Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI, No. 6


Messing Around with Success

The not for profit circus has been experiencing some wrenching upheavals in recent weeks. First the Smith sisters were ousted from their position with the New England Center for Circus Arts by an overly ambitious board of directors.  The final result of all the chaos was that the sisters were restored to their original position and the board of directors that initiated the problem has been changed.  This action by an overly ambitious board and executive director is not the first time such an action was taken.  The same thing happened to Larry Pisoni with the original Pickle Family Circus, Rob Mermin with Circus Smirkus and most recently Paul Binder and Michael Christiansen with the Big Apple.

Now the board of directors of the American Youth Circus Organization is attempting another such coup. They have proposed combining the original organization with the upstart Circus Now.  As a rationale for such a move they suggest that the renaissance experienced by the American circus demands it.

The renaissance of circus arts if it exists at all is only in the youth sector. There are fewer than ever traditional circuses taking to the road and no new contemporary circus companies that are attempting anything that resembles a tour.

Another rationale is the suggestion that once young artists graduate from schools under the AYCO umbrella they have no where to go.

Young people who want a career in the circus need, first of all, training to acquire the skills that will put them in a position to compete with artists from all over the world which is what they will have to do if they want something resembling a successful career in circus. There are several schools in the United States offering advanced training and from these the would-be circus artist can enroll in one of the international schools that have the trainers and facilities to bring artists to the highest skill level.  It is not the responsibility of an acting school or a dance school to nurture their student’s ambition to turn professional.  Graduates of art schools must all find their own way just as any artist who achieves success in any field must do.  It is not the responsibility of any artist’s training program to provide cradle to grave nurturing.  They must find their own way.  That’s what distinguishes those who succeed and those who do not in a highly competitive world.

The rationale provided by the AYCO board for combining with Circus Now is that such a move will cure all the ills of the circus in America including finding corporate funding. How presumptuous is a statement like “AYCO finds itself in the unique position of needing to scale up to meet the needs of the entire circus arts industry.”  At best it is wishful thinking, at worst a display of extreme hubris.

I worry that Circus Now’s unstated, but obvious, ambition is to become the final arbiter of what is circus in America, especially with its obvious bias against traditional circus. That is not a way to foster the creativity needed for the American circus to truly experience a renaissance, and instead of uniting the circus community it would also cause more fracturing and hard feelings.

It was my experiences with traditional circus, notably Ringling Bros. that made me an ardent circus fan. Despite my affection for traditional circus I do find some contemporary circuses stimulating and even exciting.   But to promote one over the other does the circus industry an enormous disservice.

I find the most rational and well thought out argument against the proposed combination comes from Sonja Harpstead who identifies herself as a circus performer, trainer and educator. She writes:  “Part of my personal concern around the merger is the noticeable distaste for traditional circus in the offered literature. “

Her final concern is even more cogent if one’s ambition is to truly help the circus: “Is it better for an art form to be steered by a central body or should the industry change naturally with organizations facilitating entry into and safe practice of the medium?  My concern with one organization claiming authority of an industry in a top-down way is that it intrinsically places a higher value on the experiences and culture of the decision makers and devalues the expertise and knowledge of anyone not involved with the decision-making process.  This limited diversity also potentially threatens the art form as a whole.”  Hence my fear of having Circus Now become the taste maker.