Call for papers: “Circus in the First Third of the 21st Century. Paths and Challenges”.



Call for papers

What factors and contexts have contributed to the normalisation of today's circus arts? Have the emergence of new aesthetics, changes in the training of artists or the cultural policies of the last decades had something to do with it? How has all this affected the processes of creation, the conception of the shows and their performance?

Some open questions…

  • Do classic circus and contemporary circus appeal to different audiences? If so, what are the causes?
  • Do these two types of circus in any way influence today's society in aspects such as understanding the world or passing on values (ethical, aesthetic, artistic)? Do they both have the same power of penetration, or do they have differentiating aspects?
  • How far has classic circus reacted to the aesthetic and organisational revolution of contemporary circus?
  • Are there areas where classic and contemporary circus feed into each other?
  • Can we understand contemporary circus (or cirque d’auteur) as a postdramatic show?
  • As a stage formula, Le Cirque du Soleil has been labelled as experimental, modern, innovative, contemporary, revolutionary, and so on. But are we talking about "contemporary" in the sense in which Giorgio Agamben defines the term? And, in another orbit, how should we assess experiences like those of the Catalan Circ Cric or the German Circus Roncalli?
  • In contemporary circus and cirque d’auteur productions, is it advisable for the functions of director and dramaturge to fall to the same person?
  • What role can cultural policies play in the development of circus?
  • Unlike the traditional patriarchal and endogamic structure of classic circus, in contemporary circus women have achieved a level of equality in all aspects, starting with the artistic, creative and organisational, and continuing with exclusively female acrobatic companies. How can this phenomenon be explained?
  • We notice a degree of disinterest from the audience in some unpleasant classic circus acts (contortionism, fakirism, knife-throwing, human canon…) although some contemporary circus artists render them abstract and turn them into a metaphor. Does this change in social sensibility encourage contemporary circus artists to further explore the essence of the aforementioned acts or is it these artists who influence the audience’s sensibility? Is this phenomenon related to contemporary circus shows such as those of Baró d'Evel cirk compagnie with its animals? 
  • And, taking into account the social, educational and anthropologic aspects of a live show, what is the objective, function, meaning, utility and final outcome of replacing circus animals with holograms (the horses of the German circus Roncalli), actual size puppets (initially operated from inside and later animatronic, such as the hippopotamuses and polar bears of the Spanish company La Fiesta Escénica) or even the robots with which Professor Xie Yong is experimenting in China
  • The traditional circus travelling big top still attracts audiences. Does this mean that we are still fascinated by "the ancient and precious magic of nomadism" and "the archaic symbolism of the magic circle of the ring"?
  • Is the cirque d’auteur creator-performer an artist or a character? Or perhaps the performer-being-who-lives-on-the-stage of the so-called "live arts" and the "dramaturgies of the real"?
  • Wouldn't this performer-being-who-lives-on-the-stage be an updated version of a hypothetical symbiosis of theories and praxes distilled from the Artaud-Grotowski-Living Theatre trinomial in conjunction with postdramatic theatre theories?



The last five decades have paid witness to the slow but inexorable transition from the "modern equestrian circus" established by Cavalry Sergeant Philip Astley in London in 1768 − today called "traditional" or "classic" − to the current cirque d’auteur. With a non-narrative dramaturgy, Astley built shows with a succession of acts, independent of each other but skilfully linked with the alternation of rhythm-enjoyment-surprise-emotion. The show was fundamentally kinetic, based on equestrian, acrobatic and balancing skills, which Astley and his successors complemented with tightrope walkers, jugglers and trained dogs, among other attractions from the fair shows. Astley also included two narrative elements: the pantomime and the first circus clowns, two fictional components embedded in a show in which everything was real and everything happened in real time.

Astley's show became popular throughout the European continent, during the great golden age of the 19th century. The intrinsic physicality of the circus was of keen interest to theatrical creators such as Meyerhold, Apia or Craig, and the "units of emotion" of the circus dramaturgical conception inspired Serguei Eisenstein's montage of attractions as an experiment in cinematic narrativity (1923).

Over time, that "modern equestrian circus" has always known how to incorporate new attractions into the show (taming and training of beasts, exotic or monstrous beings, illusionism, magic lantern, early cinema screenings, or the progressive innovations in machinery and technology, elements that it has been able to absorb until turning them into actual circus elements). All this, together with pantomimes with historical or scientific content, was a great cultural boon for people before cinema and mass media.

A regenerating crisis

In the mid-20th century, the traditional circus show underwent a profound artistic and economic crisis caused both by the immobility of artists and empresarios and by the changes in cultural consumption habits brought about initially by cinema and later by television.

In the early 1970s, the appearance of the nouveau cirque in France − an artistic reflection of the social revolt of May 1968 − prompted a timid renewal of traditional circus, with some successful revivals (Arlette Gruss, Bouglione...) and the emergence of neo-traditional formulas such as the German Circus Roncalli (1976) or Le Cirque du Soleil in Quebec (1984).

In Catalonia, the first manifestations of a new way of understanding the art of circus (Tripijoc Joc Trip, Cia. La Tràgica, 1976; Germans Poltrona and the first Circ Cric, 1977) coincided with the end of the Franco dictatorship, the recovery of the street and the popular festivals, the emergence of a festive theatre led by Comediants (1972) and performances in Barcelona by foreign companies such as Les Troubadours, The Living Theatre, Lindsay Kemp, and Le Grand Magic Circus.

The change of name from new circus to contemporary circus happened in the 1990s with the declared intention of encouraging shows designed with innovative codes, languages and aesthetics that would help transform circus theatrical expressions into avant-garde art creations.

Dramaturgical differences and anthropologic substrate

While the classic circus show continues to be shaped even today by linking separate acts and arranging them emotionally in order to maintain the audience's attention – and tension – until a final climax, contemporary circus is based on an idea of usually non-text-based narrativity, supported by the body languages of acrobatics, balancing and other circus skills, often hybridised with techniques and languages from other arts such as dance, illusionism, puppets or performance art.

In any circus programme – classic or contemporary – there are very precise semiotic codes, as Roman Jakobson already noted in the 1960s and Paul Bouissac confirmed with Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach (1986) and Semiotics at the Circus (2010). Some aspects of an anthropological nature survive in the circus show that can take us back to our most remote ancestors.

European Contemporary circus has established a qualitative difference between consumer shows and the performing arts. It develops initiatives far beyond mere entertainment – often linked to social or humanistic issues – with which it aspires to share sensations, ideas, emotions and experiences with the audience. While granting itself the necessary creative freedom and thanks to the growing artistic training of circus performers, each company develops themes and narratives with conceptions, theatrical treatments and styles that differentiate and make it unique, so that, in many cases, more than contemporary circus we can speak, objectively, of cirque d’auteur.

The poetics of the body

The gradual evolutionary process from classic circus to new circus and then from contemporary circus to cirque d’auteur has brought about substantial changes in all areas of this performing art: from the training of artists to the systems for creating and putting on shows characterised by an incidental (or relative) narrativity and a dramaturgy centred on the poetics of the artists' acrobatic body.

Aware that body language is a generator of meaning, context and dramatic tension, with his affective athlete Antonin Artaud argued that body language can express emotional experiences. And today, freed from the age-old obligation to surprise and amaze the audience with displays of risk and virtuosity, in the circus the specialties (acrobatics, balancing, dexterity, humorousness...) have become a stage language as they have ceased to be a strict end to become vehicles of emotional and sensorial communication, in codes of poetic transmission that, in turn, challenge the cirque d’auteur to perform a more difficult trick, consisting of dramaturgically amalgamating kinetic language with a very often non-text-based narrativity. 

It can be seen that not all cirque d’auteur shows achieve a dramaturgical character adjusted to the expectations of the audience and creators. Given that circus expression is always a subtle balance between body, intellect and emotions, Estudis Escènics invites us to analyse some key aspects, share experiences of the most frequent dramaturgical obstacles and venture possible solutions to problems or groups of problems raised by the dramaturgical part of today’s circus.

On the other hand, it is equally interesting to analyse the interrelationships of circus with social aspects in the process of transformation, such as the empowerment of women, the change in the audience’s perception of certain circus specialities or the values that the circus arts can convey to the new generations of audiences.