When we think of the circus in America, we tend to conjure the image of the big top, rising red and white in a field on the edge of town. We taste stale peanuts and the sticky floss of cotton candy; and even if we’ve never heard it in person, we imagine the crack of the ringmaster’s whip.
Before he began an academic and experiential study of the circus, this is how Duncan Wall envisioned the circus, too. Wall’s book, The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present, begins like this: “Growing up, I had no connection to the circus. My ancestors weren’t acrobats or wire-walkers; I’m aware of no Gypsy blood.”
Wall stumbled into contemporary circus by accident, while studying abroad in France. “It was easily the most theatrical thing I had ever seen—physical, tough, intelligent,” Wall writes. “The movements were part of a poetic, cohesive whole. It was visceral, real, and admirably raw.”
In 2003, Wall received a Fulbright fellowship to study circus at France’s National Circus School, the place where aspiring tumblers, trapezists, jugglers and clowns train to become professionals.
At first, it was difficult to separate the dominant cultural archetypes of the circus from the contemporary art form evolving in France. “The circus was so huge in America, that by the end of the 19th century, it was the equivalent of the NBA and Hollywood combined,” Wall says. “Because the circus was so popular and so specific, it made an strong impression on the cultural consciousness, so much so that it’s hard to think about the circus as anything but that kind of circus.”
The book’s title is telling–Wall wasn’t exactly a natural. Juggling was a struggle, and it took weeks to perfect a somersault in tumbling class. But Wall is endearing and fearless: he learns to hang by his knees from the trapeze bar, even though he’s terrified. Eventually, Wall even founded a touring clown company, the now-defunct Canditos. Today, he teaches circus history and aesthetics at École Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s national circus school.
In tandem with his practical training in France, Wall studied the history of the circus in Europe and the United States, examining how two distinct cultures evolved around the circus on each continent, and the role of government funding and support for the circus in Europe. Throughout, The Ordinary Acrobat offers capsule histories of some of the circus’ legendary performers, like Philip Astley, the “father of the circus” who pioneered equestrian acrobatics in 1760s London, or “The Queen of the Boulevard,” AKA Madame Saqui, a famed rope-walker of the late 18th century.
The Ordinary Acrobat balances circus history with an exploration of the art in the present. Wall’s understanding of the circus’ past gives the book depth and context. During his time in France, Wall took a history course with circus expert Pascal Jacob. Wall also went on excursions to see “hard circuses,” permanent theaters and arenas, a few of which still stand. He made pilgrimages to gravesites, including Astley’s in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery.
“I had become increasingly interested in what Pascal once referred to as ‘ghost hunting’—of connecting to history through a tangible experience, even if that experience was sparse,” Wall writes. “When you get into the history and read the stories of these people and events, you want to connect to the places in the world to remind you of how real they are,” he elaborates in an interview. “Because the circus is this ephemeral art form that was ignored historically, it’s hard to find these touchstones, but when you go to the old theaters, it’s like the Sistine Chapel of circus history: you can feel it breathing.”
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of Wall’s exploration is the revelation that the circus is alive and well. Moreover, today’s circuses maintain the art’s romantic spectacle while becoming progressively inclusive. In March, Wall will embark on Circus Now, part book tour and part celebration of emerging circuses in seven U.S. cities. “When I’ve introduced people to contemporary circus, they’re like, ‘What is this? It’s so cool!’” Wall says. “I nod and smile knowingly, because I experienced exactly the same feeling.”
If theatrical performers are born with grease paint in their blood, those who join the circus can’t shake the sawdust from their shoes. “The circus is happening all over America,” Wall says. “One of its central tenets is that it’s changing as an art form. There’s a natural level of diversity, and the notion that you had to be kind of special to be in the circus is being eradicated. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: the circus has a place for everybody, even if you can’t do a double back flip.”
Adele Oliveira is a journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she writes for The Santa Fe New Mexican, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.