The Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI, No. 4

Whither Thou Goest

The future of the circus in America, I think, depends more on demographics and to a certain extent geography than any other factor in determining the form the circus of the future will take and the level of success it will enjoy. These factors will determine what kind of circus one is likely to see and where.

Paul 5

Urban areas and larger suburban areas, especially those associated with a college or university where one is most likely to find a performing arts center will see circuses designed to be presented on a stage in a theatrical environment. Such shows as those currently being produced by the Canadian companies 7 Fingers and Cirque Eloize, the Australian Circus Oz and the only U.S. based company that qualifies as the same sort of Noveau or New circus, Cirque Mechanic.  7 Fingers is the most prolific of these companies at the current time at least insofar as the amount of new production they continue to mount. I think all of these companies will enjoy a position that will come the closest the circus will get in earning main stream acceptance at least in the venues we are talking about here.  To these we should also add the ubiquitous Chinese acrobatic troupes that tour the United States almost endlessly.

It is interesting to note that two of the seven original founders of 7 Fingers, who have turned out to be the major creative forces in that ensemble are American citizens. That they chose to plant their new circus in Canada tells us a lot of about the state of the American circus at the time of its founding and even today.

The venues noted above will also see smaller, under financed circuses emerge periodically particularly in those areas of the country that have shown that they are hospitable to experimental theatre. These include such areas as New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  The prospects of such companies establishing any long-standing tenures, given the financial challenges such companies face seems unlikely, especially given this country’s reluctance to fund the arts with public money.  Thus they stand little chance of making any kind of appreciable impact over an extended period of time, unless, of course, they happened to be located in a major city like New York and manage to exhibit the same sort of dogged determination that the people who created and manage to maintain the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a so=called boutique circus that has managed to survive and even show signs of thriving at times.

In looking at the various kinds of circuses currently enjoying some level of success, however, no single format currently dominates nor is likely to in the foreseeable future, just as neither the old-fashioned traditional circus, which we have yet to look at, nor the New Circus is likely to win any converts from the other. It’s just another way in which this country is divided culturally.

Where exactly the Big Apple Circus will fit in with this has yet to be determined. New management has indicated that it will undertake more extensive touring than the show had done in the recent past, but how far it will go geographically and whether or not it will be performed under canvas is certainly an open question. Under the previous management the few attempted forays into the heartland were met with disappointing results.  Of course, this time out, the Big Apple will feature Nik Wallenda who may prove to be the kind of draw other Big Apple productions lacked. Its Lincoln Center engagement will be under a big top because there is nowhere else in that arts campus to put it.  What the show does after that remains to be seen.  It has the potential to be the most prestigious American circus what with Ringling gone from the field, but how long it can sustain popular acceptance as a for profit venture is an open question.  Certainly no circus of any sort is going to match Ringling’s 146 years.

The only other American big top circuses of note, Carson and Barnes and the Kelly Miller Circus have not demonstrated much interest in taking on the challenge of playing major cities, and so this is where geography and demographics come most strongly into play. Their audiences will be made up of very young children, brought to the show by young parents who feel it is their duty to take their kids to the circus—once.  These kids will, more than likely, make one visit to a circus in their lifetime and they will be joined at that time by an ever dwindling adult audience for whom the past exerts a strong nostalgic pull.

The aversion these tented shows have already shown to playing before more sophisticated audiences pretty much leaves that demographic to Cirque du Soleil, whose audience, analysis has determined, is the same audience that patronizes dance and the theatre. But even when Cirque du Soleil is added to the shows that tour arts centers it means that no audience will be seeing a circus styled performance with any regularity.  No city can expect an annual visit from any of these offerings.

Another question facing circuses is where the best acts and individual artists will come from. The latter will be graduates of the various important circus schools in Canada, France, Australia, the Ukraine and Russia.  The most spectacular acts will come out of Russia and in particular China which is one of the few countries in the world that subsidizes circus artists.  These artists, however, will have to rely on employment in the largest of European circuses to maintain an ongoing career.

There are, of course, numerous training centers in America on all levels, ranging from the professional (The New England Center for Circus Arts and San Francisco’s Circus Center)  to the pre-professional and the numerous local youth circuses and social programs, all struggling to gain some distinction.  While the youth circuses are enjoying increasing popularity,  but for some significant exceptions like Circus Harmony, Circus Juventas and Circus Smirkus, they are more significant as recreational outlets than as a source of future talent. However large the enrollment of these ever proliferating programs may be, in my view, they have only a tenuous connection to the professional circus and have failed to help expand in any meaningful way a circus-going public inclined to seek out and attend professional circuses.  The other problem for these programs is the lack of qualified trainers and coaches to bring them to the professional level.

A curious phenomenon observable in those grass root programs that engage in some level of training is that the majority of their students are studying aerial arts, fabrics in particular, producing a glut on the market so the only place for them to go is into training other aerial artists. (A criticism that has been laid at the feet of university theatre programs for many years.) Many of these programs have established their own companies whose public performances are aimed at a niche market of similarly inclined performers.

The exceptions I have noted are exceptional because they have all inspired the young performers they have trained and nurtured to go on and become professionals who have developed exceptional skill. Otherwise the skill level demonstrated by most youth circuses is at a relatively low level.

Much of what the future will bring in regard to the circus, I think, depends on one’s definition of circus. As all of this must suggest I am not particularly optimistic about the future of the circus as exemplified by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that I have known and loved for my entire life.  There will always be various entertainments that have some relation to what the circus once was, but I don’t foresee any one taking the place of what has been lost in the way that the name Ringling meant to the entire concept we all called Circus.

But, and this is a big but, as a professional theatre and circus critic for 50 years, what has always kept me going was the anticipation that anytime I sat down in a theatre, arena or big top, I could be surprised and delighted by something I had never seen before. Perhaps another such “something” will bring us a circus as surprising as it is unexpected.

The European circus scene shows much more encouraging signs of vitality, especially for the new style circus, as demonstrated in the communique from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that appears in the FYI pages of this issue. How much of that will reach the U.S. seems to depend on the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Skirball Center of New York University as noted above.