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What is the Definition of a Circus?

03/07/2015 16:38 BST | Updated 02/07/2016 10:59 BST

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Zippos Circus (Photo: Piet-Hein Out, courtesy Zippos)

A recent article of mine on whether contemporary circus needs a new name to separate it from traditional circuses has sparked a fair bit of debate. I wrote the piece in response to some comments by contemporary circus people that sought to distance themselves from what Charlie Wood of the Edinburgh Fringe's Circus Hub called the "nasty tents" and "hack clowns" of traditional circus.

If the c-word has such negative connotations for them, I argued, why don't they come up with a new name for a new form of entertainment that while using circus skills generally results in something that looks and feels very different from what many people would call a circus?

But can we define what a circus actually is? For me:

It doesn't have to have animals - the Moscow State Circus is an example without them.

It doesn't have to be in a tent - the Yarmouth Hippodrome is a purpose-built circus building, and the very first circuses were in amphitheatres.

It can have themes and storylines - Giffords Circus mixes theatre with the traditional elements of a big top, sawdust ring and horses.

But for all the differences between the above shows, they have one thing in common: a programme comprised of a variety of different acts.

All the acts in Philip Astley's original circus - horse riding, acrobats, strong man, clown - existed for hundreds or even thousands of years before he brought them together in a single show. So if Astley is by general consent the Father of the Circus, it must surely be the bringing together of disparate acts into a whole that's bigger than the sum of the parts that defines the art form.

Many acts have been introduced to the circus since Astley's time: the flying trapeze; magic; wild west displays and other historical re-enactments. The strength of the format is that it can incorporate just about anything: kung fu, performing budgies, human cannonball, motorbikes, hypnotism.

It's the continual changing of the line-up - the constant search for a unique must-see attraction - that has kept the circus popular for 250 years. And it's because of the constantly changing repertoire, as different acts come and go, that it's hard to say any one act is essential. If a circus can have flying trapeze or not and still be a circus, it should be able to have animals or not and still be a circus. It's the format that makes it a circus, not the content.

By the same token, individual acts are not in isolation circuses.

Clowns, for example, are often seen as the 'face' of the circus. But clowns also work outside of circuses (party clowns, for instance) and when they do, their show is not circus, it's clowning.

Jugglers are a circus staple. But a juggling troupe performing at a festival is not a circus - it's a juggling show.

Perhaps labels shouldn't matter. But when two similar but different things are being compared and one judged better than another, it's important that everyone understands what they are talking about.

It recently pained me to read an article that described Bromance by the Barely Methodical Troupe as "circus at its purest." By "pure," I guess the writer meant unadorned. The show is performed on a bare stage largely without props or equipment. But the show is more a case of gymnastics at its purest than circus.

Zippos or Giffords would be better examples of circus purity, since they retain the elements of Astley's first circus: horse riding skills, a circus ring and a variety of other acts.

The idea of defining circus as format is not about it being traditional or contemporary, incidentally, and there's no reason why circus can't up date; in fact, it always has.

Cirque Berserk is basically Zippos circus minus the animals, dressed in a more contemporary way and relocated from a tent to a theatre. It's an exciting modern presentation but just as much a circus as its parent.

Cirque du Soleil - the progenitor of new circus - may have linked its acts with a theme of storyline, just as Russian circuses had before them, but it too retained the format of a lot of different acts, and different types of act, being brought together into the same show - a circus.

Many of the smaller companies calling themselves circus today, by contrast, are basically single act shows that are using circus skills in a non-circus context. They are the ones that should be calling themselves by a different name. And why not, if the image of circus is such a burden to them that people like Charlie Wood have to battle popular perceptions of what circus is?

Instead of trying to redefine circus in their own image, why not leave the C-word to circuses and come up with a new one that better defines the different art form they've created?

As an example, I'll leave you with Thomas Chipperfield's An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Wow, you might think, big cats in a big top - 'Tiger Douglas' is going to like that! And, of course, I do. But since it contains no other acts (as far as I know) I wouldn't call it a circus. And neither, it seems, would Chipperfield.

"What we are doing isn't actually a circus," he told BBC Radio Wales, "It's animals in a show."

Wouldn't it be more accurate if certain other shows said, "What we are doing isn't actually circus, it's gymnastics and dance in a piece of conceptual theatre."

The article originally appeared on the author's blog, Circus Mania.