When I was a kid, running away to join the circus was my dream of choice. The very idea of the smell of the sawdust and the animals, the vagabond life of death-defying trapeze artists and high-wire walkers and the popcorn and cotton candy conjured up a paradise almost too good to be true. When the circus came to town, it was the treat of the year.
So this gringo was really sad when The Big Apple Circus announced closure and bankruptcy last summer, ending 38 years of enchantment for kids and adults during New York’s Christmas season. Somehow, the architecturally austere Lincoln Center became a less welcoming place without the Big Apple’s happy multicolored tent dominating the foreground.
Now Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, the world’s most historic circus, founded in 1871 by the great showman P.T. Barnum, is being forced to fold its tent; victim of an age where magic is increasingly served up on electronic devices available 24/7. Quoted in the New York Times, Kenneth Feld — the 69-year-old boss of the company that owns the circus — complained about “an unforgiving marketplace. It just became too hard for the circus to hold onto its most crucial fans: wide-eyed kids and their nostalgic parents. There has been more change in the last decade than in the preceding 70 years,”
That change has drawn today’s digitally sophisticated youngsters away from the pleasures of watching real performers give everything they have to enchant the audience and earn its applause. Whether it is equestrians performing acrobatics on the backs of horses galloping around the ring at 40 kilometers per hour, an animal trainer coaxing his elephants to dance to the music of the circus band or a family of monkeys mimicking the monkeys in the audience, all great circus acts are the result of years of hard work, often beginning in childhood with circus-performing parents. Each time a circus performer goes to the center of the ring and does his act, he risks failure and, by circus tradition, must do the “trick” again until he gets it right.
Every Brazilian I’ve asked has happy memories of going to the circus as a kid — of the clowns, the acrobats, the magicians and the animals (especially the monkeys). Touring circuses are still very much a part of the culture, and the circus tent in the middle of rural towns is a favorite subject for Brazil’s naïve artists. But like their Yankee brothers, these circuses have fallen on hard times. Circus Marambio, the fourth generation of a family circus currently performing in São Paulo has juggling, tightrope walking, aerial and clowns — all within a narrative story, “Monkey Island,” about a scientist in a hang glider who crashes on an island of monkeys. He discovers a new world, where man and nature respect and learn from one another. Intentionally or not, there are echoes of Cirque du Soleil, the international success that, since the early 1990s, has become the best-known circus name worldwide, with as many as 10 different shows being performed in different cities around the world at any time.
In one form or another, circuses have been around since Roman times, when trained exotic animals wowed the crowds, while jugglers and acrobats amused guests before the next battle or race commenced. The real circus has been about those jugglers, acrobats and clowns, with animal acts added later. Circus traditionalists rightly say that Cirque du Soleil is not a real circus, however brilliant its staging. It’s a glittery show, but lacking in the essential down-to-earth art of circus — that special magic that used to connect those “wide-eyed kids and their nostalgic parents” to the very human performers in the ring.
As the big circuses close for lack of audience and funding, will there be a return to the intimacy of the traditional family circus or will the artificial magic of the digital world have destroyed one of our most enduring artistic traditions?
Let us hope that the seductive dream of running away to join the circus will not be lost forever.
P.S.: Disclaimer: As a former director of The Big Apple Circus, this gringo was thrilled to learn that as the result of a bankruptcy court-ordered auction, the circus would return this fall for the 2017-18 season, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the circus’s first performance in 1977. Lincoln Center and New York audiences will not have lost its gem — at least for the moment.