Why is Circus So Popular?

Contemporary circus seems to be booming. We meet some of the performers and programmers to find out more about how the landscape has changed

Feature by Roisin O'Brien | 02 Aug 2017

"The primary emotion of circus is fear." So said a critic one year ago at a dance festival in the Czech Republic. We had just seen a small, intricate performance that this same (very wise) critic stated was working with the ideas of "new circus." New circus? Did that imply there was… old circus? (Turns out, the term ‘new circus’ has been in use since the 1970s.)

Coming back to the Fringe that year (2016), the new Underbelly Circus Hub was on its second outing (having outbid the Lady Boys of Bangkok for the coveted space on the Meadows). Circus skills are popping up in the world of contemporary dance, where many practitioners are proficient in tumbling or aerial dance. So what is circus today, and how different is it to the gaudy tents and lion tamers of its predecessors?

We speak to Marina Dixon (Festival Producer & Programme Manager from Underbelly) about why the Circus Hub was set up; where did the demand come from? "I think there’s always been a circus element at the Fringe, long before Circus Hub existed… but it feels that over the last few years there is a larger appetite for it… We were working with more and more incredible artists… plus running a circus competition to find up-and-coming young performers so it felt like the perfect time to create a specifically dedicated circus venue at the Fringe." For Dixon, there is a supportive vibe among the artists: "Circus Hub has been great for bringing artists together for a month in the same place where they can see work and learn from each other. Often a lot of the artists in one show have worked with other performers in other shows…"

So what are our perceptions of circus today? Two artists performing this year may be able to enlighten us on what this distinction between traditional and new circus might mean. Ellie Dubois (No Show, Summerhall), whose knowledge of circus seems infinite, rapidly rattles off some core tenets: "Contemporary circus often sits in theatres rather than tents, doesn’t have animals, and doesn't follow the traditional narratives with clowns, etc." A lot of contemporary circus has an emotional trajectory, that aims to connect with the audience in much the same way theatre does. For Dubois, it’s not, however, simply a difference in style: "Traditional circus in a tent that tours around places, it represents a way of life… In pre-television times, it was often how people got their information about other ways of living. Yes, there was exploitation, but audiences also saw people of other races. And women’s roles in circus were very interesting, at a time when they were not equally paid in other areas."

Bram Dobbelaere from Belgian company Cie Ea Eo (All the Fun, Underbelly’s Circus Hub) has thoughts on this division as well: "I wrote about this recently and admitted that I was a very fervent supporter of this schism… praising the contemporary and comparing the traditional with dinosaurs soon to be extinct. Now, I think the very discussion about old vs new needs to be extinct… As circus artists, we should appreciate the diversity without judgement. The last couple of years we’ve seen a lot of young circus performers picking up forgotten circus skills with the help of incredible circus 'dinosaurs.'"

Both shows stand out for their questioning the spectacle of circus: All the Fun also taps into wider concerns. "The concept… grew out of frustration with advertisement and its portrayal of these beautiful, clean-shaven, young stereotypes," says Dobbelaere. "And the way we all seem to accept this and contribute to it… Look at my beautiful exotic travel pictures… look how smart I am with this really interesting article I posted. We wanted to create a cathartic ritual which allowed the artists and audience to get rid of this constant brainwashing pressure… We looked for juggling routines that were physical, where we could run, jump, fail and sweat, for routines where the outcome was different every time."

So what does it take to be a circus artist these days, and is there support? For Dubois, the situation in the UK is different from places like Canada or Australia, where you can grow up regularly attending youth circus. Many circus artists in the UK, in her experience, are gymnasts to begin with, which has different technical and entertainment emphases.

Speaking more widely, Dobbelaere finds France still the epicentre of circus in Europe. He is grateful for the government support available in Belgium, which is one of the differences he sees with Canadian or North American companies: "If you invest your own savings in a show that needs to fill 2000 capacity venues, and needs to sell $37 tickets, you make a different kind of show…"

Is this commercialisation prevalent at the Fringe? "Almost all the circuses here will be commercial," Dubois responds. "Circus makes a lot of money; if anything, I think the market is over-saturated."

There is also, for Dubois, a lack of artistic risk in circus: "Because we can do a backflip, we’re often lazy: we fall back on the tricks." She is also concerned about the lack of professional opportunities for women, with the number of all male casts far outweighing even gender balanced casts. "The majority of students in my circus course were women – where do they go? I guarantee you there is nothing a man can do that a woman can’t also do."

Dubois does not share the optimism that circus in Britain is growing in demand, certainly not the type of work she wants to see more of. "Circus in Britain feels to me where contemporary dance was 20 years ago. Now, at least, if you say you’re a dancer, people might ask you what type of dance you do… when you say you are a circus artist, the reaction is more" – she inhales – "‘OH MY GOD you can do that?!’" And the Fringe is not an easy gig: "If I wasn’t based in Scotland, and didn’t have Summerhall’s support, I wouldn’t do it."

Returning to the earlier encounter, slightly wiser about the circus scene in Britain, we ask the artists, is the primary emotion of circus fear? For Dixon, alongside the spectacle, there is escapism; for Dobbelaere, "It is the WAAW!, the gasp of air from the audience… a primary reaction, the same reaction you might get from witnessing an incredible goal by Lionel Messi." Dubois has a different take: "I think it’s the opposite to fear, you feel incredibly safe. You only see the top, the tricks we’ve done a million times and absolutely perfected… For me, strength and power are more interesting, not just physically but the power of who is watching whom, who is there to be entertained."

So, perhaps the perception that circus was suddenly a booming new art form was a) misplaced (if it’s been ‘new’ since the 70s) and b) optimistic, given the financial and social restraints artists struggle with. But like many art forms, a bit of digging reveals performers passionate about their art, and willing to debate where it'll go next. Maybe it's time to invest in that ticket this year.

All the Fun, Underbelly's Circus Hub, 5-26 Aug (not 14 or 21 Aug), 4pm, £8-14.50
No Show, Summerhall, 2-27 Aug (not 10 or 21 Aug), 4.15pm, £6-12