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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Everything You Wanted to Know About Contemporary Circus, and More

by David Hsieh

Hans was Heiri. Photo: Mario Del Curto

Its influence can be seen from movies to Broadway shows to Céline Dion concerts to performing arts with a capital “A”. It has even made its more tradition bound older brother a bit jittery by adopting some of its stock-in-trade. But what is “contemporary circus”?

According to the national director of the advocacy group Circus Now, Duncan Wall, who will conduct a talk on contemporary circus at BAM on Oct 24, contemporary circus is the name given to the evolutions in the circus arts over the last 40 years. Beginning in 1970, the codes of the circus cracked, allowing for a greater infusion of creativity and the inclusion of other art forms, especially theater and dance. “Today, contemporary circus is an international movement, with tens of thousands of companies and schools around the world,” said Duncan.

Photo: Mario Del Curto
While many people still equate contemporary circus with the extravagant arena shows put on by Cirque du Soleil, or indiscriminately categorize them as “kids' shows,” contemporary circus actually comes in all sizes and forms, and can convey all ranges of human emotions. Take Hans was Heiri, for instance. This theater work by the Swiss directing duo Martin Zimmermann and Dimitri de Perrot uses no rigging, trapeze, smoke, or visually deceiving lighting. Its concept is simple: six actor-dancers in street clothes are trapped in a box divided into four rooms. The hitch: The cutaway building hangs in mid-air. Oh, plus it keeps rotating, like a dryer. So the sextet needs to constantly rebalance and reorient, defying gravity and the human need to touch terra firma.

Duncan recounted his journey into this fascinating world in The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present. He said he was drawn to contemporary circus because “it's an essential form of theater. The live experience is inherent to its power. It can't be reproduced in another medium. It's also an inclusive art—inclusive in the sense that it brings together other arts, and inclusive in its accessibility. There's no exclusion. Audiences of any class, race, or culture can enjoy the form and participate in it.”

To learn more about this art form and its various manifestions, Duncan recommends these websites:
  • Sideshow Circus Magazine is a very well written online magazine based in London specializing in contemporary Eureopean circus reviews, features, and interviews.
  • The Space has series of short films contextualizing the development of the contemporary circus over the past 40 years.
  • The database Simply Circus contains definitions of common and not-so-common circus terms.
  • Circostrada provides access to a collection of publications. It is the European platform for information, research, and professional exchanges about circus and street arts.
  • Phillipe Goudard, circus performer and lecturer in the performing arts at the University of Montpellier 3 and Magali Libong, offers the European Circus Arts Bibliography, a selection of publications on the circus arts, include literary productions of novels and screenplays, scholarly theses, pedagogical publications, health-related works, as well as magazines and practical guides on the sector.
Of course, nothing beats seeing a live show. So visit, where intriguing, adventurous contemporary circus shows pop up from time to time.

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