Last Update: May 2007

Circus and Society
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Circus and Society

The occasion for opening a virtual symposium on the topic of “circus and society” was provided by a conference that was organized in Australia by the University of Wollongong in December 2007. Prof.James Skidmore (Memorial University of Newfoundland), who participated in this event, summarizes its proceedings below. As he points out, this conference was co-organized by the professional association of Australian circuses, and involved the contributions of circus artists, students and administrators. Some of the papers, reports, and round table discussions that were part of the Wollongong meeting will be posted on this website as they become available. Other contributions relevant to the issues discussed can be submitted to Paul Bouissac. Links to important sources of information regarding the role of the circus in contemporary society are also welcome.


Circus Bodies Defy the Risk of Falling
Peta Tait(La Trobe University)

Danger in circus performance: The case of the 1970s British traveling show
Yoram S. Carmeli(Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Haifa)

Dark and Ancient Roots - the Circus of the Sun
Jamie Skidmore(Memorial University)

Acts of Conscience
Dr. Jane Mullett

Timeless Circus in Times of Change
Paul Bouissac (University of Toronto)

Papers are in PDF format

During ACAPTA’s Fabulous Risk conference, held in September 2006, I presented a paper discussing the value of including circus in programs of physical education for youngsters, and how circus compared favourably to traditional Australian sporting alternatives such as football, basketball, tennis and cricket.
This article will expand on some of those thoughts, and fill in some of the missing details and background from my argument. However first and foremost I should point out that, not having a passionate interest in any of the sporting activities mentioned above, I may be accused of failing to see what it is about them that attracts such devotion. To begin with then, I will simply state that I consider the fundamental difference between circus and sport to be; whereas circus encourages the opening up of attitudes, definitions and choices, sport actively functions in closing down these same categories, limiting its participants within restricted social roles, and at the same time discouraging analysis and examination of these roles.

Despite their differences, circus and sport do share several common features, the most ordinary of which is their basic physical nature. Also at the conference, Paul Bouissac from the University of Toronto explained that both activities use a shared language of physical actions that the audience instinctively recognise and appreciate. These actions, such as throwing, catching, dropping, running, leaping and falling etc. relate to what were once the basic conditions of survival for our evolutionary ancestors. The argument made by Bouissac was that we then recognise these actions on a purely unreflective level of our consciousness, and that watching them performed taps a communal physical language which creates a direct involvement of the audience within the spectacle of both circus and sport.

Which is all very well, but on top of this physical framework, there is also the thick and fatty layer of social meaning, and wrestling our way through this gelatinous muck we discover a few very serious (and very sticky) differences between circus and sport.

The most overwhelming is that the type of sports I am discussing are essentially simulations of combat. Australians, in their popular culture at least, appear to have a brutal thirst for the types of sport which pit one determined, ruthless and heroic team of (preferably) men, against another team of the same type. Several recent articles have discussed the political role of sport in Australian society, most notably identifying it as a war-like (or perhaps War Lite ©) activity which is in turn surrounded by the same mass hysteria whipped up through the rhetoric of mateship, glory, struggle and Aussy pride by war-time governments. From this observation conclusions are drawn about the manner in which sport operates as a cultural training ground that shapes and moulds us to be the good Australian citizens that we are.

I smell a conspiracy theory coming on, you say, rubbing your hands with feverish glee, lets see how the state REALLY operates! My apologies, but perhaps that’s a topic for an article in the not too distant future.

The important point is that these sports not only share a physical language with the evolutionary necessity of violence, and thus War, but can also be observed to share something of the social language of war as well.

As a cultural activity for the popular crowd, the ideas and definitions that are created by sport resonate throughout its audience. Some examples that could be given include the obvious prejudice towards forms of male physicality and aggression, hysterical (and blind) devotion to a team or ‘side’ engaged in a combative activity, as well as a worrying hatred of those who enforce the ‘rules’ (read morals) of any such combat, such as the umpire. Making the connection between these examples and the way that Australia (and America) dismissed the UN in order to invade Iraq and “get” the terrorists, is a leap, but not an impossible extension of this concept.

Suffice to say that the Australian industry of sport, and its intricate connections with the mass media and the political climate of our country is a topic which a braver writer than I is called towards, holding his nose as he rummages through sweaty pint glasses of homophobia, misogyny, racism, and John Howard’s green and gold jogging suit. Not for me thanks.

The focus of this here article is on positive forms of education through circus. Of course any argument about our cultural and social roles, as shaped by various activities, must start with our time in the school yard. Throughout primary school and high school we are exposed to an enormous amount of information – one of these being a set of dominant physical conventions which are enshrined in our Phys Ed class. Typical competitive school sports (again) teach children to accept things such as male domination, aggressive behaviour, physical competition and humiliation, winning at all costs and varying standards of ability as the normal and natural order of things.

Physical Education is obviously a necessary part of any curriculum, but unfortunately the general vision of what it entails is rather limited. To teach children how to take responsibility for their own physical needs, - such as participating in a neighbourhood walk-to-school bus - and how to create in them an enjoyment of physical exercise is something which should have a much broader area of input. Circus is a entirely more positive and ‘open’ way for children to learn and experience alternative forms of physicality.

One of the most fundamental differences between sport games and circus is that circus is non-competitive. As a performance based activity its emphasis is on the shared enjoyment of entertaining with (and being entertained by), beauty, grace, humour, spectacle and risk. This means that kids can take pride in their activity, just for being able to do it, rather than relying on their success in defeating the other team.

This is another essential point – that circus encourages the practice of skill and dexterity for the value inherent in the activity itself – not for their tactical advantage only. No child is going to ask Why? They are learning how to tumble – which kid doesn’t want to be able to cartwheel?

Circus also encourages positive group relations within troupes or classes. Rather than one set of actions which everyone must practice, circus engenders teamwork within diversity simply by the sheer number of skills that can be taken up. A good performance has not only acrobats and aerialists, but also jugglers, contortionists, clowns, ringmasters and even freaks! By making the benefits of diversity obvious, and by encompassing such a wide skill range, circus breaks down stereotypes of the ideal physical form which so many kids struggle with.

This leads into another point about humour and performance – the shyest, fattest, nerdi-est kid in the back of the class could turn out to be the brightest and wittiest comedian or clown. Circus in schools can allow those children whose self-confidence or fitness stops them from success in one area, to find themselves in another. Encouraged in the right way, this can save us all from many years of angsty university comedians, and young teenage eye-makeup wearing emos. Tell the kids that they’re great right from the start and we all win.

A counter-argument which may be given for the merit of traditional sports is that they promote teamwork which uses co-operation and trust to achieve a goal. However this brings me to my final point, concerning the nature of the activities themselves.

The final and fundamental difference between these two forms is that sport is governed by a archaic and restrictive set of Rules (with a capital aRh), which are fundamental to the game. You cannot play sport without the Rules. This in turn cheapens the co-operation which is employed by those playing, for reasons which I don’t feel that I need to expand upon.

On the extreme other-hand Circus enshrines the valuable principle of creativity – thus where sport is ‘closed’ as a form of activity, Circus is ‘open’. In circus, there are no rules, only guidelines of safety. This freedom to create encourages kids to work together, to set their own goals, to imagine and to share, and these valuable things should not be turned away from lightly.

Within education, it is a constant struggle to hold and keep children’s interest long enough to in fact teach them something valuable about their lives as young humans. (I should know having been the resident trouble maker in primary school. Little wonder I’m now a bloody feral anarchist 1) By teaching Circus alongside sport in Australian schools, we can begin to resolve behavioural and social problems before they take hold. While it is somewhat arrogant to leap from primary education to questions of broader society, I think that the differences engendered by the two activities are clear enough to provide a compelling argument for an alternative type of physical education for children, and given the hold that Youth Circus has within the circus community right now, it seems that the iron is hot to strike forward with these new ideas.



1 and someone who has continued into tertiary education, I should point out :D

Fabulous Risk: Danger and Performance in Circus and Sideshow
A James Skidmore

How does one make “risk” – fabulous?  This was the question posed by the 2006 Fabulous Risk: Danger and Performance in Circus and Sideshow conference held in Wollongong, Australia from December 1st to 3rd.  Held inside the Circus Monoxide Big Top, the conference brought together circus scholars, educators, performers, and students to discuss and explore the dangers and the delights of circus in Australia and Canada.

The term “fabulous,” when used to describe “risk,” suggests either a relationship to extreme beauty or to mythology.   The finely tuned and sculpted body of a circus artist lends itself to the first description, and the extraordinary risk the circus body is subjected to often assumes a “mythology” of its own.  Circus performers have the ability to execute superhuman feats when they step into the circus ring, suddenly able to “fly,” to “defy the laws of gravity,” or to lift “extraordinary” amounts of weight.   “Fabulous,” in the context of this conference, also acquires an ironic twist when exploring the construction of the sideshow performer.  Once considered offensive or startling, the “freakshow” performer is often considered to be endowed with a beautifully “grotesque” form, by contemporary sideshow scholars.  The Tattooed Lady and Lobster Boy are now revered as carefully constructed icons of the sideshow, which often hold a distorted mirror up to the culture within which they exist.

The Fabulous Risk conference offered a series of performances and papers largely focusing on the corporeal body of the circus, sideshow, and burlesque performer at risk and at play.  Dr. Peta Tait of La Trobe University discussed the relationship of the performer’s body to culture; Dr. Paul Bouissac of the University of Toronto spoke on innate skills of the circus artist that have been genetically inherited and are essential to a performer’s “survival” in the ring; and Dr. Richard Broome of La Trobe University argued that sideshows provided a “community” for “freaks,” rather than a system of exploitation.  Other papers focused on the construction of the tattooed lady, the ancient origins of many “modern” circus acts, and burlesque performance in Australia.

Interspersed with the papers were a series of aerial, clown, and sideshow performances, culminating in a 2-hour circus featuring many young and aspiring Australian circus artists, and a number of well-seasoned performers.  Performance highlights included former Happy Sideshow member Shep Huntley swinging a car battery from his pierced nipples while electricity surged through his body; the seductive aerial artistry of Violet Morrison, “enjoying an erotic bath on the trapeze;” and the clowning of the “Birdman,” Trent Bauman, who seemed to end each act wearing only his “tightie-whities.”  Jane Davis’ Half-High Circus’ high-energy performance sent as many shocks through the audience as Huntley’s 12-volt battery.   Dressed as super-heroes, this young, after-school performance troop combined a well-crafted,  stationary triple trapeze act with  energetic ground tumbling.

The Fabulous Risk: Danger and Performance in Circus and Sideshow conference was sponsored by The University of Wollongong’s Centre for Canadian Australian Studies, in association with the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association (ACAPTA).

Information: Paul Bouissac   
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