Still Daring. The Trapeze Flies On.
By some accounts the circus died in the nineteen eighties. Television, video games and CGI movies and now immersive VR have all, at some time taken on the mantle of cool kid on the block and each has in turn threatened to kill off completely such an old-fashioned form of dinosaur entertainment as the circus.
Yet despite the everlasting naysayers, the circus not only survives it flips the metaphorical bird at the young pretenders and seems to be growing stronger rather than weaker. Clever circus managers have learned that change is the key to survival and circuses have evolved and adapted to the modern environment. New technology, new tricks, old tricks in a new guise and the co-opting of popular cultural memes have kept the turnstiles ticking over. Sitting ringside in a County Kildare town recently watching the Tom Duffy's circus team do their thing it certainly seemed to me and my daughter that the death of the circus has been somewhat overstated.
Some troupes have gone down the road of high cost, high gloss production values led by the eight hundred pound gorilla that is Cirque du Soleil who broke a path since trodden by Cirque Berserk, Recirquel and Circolombia amongst many others. They put on the kind of shows that have Vegas residentials and regular gigs at the Edinburgh festival. They fill big venues and combine the classic circus skills and acts with very high-quality theatrical presentations and storylines. These are big city acts. The ticket price and need for large audiences to cover costs mean that such companies are almost never seen outside of major urban centres.
In the provinces and small towns, the traditional touring companies and big tops have kept pace with a significantly lower budget approach but using similar tricks. Lasers and lights have been added to the effects repertoire and contemporary pop culture references abound. There can't be many shows on the road that haven't appropriated some Marvel superhero or large chunks of the Greatest Showman movie in the ring or on the soundtrack. Keeping things contemporary and relevant is how circuses get people in the door and fill seats.
What keeps the audience glued to those seats though is an altogether more ancient kind of alchemy, one that would be familiar to musicians and actors throughout history. It's the interplay between performer and audience when everyone knows that what you see is what you get and there are no second chances if it all goes wrong. The juggler, acrobat or trapeze artist can perform a routine that has been practiced and performed a thousand times but one dropped ball, one slip or one missed catch and no-one remembers anything bar the mistake. Live performances; up close and in your face leave little room for error or any kind and absolutely nowhere to hide. Fear, joy, triumph, vulnerability and relief are all a part of being in the spotlight and these emotions are mirrored by the audience. Some players create a stronger bond and the onlookers become a bigger part of the night. It's not always the strongest or most skilful performer who best connects and gets into peoples' heads but reaching the emotions of the crowd is a huge part of being a successful performer. We want them to succeed. We will them on, sometimes watching through our fingers and ultimately, when the act reaches its climax we sit in our flip up, plastic seats and we too breathe out in a communal sacrament of relief.
The sheer danger of many circus routines draws the watcher into the spectacle. We know the stakes are always high. If something goes wrong there is no “Start again Y/N” option. The artists are bringing a lifetime of practice and dedication to produce a flawless performance night after night and we don’t just watch. We support and pray, and dream and we live in that very real moment when everything is genuinely on the edge and all outcomes are possible from Heaven to Hell, Joy or despair. While sitting ringside though consider this for a moment or two. If we, the audience are watching through our fingers and holding our breath what of the ringmaster watching his sons perform on the “Space Wheel of Death”? Two young men spinning up to the roof of the big top on some overgrown pendulum. Tumbling, skipping and turning somersaults, all the while keeping to the rhythm of the wheel. Keeping the beat and staying onboard. Whatever emotional turmoil is being experienced by the disinterested onlooker is multiplied tenfold for the father watching his sons but as well as the fear and the concern think also of the pride, the relief and the sheer joy he must feel at the close of the act when the applause rings out and the boys step out safely to take their well-earned bows.
In a world where so many things are mediated through a screen, rendered small and artificial, this very raw, authentic experience stands out. The effort out in the middle is real. The sweat is real and all of it plays out right in front of your face. No airbrushed images on display here either. The people are as real as a slap in the face. The women are good looking and the men are strong but the women are also strong and the men manage to look good. If you can’t do the job you won’t make it in the circus however pretty the face.
The economics of this form of touring entertainment dictate that many of the performers do double duty as stage hands, ushers or general dogsbodies. It’s a bit odd seeing someone flying around the ring on a spinning hoop one minute and then having that same person, in a different jacket, direct you toward the toilets. It is a bit like buying your intermission ice cream from George Clooney or Johnny Depp halfway through the movie. The contrast in roles is massive and surely a very effective treatment for anyone suffering from an inflated ego or sense of entitlement.
If you’ve never been to the circus, or haven’t visited for some years you should give it a bash. It’s a clever old dog that has constantly had to learn new tricks and possibly the perfect example of an organism that adapts to evolutionary pressures in its environment. For passive entertainment it's surprisingly immersive and there is nothing at all virtual about its reality.
The last word goes to an unknown teenager who turned to his mother as we trooped out of last week’s show and said “Whoa! Wow! That was amazing”.
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