Editor’s Fanfare Vol. II, No. 9

Waiting for Tomorrow

I will not be attending the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (The Circus of Tomorrow) in Paris this year.  I skipped it last year as well.  More than anything else these days, I have found the performances there disappointing and depressing.

The editorial thrust of Spectacle, both in its print and online version, has been on creative  innovation.  I championed the inclusion of other forms of the performing and theatrical arts into the performances of what came to be known as the “noveau cirque”.  What seems to be happening now, or at least  a good deal of what I have observed at the Cirque de Demain performances, is a stripping away of anything that smacks of artifice.  Instead of a glorious celebration of the triumph of the human body over gravity and physical limitations, the circus of tomorrow looks  increasingly self-conscious and self-absorbed and often downright pretentious.  The mood has grown progressively darker, the artists are more interested in introspective naval picking than connecting with the audience.  Despite the sometimes elevated level of skill, thanks to the various circus schools around the world, many new, young artists have striven to convince us that they are perfectly ordinary people we might encounter on the street.  To do this their costumes at best look like everyday street clothes or are in shades of black on black, the gloomy “Goth” look.

I understand that in any emerging art form, and the contemporary circus qualifies as such, certain of these qualities are almost inescapable as the art strives for legitimacy.  As a theatre critic I saw the Black Theatre movement go through a period like this, and it wasn’t until August Wilson burst upon the scene with his series of plays that the pretentions were lost.  He didn’t have to pretend to art.  He made it.  So I will wait it out until the circus of tomorrow reaches that state and abandons a self-defeating attitude that is perfectly captured in the title of Duncan Wall’s book, The Ordinary Acrobat.

I don’t think many people go to the circus today or will tomorrow to find ordinary acrobats or to hear Proust recited by a juggler.  As with most circus audiences I want to see the extraordinary.  I want to see a circus performance that proudly puts itself forward, shamelessly spectacular, joyfully  extraordinary.

Another problem the Paris festival has to deal with is filling two expansive programs.  As a result there is a surfeit of certain disciplines.  In recent years hand balancing has superseded silks or fabric acts as the dominant form, presented either as solos or in partnerships.  The second most popular act is juggling.   Such programming  makes the circus of tomorrow look rather monotonous.  When the hand to hand acts are male/female duos, they tend to suggest a violence toward women that is not very appealing.  They are using a circus skill to shock in an emotional rather than a visceral way.  It’s not so much a question of “how did they do that? “ but rather “why did they do that?”

Instead of looking into a future that seems more grim than glorious, I prefer the performances of such innovative circuses as Circus Oz, Cirque Mechanic, the Big Apple Circus  and Circus Flora.  None of these circuses’ performances look anything like the circus of yesterday, but neither has any of them  totally rejected the traditions that first drew me to the circus in my youth.  Ringling must also be included in this  group of creative innovators.  And judging from early reports out of its new headquarters in Florida. it will be the true circus of tomorrow as soon as next year.

It seems ironic to me that in attempting to be cerebral, many contemporary circus artists have adapted the ideas of certain movements in the art and literary worlds that are dated and have been essentially discarded.

So I will wait for the circus of tomorrow to get here—tomorrow when it will have sorted out what it wants to be.  In the meantime, I am happy to enjoy the circus of today.  When you purposefully lose the circus’ inherent glamour and excitement, you lose me.

If I were to predict what the circus of tomorrow is going to look like, I would say it is going to be far more technologically sophisticated than it is now, but it is already moving in that direction.  Tradition will be supported mainly by the smaller, tent shows.


This issue continues our survey of the circus’ music men and women. This time we are featuring Rob Slowik, conductor and musical director of the Big Apple Circus, whose musical experiences go far beyond the circus.

Our second feature comes from my friend and colleague Liz Arratoon, who is the circus critic for London’s theatrical newspaper The Stage.  She takes on a ride on the Wall of Death.

There is also a review of yet another example of the circus arts teaming up with another art form, specifically symphony orchestras.  The nice thing here is that the orchestra came to the Frequent  Flyers aerial dance group and asked for their participation in a unique concert of a single piece.  It shows that the other performing arts are finally embracing the circus as a legitimate cousin.