The Artform and Artists of Contemporary Circus

The common idea of a circus, often instilled within us early by cartoons and Hollywood, contains big top tents, fashionable elephants, and white-faced clowns. While this world exists, it’s attendance is waning amidst shifts in consumer concerns and attention. A stand-out reasoning the publics’ concerns regarding the safety and morality of animal performers. In 2011, the USDA fined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus $270,000 for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act. Subsequently, In 2017, after 146 years of performances, the world-renowned circus production company closed its doors for the final time. While disheartening for lifelong fans, this news came without shock for those who have turned their eyes and wallets to other forms of entertainment. 

Yet while film and television dominate, the visual art of circus performance remains within the physical world; varying in style and magnitude. Roland Berg, a trapeze artist who trained with Circus Juventas in Minneapolis, is a practitioner of the circus arts. While he trained at one of the largest circus schools in the country, many, including those living in the Minneapolis area, fail to recognize the name according to Berg. Berg explained that he is all too familiar with misconceptions and misrepresentations of the circus. One of these in particular included the lack of understanding amongst viewers regarding the amount of work put into a performance. 

Trapeze is an aerial act often including several individuals swinging between platforms and performing poses or tricks in between. Berg explained the importance of being physically fit to move your body in ways one usually doesn’t. “You are working very hard in order to make your performance look easy,” said Berg, “it is like a sport in the sense that it is truly physically demanding.” The work is not singular however. According to Berg, your fellow performers are like your teammates. Therefore everyone is responsible for one another’s success and most importantly, their safety.  

This work pays off in the two weeks of May that Circus Juventas performs. The show consists of aerial, acrobatic and balance acts. In this time, eyes gleam with excitement amongst the fans as Berg daringly flys through the air. This astonishment when watching circus causes the viewers  to be totally immersed, says Maika Isogawa, former Cirque du Soleil performer. “The creativity of it transports you into another world,” said Isogawa.

Creativity is an understatement for the work and goes into a performance. At Circus Juventas, theater classes are taken so performers can work on character building. This is also replicated at the Cirque du Soleil’s training facility in Montreal where athletics and art share relevance. In this place, costume designers, choreographers, and theater coaches alike work with performers to push the artistic portion of the show. 

Attracting 150 million spectators a year and grossing $1 billion annually, the stakes to design an entertaining experience are high for the Cirque du Soleil company. However, with 19 performances worldwide that travel to 300 cities, it seems the ink is yet to run dry. Instead, fans have been continually reminded of Cirque du Soleil’s original thinking and innovation. In recent years the company has produced an adaptation of James Cameron’s film Avatar, a Beatles tribute show and O, which is a water-themed stage production. These productions are dazzling with lights, projections that adapt to performers, and live music. “[They are] pushing boundaries when it comes to innovation and what you can do with a performance,” said Isogawa.       

While working with Cirque du Soleil, Isogawa adopted the names “Beach Girl” and “The Pink Lady.” These names were used to describe her character in the show Totem. Totem’s theme revolved around human evolution. “One component of modern circus arts is the artistic portion of it. It’s not entirely doing incredible feats…now art, expression and beauty is integrated into it,” said Isogawa.          

Antóin Gorman, a professional clown, certainly agrees with the idea that expressionism, art, and beauty are synonymous with performance. Gorman described the process of transforming into a character as self-reflective and hypnotic. “It feels like glitter is going over you. Your senses are stronger. The moment I’m a clown I can hear better, I can smell better, everything is just better. You are very aware,” said Gorman. While interviewing Gorman, I was able to witness this when he  introduced me to his character Tizzy. In a matter of seconds, Gorman unlocked his child-like curiosity and the adult man I had been talking to for the past 20 minutes no longer existed. “At some point, we were told in our lives that we are not allowed to play anymore,” said Gorman. To Gorman, clowning is a rejection of this oppressive idea.  

Gorman compared the art form of clowning to the invention of the novel. While its popularity has been fading for 200 years, through adaptation and transformation, the novel remains important to many. “The idea of the clown is not going away, whether or not we associate it as a clown, it is still going to be there,” Gorman said. This idea is synonymous with the entirety of  contemporary circus. As the world changes, definitions and meanings of artforms shift. So while the stereotypical image of circuses may disappear, alternative forms of entertainment and aimed at immersing an audience will always remain.

This is incredibly important in a time when the idea of being entertained has become far less important than public safety. Gorman believes a renaissance is soon to follow after the pandemic subsides. Perhaps when that time comes, the lesser-known world of contemporary circus will experience a newfound appreciation. In this process, one can predict the artforms will gain greater representation as individuals seek out a way to feel like a child once again. 

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