Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VI, No. 9

The Slow Pace of Evolution

The optimists among us see not the decline of the American circus, but its evolution into something new and different but equally as wonderful as what we had in the past. It appears to me, however, that if there is indeed an evolution underway it is a disjointed affair with many versions rather than a universal movement that will resolve itself into a single all-encompassing resolution that will be embraced by all.  There is nothing like the development in which one company built on the innovations of an earlier one to coalesce into a movement that I called The New American Circus in my book of that name.

In the meantime what evidence do we currently find of any evolution? Not much, frankly.  What we do see today is a variety of movements instituted by individual companies trying to find their own way in a new world.  Some have been more highly effective and noteworthy, such as 7 Fingers whose evolution over the course of its relatively brief existence has been unmistakable and fascinatingly observable.   And then of course there is Cirque du Soleil.  Both of these shows were already an evolution if not an outright revolution in the case of Cirque du Soleil away from the traditional circus and in the case of 7 Fingers away from Cirque du Soleil.

Both of these companies present something of a problem insofar as being included in this discussion as neither is purely American. In the case of 7 Fingers however the two most active and innovative members of the seven artists who founded the organization are American: Gypsy Snyder and Shana Carroll. In the matter of Cirque du Soleil its ubiquitous presence in the United States has made it impossible to ignore.

The seven founders of 7 Fingers all worked in Cirque shows for varying lengths of time. Of that experience Carroll has said that when you’re at Cirque so long and you’re hidden in costumes and makeup, there is a desire to break all that down. . . to make way for a more human scaled performance.   That is why in the company’s first creation Loft, there were no more costumes or masks. In fact the entire company appeared in its underwear.  The only way they could have come closer to full disclosure of their humanity  would be to have worked totally nude.

Thus we can see that a significant characteristic of this new type of circus is an emphasis on the humanity of the performers, reminding us that, instead of being super humans who had triumphed over the limitations involved in what it means to be human, they were real human beings just like everyone else.  Taking that a step further what we observe are increasingly large doses of biographical details of the performers’ own lives being filtered in between acrobatic turns.  This is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the company’s evolution: the use of dialogue.    This then requires those who appear in the 7 Fingers shows to possess not only great acrobatic skill but strong acting chops as well, so as to put the work across without looking fake or forced.  Another aspect of this company’s work is that each production is a true ensemble piece in which all of the performers, usually around nine persons, are on stage most of the time.  Although there are what could be called individual acts, they grow out of the group dynamic.

There is also a limit to the theatricality involved in mounting each succeeding performance. There is nothing that calls attention to itself, despite the use of theatrical technology.  The musical accompaniment is diverse and eclectic, with no common unifying style. Whatever suits the show’s purpose at any single moment from classical to rap may be used.  Finally the settings of their productions are as removed from the circus ring as possible, into recognizable venues like a loft, a kitchen, or a bomb shelter.

For Cirque, evolution, thanks to new management, has meant pursing new markets and totally unrelated business ventures, like the NFL Experience, in New York’s Times Square, a theme park in Mexico and expansion of resident spectacles in China. It has recently launched its first ice show (ironically following in the departing footsteps of Ringling) and is staging performances on cruise ships.  The company recently  acquired the Blue Man Group, a performance company that has enjoyed an extremely long run off- Broadway in New York City and elsewhere.   The company has even changed its name to Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group to reflect its broader horizons.  Financially it has the backing of a private equity firm TPG Capital LP, which has a majority stake in the talent management company Creative Artists Agency LLC and has co-founded the film and television studio STX Entertainment.  All of this goes toward recognizing their potential as a globally recognized brand.

But even as these broad changes are being put in place, we also can find changes in style that can be seen in its most recent production, Volta, which plays down the acrobatics  in favor of incursions into thrill show spectacle.

What do we see elsewhere, insofar as evolution is concerned? Not much I must say.  Cirque Eloize, which was the first company to begin the evolution away from Cirque du Soleil’s style of performance,  continues its own exploration of new forms and themes, which is more an extension of recent practice than an evolution.   The same is true of  the only truly American company to exhibit any innovation.  That would be Cirque Mechanic, which continues to  look to more and more extravagant mechanical inventions to showcase its acrobatic talent, which is to some extent an evolution but a much slower paced one than that of 7 Finger and Cirque du Soleil.

So for the time being we need to leave ourselves open to all the possibilities presently being explored, more often than not in companies that visit the U.S. periodically from other parts of the world, and enjoy this period of imaginative exploration and all it may provide until the new New American Circus emerges out of the limited evolution noted above.