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Does the Circus Have a Future?


Paul Binder with mime Olivier Taquin

Paul Binder with mime Olivier Taquin. Photo by Gillian Laub.

by Paul Binder

When Michael Christensen and I founded the Big Apple Circus in the 1970s, we were in the midst of a worldwide renaissance of circus arts. France had Circus Gruss and Nouveau Cirque de Paris, and In Germany there was Circus Roncalli with many more to follow. Still, there was nothing like the art-focused, European-style circuses alive in the United States. We knew, when we began our audacious experiment, that we were addressing an audience that had grown up watching television. Today, audiences have grown up in front of computer screens and video games. Yes, patrons’ attention spans are shorter, and their lives are busier and more complicated and full of other entertainment options, and this fact invariably leads to a question that Michael and I have fielded several times during the length of our careers: Is the circus still relevant, and can it remain so?

The circus, in many forms, but in one singular shape - the circle- has survived for centuries the flood, pestilence, famine and terrorism that haunts the human race. Its antecedents can be traced to prehistory and were at the heart and soul of the tribal cultures that existed in those times. Indeed, the circus is part of our humanity, it’s as if it is a strand of our DNA. The circus arts address our continual struggle for survival. Watching an acrobat throw a triple somersault affirms our uncanny ability to look improbability in the face and to jump, knowing that a net will appear. The circus is a nimble art form, adapting to the communal needs of each society.

Circus is the modern form of theater that most closely resembles the ancient rituals out of which all theatre, indeed, all the performing arts, grew. And even as this ancient “theater” did not have playbills, scripts or directors, these ritualistic performances did showcase primal human themes that every culture wrestled with: anxieties, hopes, fears and survival. Its essence was triumph—an image of human vitality holding its own in a precarious, unpredictable world.

If you have occasion to see the Big Apple Circus, look just behind this 21st century form of classic one-ring entertainment and you’ll see the outlines and elements of those exuberant rituals --the music, the rhythmic clapping, the clowning, the processions, the animals, the naïve sexuality, the joy and the all-encompassing inclusiveness (everyone is invited!). Now, focus on the performers. When you see Anna Gosudareva leap from the Russian barre as if she were attached to springs and rails, isn’t she really testing the limits of possibility? When you gaze up at the Flying Cortes whooshing through the air, aren’t you truly challenged to fly? And when the clowns bumble about in the ring, full of banter and raillery, aren’t they really accepting with wit and humor the misfortunes and indignities of living? Aren’t they mirroring our tender selves in their own dreams and longings?

Circus, over millennia, has proven itself to be a resilient art form. The Big Apple Circus, European in style but American in its energy and rhythm, is part of a worldwide phenomenon attesting to that resilience.

When I consider how the circus might have to adapt to a changing audience and a shifting world, I’m not overly concerned. After all, this ancient art form has morphed, expanded and contracted before, and innovation is nothing new to the big top. For instance, the circus was one of the first institutions in America to use electric lights or steam-driven stake drivers.

It’s likely that the circus of the year 2050 will have to shorten its moments, maybe even the length of the entire show. Perhaps special effects will be more prominent. It’s nearly impossible to predict what adaptations will be necessary to survive, but if the circus is loyal to its ritual roots, survive it will.

Ultimately, the circus is an evergreen experience. It is living entertainment performed by ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary feats. Execute a triple somersault any place in the world and people will always look on in amazement. Circus is not just a part of our culture, it is an intrinsic element of our nature. It helps shape and smooth the rough edges of our humanity.

© Paul Binder 2010 Not to be reproduced in full or in part without express written consent of the author.