A Fulbright fellow immerses himself in the remarkable history of circuses.
For generations, people have run away to the circus; in 2003, Wall followed suit. In his debut memoir, the author recounts the unique circumstances that led him down this unexpected path. After receiving a fellowship to study “contemporary circus,” Wall enrolled in the National School for the Circus Arts in France, where he soon learned the stark differences between the American circus and the European model. Historically, European circuses were known for their intimate performances, while American circuses placed their focus elsewhere. “In the big American circuses,” Wall writes, “all this familiarity and precision was gone, sacrificed for other pleasures: spectacle, pageantry, sensory stimulation….” Simply put: American circuses were more interested in turning a profit than a perfect backflip. Wall sought to train alongside the world’s best circus performers. His immersion into the ranks of acrobats, jugglers and clowns provides a behind-the-scenes look into a world spectators know little about. While readers likely have some familiarity with the traditional circus performance, they will be surprised to learn the level of dedication required for performers to hone their skills. This proves particularly true in Europe, where performers are considered artists and masters of their craft. Upon his entrance into the National School, Wall was soon humbled to learn that he was no master. At the start of the semester, even a somersault proved too complex. “It was, after all, why I had come,” he writes: “to get a glimpse of the incalculable amount of effort, embarrassment, and pain behind the seemingly effortless skills.”
Blending cultural history with biography, memoir and travelogue, Wall’s carefully balanced book is, in itself, a successful tightrope traverse.