with Hovey Burgess and Dominique Jando, whom I introduced to Wall at the Clown Bar in Paris during one of the festivals there.  This encounter took place during his quest to retrace the path the circus has traveled from its beginnings, to its debasement and artistic resurgence.  Mainly it is Pascal Jacob, who taught circus history at the circus school in Paris to whom Wall repeatedly turns for guidance and interpretation of the facts he has garnered during this time.   Jacob may be known to American “gawks” as the costume designer of Barnum’s Kaleidoscape and two editions of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.  Through their various meetings Wall came to think of Jacob, he says, as his circus Virgil.  It was he, more than anyone else he met during his sojourn in Paris, who intellectualized the circus.

In that respect the book may be more meaningful to Francophiles than to circophiles. The circus, he says, spoke volumes about what it meant to be French to him, and he wonders why it became so popular in France.  It, therefore, seem inevitable that in trying to recapture some of his encounters with various artists that he would insert some French phrases into his conversations, some of which are translated and others that are not.

One other idiosyncrasy is worth noting.  In referring to circus performers whose gender has not previously been specified, he uses the third person feminine pronoun “she” as for instance in “an acrobat must be well trained so that she can perform at the highest level.”  This is neither grammatically nor politically correct, but it may in fact reflect a growing gender disparity in youth circuses today, where the ratio of girls to boys is heavily stacked in favor of girls.

Wall concludes with the observation that in France “The circus is open to everyone and you don’t even need to work that hard to get in.”  That may be the French circus’ best and worst recommendation.