TIMELESS CIRCUS IN TIMES OF CHANGE
(University of Toronto, Victoria College)
- All cultural events, and particularly the performing arts, are grounded in human physiology and psychology as they have both evolved over millions of years through natural selection. Circus has a remarkable status in this respect because its basis, its building blocks so to speak, is a set of typical actions essential for human survival in situations that now are extreme but were common in our evolutionary past. Each of these actions forms the core of a circus specialty and they are often combined in particular circus acts.
- [slide 1]
- They include balancing, grasping, clearing obstacles, throwing and catching objects, controlling animals, and negotiating social situations. The wire walker, the trapeze acrobat, the jumper, the juggler, the trainer, and the clown are true icons of survival in these respective categories. They implement the successful overcoming of extreme versions of the challenges with which we are familiar in everyday life: keeping our upright balance when we stand or walk, grasping fast enough or tight enough a hand rail to prevent a fall, avoiding collisions with obstacles that lie in our path or clearing a gap, reaching a target or not letting an object slip through our hands, keeping our dog under control, and maintaining good relations with our fellow humans. We take all these common competences for granted until we witness or experience their selective disruption through physical impairments or mental illnesses. We also become acutely aware of them when our usual environment is temporarily changed: the ground is slippery and there is no bar to grip; we have to handle too many objects at the same time; we are confronted with an aggressive cat or uncooperative family members or neighbors. All circus acts are based on the artificial construction of such extreme situations and on the corresponding acquired skills that are necessary to meet the challenges they offer.
- [slide 2,3,4,5,6,7]
- The point of these remarks is that whatever the circus artists perform in front of us resonates in our own body and mind. This physical and moral empathy has been recently explained by the discovery of mirror neurons in our brains. These are specialized neurons which fire both when we perform an action and when we see the same action performed by someone else. Circus is so special and so involving because it reaches out to the deepest part of our body, that is, our brain, and activates an ancestral memory inscribed in our genome.
- This is the basis of what is meant when the circus is claimed to be timeless. It displays real actions that are rooted in our deepest evolutionary past, actions that were necessarily vital for the common ancestors of all primates who are generally considered to have been social tree-dwelling mammals.
- [slide 8,9]
- The complete repertory of circus specialties was present then and enabled these ancestral mammals to successfully survive and reproduce in the trees where they lived and from which they were getting their food: keeping their balance on branches, climbing trunks, or hanging from branches, jumping from one to the other, catching insects and fruits, fending off predators, and maintaining essential social bonds. Some of these competences became less vital once these ancestral primates started to walk upright and evolved toward modern humans in a different, mostly terrestrial environment, but the human species still carries with it fossil behaviors and fundamental potentials that a determined training can develop and refine.
- [slide 10,11,12]
- But the fascination for the circus is ambiguous: the mastery of all these extraordinary physical feats is potentially dangerous if they were taken out of the performance ring and used in the service of criminal goals [see Octopussy the 007 thriller directed by John Glen, 1983]. And, moreover, the fitness and charm of the performers exert an irresistible seduction on their audience, sometimes well beyond the appreciation of their artistic skills. This is why the circus has always been perceived as a threat to the social order, in spite of, or because of this attraction. Running away to join the circus usually is not the kind of life that middle class families dream of for their children. These aspects also belong to the timelessness of the circus as warfare and seduction are rooted in our deep past.
- Therefore, the timelessness of the circus arts does not refer to a kind of non temporal status but rather to its firm grounding in the very deep time of evolution as opposed to historical time through which cultures change at a much faster rate.
- But circus always takes place within a particular culture and displays values such as ethical and social norms, historical and political references, esthetic standards, the memory of the circus itself, even sometimes direct allusions to local issues involving social justice or deeper ideological struggles through the acting and persona of the performers, their symbolic props, and the dialogues of the clowns. If we were one hundred years ago, at a time when the circus prospered within western industrial, colonialist societies, many of the cultural variables of the circus would probably appear timeless because nobody would have witnessed significant changes over a lifetime and would take for granted the values displayed in the performances. But this is not the case today as we have experienced the emergence of a new circus culture: ideologies and community standards have changed in many countries; social activism (or conservatism) has taken hold in the circus medium; laws have been voted by parliaments or city councils, and enforced by the police; the perception of nature has been modified by the media and by campaigns organized by associations committed to animal welfare.
- As a result, individuals are better protected and are not forced to risk their life for public entertainment; children are shielded from early exploitation; physically challenged persons are integrated into social life and cannot be any longer cruelly exhibited for the benefit of their caretakers; wild animals are protected and excluded from the circus where they are assumed to be mistreated. In view of these changes in cultural standards, the traditional circus (that is, the historical form that appeared in the industrial societies of the 19th century and still persists sporadically nowadays), this traditional circus struggles for survival.
- [slide 13,14]
- But, at the same time, a new circus culture has emerged that preserves the skills which form the core of the timeless circus while adjusting to changing cultural conditions. No institution has better achieved this circus aggiormamento than the Cirque du Soleil. It has become an icon of the new circus not only because it has been among the first one to fully comply with the community standards, legislations and artistic cultures that came to define the norms of its time, but also because it quickly adjusted its ways of operating to the market economy of globalization. The case can be made that other groups initiated such a move before the Cirque du Soleil. For instance, the influential Moscow Circus had generalized the systematic use of choreography, classical music, and safety standards for the performers. But the Cirque went several steps further and many have followed suit. In spite of remarkable achievements, none however seems to have fired the imagination of global audiences to the same extent as this circus does. It magnificently embodies the timeless circus in the global culture of its time.
- Older generations can be nostalgic about the traditional circus they have known, with its pungent smell of sawdust and wild animals, the social marginality of its performers, their dangerous seduction and their constant proximity to death, the ritualistic quality of their ephemeral performances. They may lament the gentrification and industrialization of the new circus, with its army of administrators, accountants, financiers, lawyers and marketers, but they must recognize that new generations have found their timeless circus in which they experience extreme balancing, hanging, jumping, catching, lifting, and subverting through the visual and musical forms of their own cultural and ideological language.