For several months each year, The Big Apple Circus pulls its muddy trailers and tents into the superlative air of Lincoln Center. Here, in the company of lean ballet dancers with elegant posture and sopranos with voices akin to angels, the Big Apple Circus stakes its claim as a classic art form. It’s incongruous: A messy circus with bales of hay and cotton candy wrappers plunked in this epicenter of high art. But the circus ring has always been a showcase for performance artistry, a place where athleticism, humor and human physical potential are on full display. In this collection from PBS’s upcoming series, CIRCUS, we shine a spotlight on the artistry and athletic prowess under the big top.
An internationally renowned circus historian and former Associate Artistic Director of the Big Apple Circus, Dominique Jando serves as curator and editor-in-chief of circopedia.org, an online circus history resource.
Jando has a great appreciation for the circus as an an honest, tangible art form. In this excerpt from an interview shot for the CIRCUS series, he explains that the circus showcases ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Watch:
Dominique Jando writes:
A friend of mine once asked, “What’s the point of juggling ten balls, or doing a triple somersault?” What’s the point indeed? But not everybody can do that, and this is why it is so fascinating to most of us; to see fellow humans for a moment flying in the air or dancing on a tight wire is, after all, an amazing image. If it is done with ease and grace, as if it were just a beautiful thing to do, this image becomes even more powerful.
Actually, before sports and gymnastics became fashionable again at the end of the nineteenth century (leading to the creation of the modern Olympics), juggling, dancing on a rope, and performing acrobatic jumps were considered funny. In the early circuses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, equestrians and trick riders were the stars of the show. Juggling, rope dancing, and tumbling acts were, by and large, performed by clowns. Audiences thought they were silly things to do (and, if we think of it, indeed they are)—a sort of eccentric behavior that was amusing to watch. In the mid-nineteenth century, it is a clown, Little Wheal, who performed the first recorded double somersault on the ground.
Today, Little Wheal wouldn’t need to wear a clown outfit to “sell” this amazing trick! But his audiences were awed, nonetheless. Circus, when well done, is a metaphor. It reminds us of the boundless potential of our human nature. It shows us, by the way of an artistic, living image that we can overcome our limitations—and, in some cases, that we can survive apparently life-threatening situations. Circus is really what remains of our primal rituals of survival, codified into an artistic form (like many other old rituals) for modern consumption. We needed them then as we need them now.
The Chinese link many of the traditional acts of their acrobatic theater (what we call the Chinese circus) to old rituals performed after a good harvest, for instance. The peasants who performed in these rituals gradually improved their skills until they eventually became so proficient that they turned them into a show—giving them an attractive, artistic form. This led to the birth of the Chinese acrobatic theater and the Chinese opera. The same evolution happened in the West, developing first in Egypt and continuing from Greece, to Rome, and to the rest of the European continent.
In Europe, where the one-ring circus has always been the norm, audiences are used to focusing their attention on single acts—and they have learned in time to see, understand, and appreciate the subtleties of an artist’s craft. But generations of Americans have been exposed to the three-ring extravaganzas created by P.T. Barnum and his associates in the 1880s, and further developed by his followers. Thus, artistry became diluted into a spectacle where the human cannonball was more likely to catch the audience’s attention than the intricacies of a refined hand-balancing act. And there was the menagerie, the sideshow and the midway, which were added to the mix, transforming the original circus Philip Astley had created in England in 1770 into a vastly different experience.
Things have changed in the United States since the emergence, in the 1970s, of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, the Big Apple Circus in New York—and later, the Cirque du Soleil in Canada—which all shifted the focus back to the performer’s artistry. During its last American tours of the early 1990s, the Russian circus also showed to which heights the artistry of a circus act can go—think, for instance, of the magnificence of the Flying Cranes, who, for ten years, were saluted with standing ovations at each of their performances.
Actually, we don’t say “circus art;” we say “circus arts,” since circus is a composite performing art, with a great diversity of disciplines, often very dissimilar in style and content, and each of which is appreciated in a different way. But there is still a common thread: whether an acrobat turns a somersault on a galloping horse, a juggler maintain nine clubs moving simultaneously in the air, an aerialist swings on her trapeze hanging by a single heel, all of them are doing something extraordinary, all of them show us that, yes, we can overcome what seemed to be our limitations. And, as John Steinbeck put it, “Every man, woman and child comes from the circus refreshed and renewed and ready to survive.”