Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI, No. 5

Fighting for the Circus’ Good Name


When I first began publishing Spectacle magazine nearly twenty years ago, one of the first Editor’s Fanfare dealt with the negative connotations of the word “circus” carried in the popular imagination.  I suggested the circus community fight back with something akin to the Anti-Defamation League, taking to task anyone who used the word “circus” in a negative way, and there were plenty of examples to be found in the media almost every day.

I can’t help wonder if there is any other entity, but for the circus, which in popular usage is depicted in the abstract as negative but in concrete reality is both embraced and loved.

Of course sometimes the circus or rather its artists are their own worst enemy. Is there any other art form in which the artists beg for applause, as almost every high wire act I have ever seen anywhere in the world, but for the Wallendas, does?

The circus community not being one much given to cooperating with one another on any issue never took up the challenge of rebutting negative usage, and merely grumbled about how the circus, in contrast to the negative connotations, was the most organized enterprise to be found anywhere on earth. Now twenty years later the circus is still grumbling, but at least it began discussing the problem, which it did at an NEA sponsored panel that I moderated in Washington, D.C. recently.  The panel members were Paul Binder who spoke about the difficulty the Big Apple Circus faced in its earliest years convincing the NEA that the circus was a legitimate art form.  Dominique Jando spoke about how much of the public mistakenly conflate the circus with carnivals or see it as an entertainment strictly for kids.  David Carlyon spoke about how the current ferment may help sort out what “circus” has meant, means and can mean in the future. Stephanie Monseu spoke about the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus’ effort to combine all forms of variety entertainment, all of which she saw as legitimate art forms.

The ferment David Carlyon alluded to is the new, New Circus. (I use the double “new” because the circus has already passed through one period when it saw the emergence of the first New Circus.) The advocates of this new circus insist it is indeed a legitimate art form capable of being both emotional and intellectual.  Like any emerging art form—I think of the Black Theatre movement and modern ballet—it takes itself very seriously, which often leads to a certain level of pretentiousness that can be very off-putting.  Many of these new performances come with lengthy program notes that ostensibly elucidate the idea that the performance was  trying to put across.  The longer these notes become the more inaccessible the intention tends to be. Without such notes many of these performances look a lot like the old, new circus.

But we must give these new circuses credit for trying. When they succeed, they do so quite gloriously and often quite movingly.

The other approach certain segments of the circus community have taken is to wrap itself in some form of legitimacy that has been tried by some of the circus schools and training programs. In order to win academic validity, and thereby some artistic merit as well; some of these programs have tried to piggyback their work with accredited academic institutions.  This has had limited succeed, both insofar as sustaining such relationships and enrolling students.

And so the circus keeps trying to save its good name. All of those who participated in the NEA panel agreed that further discussion is necessary, and perhaps the advocates of the new, New Circus will help to bring about some changes in the way the public sees the contemporary circus.  We will wait and see.