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Thursday, September 14, 2006 

Fort Dix, NJ. 40 miles. Grass with gravel. Rain.

Night jump into the Fort Dix military installation for a two day stand. The circus has now traveled nearly eleven thousand miles this season.

Ernest Albrecht editor of the lavish, beautifully photographed quarterly circus journal Spectacle joined us in North Brunswick yesterday.

I find myself considering nomenclature and casting about for clearer description of circus. A dozen years ago great debates raged attempting to define “traditional circus” and the increasingly well received “new circus.” To some extent they still do, Mudshow fans are not wont to call the imaginative productions of Cirque du Soliel “circus,” while “circus artists” who have never worked outside of a loft or theatrical space sometimes view “traditional” shows as little more than entertainment for kids and an excuse to sell popcorn and tickets for the moon bounce. I am not guiltless in these debates; generally applauding circus as a performing art, while sometimes decrying circus as a performance art. If I define myself as a “traditionalist” what does that really mean?

Lately I’ve been looking to the past to find a raw taxonomy for circus of the future. Astley was an equestrian. All that is traditional circus started with the horse. Certainly there many people who believe that a traditional circus has elephants and big cat acts, and they’re correct – a traditional circus can have those animals, but first and foremost somewhere on the show there’s an equine, even if it’s only in the pony sweep. Because traditional itself is an ill-defined word, I lean toward the term popular. Popular not in the sense of successful, but popular in the sense of broadly understood. If it’s not a popular circus, if there are no animals, it’s probably a theatrical show. Theatrical circus is as storied as the medicine show and the countless troupes that trekked across the frontier presenting Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A circus with an elaborate presentation, these days I see as conceptual, whether it’s a popular show or a theatrical circus. Likewise a show with less elaborate sets and properties is a utilitarian circus. Some circuses are clearly catering to grown-ups, while others cater to children of all ages. The former I’d call adult, while the later I’d suggest are juvenile. Juvenile not in the negative understanding of the word by any means. Adult explicit circus is another creature altogether, ribald, or bizarre, or erotic – performance art. Youth circus is not to be confused with Children’s circus. Youth circus teaches the circus arts (as does community circus) and young performers (amateurs) present a juvenile show. Children’s circus, generally theatrical and utilitarian seeks to entertain kids. Popular, theatrical, conceptual, utilitarian. adult, juvenile – if those are elements within a circus, maybe circuses can be better defined by describing a show in the order of their importance. The Carson & Barnes Circus might be described as popular, utilitarian, and juvenile. You simply can’t move a circus every day unless you are utilitarian. You can’t play small communities unless you are juvenile. I will certainly allow that in the days of great spectacles and street parades there were significant theatrical and conceptual elements associated with the best railroad circuses that moved everyday, but the economic model that paid for such grandeur is long gone. The incredibly successful Cirque du Soliel is a conceptual, theatrical, adult circus with only elements of the juvenile. Flora could be called theatrical, conceptual and juvenile with elements of the popular and utilitarian. Maybe the Bindlestiff Family Circus would be described as theatrical, adult, and utilitarian with elements of the explicit.

Arguing over what is circus has never been very productive. Examining what sustains and supports circuses of all kinds is the only way to assure that the popular, the theatrical, the utilitarian, the conceptual, the juvenile, the adult, and even the explicit are always with us when we really need a clown.

Wow, nice treatise. I've recently read the New American Circus, and Mud Show. Night and Day. And for what it's worth, I share your opinions of both Soleil and Flora. I'm partial to Flora, being from St. Louis and a performer for local groups that are associated with Flora.

You have some wonderful, insightful things to say.

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About me

  • I'm B.E.Trumble
  • From Everywhere, United States
  • Ben Trumble works in circus, carnival, and media relations
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