Circus Month - The History of the Circus: Part III

March 27, 2015

With the circus being a visual performing art, there was no language barrier, which enabled it to truly conquer the world, moving to Russia by 1816 and Turkey by 1854, with the European circus owners hoping to increase revenue and profits by finding new income streams, a technique later copied by the American businessmen.

 The Bailey & Cooper circus was well known across Australia and New Zealand, touring to various islands around Oceania between 1876 and 1878.  James Anthony Bailey then teamed up with P.T. Barnum to bring ‘the Greatest Show on Earth’ to Europe. Barnum died before being able to see the European reaction to the huge tents so well-known in his homeland; although impressed, many were bewildered and the venture was met with only muted enthusiasm.

 Menagerie owners were the main people to react to ‘the Greatest Show on Earth’ most favourably, sensing an opportunity to enhance their fading businesses. With this ‘new’ idea of combining animals with circus acts, they enjoyed renewed success for a few more decades, with the equestrian circus falling by the wayside and the travelling circus reaching the peak of its popularity between the two World Wars, most notably in Germany. With the larger cities still housing permanent circuses – Paris still had four – circus manufacturers strived to create comfortable seating that could attract the city folk away from the furnishings and production values to which they had become so accustomed.

The biggest innovation in the 1900s occurred within Russia after Lenin nationalised the Russian circuses in 1919, leading to an exodus of the country by many western performers. With the Russian performers needing to be trained, the government established the Moscow circus school, which developed training methods that incorporated gymnastics. The result was a free-flowing, innovative performance that proved to be a hit with crowds abroad, where any Russian-based circus was known as the Moscow Circus (a generic name adopted by travelling Russian circuses to this day).

 Resistance to the changes of the modern world led to a decline in the industry throughout the 1960s, but by the 1970s and 1980s, circuses such as Cirque du Soleil had restored the flamboyance and spectacle to proceedings, ushering in the idea of circuses as performance art to sit alongside the more traditional travelling circuses, which continue to endure great popularity across Europe. A surge in teaching has also led to a circus revival in recent years and it remains to be seen quite where this interest shall lead...



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By Henry Fosdike