Discover the Circus Arts

By Pascal Jacob
The circus arts are undoubtedly one of the most widely shared cultural treasures on this planet. Primarily developed in the West, the sources upon which they have drawn are innumerable. A great number of techniques have origins in the Far East, but their dispersion throughout the world was very rapid: the Silk Road in particular played a determining role in the propagation of several acrobatic disciplines in Europe. Thousands of years old, tightrope walking, acrobatics, balancing, and juggling objects were to become the most prominent circus arts by the end of second half of the 18th century.



In Lambeth, a suburb of London, a demobilized cavalry officer traced a circle in the grass and dust, crystallizing influences that were at the same time aristocratic and derived from travelling acrobats. By juxtaposing trick equestrian performers and jugglers, he began to shape the foundations of a new form of spectacle. It was there, between two drum rolls and a tumbler's diatribe, swept along by the horses' gallop and the acrobats' virtuosity, that the circus was born.

All accomplished in a track 13 metres in diameter, covered with earth and sawdust for optimum flexibility and resiliency. The show was composed of equestrian numbers, some acrobatic performances and the first comic elements. Animals in costume would come much later, and at the end of the 19th century the circus underwent a decisive change in its performance codes.

Photo: Amphithéâtre d'Astley tiré de '' Microcosm of London'' par Rowlandson, 1808.

The Modern Circus is Born

Taking refuge in the shelter of buildings of wood, stone and steel as they go, jugglers, clowns and acrobats traveled through Europe. The introduction of the circus tent in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century will give the circus independence and freedom. It became also that much more popular. The reserve until then of a certain societal elite, it now sought to conquer increasingly larger audiences. It is the time of gigantism in Germany and of boundless expansion in the United States. Beginning in the 1930s, the circus also played an important role in the development of cultural policy in the Soviet Union; the opening of the Moscow Circus School is a major event, instituting an unprecedented pedagogical and artistic vehicle for the West. It is also as decisive a development for circus arts as the emergence of exoticism 50 years earlier, or the supremacy of the big top as an essential vector of communication, at the same time an aesthetic convention and performance arena.

An Era of Renewal

At the beginning of the 1970s, the circus arts experienced a new revolution, initiated on the heels of the political and social upheaval at the close of the 1960s. In France, the United States, Australia and Scandinavia, many existing models were questioned, and the circus undergoes an extraordinary revival there.

The experiments that evolve in these countries do not all hold the same importance; some will be transitory. But an alternate understanding of acrobatic moves, a new artistic significance granted to technique, will become intrinsic over two decades and contribute to the circus arts gaining a major place on the playing field of Western culture.

The most ancient techniques, revisited and transcended by several generations of creators, will acquire artistic autonomy and be put at the disposal of a global community. Today, juggling, acrobatics, clowning or the flying trapeze are regarded as essential disciplines in conceiving a potential performance. It is no longer necessarily the juxtaposition of numbers that ensures the quality of the show, but increasingly a single discipline that broadens and enlivens a creation.

Fragmented, evolving, the circus appears somewhat divided, from the point of view of its techniques and artists, and also of its audience. Multiple, changing, it lives.

Historical Reference

The following is a partial chronology of milestone events in the remarkable history of circus arts in this country and around the world. 

  • 18th CenturyOpen or Close

    1768 - Birth of the modern circus
    In London the initiative of a demobilized soldier, Philip Astley, sees the first spectacle linking trick horseback riders and acrobatic prowess. Nevertheless, its creator was not to baptize it as such: it was not until 1782 and Charles Hughes that the term "circus" would come to identify an equestrian and acrobatic show.

    1793 - The modern circus arrives in America
    British equestrian Bill Ricketts settles in Philadelphia with his troupe. He builds a resident circus there and establishes this new form of spectacle in America.

    1797 - Establishment of the circus arts in Quebec
    British equestrian John Bill Ricketts visits Montreal for six months and introduces circus arts to Quebec.

  • 19th CenturyOpen or Close

    1823 - The West & Blanchard circus tours across Quebec, presenting shows with equestrian acrobatics, tightrope dance, clown and daredevil stunts.

    1825 - Birth of the big top
    In America, Joshua Purdy Brown adapts a tent to accommodate his trick riding show: the “big top,” or circus tent, is born.

    1833 - Montrealer Joseph Édouard Guilbault founds Guilbault’s Botanic and Zoological Garden, whose Glaciarium housed a circus school that was open to acrobats from Quebec and elsewhere as well as several American circuses from 1862 up until 1870.

    1860 - Quebec acrobat and clown Louis Durand begins a 35-year career with numerous circuses in the United States, Europe and Asia.

    1881 - The golden age of the American circus
    Barnum and his colleagues make standard the juxtaposed three-ring concept; the American circus enters a growth phase.

    1889 - Sohmer Park opens its doors in Montreal as an amusement park; until 1919 it also attracts a great number of acrobats of all origins, especially from Asia.

    1892 - Quebec strongmen Louis Cyr and Horace Barré sign a contract with the American Ringling Brothers Circus. Two years later, they launch their own circus that appears on Canadian and American stages.

  • 20th CenturyOpen or Close

    1906 - In Montreal, Dominion Park opens, providing performance opportunities for Quebec and international acrobats until 1937.

    1908 - Quebec acrobat Léon DuPérré signs a contract with the U.S. company Ringling Brothers Circus, going on to tour more than 100 American cities.

    1930 - Troupe Adriano, a family company founded by Adrien Tremblay, produces vaudeville shows in which various acrobatic numbers are performed across Quebec up until 1943.

    1971 - Creation of Cirque Gatini in Quebec

    1977 - Founding of the first Bourses Louis Merlin, the future Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain

    1981 - The École nationale de cirque (National Circus School) opens its doors in Montreal

    1984 - Founding of Cirque du Soleil

    1993 - Founding of Cirque Eloize 

  • 21st CenturyOpen or Close

    2002 - Founding in Montreal of the company Les 7 doigts de la main.

    2004 - TOHU, la Cité des arts du cirque, opens in Montreal.

    2005 - Founding in Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez of the company Cirque Alfonse.

    2009 - The Canada Council for the Arts recognizes the circus as a distinct art form.   

    2010 - Creation of the international festival Montréal Complètement Cirque, an annual summer celebration of the circus arts.

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