A Look Back at the History of Contemporary Circus
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A Look Back at the History of Contemporary Circus

Posted April 19th, 2019
By Lexi DeFilippo, Communications Intern Spring 2019

This summer, FringeArts’ annual circus festival Hand to Hand returns to bring the wonder of contemporary circus to the heart of Philadelphia. In partnership with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, the first and only diploma-granting circus program in the US, we’re excited to highlight some of the new and innovative performers taking on the circus scene. And in honor of World Circus Day (third Saturday in April, ie. April 20, 2019), we’re taking a look back at the history behind contemporary circus worldwide.

Sometimes known as new circus or nouveau cirque, contemporary circus can be perceived as an enigma. On a structural level, contemporary circus challenges the traditional circus by rejecting the use of animals, acts without any connected through line, and (in most cases) the big top tent as a performance space. Another notable difference from traditional circus is the shift in who is performing contemporary circus acts. Instead of the circus family model where skills are passed down generations to produce family units that travel with a circus and live on the road, contemporary circus productions employ conservatory-trained professionals from all over the world. These conscious steps away from the kitsch of traditional circus have helped push contemporary circus into the spotlight as a more intention-driven form of entertainment that highlights the excitement, finesse, and true artistry of the circus arts.

Contemporary circus began to emerge in the late 1960s-early 70s when groups in Australia, France, United Kingdom, and the West Coast of the United States began to combine the circus arts with more theatrical elements. One of the earliest circus companies credited with incorporating theater into their routines is the Royal Lichtenstein Circus, founded in San Jose by a Jesuit priest in 1971. They were also one of the first groups to use a one-ring format which allowed for the performers to create a more intimate connection with the audience.

This clip from their side-show in 1984 is an example of how the Royal Lichtenstein Circus used theater as a to tell stories through their performances. The choreography acts as a vessel to bring an abstract idea to life while showing off the physicality of the performers.

Another early contemporary circus group, the Pickle Family Circus, formed in 1975 by members of a mime troupe, was one of the first groups to start threading social commentary into their work. The troupe prided itself on being a democratic organization in which all of the performers received equal pay and played an integral part in the operation of the circus as well as the production. The Pickle Family Circus is known for telling a narrative with their productions and using circus acts to move the story along while keeping the audience at the edge of their seats with amazement.

This clip of highlights from their show, Cafe Des Artistes in 1988, shows off the troupe’s multi-faceted performers with the ability to seamlessly blend their circus skills with character work and humor.

As American contemporary circus continued to develop on the West Coast, Britain experienced its own circus revolution. In 1984, Ra-Ra Zoo Circus was founded in London and became recognized for being an integral part of the experimental circus movement overseas. Ra-Ra Zoo incorporated surrealism and satire into their politically-driven productions. The group also challenged the of circus by maintaining an equal number of male and female performers. Nofit State Circus of Wales was founded in 1986 by a group of friends looking for employment during an intense political climate. They developed the Nofit State Circus to act as a political reaction and outlet for creativity and expression. Similar to the American New Circus movement, these British troupes replaced animals with drama, music, and dance as integral parts of their circus productions.

The most well-known contemporary circus, Cirque du Soleil, was founded in Quebec in 1984 by street performers Gilles Ste-Croix and Guy Laliberte. The duo, which led a group of street performers, proposed to create a full-length show for the celebration of 450th anniversary of the discovery of Canada by Jacque Cartier. The show, called Circus of the Sun, was chosen to extend the anniversary celebration through a province-wide tour. Since that first tour, Cirque du Soleil has been creating new shows and touring the world ever since. The company is known for its sleek, high-end productions that use abstraction and ornate visuals that continue to push circus to entirely new heights. Cirque du Soleil is even responsible for Las Vegas on the map as a world-class entertainment hub with over six resident productions currently running on The Strip. This clip, from resident show, The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage, shows how each element of the productions is elaborately designed and constructed to bring the concept to its most heightened reality. The technical capacity of Cirque du Soleil’s state-of-the art venues is also highlighted.

Archaos, founded in France by Pierrot Bidonin in 1986, is known as being an alternative, punk circus. Although the company disbanded in 1991 due to financial problems fairly quickly after its conception, Archaos’ wild, spirited, and crazy circus left a huge impact on contemporary circus. The company brought danger into the circus in a way that was never seen before with the use of motorcycles, chainsaws, and metal deathtraps. This clip provides a taste of the debauchery that helped the rule-breaking Archaos build a cult following.

Newer companies, such as Montreal-based group The Seven Fingers, are continuing the rule-breaking rebellion of contemporary circus in the 2000s with work focused on each performer’s personal characteristics. The performers use their circus abilities to express personal stories and emotions, similar to the way modern dance embodies the human experience. Unlike the dreamworld of companies like Cirque du Soleil, The Seven Fingers create work from a realistic lens and highlights a genuine human experience. This teaser clip from the show, RÉVERSIBLE, is an example of contemporary circus with a specific kind of “stripped down” stylistic aesthetic.

These are just a few of the contemporary circus companies that helped save the legacy of the circus arts by adapting to economic, cultural, and artistic shifts in order to produce a more dynamic and forward-looking form of circus. Contemporary circus has now become a recognized and celebrated art form around the world and is accessible in ways traditional circus never was. Although some of the biggest circus companies in the world are no longer around, circus is very much alive and well thanks to contemporary circus.

At FringeArts, Hand to Hand kicks off with a showcase from Circadium’s first year students  entitled, Circadium Springboard, on May 25. The performance will showcase works by these  students who have completed the first of three years of intensive interdisciplinary study.

Swiss duo Compagnia Baccalà acts as the centerpiece of this year’s festival lineup and is bringing its world-renowned show, Pss Pss, to the FringeArts stage this June. The production, inspired by the theatrical world of Charlie Chaplin and other silent film stars, incorporates the key components of contemporary circus by using circus skills, abstraction, and humor to dazzle audiences of all ages. The pas de deux provides the perfect display of the unbelievable physicality and enchanting artistry behind the success of the New Circus movement.

There will also be an opportunity to try out popular contemporary circus skills with Philadelphia School of Circus Arts at Circus Midway on June 30. Juggling, plate spinning, and tight wire are just a few of the skills you can learn from this fun day of outdoor workshops. Then come see the skills in action during Test Flights, a circus edition of our works-in-progress series, on Monday, July 1.

Experience the tantalizing magic of contemporary circus at Hand to Hand June 28–July 1 here at FringeArts.

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