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The Ordinary Acrobat – A History of the Circus

Circus Bonobo / OmFly Spring 2017 (clockwise from left: Jen Taylor, Amanda Kulos, Serena Judge, Dani Bobbi Lee & Judi Anne Jones)

I’ve fallen in love with the circus all over again.

In The Ordinary Acrobat, Duncan Wall delivers a veritable history of the circus and its individual arts – fascinating histories all of them.  The work is a lot to synthesize and impressive in its scope.   The juggling & clowning chapters, wow! One jewel after another.  Phrases from juggling masters, “the toss takes care of the catch,” echoed yogic wisdom like “taking care of the exhale, takes care of the inhale.”  The insights presented into “le rage” of the clown made me laugh out loud in understanding.

Wall does a great job capturing the enduring metaphors found in the circus arts and the book in its breadth is tremendous so it’s hard to find fault. But I would be dishonest not to say that I felt my first twinge reading the book’s list of flying trapezists who accomplished the triple.  Lena Jordan, the first to do it and the only female on Wall’s list, is also the only one whose trainer Wall mentions.  He implicitly gives credit to her trainer for the feat while making no mention of the male athletes’ trainers. Lena Jordan was an orphan and largely self-taught, where-as, another great, Alfredo Cordona was born into a flying trapeze dynasty and trained by his father from the age of 2.  

Cordona is deservedly celebrated in the book but, though he dedicates a lot of print to him, Wall makes no mention that he was a wife-beater and shot his third wife in a murder-suicide.   

Jules Leotard, mid-19th century. The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes.

In general, the book lends the impression that the circus world is rather a male bastion and women are just a sexualized side showFathers and kings. Clowns are a kind of drunken Buddha and jugglers enjoy a Platonic Philosopher-King status (in all fairness, these forms do deserve to be elevated). But  ironically, Lillian Leitzel studied philosophy in the halcyon days of pre-Nazi Germany and ran a free school for the hundreds of children in Barnum & Bailey where she performed as the star act for years. Wall barely mentions her (in one sentence exactly) as the 2nd wife of Alfredo Cordona. She taught Alfredo Cordona how to read. Until her tragic death at age 40, which he also fails to mention in the list of aerialists who paid the ultimate price, they called her the Queen of the Air.  Duncan gives so much print to kings & fathers of the circus, why wouldn’t he mention even one acknowledged queen, no less, a philosopher queen?


Lillian Leitzel, Queen of the Air / Barnum & Bailey Circus

Jules Leotard (for whom the leotard is named!) is called the father of the trapeze.  In 1859, he swung over a pool of water from one triangle shaped bar to another, simply catching and swinging to a third before dismounting – the most basic American Ninja Warrior challenge today. Wall dedicates eight pages to his story. A woman first achieved the motion that distinguishes static from flying trapeze in the early 1900’s. Wall only gives her first name and, like Jordan and Leitzel, in one sentence only. The first flyer, i.e. the first human to hit a moving target, is a female and we don’t call her the mother of anything.  And we are only given her first name.   

Next cringe.  In the history of circus, Wall tells us that ropewalking, a predominantly female art, is a founding form.  Exciting, looking forward to this! In the next breath, Wall asserts that the form flourished because it allowed women to be sex objects with no upper body strength. Wow.   

Although only descriptions of her performances survive, Madame Saqui, a 19th century rope-walking legend, sounds, well, stupendously athletic. Napoleon adored her and she was famous for enacting his battle scenes.  On a rope!  Thankfully, due to the wonders of current technologies, we can easily and quickly see a video of the form on YouTube.  I found the following:  Linn Broden slack rope.

I also found what is most probably the remnants of a rope-walking dynasty in Rajasthan, India, ancestors of the Bhati Rajputs, warrior rebel resistors to 12th century imperialism in the area. Ropewalking is first mentioned in 333 c.e. and Saqui herself was born into a dynasty of Ropewalkers through her mother Helene of the Masgomieri clan.

After watching the form, Wall’s comment on rope-walking reveals itself as ignorant at best. Sex objects with no upper body strength? Is this really the best we can come up with to describe the artists of a founding form of circus? Is such a prejudice at the heart of why a figure like Saqui is not afforded the title of a queen or mother of something in The Ordinary Acrobat?  Wall refers to her once as ‘like a queen’ but that she was unfortunately really ugly. The innovator of the form is too ugly to be a sex object, so we have to assume that she dominated as she did for fifty years out of pure physical & artistic mastery.  Everyone else who practices the form, however, is compensating for weakness and interesting because they reduce themselves to a sex object). In truth, Ropewalking is arguably a fusion of an aerial and a tightwire, requiring the integration of both skill sets. I found the above in ten minutes. I have found more since, like Ukrainian Ludmila Soboleva doing a handstand on her rope, while hooping on two feet. I hate to say it, but Wall either didn’t do his homework here, or he has a kind of unexamined bias. Female forms in his estimation, are born out of compensation for their weaknesses.  Show me any human, male or female, whose strengths aren’t in some way shaped by their weaknesses.

Consistently, Wall declares that women in the circus, either behind the scenes or in the show itself, were and are there to be sexualized.  If this is the case, then for women, there are no circus kings or fathers.  Only pimps.

If we were to treat “male” forms to a similar reduction, it would sound like this: Lacking grace and endurance, men are reduced to meaningless feats of strength or finesse which get boring after one or two displays to everyone but himself.  Extreme risk and a good clown routine can offset the repetition.

Acrobat horse-rider / mid-20th century / Unknown

Despite the male dominated world that circus is in The Ordinary Acrobat, we learn that another predominantly female art form holds founding circus status, giving rise to the ring & its circle. Wall doesn’t mention this, but we can uncover a clue to these roots in Plato’s Republic. In the opening scene, Socrates describes a parade for Athena involving female priestesses performing acrobatics on horseback with torches at sunset (circa 450 b.c.e.).  Ancient Amazons were the first to ride horseback and the only females to do so well into the Greco-Roman era. Men did not ride horses, much less know how to apply horseback riding to war, until the example of the Amazons and then they learned it to compete.  It is reasonable to hypothesize that as Goddess worship is extinguished across the Indo-European landscape during this time (last temple destroyed 520 c.e.), a form of it re-emerges in the circus.   

Nowadays the acrobat priestesses are in tutus like the dancing bears.  No wonder we can’t see them.  (But at least they are safe.)

So there is a kind of blindness around the contributions of women to the form(s) of circus, and that’s cool, nobody has to mention everybody. But we don’t need to denigrate them either. Wall’s comment on the 5,000 year old Egyptian hieroglyph depicting female acrobat jugglers reveals his unabashed prejudice.  Wall chooses to tell us that they are “likely slave girls.”

Egyptian hieroglyph depicting partner acrobatics & juggling associated with funereal rites / 3,000 b.c.e. / Middle Kingdom

It’s not really his fault, he’s likely parroting classical scholarship, but the Goddess and her priestesses had a strong hold on dynastic Egypt (well into the 1st millenium b.c.e.) Given that the hieroglyph is associated with funereal rites, we can just as likely call them acrobat priestesses.  Juggling titan Jerome Thomas testifies to this aspect of the art, ” Juggling… participates in the mysteries of gravity and the cosmos.”   He alludes to the Egyptian understanding as similar.  And yet according to Wall, Thomas is “King of the Juggle” and the Egyptian women are “slave girls.”  It’s frustrating.

The next time a juggler appears is 2,500 years later in yet another Platonic dialogue, Xenophon’s Symposium.  Wall tells us about this mysterious character, but he doesn’t tell us everything she does.  Besides juggling and hooping 12 hoops at once, she pulls a series of front and back flips over ‘a bristling row of upright swords’ until “the spectators were in terror of some accident; but with the utmost coolness and without mishap the girl completed her performance.”   (Emphasis mine.)

Seated Juggler Priestess / Greek Red Figure Alabastron, 480 b.c.e. (The Walters Art Museum where it is displayed gives the title: “Alabastron Depicting A Seated Woman and A Woman Walking to the Right Toward a Chair”)

The imagery of female jugglers regularly emerge for another 1,000 years before disappearing.  What would scholarship have to say if the jugglers represented in the 5,000 year old Egyptian hieroglyph, Greco-Roman art and a Socratic dialogue had all been men? We would probably hear “it is likely that men invented juggling.” No such credit is given to women in the current scholarship.

At any rate, the hoop juggler who Xenaphon reports to us is more than just a juggler, she is also an acrobat of exceptional skill.   The Egyptian jugglers are also depicted performing partner acrobatics simultaneously.   

Who is this mystical acrobat juggler?  Where is she now?   

And then, surprisingly, as much as women are downplayed in the contributions to circus past, Duncan makes a curious use of the feminine pronoun in the last chapter, speaking of the present-day circus aspirant.  Is he self-consciously trying to correct the absence in the research?  He has failed to interview one woman at any length in the book, how can he speak for her?    He also mentions that more women apply to France’s National School, but more men graduate.  Is the circus not listening to what women contribute and need (past & present)?   Many of the troupes representative of Nouveau Cirque that Duncan mentions can be found on YouTube, and a few of them (Archaos, for instance) just struck me as so-called “traditional circus” on technology and testosterone, i.e. Metal Clown.

The book came out in 2013.  A shame Duncan misses aerialists like Shannon Gray, the WauWau Sisters, Lava (Sarah East Johnson) & Circus Amok (Jennifer Miller).

As much as I point out missing threads, I thank the book for exposing them.  I was also fascinated to read the deeper history and to learn that circus at its inception was much closer to the forms that are re- emerging presently.  It is greatly amusing that in Europe’s Age of Reason, the circus was banned from using speech. But out of the ban, miming emerges.  The codifications of so-called traditional circus are just an episode in the big picture.   We are deeply rooted in anarchism, archetype and activation of the soul-desires.  

I have a deepened love for youth & social circus because of the book, but I did wonder why Wall chose to write in the past tense where youth and social circus are concerned – as if the movement is already over instead of just getting started. Maybe he is anticipating The Ordinary Acrobat being read 100 years from now.   He’s not wrong, this book will certainly go into the cannon of circus history.    

Because of Wall’s work, I have a more nuanced perspective on an artist like Kevin O’Keefe’s context in the circus web of life – as a juggler, clown and progenitor of a new mutation of circus (creating a show with one form, in O’Keefe’s case, a juggling/clowning fusion called One Man Circus in a Suitcase). He is also an Artistic Director and big player in children’s circus as founder of AYCO and Circus Minimus, a mother tree for a half dozen circus seedlings, including Stone Soup and my own. The book is a total adventure for anyone touched by the magic of the big top.  Those who are truly touched pass it on.  I owe a lot of gratitude to Kevin for his circus transmission, as well as opening up the meta-worlds of juggling and clowning to me.  These are things worth a lifetime of pondering & practicing, which in large part is why I enjoyed Wall’s writing and research on both.

Amy Cohen, current director of AYCO and a colleague, spoke beautifully on the medicine of youth circus. “The veneer of danger in the circus provides an outlet for risk-seeking curiosities.” She is a reason to do handstands.

The book is a rich read and afforded me many moments of pure, epiphanic joy, awash in insights like the juggler’s credo to find not just a solution, but the best solution every time.  Yes. 

Yours in this revolution,

Jen Taylor    

Circus Bonobo / OmFly Spring 2017

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