At the start of the 20th century, the Ringling brothers and their latest acts were household names, just like many sports figures and movie stars are today.
If you go
WHAT: Compagnie XY: Le Grand CWHEN: 8 p.m. today; 4 p.m. Sat.; 8 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. Mon.; 7:30 p.m. Wed. and Thurs.; 6 p.m. May 31; 3:30 p.m. June 1WHERE: Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St.COST: $35 and upMORE INFO: www.spoleto usa.org; 579-3100
“When you go to the grocery store and you’re standing in line to check out, there’s magazines, and all they talk about is Hollywood or sports,” said Duncan Wall, author of “The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey Into the Wondrous World of Circus, Past and Present,” and director of Circus Now, a just-started organization seeking to preserve the circus arts and educate Americans. “It’s a part of our cultural consciousness.”
Wall equated the current obsession with celebrities and the earlier fascination with big-tent performers. “Circus was that 100 years ago,” he said.
The three-ring spectacle faded with the invention of television and film, however, and it was not until the 1970s that the circus began to make a comeback in Europe, especially in France (whose Compagnie XY will make its Spoleto debut with Le Grand C, a circus-inspired acrobatic troupe), but with a new flair, Wall said.
Circus became a theatrical platform, a vehicle for political commentary (using jugglers to attract the attention of an audience) and engaging narrative coupled with characters, music and dance, he said. This new movement has allowed some circuses to move out of the tent and on to the stage.
“This has been happening for a while now,” Wall said. “I think it’s just starting to reach a trigger point where people are starting to pay attention, where you’re getting the integration of circus technique into other forms.”
Wall pointed out that when the circus made its comeback in the 1970s, America was a part of that renaissance. There was a crucial difference, however: European governments took a financial interest in the art form, while U.S. artists were left performing with individual troupes.
France today has 600 circus schools and more than 400 companies. There are six advanced training schools internationally, none of which are in the U.S. (although it does have about 400 training programs).
Americans are familiar with the dazzle of this new circus. Aerial and acrobatics have slowly been making its way into professional Broadway performances, often through wire work. As far back as 1984, when Broadway introduced “Barnum” to audiences, circus has had a presence on the Great White Way. More recently, “Wicked” and the just-closed “Mary Poppins” featured its leading ladies airborne with the help of broomsticks and umbrellas, and “Spider-Man” has the superhero webbing across the stage.
A new revival of the 1970s musical “Pippin,” which just opened on Broadway, blurs the line between circus and theater as the show is bursting with big tent nostalgia and new circus sparkle.
“We’re kind of in this stage where everyone’s been working really hard to figure out this very complex problem of how to combine theater and circus,” said Michelle Dortignac, founding member of the New York City troupe Suspended Cirque. “How to combine something that is very grounded and based in reality with something that’s so fantastic and fantasy? And that’s not easy to do.”
One company has found a particularly profitable balance. Cirque du Soleil introduced North America to contemporary circus in the mid 1980s.
Its newest of 19 shows, “Michael Jackson One,” opened yesterday in Las Vegas. The company is playing around the U.S. and has a strong international presence.
Founded in 1984 in Quebec by Guy Laliberte and a few street performers (stilt walkers, jugglers and fire breathers), Cirque has become the mainstay for circus entertainment.
The company reported revenue of $1 billion last year and averages more sales than all of Broadway, with about 14 million tickets sold a year, according to news reports.
“It’s sort of like one of the largest mom-and-pop things on the planet,” said Bill Fennelly, former assistant artistic director of one of Cirque’s shorter-lived creations, “Banana Shpeel.”
Wall and other circus artists, however, do not want Cirque to remove the nostalgic image of the ringmaster.
“There is a thing about traditional circus being replaced by something like Cirque du Soleil,” Wall said. “I don’t see that happening. We (took) our kids to the circus, not because the show is necessarily great but because it was the circus. It’s just something you have to experience.”
Josh Austin is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.