In his memoir, The Ordinary Acrobat, Duncan Wall shares how he fell in with the “new circus,” exploring its beginnings and leading a romantic tour of Parisian circus life both past and present.
You first came to Paris as a student with no particular interest in the circus. What were you studying and what caused you to change direction?
I was studying abroad, something like “critical studies,” which really meant critical theory, mostly of philosophy and cinema. The circus captivated me for the way it bound up so much of what I was interested in before. I grew up with this sort of dual personality: I was kind of an athlete; I played competitive soccer my whole life, wrestled, and dabbled in martial arts. But I also was always a big reader and wrote little stories, and in college got into theater and dance. And the circus, or at least the circus that I saw, was just all of this melded into a single performance. It was physical and expressive and smart and sensual. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a kind of total theater that I’d conceptualized but never experienced.
How is the “new circus” different from the one that Americans are familiar with?
The traditional circus was built on a series of “codes.”. The vast majority of the shows were the same: the same sort of acts in the same-sized ring; there was a structure you adhered to by tradition.
With the arrival of the new circus, artists and circus directors basically abandoned these codes in favor a more open, more expressive form. They put shows on stages instead of rings; they got rid of the old costumes; they gave their shows stories and choreography: they kept the physicality of the acts, but called everything else into question. Does a circus need a ringmaster? Does a circus need animals? Does a performer have to acknowledge the audience? It was the same kind of question modern dancers asked decades before.
More fundamentally, the “new circus” or “contemporary circus” is a circus with meaning. In the “traditional” circus, a guy may come on, throw a flip on a trapeze, bow, and go off. You applauded his skill and his daring, and conceivably the superhuman amount of work that went into his training, but his act was a display. The contemporary circus aspires to something more complex, if not more profound.
Circus history is blended throughout the book as you discover the background of the skills you were learning. What were a few things that surprised you?
Maybe all historians feel the same way, but I suspect the circus is especially replete with fascinating, undiscovered stories. I regularly felt like I found characters worthy of their own book or screenplay: Madame Saqui, Napoleon’s rope-dancing lover; Jules Leotard, the inventor of the flying trapeze and European sex symbol; Philip Astley, the British cavalier who invented the circus and then disappeared from history.
I was also shocked at how diverse the circus was historically. Before doing the research I had presumed that the modern movement was the real fluorescence of the art, but in fact it was different all over the world, sometimes radically different. In 19th- century Paris, for example, the circus was aristocratic, as refined and respected as the ballet or the opera. In America, it became the enormous popular art form that still lives in our cultural consciousness. But even this was fascinating, because of just how insanely popular it was. Imagine the NFL, the NBA, and Hollywood combined. That was the circus in 1900.
Apart from the amazing physical ability of circus performers, there also seems to be a deep-seated mental, even mystical, quality on the part of the participants. How was that conveyed to you and how did it affect your own work?
It depends on the performer, but I’d say that the circus is no different from any other art in this regard. I think of the Pina Bausch mantra: “Dance, dance, or we are lost.” I think what makes it surprising to hear such talk from circus performers is that we’re not used it, a) because we don’t think of them as giving their work consistent meaning, and b) because we’ve reduced the art to such simplicity in our heads that we presume it’s simply made. In fact, even before the “contemporary circus” came into being, there were circus artists who approached the work with an intensity of feeling and intention that rivaled any other form: Sergei Ignatov, a Russian juggler; Grock, the Swiss clown. That’s why we called them circus artists.
The phrase “to build a clown” is intriguing. You were (are?) part of a clown group after finishing your training. Just how did you build a clown?
Some might argue with me, but I don’t think that “building a clown” is so different from building a character, except that in clowning your character is usually based at least in part on yourself, which adds more complex psychological dimensions. My own understanding of how to “build a clown” (or “find your clown” as some like to say) was pretty undeveloped, so I took the most traditional approach: I considered qualities that I had always seen as flaws or quirks in some way, and expanded on them to the point that they became features. I have a kind of stiff walk, so it became almost wooden. At the most basic level, clowning is learning to celebrate your idiosyncrasies. I’m reminded of the old programmer’s expression: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”