Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI, No 8


Leaving Something Behind

to Remind Us of What Once Was

We are living in a time of enormous and profound change causing an upheaval in almost every aspect of life and a hitherto only dreamed of future always seems just a breath away. Long standing icons in all fields of endeavor are falling aside.  It should hardly be shocking or even surprising, therefore, that the circus, one of the more retrograde aspects of our culture, would seem on the verge of disappearing from the stage completely

I should make a distinction here. I am referring to the professional traditional circus, and although it is in the last phase of prominence within popular culture, it has already left various aspects of its essence behind which have become increasingly embedded in America’s middle class life.  Thanks to these phenomena we will always have reminders of what once had been to a lesser or greater extent the greatest show on earth.

What has brought me to think about this was a recent drive down the West Side Highway in New York City, passing the various piers that have been converted to recreational use. Atop one of these was a flying trapeze rig.  I am sure the people working out on this rigging have little to no ambition of joining the circus, but they have found an activity that was, until such organizations as Club Med latched on to it,  the exclusive domain of the circus.  Now we find flying rigs popping up in various urban centers, like those in New York City, and there is no shortage of trainers and neophytes whose efforts  seem destined to keep one daring and beautiful aspect of circus skills alive.

The ancient art of juggling which was one of the first skills to be introduced into a circus performance aside from equestrian exploits has flourished  into a world-wide amateur phenomenon with ubiquitous outcroppings appearing almost anywhere there are bored young people.  These amount to everything from highly organized and expertly administered associations with vast and ever growing memberships to informal local clubs.

The one area of circus that today displays the greatest health and vitality is the youth circus movement. I predict it will join the ranks of such recreational activities as dance schools, taekwondo studios and other schools of martial arts training that crop up in every suburban shopping mall.  I think the youth circus  has the potential of achieving the same kind world-wide popularity and legitimacy that is now enjoyed by jugglers and the various national and international juggling associations which promote the skill even to the highest level.

Thanks to the ever increasing list of laws regulating or outright banning the use of animals in the circus (New York State recently enacted a ban on performing elephants, which would have made it impossible for Ringling in its purest form to even set foot in the state) the art of training animals will mostly become the province of pet owners who want their dogs to do cute tricks.

Birthday clowns, judging by their own national associations, are usually more interested in being spectacularly dressed and made up while ignoring almost completely the sine qua non of clowning, which is being funny and getting laughs. In that respect their connection to the circus is tenuous at best, but by their very existence they will remain prominently in evidence as a kind of left-handed reminder of what a circus clown once used to look like.

The circus’ unique brand of spectacle has already been appropriated into the Cirque du Soleil oeuvre. The show’s new owners are busily trying to create the next big exciting thing as are other creative and thoughtful performing companies and individual artists.  We have as a minor, but significant,  example of this in the once traditional clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs who have all but abandoned their original clown makeup, a well thought out move that could help  set them on their way to their own next big exciting thing just as Bill Irwin and David Shiner have done.  It is with those creative performing companies (mostly foreign)    and individuals that the future of what was once the circus lies and with those phenomena noted above that its past remains a memory.