Book Review Vol. V – No. 5

Circus Scholarship Wants to be Taken Seriously

The press release accompanying a copy of Cirque Global Quebec’s Expanding Circus Boundaries. Edited by Louis Patrick Leroux and Charles R. Batson informs us that it is the first book-length study of this new variety of circus and its international impact.  (Well, that’s debatable, except perhaps for the part about international impact.) The eighteen contributors, the notice continues, “offer critical perspectives on this rapidly developing art form and its aesthetics, ethics, business practices, pedagogical implications and discursive significations. (Even in the press release it can’t help but deal with linguistic convolutions.) Essays explore creative, entrepreneurial and cultural forces that are shaping Quebec’s dynamic nouveau cirque.  It is a definitive study and an important model for future research on contemporary circus.” (Heaven forbid)

Interestingly about half of the fifteen essays happen to come from female authors who are trying to earn their academic chops by planting their flag in a field heretofore largely ignored by scholars. That goal and the publication of this book are heavily subsidized by Canadian governmental and educational agencies.

Given that kind of support Cirque Global can’t help but be a rather chauvinistic investigation of the influence Cirque du Soleil and its spin-off circuses like Cirque Eloize and 7 Fingers as well as the Canadian National Circus School have had around the world, although it is more interested, it sometimes seems, in legitimizing the academic study of circus and circus history than providing any compelling argument to support its sub title.

All this reminds me of the struggle certain academics undertook to establish women’s and black studies in their early days when they were fighting to win recognition as legitimate, serious academic studies. As a result the discussion tends to be pretentious, struggling for recognition by inventing a seemingly esoteric vocabulary of complex words made up from simple words that would not vault the discussion onto the required level of academia.

Take for instance “privileges polyvalence.”  “Privileges” I presume is meant to mean “emphasizes.”  This usage has been rather fashionable of late in certain academic circles.  Then there is “Geographic situatedness,” or how about “Exogenous shocks become rigidified.”?  Rigid is presumably not lofty enough so the author has chosen to make an adjective out of a word that is already an adjective. Then there is  “Purposive activities.”  Once again the lowly “purposeful” is not good enough. Or try “complexifying” instead of “ making complex.”  There is reference made to the “hermeneutic field of poetics,” which is  the art or science of the interpretation of scripture.  “Originary” is  used twice, instead of original, but “performative exceptionalism” appears only once.  “Circus topoic” refers to a place  name derived from the name of a place.” “Oneirical” means of or pertaining to dreams.  The list goes on with “the first intimist show” rather than a plain old “intimate” one.   “Indigeneity,” turns up in a discussion of the Cirque show Totem.

While all these obscure words are left “purposively” obscure, the editors ironically feel the need to define common circus terminology so A Glossary of Circus Terms has been added to a book about circus.

Some of the chapters or essays are more informative than others on a practical level of providing greater understanding or insights into what the nouveau circus is up to. But for the most part the earliest essays provide no cogent argument.  Instead the reader is presented with a series of generalizations without any specific evidence to support them relying on the popularly held and accepted reputations.  Supporting material  is replaced by quoting other members of this coterie of circus scholars, making for an inbred, sterile argument.  It is not until the later essays that the text makes reference to specific shows or acts or concrete business maneuvers.

There is a familiar history of Cirque’s founding that has appeared earlier in other texts, like my own The New American Circus in 1995, followed by a fascinating history of Canadian circuses appearing in the U.S. Two of the more interesting and earth-bound essays deal with the history of circuses in Canada and includes a lengthy list of American circuses to have played Canada  between 1846 and 1967. Another by Susan Bennett describes in concrete terms and facts and figures, the economic effect Cirque du Soleil has had on specific American cities like Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, California.

One of the more fascinating histories, which will come as a surprise to American readers deals with Cirque du Soleil’s attempt to turn Montreal into the Las Vegas of the North. Yet another history documents the events that led to Cirque du Soleil’s fortuitous Chinese connection.

I also found the chapter contrasting the aesthetics of Cirque du Soleil and 7 Fingers, the company it spawned, whose aesthetics (a fact more or less ignored) were heavily influenced by two Americans, Gypsy Snider and Shana Carroll of interest. But then this study is heavily funded by Canadian interests.