If an early 20th century American were to attend a circus somewhere in Europe, he might be in for a shock to see no exotic animals, gypsy women with mustaches or something equally "exotic" according to him. This is primarily because circus has a whole different meaning once you cross the Atlantic. In Europe, especially in countries like Russia, France, Ukraine and Romania, circus is seen as a cultural event where acrobats and people with certain skills or talents could exhibit their mettle.
The idea behind such shows is to create a sense of awe in the audience, which involves a certain sense of respect toward the performers. Traditional American circus, however, has more or less been an avenue for ordinary Americans to get out of their daily lives and enjoy exhibitions where the "exotic" and the '"freaks" are on display. Most of these exhibits are not there because of what they can do but simply because of what they are perceived to be -- "not normal."
But certainly, one cannot stereotype an entire nation based on how people behaved in the early 20th century. There is something more American about the circus that transpired in the 19th century.
The biggest showman in the country at that time and perhaps the most famous American in the entertainment business was PT Barnum. Besides being everything that he was, he was predominantly a showman: "I am a showman by profession... and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me," and his personal aims were "to put money in his own coffers."
In the year 1841, Barnum faced a tough logistical issue when he opened his first museum of oddities -- customers who came in did not want to leave, thus making it difficult for him to accommodate new patrons into the venue. Displaying a stroke of genius, Barnum posted a sign reading "This way to the Egress," exploiting the fact that most visitors had no idea that egress meant exit. So while they expected the doorway to lead to some newer chamber filled with exotic oddities, they actually ended up outdoors. If they wanted to get in, they had to spend another quarter. The money started flowing again.
This anecdote, in a way, is a part of history because this little incident displays everything that circus was to Americans -- a spectacle, an illusion, a lot of confusion, something wholly out of the ordinary, all garnished with good old American salesmanship.
Let us explore how the decline of American circus was a direct result of this very Americanism, but, to do that we need to first understand the attitude that justifies such differences, especially when we juxtapose all of this with the European model. While the American circus industry enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the '70s, Europe went through the same earlier in the century. In Paris, they called it "nouveau cirque" (new circus). The glitz and the brightness of traditional shows were suddenly replaced by sleek white tents where the fashionable elite sat on red velvet couches and the performers are not merely acrobats, daredevils or illusionists but also actors and singers. And it was far from the carnival-esque feel of earlier times as these performers would recite anything from Proust to Bob Dylan.
Circuses, as figures and stats tell us, have been booming all over the world. Currently, France has over 450 troupes in the country and over 600 schools where people from all over the world enrol to train in various circus related disciplines. Even countries like Belgium, Mexico, Australia, Canada and about 20-odd nations have established professional circus training grounds. Even USA has a good number of circus schools like New York Circus Arts, School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Seattle, South Florida Circus Arts School in Miami Beach, etc.
However, there's a stark difference in how circus operates in America and the rest of the world.
Just like most other art forms, European progressive governments recognized the artistic importance of circus and to promote the culture, they subsidized it. In 1979, France even shifted its Circus programs from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Culture. In America, the scene was different and this had nothing to do with lack of talent because talent was abundant. In 1974, some talented performers and actors joined forces in California to form the Pickle Family Circus. A few years down the line, New York witnessed the golden years of the Big Apple Circus. But the old reputation of the circus, of being rough and less aristocratic and encouraging petty crimes like pick-pocketing, still lingered. Even though there are many schools in America training acrobats, none of them, unlike their European or Canadian counterparts, offers a degree in dance or acrobats.
And then there's the question of competition. The elite attend expensive galas, the masses go to the movies and Broadway and the future teens who are to rule the future have seen everything there is to be seen on their smartphone. Without sugarcoating it, let's accept that the circus will not survive our generation unless the state comes to its rescue. Agreed, that circus itself needs to change its perception in the minds of people but if the state were to allow festivals and remove some red tape when it comes to arranging such events, it would quicken things up. Currently, circuses are completely banned in Connecticut and the New York State council on Arts has banned all kinds of funding that fall under the broader umbrella ironically named "variety," which unfortunately includes circuses. Art institutions spread across America could help out by shepherding circus to the mainstream so that already established circus companies in the country, like Chicago's 500 Clown, Kansas City's Quixotic, San Francisco's Sweet Can and Santa Fe Paper Doll Militia could have a level playing field while competing with other art forms.
Paul Binder, one of the founders of the 70's Big Apple Circus ruminates:
"The circus, in many forms, but in one singular shape - the circle- has survived for centuries the flood, pestilence, famine and terrorism that haunts the human race. Its antecedents can be traced to prehistory and were at the heart and soul of the tribal cultures that existed in those times. Indeed, the circus is part of our humanity, it's as if it is a strand of our DNA. The circus arts address our continual struggle for survival. Watching an acrobat throw a triple somersault affirms our uncanny ability to look improbability in the face and to jump, knowing that a net will appear. The circus is a nimble art form, adapting to the communal needs of each society."
To ensure the survival and the subsequent revival of this art, what is mostly important is that we, the audience need to communicate properly so that such events, regardless of scale, can be promoted everywhere in America.