It is important to start off the conversation about what circus art is by actually going back to the birth of the circus. Different from other artistic practices like ballet, theater and opera, circus never had a definitive history. It was always told as a tale from one artist to the other, with press agents spreading facts and stories between people rather than physically documented. There’s a controversial notion that circus came from the Ancient Roman times, though it can also be claimed that the only similarity to Ancient Rome is the word circus, which in both Latin and English means “circle.” Though I leave that debate untouched, perhaps it is necessary to note a fine line between public-driven acts of circus artists and Roman gladiators.
Modern circus, as we all know it, was born in England. One of a few accurate facts in the history of the circus is that in 1769 Philip Astley, a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman, bought a property near the Westminster Bridge in London and constructed the very first circus building – The New British School or Amphitheater Riding Ring. The first performance took place in 1770 and was a tremendous success. Interestingly enough, in the beginning Astley was the performer himself, adding later on his wife and children to the act. However, 1770 is the date that marks the first full circus performance with acrobats, clowns, and other artists all in one performance as a theatrical act. It was never called circus though, the name came around only in 1782. Before the beginning of the 19th century, circus was introduced both to King Louis XV in Fontainebleau and Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg. Circus arts have existed over time but it wasn’t until Astley when the modern circus was born—the circus we all are so used to today.
Being essentially an act of performance, circus is not struggled by language barriers or cultural misunderstandings. It’s easily understandable and transportable to other countries with large successes in multiple locations. Once circus companies started embarking on tours showcasing new programs and performances, its popularity quickly rose.
Flipping through a few centuries and coming to today’s time, it is imperative to note a few trends, or should I say, positive changes happening in the circus world. After decades of slowing down its growth, circus arts have regained their initial strength. As for today, a number of world companies are performing innovative acts that challenge the very definition of the circus. What is a performance? In fact, one starts to look at circus with absolutely different eyes. It’s becoming no longer just a place to bring your kids, but also a theatrical event, climbing to the level of a play with a certain acrobatic involvement.
The Nouveau Cirque, also called Contemporary Circus, was first formed in France in the 1970s. This new type of a circus performance, or dramatic show, has a theme or concept behind it. The involvement of animals is no longer necessary. What we see is a play, with a story, music, and dance. Of course there are also clown performances, but again they are essentially different to those we saw before. No longer is it low-base humor, but rather ironic and more sophisticated. The Nouveau Circus is as much for kids as it is for adults. More so, each age group sees and understands performances in their own way, reflecting on them after watching one, not just blindly forgetting about an act after it’s done. The circus since then became essentially a high quality performance, rather than a “bread and spectacle” show.
Here is the list of our top ten international circuses:
- Cirque du Soleil (Canada)
The biggest circus performance company in the world and the one to establish the Nouveau Cirque on the international level, Cirque du Soleil was founded in Canada by Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier in 1984. The key feature of The Circus of the Sun is that animals were never used in any performance. In fact, that was what made the company so different from others back in time. A show is often based on a tradition of a musical or opera, never stopping the action for even a second. Music is one of the most important tools during Cirque du Soleil performances in obtaining the groundbreaking effect on the audience.
- New Shanghai Circus
The Acrobats of China as they are often called, the New Shanghai Circus features one of the best groups of acrobats in the world. Established back in 1949, the circus tries to make a link between traditional Chinese acrobatic techniques and modern technology.
- Circus Oz of Australia
Circus Oz was established in Melbourne, Australia, in 1978, when two already successful Australian circus companies, Soapbox Circus and the New Circus, decided to merge together. Similar to Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz produces animal-free shows with an effort to communicate a traditional spirit of native Australia: “collective ownership and creation, gender equity, a uniquely Australian signature and team-work.”
- ROSGOSCIRK (Russian State Circus Company)
The Russian State Company is the largest circus company in the world, encompassing 42 circuses across Russia. Established in 1919, the company redesigned over time due to political and social changes facing Russia in the 20th century. Nowadays, Rosgoscirk focuses on developing circus dynasties that are the stars of any arena. Though not being animal-free in its productions, the Company goes hand-in-hand with contemporary development in the circus-performance field. One of the new features is the annual international circus award—Master—established in 2015. Master is the only circus art award in the world that is presented by means of online voting and international expert council in 14 categories.
- Big Apple Circus
Big Apple Circus, voted the most famous one in America, was founded in 1977 by two jugglers Paul Binder and Michael Christensen. It was primarily crated as a non-for-profit arts institution. Even though showcasing more traditional performances compared to other circus companies on the list, the Big Apple Circus is one of the leading performance companies in the world, presenting their own twist on classic, employing custom music and costumes.