Exploring the world of the modern circus, Duncan Wall finds it has nothing to do with elephants or clowns in floppy shoes.
Like me, the author of this circus book grew up with no fond feelings for the circus. The circus wasn’t funny. It wasn’t fun. Dated, faded and tattered, greasy and boring, the circus didn’t thrill or chill him or interest him any more than, say, reruns of “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
But during his senior year abroad in Paris, Duncan Wall became enchanted by what is called the modern or new circus (“nouveau cirque” in French). It offers no elephants, no animals at all, no ringleaders, no rings. Instead, the French circus that he discovered (and found in smaller scale around the world) is energized by young people of all nationalities, actually studying circus skills at schools backed by big bucks from the French government. Le nouveau cirque even turns up its nose at Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, perhaps the world’s best known circus, claiming it aims higher, to be not just about entertainment but creative play, athleticism and — that grand word — art.
Wall subsequently wins himself a Fulbright grant to study the modern circus, and its ancient and recent precursors, while enrolled for a year at France’s tuition-free National School for the Circus Arts. (Canada, Belgium and Australia also have national circus schools but, nope, not the United States.)
He flubs his first of many handstands, almost dies of fright on the trapeze and is humbled by the skills of his fellow French students who, he realizes, began studying circus skills in grade school. But this Milwaukee kid, the son of corporate accountants, is game and determined, and we see him grow into a passable performer who even acquires for his wardrobe a colorful scarf.
Meticulously researched, intensely reported and brightly written, “The Ordinary Acrobat” seduced even me into respecting the circus’ early mission: to mesmerize at a time when nobody went anywhere or knew anyone but their neighbors. Traveling circuses were, Wall writes, “living fairy tales of freaks and heroes that swooped into town one night and vanished the next.” I came also to know and respect its performers: true athletes eventually caught in a self-preserving tradition (no act longer than 7 minutes, for example) that stifled creativity and ultimately sucked the circus’ reputation dry.
I am now on the lookout for modern circus performances I might attend, not in the expensive glamour of Cirque du Soleil (to which Wall devotes a respectful chapter) but amid an intimate collection of human beings using their bodies to tell a tale, perhaps, to provoke me, perhaps, but always to arouse in me the opposite of apathy. In le nouveau cirque, for example, juggling is known as “object manipulation” or “dexterity play,” and Wall reports seeing it done with “plastic bags, leather boots, glasses, feathers, swords, sofas, sawhorses, tea bags, cups of yogurt, slide rules, origami cranes, and a pair of unruly khakis.”
If you are afraid of this book because you are afraid of clowns (it’s called coulrophobia and is not uncommon), relax. His pages on clowning elevate the sloppy, confused hack into a genius of empathy, timing and soul, the one at your child’s birthday party excepted.
Calling himself a “rookie writer,” Wall nonetheless achieves here an entertaining, artistic several-hour act that leaves indelible impressions. He came, he writes, “to love the circus that had bored me as a boy.” The good news: This child of the Midwest now teaches circus history at Canada’s national circus school in Montreal, and performs in a modern clown-theater company he founded.
Susan Ager, a former writer for the Detroit Free Press, is at email@example.com