Growing up in New Brunswick, my first introduction to the world of circus was a touring Shriner’s Circus. Overnight a tent and midway filled an empty parking lot with lights, sounds and wonder. Years later I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show. Inside the iconic yellow and blue striped tent circus were choreographed, colourful costumes and beautiful creature-like humans performing inhuman feats of strength and flexibility. In both cases the circus felt like magic.
In the lead up to Circus Sessions, I was asked to provide a timeline and definition of contemporary circus in Canada. One timeline of contemporary circus begins in the early 1980’s when Guy Laliberte and his street performing friends began Cirque du Soleil. The success of Cirque du Soleil’s early shows (along with Quebec’s wishes to promote their own national identity and culture) resulted in circus arts as a recognized art form in that province. This support has allowed circus to thrive in Quebec.
As Cirque du Soleil grew into the corporate juggernaut we know today, other companies emerged each determined to put their own spin on contemporary circus. For example, Les 7 Doigts de la Main brings circus skill and spectacle to a more human scale. Cirque Alfonse works with a rural backwoods lumberjack twist to the circus aesthetic. Andreane Leclerc and her contortion work bring in an element of durational performance art that pushes the boundaries on her body and the audience alike.
But circus did not and does not just happen in Quebec. There is a TON of contemporary circus happening in this country:
Halifax Circus in Nova Scotia, Circus Stella in New Brunswick, Femme du Feu in Ontario, Momentum Aerial & Acrobatic Troupe in Manitoba, Firefly Theatre & Circus in Alberta, 7 Story Circus in British Columbia. Artcirq in Nunavut. This is by no means a complete list; please feel free to add your local contemporary circus in the comments.
But what is contemporary circus? In September, I had the privilege of chairing a panel on artistic practices in contemporary circus at the Contemporary Circus Arts Festival of Toronto. From this panel we learnt that:
Contemporary Circus can be large spectacle, fire, aerialists and dancers, spinning wheels of a giant tricycle driven by a clown called Foo (Circus Orange’s Tricycle)
Contemporary Circus can be human, 60 performers in everyday clothing, shaking, climbing and descending ropes (Anandam Dance Theatre’s Cascade)
Contemporary Circus can be a place to tell stories, theatricality, character and plot (Firefly Theatre & Circus)
Contemporary Circus can be a great many things. The contemporary circus artist is an aesthetic alchemist mixing components of circus arts (acrobatics, aerial arts, object manipulation, balance, clown) and other artistic disciplines (dance, theatre, music, visual art, film) together in unique combinations. This is why contemporary circus is so exciting, there are so many possibilities. Contemporary circus artists are pushing and pulling the boundaries of this form. I can hardly wait for the contemporary circus creation experiment of Circus Sessions!
Zita Nyarady is a dance, theatre and circus artist. She is also a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at York University.