Feature Article Vol. VI, No. 6

THE GREAT AMERICAN CIRCUS FEST

 by Dominique Jando

SmithsonianFF17 ©MaikeSchulz 002

It has been dubbed “The Circus’s Woodstock”. For ten days, from June 27 to July 10, circus professionals, educators, scholars, students, and aficionados converged on Washington, D.C. to participate in the 50th anniversary edition of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which this year celebrated the Circus. It was certainly the largest circus gathering ever organized in the United States, and it happened at a time when many questions were raised about the State of the circus in this country—although the planning of the Festival had begun long before the unexpected closures of Cole Bros., the Big Apple Circus, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Orchestrated by Preston Scott with assistance from the Circus Museum of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, the Festival gathered about 975 participants—a large number of whom stayed at the Key Bridge Marriott, in Arlington, which also hosted, at the same time, the Circus Historical Society convention. Needless to say, the hotel’s lobby, bar and restaurant were quickly transformed each evening into a vast circus social club where participating guests met each other, renewed old friendships, created new ones, exchanged ideas, held long-winded conversations on the state of the circus world, and of course indulged in good old circus gossip that gave late gatherings at the bar some added spice.

On the grounds, on the National Mall, it was however all work. Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs had set up Circus Sarasota’s beautiful big top, which offered daily performances given by the students of several circus schools (notably Sarasota’s Circus Arts Conservatory, Jessica Hentoff’s Circus Harmony from St. Louis, Missouri, and Saint Paul’s spectacular Circus Juventas, which presented excerpts of its show, Wonderland), and, in the evening, a high-quality professional circus show. This pure circus entertainment culminated on the last day with the beautiful Cirque des Voix, a collaborative effort between Circus Sarasota and Key Chorale—a Sarasota-based one-hundred-strong choir whose conductor, Joseph Caulkins, would make a wonderful ringmaster!

The shows, given free of charge, were not limited to the big top: San Francisco’s Circus Bella (rightful heir to the old Pickle Family Circus), New York’s own Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Atlanta’s Imperial OPA Circus, the charming and funny Happenstance Theater of clowns Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster, among many others, gave performances in various venues around the Mall, including the old Arts and Industries building which also housed circus training demonstrations and workshops, including a Swinging Trapeze Intro workshop given by Elena Panova. Tino Wallenda and his high-wire troupe, and a small acrobatic troupe from the Province of Heibei, in China, performed outdoors, amidst a collection of stages and booths attracting a huge crowd of visitors (around 600,000 in ten days), and covering all aspects of the circus kaleidoscope, from the fabled “Two Hemispheres” bandwagon and the “Circus Cookhouse” (which combined cooking recipes and circus anecdotes…) to the juggling school and the flying trapeze demo—led by trapeze legend Miguel Caceres, from New York’s Circus Warehouse.

On the “brainy” side, two booths deserve a special mention: first, Jeff Raz’s “Clown Alley” (always count on clowns to be the true intellectuals of the circus world), and the “Circus Stories” stage. The first gave fascinated audiences an inside look into clowns’ life and art with the complicity a bevy of talented clowns and former clowns, among whom Barry Lubin (Grandma), Bello Nock, Bindlestiff co-founder Keith Nelson, Steve Smith, Clown Conservatory Director Sara Moore, Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin, David Carlyon and many others (including yours truly) who provided the laughs. The Circus Stories stage was the realm of some of America’s best circus scholars: Hovey Burgess, Deborah Walk and Jennifer Lemmer Posey (The Ringling), LaVahn G. Hoh, Janet Davis, David Carlyon, Matthew Wittmann (Harvard Theater Collection), Linda Simon, and Dominique Jando (yes, that’s me again), who often mingled with circus folks (Dolly Jacobs, Pedro Reis, Rafael Palacios, Elena Panova, Barry Lubin, Paul Binder, Michael Christensen…), circus educators, social circus activists and others, to give the audience insights into circus history, circus today, and circus life, and answer their questions.

The most recurrent question coming from the audience was, “what’s going to happen to the circus now that Ringling closed?” The best answer, of course, was “Look around you!” Yet, if anything, it shows how large a shadow Ringling had cast over the American circus for more than 140 years was, and how large it still is; some who asked the question had perhaps not even seen a Ringling show in years, but, as it has been for many Americans, “The Circus” was synonymous with Ringling. Nobody asked what will happen now that Cole Bros. or the Big Apple Circus have closed. Yet, it proved to be good timing: it allowed the Festival to show a large audience the largely unknown treasures that had remained hidden in the shadow of the giant.

From an audience’s point of view, entertainment and education were what the Smithsonian Folklife Festival offered, which is indeed not negligible. For the circus community, however, it had also a very serious purpose, especially at this turning point in American circus history: a profound need to show everybody that the Circus in America is a legitimate performing art, and that, as any other performing arts, it needs attention. And it’s no wonder that Zsuzsanna Mata, the Executive Director of Monaco-based World Circus Federation, and a couple of members of the European Parliament decided to attend. A historic meeting, organized by Rodney Huey (the American Representative of the World Circus Federation), was held on the Festival’s only day-off at the National Endowment for the Arts. It was certainly not a day off for the circus community: hundreds came to the event. Hosted by Murray Horwitz (who has, as one could have expected from an intellectual, a not-so-hidden past as a clown), the event, which lasted all day, was made of a series of panels addressing a large scope of issues concerning circus professionals and circus educators.

In the concluding panel of the day, moderated by Spectacle Magazine’s Ernest Albrecht, Paul Binder, Stephanie Monseu (Bindlestiff Family Cirkus), David Carlyon, and myself mused on the past, the present, and the future of the Circus in America. It proved to be a rather optimistic conclusion, as was the mood during those ten days of circus celebration. As an industry, the circus may be facing problems; as a performing art, it still has a bright future. Times are changing, and the circus in America is at a turning point. It has happened before, and the Circus has always survived. Yet, the circus community needs to get together from time to time, pause, and look at itself, at its artistry, at what its place as a performing art in a modern society should be. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival provided this much-needed pause, as well as a welcome recognition and celebration. Let’s hope the NEA’s recognition of the circus as a popular art will lead to a glorious renewal—if the NEA itself is allowed to remain a cultural force in this country…

Let’s the show begin!