Not my Circus, not my Monkeys?
An introduction to the contemporary circus
von Franziska Trapp
Allow me to begin this article with a question[i]: What are your first associations when you hear the word “circus”? I don’t have magical abilities, but let me try and read your mind anyway: a tent, a clown, a lion with its mouth wide open, a trapeze artist. Now I would like to pose a second question: have you been to the circus this year? Even if you replied “no”, you probably had a clear idea of what circus is – certainly that was the case with the passers-by, students, theatregoers and academics with whom I’ve been conducting this brief mental exercise in recent years. What’s more, many of them have never been to the circus. Associations with motifs such as the tent, the clown, the (wild) animal and the trapeze artist, it can be assumed, do not arise from experience with the empirical genre, but rather from its reception. Idioms such as “stop clowning around” and “not my circus, not my monkeys” have long been part of our everyday language; in the Trump era, the New York Times criticised the “foreign policy circus”[ii]; Ferrero entered into a cooperation with German circus troupe Roncalli for a national marketing campaign; Madonna dedicated one of her songs to the circus; toys, children’s books and clothing are adorned with circus emblems. In short, the circus is omnipresent right now.
But the common element in the reception of the circus in literature, pop culture, music and advertising is the recourse to the “heyday of […] arena performance in the late 19th and early 20th century”[iii]. This romanticised image of the circus world is constantly (and unthinkingly) transported to everyday culture. This serves to steadily consolidate its function as a space in which to project desires. So the primary associations with the circus in Germany are usually those romanticised ideas that give the impression of a stagnant genre that never actually existed in this (idealized) form, moreover: it is contradicted by the self-conception of contemporary circus – circus is art.
The “new circus” first emerged in 1970s France and then spread internationally, and represented a radical break with the codes of its predecessor. Performers no longer come from circus families, instead they are graduates of state-recognised circus schools, animals are banned from performance, and the tent is no longer the sole performance space. The programme structure of new circus productions is changing. The aim is no longer to emphasise the super-human ability of the artists or the spectacle of the performances through the Babylonian structure[iv] which differentiates the elements according to their level of difficulty, the drum roll or the threefold failure of tricks, but to create andrecount theatrical diegesis. In 1996, following a visit to the graduate performance of the seventh-year students of the Centre National des Arts du Cirque, Paris newspaper Libération prophesied a third era of the circus: “Après les cirques traditionnels, puis les nouveaux cirques, il faut désormais compter avec le cirque contemporain.”[v] Not just in France but internationally as well, director Josef Nadj’s piece is considered the starting point of a new genre that radicalises the attributes of its predecessor. Multidisciplinary performances are no longer the rule, rather pieces bring together performers from the same circus discipline, more often in small formats such as solo, duo or trio than ensembles. The programme of acts is eliminated, different time formats[vi] coexist. In their self-conception, contemporary circus performers are artists, i.e. creators of works of art who strive for originality, resulting in a marked heterogeneity of performances within the genre. It is not just the performances, the rehearsal process is changing too. By establishing artist residencies, in which performers can carry out artistic research over longer periods, the primary goal is no longer perfecting circus techniques, but using them to relate selected topics in a completely new way. Developments in the genre are also apparent in Germany[vii]; alongside the 450 traditional circus companies, which make Germany the “country with the most circuses in the EU”[viii], the new and contemporary circus scene is constantly growing. In 2019, the contemporary circus became an integral part of the Ruhrfestspiele, the CircusDanceFestival came into being with the help of the TANZPAKT, and the Federal Association of Contemporary Circus (BUZZ) formed as an umbrella organisation of the most important circus-related institutions. In 2020, under nationwide initiatives for promoting the arts during the pandemic, funding was allotted to contemporary circus creations for the first time. Since 2021, the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia has been searching for “young creatives”[ix] under the “Neue Künste Ruhr” funding programme – which explicitly includes contemporary circus. The creative alliance Zirkus ON receives basic funding from the federal government. And today you are holding a special issue on contemporary circus from the prestigious magazine Theater der Zeit in your hands: Circus in flux. Let’s take this volume as an opportunity to generate new associations with the circus. But which? Allow me to ask you some more questions[x] …
30 questions … pathways to a dramaturgy of contemporary circus
What is circus today? How does contemporary circus differ from theatre, dance and performance? Where are there hybrid forms, where are there commonalities? Despite the diversity of contemporary circus performances, are there general characteristics that the pieces share? What means can we employ to describe circus performances? To what extent do writings on the circus have the potential to transform the cultural archive of the circus? Can the current historiography of the circus be rewritten so that it is no longer based on structural and administrative changes, such as the absence of animals, the new generation of performers or a general reference to the use of narrative, but rather – analogous to art historiography – focused on the change in the technique of performances? Can circus history be written as techniqual lhistory? What role do the aesthetics of risk play in the reception of pieces? How do contemporary circus pieces tell stories? How do narrativity, performativity and risk relate? Can narrativity actually function as a distinguishing attribute of traditional, new, and contemporary circus? Is storytelling even possible in circus pieces? What role does the trick play in contemporary circus performances? Are individual tricks interchangeable or even irrelevant? Does contemporary circus neglect circus technique in favour of substance? What role do ambiguities play? What happens when circus metaphors “return to the circus”? What is the role of intertextuality and intermediality in contemporary circus performances? What happens when a novel, a film, etc. is transformed into a circus piece? What influence does the mobility of artists and the constant change of performance context have on the reception of pieces? What role do producers and curators play in this context? To what extent should we question the categories of traditional, new and contemporary circus on the basis of their dependence on the performance context? As the author, is the performer actually the central authority who controls the reception of the piece? What relevance does the general cultural context have in the reception 20 of contemporary circus acts? To what extent are circus-specific discourses used to generate meaning? What role do self-referential strategies and meta-discourses play, i.e. the determined reference to the historical and cultural context of the circus? How are the cultural connotations of the circus relevant to contemporary circus acts? Where can we see similarities between the procedure of contemporary circus and postmodern tecnique? What potential do these questions have for dramaturgical practice? How can we use our knowledge to reduce ressentiment?
[i]This article contains excerpts from: Franziska Trapp: Lektüren des Zeitgenössischen Zirkus. Ein Modell zur textkontext- orientierten Aufführungsanalyse (Readings from the contemporary circus. A model for text-contextoriented performance analysis), Berlin 2020.
[ii] “Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Circus”, in: nytimes.com, accessed on 16/10/2017).
[iii] Anna-Sophie Jürgens: Poetik des Zirkus (Poetics of the Circus), Heidelberg 2016, p 16.
[iv] Jean-Michel Guy: “Introduction”, in: Jean-Michel Guy (ed.): Avant-garde, Cirque! Les arts de la piste en révolution, Paris 2001, pp. 10 – 26, here p. 17.
[v] Marc Laumonier: “Nadj, nouvelle piste pour la danse”, in: liberation.fr, 15 January 1996 (http://next.liberation.fr/culture/1996/01/15/nadj-nouvelle-piste-pour-la-danse-lechoregraphe-signe-le-spectacle-annuel-de -l-ecole-ducirque-de-c_160153, accessed on 08/04/2022).
[vi] Common time formats are 20 minutes, 50 minutes, 90 minutes or the clip.
[vii] The following is an exemplary, random list. For a comprehensive overview of festivals and other venues that programme contemporary circus pieces in Germany, see the graphic “Venues and festivals in Germany and Europe” on page 26.
[viii] Tim Schneider: „Traditioneller Zirkus heute“, in: netzwerkzirkus. de (http://netzwerk-zirkus.de/zirkuslandschaft/traditioneller-zirkus/, accessed on 08/04/2022).
[ix] “Wir fördern neue Impulse!”, in: neuekuensteruhr.de (https://neuekuensteruhr.de/programm, accessed on 08/04/2022).
[x] Franziska Trapp used these questions in writing her monograph
Lektüren des Zeitgenössischen Zirkus (Readings on the Contemporary Circus). In it she developed a methodology for analysing contemporary circus performances, drawing on reading theories taken from literary, theatre and dance studies.