The Circus: 250 years later with Dr. Dea Birkett

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And why the future is circus…

When we think of the circus, our mind would often turn to shows at Blackpool on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or films like The Greatest Showman which turn circus acts into Hollywood blockbuster films. It’s now been 250 years since the invention of the modern-day circus when in 1768, Philip Astley began his career as an entertainment impresario by opening his riding school and putting on displays of trick riding. Since then the circus has surrounded itself with myths and rumours, and it’s now a term that comes loaded with preconceptions and old-fashioned ideas.

Circus life teaches you to trust in other people wherever they come from

Dr. Dea Birkett

So, what does it mean to be in the circus today? I’ve been talking to Dr Dea Birkett, the ringmaster for the Circus 250 celebrations to look into how far the circus has come and where it might be going next.

Compared to the other performing arts like dance, theatre and music, the circus is traditionally seen to have less of a place. It’s not taught in schools, it’s not on that national curriculum, but perhaps it should be. As Birkett argues:

‘The circus is for everyone. No other art form is. But not only for everyone as an audience but as a participant. Everyone can do a little bit of circus, even something as simple as throwing up a ball. The circus is also good for you. It is good for your body and mind. It can help in concentration and relies on teamwork. It is built on trust. Circus life teaches you to trust in other people wherever they come from, and that they can be and are reliable. It breaks down barriers and encourages understanding. I hope the future is Circus.’

I suppose this raises another question, however, in that what is the future of the circus? When we go to see the circus, it can often feel like a relic of the past, with exhibits of the old lion cages reminding you of the Victorian era. Birkett suggested, contrastingly, that these are all preconceptions the circus has accumulated over the years, and while risk and entertainment are at the heart of the art form, that doesn’t equate to it being less worthwhile than going to see ballet or opera:

’It needs to be acknowledged that circus is an art form because it is creative, innovative, pioneering and inclusive – those qualities have always defined it. I think it is because it’s so inclusive that it hasn’t been labelled an art form in some periods of its history, including most recently. That’s a judgement on who can do ‘real art’ – not on the circus.’Lancaster Arts, in launching their autumn program, have called their new season ‘Women & Circus’, which to me raises questions about equality and diversity in the circus. It’s heralded for being an all-inclusive art form, but if this were true then surely we wouldn’t need to be highlighting the importance of women in a series of shows this year.

In launching their autumn program, Lancaster Arts have called their new season ‘Women & Circus’, which to me raises questions about equality and diversity in the circus. It’s heralded for being an all-inclusive art form, but if this were true then surely we wouldn’t need to be highlighting the importance of women in a series of shows this year.

‘In the mid-20th-century women in circus suffered a setback with an emphasis on showgirls. But, at the same time, we saw the emergence of astounding ringmistresses like Yasmin Smart. There are still relatively few female clowns, perhaps because women find it difficult to be laughed at when they so often are in society more generally. Also, contemporary circus for a long time was a series of male/female couples metaphorically addressing the gender imbalance in their relationship through their act, but thankfully circus has moved on with all female companies like Mimbre.

Throughout history, women have been at its heart and circus continues to provide strong role models for young women today. In the 19th century, when women were banned from the London stage, they performed in the circus ring and often headlined. Women performers were more popular so paid more than men, which led some men to disguise themselves as women to boost their fame and income. In the 1870s, Miss La La, a black woman aerialist famously painted by Degas, was the best-paid performer of any kind in Europe.

There are also several role models of hugely successful female circus performers. Women have always been strong and powerful in the circus. There’s no ‘size zero’ in the ring.’

While it seems as though the circus then was ahead of its time through history, in some respects, addressing gender imbalances relatively early compared to other art practices like dance and music, it appears the circus still has a way to go. Like with the rest of the world, the dream of total equality across genders remains slightly out of reach.

Women have always been strong and powerful in the circus. There’s no ‘size zero’ in the ring.

Dr. Dea Birkett

Still, we should commend the circus for its active efforts; it continually strives to have opportunities for everyone. Hence Lancaster Arts can fill a full bill of acts for this season’s shows.

With all of this in mind, what does it mean to be a part of the circus? Not all of us can perform dangerous feats or impressive tricks, but does this mean the circus can’t include everyone? Or are there ways to get involved regardless? Birkett says:

‘I ran away to join the circus 25 years ago. I’d always wanted to since I was a child and never grew out of the dream. I retired from the ring when I was the oldest female in it, but never left the circus community. So when the significant anniversary of 250 years of circus approached in 2018, I ran back to the circus again to organise the celebrations and events.

It is exhausting. It fosters a strong sense of community with those you travel with. It makes people more important than possessions – as you can’t have many in a small 11foot long caravan. It puts relationships, rather than having the latest fridge with built-in ice compartment, at the heart of your home life. And it impacts significantly on your creativity in a positive way. The artistic output of travelling circuses – whether contemporary or traditional – are formed from being on the move. It shapes how you think and how you perform. It shapes what is important to you.

The circus is at heart about risk – physical, emotional, artistic and financial. I can’t think of another art form that involves all of these things in such a visceral way. The circus is essentially dangerous in any way you choose to define it. That’s what makes it so special and vital.’

For more information about the Circus 250 celebrations, head to circus250.org
To see what exciting events Lancaster Arts has in store around campus, head to lancasterarts.org

Ruth-Anne Walbank

My name is Ruth, and I'm the Editor of SCAN for 2019-20. I have been the Arts and Culture Editor in 2018-19, and the Deputy Arts and Culture Editor before that. I've written over 80 articles for SCAN across a variety of sections.
If you have any questions about the newspaper, feel free to message me!

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