of sparkle and shadow

I am frequently consumed by the search for that which stands out as fascinating, bizarre and beautiful about the world because, quite simply: it stimulates me. This big hunk of brain I received by the sheer circumstance of being born human–it can do so much! It just wants to go. It wants to be tickled, awed, amused, puzzled, inspired and surprised…or else! Or else it will grow listless and start picking…picking old wounds, picking up rocks to throw, picking apart the faults of any and every little thing, weakening important structures until their ultimate demise. If nothing else, lack of stimulation causes a hellacious case of the doldrums.

Circuses and sideshows have provided for such needs and desires for centuries with an array of sparkling and/or perverse diversions. At the circus, we find lights illuminating daring, titillating movement; the spangles, puff and gleam of dazzling costumery; displays of the foreign, exotic and unusual; the enchantment of illusion and of witnessing feats that somersault over the boundaries of possibility–all contained within the grandeur of a giant tent to astonish, entertain and provide a few hours of work-free revelry. Frivolity.

Emily Winfield Martin

Like spun sugar, it dissolves with a sweet satisfaction, incomparable to any other natural experience. Its soft, airy texture melts away, gets you giddy and then vanishes like a phantom, leaving you wanting more and wishing it were a sustainable taste–a lasting sensation. And like spun sugar, the circus also has its dark side. The big top is a shadowy place. The backstage realities of the performers have often been far from sugar-coated, many of them seeking asylum from life’s myriad unpleasantries in the nomadic anonymity. The life of a traveller with a physically demanding occupation eventually takes its toll; some of the more dangerous acts have resulted in injury, disability or death for an unlucky roster of performers. On the other hand, physical abnormalities and strange talents actually provided some with work in the sideshows–outfits which often traveled along with the circus, presenting oddities normally relegated to the cultural shadows. I have been learning about this subject as well, but think it best to treat it in another post.

I gifted myself an enormous, rather heavy book that is as rich in information as it is beautiful. Taschen’s The Circus Book: 1870-1950 by Noel Daniel is full of gorgeous old photographs and prints from the golden days of the circus. Each chapter and caption is written in English, French and German consecutively, which accounts for its extra-large size. It goes into depth about the historical roots, the backstage culture, different types of acts, the way it influenced feminine “emancipation”, and so much more. In fact, this is the book that helped me identify one of the reasons I love the circus so much: women could be tough, brave, clever, talented and glamorous. I’ve noticed that most of the images and stories I’m drawn to feature feminine subjects (impersonators and half-and-halfs included); I acknowledge my bias.

Chinese entertainers

The roots of the circus can be found in Egypt some 5,000 years ago, where acrobats and jugglers were immortalized in graphic depictions. 2,000 years ago, Chinese jugglers, acrobats and magicians performed during the harvest celebrations of the Han dynasty.

Other historical ties include the priests of Cybele, an earth mother goddess cult in Asia Minor comprised of either transgendered males or eunuchs that traveled around trying to convert people by way of their blessed performances. The idea was that the seemingly super-human skills and magic of their performers were a product of divinity. Eventually, the performers realized that the audiences appreciated their acts for what they were–exhibitions of human talent and practiced skill. In time, the performers cleaved their acts from their religious affiliations and were considered witches and consorts of the devil thereafter–a disdain which seems to have followed artists of this ilk for centuries.

Phillip Astley Esq.

The first technical circus was created just outside of London near Westminster Bridge by Sergeant Major Philip Astley in 1770. It was originally a place where he displayed his “equestrian prowess”, being a horseman with flamboyant style and a head for business. He later developed it into a riding school, and then eventually decided that his performances could have more sway over audiences and continue to make money if he brought in other acts, like jugglers, rope dancers, and acrobats from London’s theatres. The term ‘circus’ is Latin for circle, which is a nod to the ring that horses are traditionally ridden in and which has remained a tradition up to the present day, thanks to this enterprising bloke. While Astley was the first to bring performances to a ring in this fashion, it was in 1782 that Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin first used the word ‘circus’ to identify their performance space ‘The Royal Circus Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy’ or simply, ‘The Royal Circus’, which was a permanent structure situated conveniently nearby Astley’s Amphitheatre.

Astley's Amphitheatre

John Bill Rickets was a protege of Astley’s who brought the circus stateside to Philadelphia, Boston and New York, though these early stirrings were housed typically in wooden structures that were built in advance of the circus’ arrival. Due to high construction costs, this was a burdensome model, and rather disadvantageous, especially since people couldn’t smoke in these structures for fear of being enveloped in flames ignited by a single errant butt. So then, the circus began to pitch tents and travel from town to town. Then, they spread like a wildfire of delight across the entire countryside.

These diversions were most popular when transportation was limited and there were few entertainment options available to the landlocked, moderately isolated country. Covered wagons and rivers were used to move the show before trains came along. When the tracks were laid, the circuses became big business.

In fact, the circus was the original show business. When the circus came to town, everything else would shut down to enjoy the one time a year that such extravagant spectacularity was readily available.

Moving picture shows stole the crowds quite a bit around the early 1900s.  When the film industry took off, the circus followed suit and promoted their stars similarly; celebrity status was given to the biggest acts and the tabloids followed their lives accordingly. This helped them compete for a time but when most households acquired radios, the number of circus-goers further diminished. Television was another devastating blow to the circus industry. Strangely, during these waning years, war tended to revive the ticket sales, as everyone was hungry for something to take their mind off of hard times and missing loved ones. Since the beginning of the end, the circus has seen a steady decline in popularity and thusly, revenue. Sadly, it is no longer as viable a way to earn a living, yet there are still some stragglers perpetuating these traditions and making circus magic happen in the modern world–I will write about these circuses and other potential evolutionary offshoots in a future post.

Speaking of films and circus, I recently watched Water for Elephants. I had heard wonderful things about the book and thought I’d just have an abbreviated experience, enjoy the aesthetic of the film and get the bones of the story. I would still like to read the book, as I imagine the story would be stronger and then I wouldn’t be distracted by my mild distaste for Reese Witherspoon’s performance. To be honest, I didn’t love the casting for any of the lead roles but I did think the cinematography was good and I liked the styling. Ultimately, the animals were my favorite characters.

I much prefer Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which I believe better captures what I’ve surmised to be the spirit of the circus. The narrator gives an excellent discourse on this subject and the direction of the film beautifully illustrates so many of the essential elements. Plus, I love the songs and dancing; I really appreciate how talented actors had to be in eras past–singing and dancing well was part of their job. Multi-faceted talent is so much dreamier.

In addition to my studies of the history and culture of circuses and sideshows, I am also building my very own circus skills. It’s terribly exciting! I did my first unassisted handstand after practicing for weeks with the door frame; I seemed to have randomly found the perfect point of balance where my legs were both extended above me and, for a few moments, my upside-down, vertically oriented body was comfortably still. Totally thrilling! I’ve been able to replicate it, though with slightly less success. The key is in not thinking about it–just doing it without trying too hard (which is applicable to many other activities and processes). I also started attending an aerial conditioning class, in which I learned how to climb the silks and do a pike position while suspended from my wrists, parallel to the floor. I’m scared of heights as well as the pain and humiliation of falling/failing in front of people, so this was quite a victory for me indeed. My goal is more to confront these fears as well as to gain strength, flexibility and confidence–it’s less about becoming an aerial dancer. Who knows where it will lead, though…I’m super excited for my next class!

I’ve also been practicing my musical saw and singing incessantly. My saw-playing is still a bit rusty (get it?!) but in time, I will be ready to share it with others. Here’s a charming saw duet:

And here are a few circus babes for good measure.


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