Traditional vs. Contemporary Circus

When I tell people that I am a circus performer, I field plenty of questions about what exactly I am performing. These questions can get pretty ridiculous, such as, “Do you stick your head in a tiger’s mouth?” (The answer is no, that isn’t the type of circus I’m in.) Other questions can actually be surprisingly thought provoking, for example, “Is it true that traditional circus is from America and contemporary circus is from Canada?” (To be honest, I wasn’t sure about the answer for that one.) I’ve been giving some thought about how to react to questions such as these lately, and I’ve realized that there is really one controversy at the root of them all; What is the difference between traditional and contemporary circus?

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference between the difference between traditional and contemporary circus is, so I decided to do some research. The first documented circus ever was during 1782, in Paris, France, and was started by a man named Philip Astley. It began with only equestrian stunts, but soon Astley began to work in various other characters, such as clowns, jugglers, and acrobats. This all took place in a circular structure that we would now call a ring. Circus continued to grow popular in Europe, and eventually it came to the United States too. In 1797, a trick rider name John Bill Ricketts started the first circus show in the U.S. Soon, more and more circuses started to pop up around America. However, the early nineteenth century was a time of change in American history. For the first time, the public was starting to migrate westward, out of New England. This left circus performers with a problem. How could they stay in business if their audience was moving west and they weren’t? The answer proved to be surprisingly simple. Instead of performing in permanent buildings, circuses began to use canvas tents for their shows. This new technology was invented by Joshuah Purdy Brown. Around this same time came the popularization of wild animals in circuses. Eventually, with the expansion of the railroad system, circuses were able to travel relatively easily around the country. Main characteristics of traditional circus include performances in rings and tents, animal acts, and a ringmaster.

Contemporary circus is much newer, and a whole lot harder to find information about. The first documentation of contemporary circus is during the seventies. According to many sources, contemporary circus started in France, although it quickly became a worldwide movement. Soon enough, contemporary circus grew equally, if not more, popular than more traditional styles. While contemporary circuses often travel, they most often perform in theaters and on stages instead of rings in tents. In addition, contemporary circus usually have only human performers, and no animal acts. Contemporary circus is much more story and character based than traditional circus. Contemporary circus also likes to incorporate non-traditional circus skills such as various dance styles, musical variety, and a central theme.


Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam (

So although traditional and contemporary circus may have many differences, such as theme, theater, and animals, but the basis is the same. In fact, today many circuses aren’t traditional or contemporary, but a mix of both styles. For example, in my opinion Cirque Du Soleil artfully blends traditional and contemporary styles. Undeniably, circus is a diverse art, which is exactly what makes it wonderful.

Circus on!

~Juniper ✯

Sources for this article include:

REVIEW: Kurios

A few weeks ago, I was able to go see the then-touring production of Cirque Du Soleil’s Kurios. It was my fifth Cirque show and one that I had heard absolutely raving reviews about from all of my friends, so my expectations were set high.
It was immediately apparent to me that it would not be difficult for Kurios to meet and exceed these expectations. I was captivated from the moment I took my seat and watched a clown gag play out in the row in front of me involving three performers handing a fleece sleeping cap, a pillow, and a mobile to an audience member and instructing him to take a nap on his girlfriend’s shoulder.
The show opened with a cradle act, which was masterfully choreographed to the music and had a clear, engaging storyline. As an aerialist, I loved this act because it was one of the most technically perfect performances I’ve ever seen. The flyer’s form was simply impeccable and each skill, from the basic to the ridiculously advanced and complicated, was executed flawlessly.
Some other acts that stood out were the hand balancing and rola bola acts. The hand balancing act, led by acrobat Andrii Bondarenko, was as technically impressive as cradle — Andrii did not wobble once, even in a one arm handstand thirty feet above the stage on a stack of chairs without a safety line — but (without giving anything away) the act also had a clever and entertaining ending that, in typical Cirque fashion, pushed conceptual and physical boundaries with its creativity and ability to surprise an audience who are convinced they know what’s coming.
The rola bola act, in short, was the most nail-bitingly terrifying act I’ve ever watched in any theatrical production. I was on the literal edge of my seat the entire act. With the combination of the level of difficulty of the tricks performed and the exceptional, suspenseful presentation of them by the lead artist in the act, I truly could not believe what I was seeing. Even several weeks removed from seeing the show, I still cannot comprehend how it is possible to balance on five rola bola tubes thirty feet above the stage.
My favorite part by far, though, was the Acronet routine that opened the second act. Essentially an extra bouncy flying trapeze net, Acronet seemed, to put it plainly, like a trampoline artist’s dream come true. The artists, wearing brightly colored fish outfits with fins framing their faces, helped bounce each other up all the way to the cupola of the tent, doing some of the most complicated tricks I’ve ever seen. The act was fast-paced and high-energy, the perfect second act opener.
Overall, Kurios was by far the best Cirque show I’ve seen so far — thanks in part to the creativity, artistry, and amazing skill of the performers in their acts but also to the beautiful bright costumes, diverse and engaging but not overpowering music, and the seamless choreography of group numbers and especially of the transitions between acts (the juggler and yoyo man were phenomenal!). Kurios was, to put it plainly, as close to perfect as you can get in absolutely every aspect.
– Marzi

Circus Science: The Globe of Death

Fall is upon us, which means a brand new school year has started for millions of students around the globe. For that reason, I thought it would only be appropriate if we started this academic year off with another installment of Circus Science! This time we will take a look at a classic circus stunt, the Globe of Death. Grab your pencils, calculator and motorcycle helmet-it’s going to be a wild ride…



The Globe of Death traditionally involves several performers riding motorcycles around in circles on the inside of a metal globe. This feat is heavily based on timing between the riders to make sure they don’t crash into each other, but the reason they can ride around in circles and can ride upside down in the first place is a physics phenomenon called centripetal force. Centripetal force is the force that acts on an object as it moves around in a circular path. All forces have a direction in which they push, and centripetal force is directed towards the center of the circular path. In other words, if you are driving your car in a circle, the centripetal force is directed towards the center of that circle. Centripetal force can be calculated using the following equation:

Fc = (m x v2) / r

Fc is the centripetal force
m is the mass of the object
v is the velocity at which the object is moving
r is the radius of the circular path. The radius of a circle is the distance from the center of the circle to the outer edge. It is half the length of the diameter.

        Now if you are traveling on a flat, horizontal surface, that’s all you need to calculate the centripetal force and there’s nothing more to it. However, things get a little bit more difficult when you start to add in an up-and-down vertical movement, as is the case with the Globe of Death. For that, we need to learn about two more forces.

The force of gravity pulls everything downward towards the ground. The force of gravity is always directed straight down. It doesn’t matter what position an object is in, the force of gravity will always be straight down. The force of gravity can be calculated using the following equation:

Fg = m x g

Fg is the force of gravity
m is the mass of the object
g is the acceleration due to gravity (an accepted constant on Earth)

        The normal force is a little bit trickier than gravity. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but what exactly does this almost cliché statement really mean? Well think about it this way: Go outside and push the wall of any nearby building. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You’re back? Great. You should have noticed that the wall stayed standing (if it didn’t, please consult with your general contractor of choice). You exerted a force on the wall, and the wall exerted the same force back on you, hence the lack of movement. If the wall didn’t exert the same force back, it would fall over. Now back to the normal force. An object exerts a force on whatever surface it is on. It doesn’t matter if the object is on a slant or even upside down, in the case of the motorcycle and rider at the top of the Globe of Death. The surface then exerts a force back on the object, the normal force. If the object is on a flat, horizontal surface (it doesn’t matter if it is right side up or upside down), the normal force can be calculated using the following equation:

FN = m x g

FN is the normal force
m is the mass of the object
g is the acceleration due to gravity (an accepted constant on Earth)

        When dealing with objects moving in circular paths that aren’t completely horizontal, the centripetal force is the sum of these two other forces. Consider the case of the motorcycle and rider when they are completely upside down at the top of the globe. At this exact moment, the centripetal force is equal to the force of gravity on the motorcycle and rider, plus the normal force exerted on the motorcycle and rider by the globe (Fc = Fg + FN).




So at this point, you’re probably saying, “Okay Matthew. That’s all great. But why is this important? Who cares?” I get it, you want answers. This information is valuable because it can be used to determine the minimum velocity the rider and motorcycle must be moving so they don’t fall down as they go upside down.

The moment the motorcycle and rider slows enough that they start to fall and lose contact with the top of the globe, the normal force immediately goes down to zero. The motorcycle is not in contact with the globe, hence no force is being exerted on the globe, so the globe doesn’t have to exert anything back. We can plug zero in as the normal force into the general relationship we derived earlier (Fc = Fg + FN) and work backwards to find the velocity.

Fc = Fg + FN
Fc = Fg + 0
Fc = Fg
(m x v2) / r = m x g
(m x v2) = m x g x r
v2 = (m x g x r) / m
v2 = g x r
v = (g x r)1/2

        As the above derivation shows us, the velocity at which the motorcycle and the rider fall off the top of the globe is the square root of the acceleration due to gravity multiplied by the radius of the globe; anything faster than this velocity and the motorcycle and rider will be able to complete the path successfully. Additionally, because the acceleration due to gravity is constant on Earth, the only thing that influences how fast to ride is the size of the globe. Bigger globe, faster ride. Simple as that. The size of the motorcycle, the weight of the rider, they don’t matter. It’s just the size of the globe, which brings us to the close of our first lesson of the new school year! Until next time… SCIENCE!

Matthew “Phineas” Lish, 19, is an award-winning clown and juggler. Notable performances include off-Broadway, the Ronald McDonald House, the Century Club with Dick Cavett, and guest ringmaster at the Big Apple Circus. He will be joining the world famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown Alley in January 2017, and currently holds the world record for juggling clubs while bouncing on a pogo stick. 



Adventures as a Circus Camp Counselor

camp iii_1

Juniper and fellow counselors pose with new stilt walkers. Photo by Marcia Miquelon.

I recently spent three weeks as a circus camp counselor for a small circus day camp in Mazomanie, Wisconsin. The kids I was working with were ages six to twelve, a pretty large age range. It was fascinating to see kids try out circus arts for the first time. The camp I supervised at teaches juggling, clowning and mime basics, tightwire, low flying trapeze, acrobatics basics, and stiltwalking. Everyone learns a bit of everything. At the end of the week the choreograph a big show that the kids perform for their families. Watching the kid’s circus skills flourish reminded me why circus is my favorite obsession.

A major part of working at a circus camp is spotting people as they attempt things for the first time. This can definitely be kind of scary and difficult. I have done spotting work before, but not so much of it all at once. One of my major spotting duties was to spot first time stilt walkers. We start kids out on two foot peg stilts, which means that most kids need a spotter to walk with them constantly for the first few days. For the first two to three days most beginners need to lean heavily on a spotters arms as they walk. The gratifying part comes when they begin to start finding their balance and are able to start taking steps without a spotter. I love seeing how proud the kids are when they get free of their spotter for the first time.

The other types of spotting I worked with were on acrobatics and trapeze. Spotting acrobatics was mostly correcting the kids posture and demonstrating moves. We try not to get too complicated with acro, as typically everyone is on very different levels. Trapeze spotting involves a lot of making sure the kids don’t fall. You have to be ready to keep the head and shoulders away from the ground in case the kid falls. You also have to give the kid a boost if they need it. Once the kids perfect the skills we have to remind them to act like performers, and to “style and smile”.

Once a week, the other counselors and I would perform a short show for the camp kids. The goal of this performance was to give the kids something to work up to and to demonstrate showmanship. I really enjoyed seeing how in awe they were by the end of the performance. In all three weeks we saw admiration and disbelief. One kid even said, “I’d never be able to do that, not even in twelve million, forty thousand, eight hundred and twenty four years!” Of course, we had to assure them that if they worked hard, they could do anything someday.

Friday was definitely the most exciting day of the week. We had a whole show to rehearse and perform! Rehearsals are definitely harder and longer when there are kids involved. Kids generally have short attention spans, so you have to constantly remind them to stay on task. It can take forty five minutes to rehearse a fifteen minute act! However, the focus level goes way up once there is an actual audience to perform for. Another fun part about the show is costuming. We have a large costume collection, and the kids all get to choose costumes for the show. Us counselors got to use whatever costumes were left over once the kids had all picked. Each week the show went incredibly well. And, of course, the audience loved it!

It was so fun to see kids come in to camp having never even tried circus before, and come out as seasoned performers. I watched so many kids gain strength, confidence, and determination during my time as a circus camp counselor. And while I know that not all of the kids I worked with will choose circus as their lifelong passion, I am hopeful that at least a few of them will become circus performers for life.

– Juniper

My Life in Circus

My name is Andrew and I live in Southern California.  I am 16 years of age and I live, eat, and breathe circus.  I train in teeterboard, high wire, unicycle, juggling, clowning, silks, Chinese pole, and stilts. I’m also currently performing stilts at the San Diego Zoo for the summer.  I’m pretty new to this whole blogging thing, but I thought that I might as well give it a shot.  That’s enough about myself, for now – what I really want to do is tell you about the circus I am involved with, The Great All American Youth Circus.
Trevor + Andrew Sit

That’s me on the top and friend Trevor on the bottom. (Photo by Jenna Lowery)

ATK Wire Escape

That’s me walking high wire at an event on Halloween. Photo by Insomniac Events

Within the small town of Redlands is a tightly knit community of people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds which all revolves around one thing, The Great All American Youth Circus.  Founded in 1929 by a former Ringling Brothers performer, Roy Coble, the Great All American Youth Circus was a youth circus before youth circus was even a thing.  The program began out of the neighborhood YMCA, then moved to a community park and outdoor amphitheater and has since migrated back into the same YMCA where classes are held and shows are performed.  The Great All American Youth Circus just finished its 76th performing year (the numbers don’t line up because the circus paused for WWII and had a few dark year during transitions).
The long history of this youth circus is not the only thing that makes it special, it’s the people who are involved.  What many non-circusers in my town don’t understand is that the Great All American Youth Circus isn’t just 300+ weirdos who play with lions in their spare time (“What?! You’re in a circus? Do you have lions?”), it’s a group of 300+ loving family members.  Our current director, Tanner Greenhalgh, who grew up in the program, is able to see through the eye of a youth circus performer and understands what is going on in the mind of the youth circus performer. Also, the trainers aren’t paid, they are strictly volunteers, so everybody who is there wants to be there. This allows for tighter knit relationships between the trainer and the performer, therefore making an easier and more effective learning experience. Because one is able to start at the young age of 3, they grow up with the same people by their sides up until college when some of them sadly move away and others continue as performers or trainers. This is the best kind of circus family.

Most of my school friends have a hard time fathoming the little amounts of free time that is allowed in my day. My typical weekday begins with school at around 7, then homework, then soccer and circus, ending at around 9:30 or 10.  Circus has made my life too busy too “hang out”, however I have gained a family in doing so.

I’ve been involved involved in the Great All American Youth Circus since my older brothers joined when I was just a year old. At 3 years old I was able to join, so my parents enrolled me. At first, circus wasn’t my top priority.  Overachieving in school and playing soccer were what most of my focus was on, but I was always involved in circus. However, in the past couple of years, I have started to take it more seriously. Getting in shape, focusing on certain skills, etc, and I have fallen in love. The people, the places, the shows, everything, I love it all.

Chines Pole Family

From top to bottom is William, Charles, Me, Phillip, and Elizabeth (My siblings). Photo by Mark Keidel.

– Andrew

Circus Takes Trenton, New Jersey


Photo by Trenton Circus Squad staff

The Trenton Circus Squad is a nonprofit organization that works to better the Trenton, New Jersey community via circus. Squad members train at a newly renovated warehouse that was once part of the Roebling Wire Factory. The program is run by Executive Director Zoe Brookes and Program Director Thomas von Oehson, as well as the lead coach Liam Quat and instructors Natasha Shatzkin and Sky Jaffe.

The Trenton Circus Squad itself is a group of teens ages twelve to eighteen from Trenton, Princeton, and surrounding areas who train together, perform, and teach workshops at the Factory. The Squad meets multiple times a week for four hours a day throughout the school year. A typical day begins with a snack and a quick meeting in the ring before the Squad members disperse to lead workshops for the Squad-in-Training. The Squad-in-Training is a group of younger aspiring Squad members who learn skills and perform in a show at the end of the session. After dinner, once the Squad-in-Training workshops have ended, Squad members train disciplines of their choice; German Wheel, acrobatics, clowning, and aerials are among the most popular. Group act creation takes place as the Squad’s end-of-session show approaches.

During the summer, the Squad offers three ten-day community service-oriented projects. The projects are structured so that Squad members train for the first week and work on acts to perform and lead workshops for the public during the second week. Sometimes shows and workshops are open to the public, other times, a specific group will come for the program, i.e. a YMCA camp group or a HomeFront group. For these programs, the Squad puts on a short show followed by rotating workshops, such as aerials, balance (tightwire, Rolla Bolla, rolling globe), acrobatics, prop manipulation, and occasionally break dancing. Sometimes the Squad travels off site to assisted living facilities to do a show and chat with the patrons, or perform for other youth groups.

Although it is young yet, the Trenton Circus Squad has already begun to make an impression in the circus world and in the community. The Social Circus Program of Cirque du Soleil officially partnered with the Trenton Circus Squad this year. The Squad performed at the AYCO National Festival this past year. The Squad is making an impact in Trenton, bringing hundreds of kids through its doors for workshops. Elizabeth Forrey, a member of the Squad, explains that she has “made a lot of new friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise” through the program. The Squad brings people together through teaching, performing, and learning, which is part of what makes it so rewarding. Elizabeth says that when “you teach a little kid a trick and then they get in on the first try… I always just feel so proud and happy.”

Suffice to say, the Trenton Circus Squad is one to watch.


INTERVIEW: Viveca Gardiner

Marzi got the chance to interview Viveca Gardiner, who works at Big Apple Circus, founded the NYC AYCO festival, has directed the youth program at Bindlestiff Family Cirkus for the last 14 years, and runs her own company, Playful Productions.


What are you working on right now?
I have a lot of different roles right now, for example with the Big Apple Circus I work on a program called Circus To Go that provides circus performers and performances for events outside of our ring, for example, special events, school assemblies, theater shows, or workshops. We book events for outside clients, people who pay us to come and put on a show in their town, and we also serve internal constituencies, so if the marketing department wants to book a performer for a special event, or if the development department wants to send performers to a fundraising event, then I coordinate all of that.


Are those performers from a separate cast than are in the touring Big Apple shows?
Mostly. We do use performers from the touring unit now and then, but the unit is in Boston and they have two shows a day and aren’t available often. So we usually use performers from our community programs, especially from our Clown Care program. We have 80 clowns in our Big Apple Clown Care program whowork in children’s hospitals around the country. I also coordinate our adaptive shows. This year we did four shows for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and/or blind or vision impaired and four shows for children on the autism spectrum. I also am a teacher in an after school circus program for children with incarcerated parents.


When did you get involved with circus?
I graduated from business school in 1993 and moved to New York, and I got a job in strategic planning and development for Big Apple Circus. I really came into circus backwards from everyone else I know; everyone else started as a kid with circus as a hobby or came from a circus family and learned the skills and started performing and moved from performing to management. I started in management and went the other way.


Since you came into the circus community later than most, like you said, what aspects of the community and circus arts appealed to you as an adult?
There are many things I like about the community. For example, I started juggling at 29, and it was very hard for me to learn since I had never done anything that was just up to me to do that way. Obviously some people are more talented than others, but nobody can do juggling or circus without putting work into it and nobody can be prevented from doing it if they do that. There’s no amount of money you can pay to be able to juggle five balls. It’s up to you how much work you want to put in and how much payoff you get out of it. When I work with children of incarcerated parents, in impoverished communities, or in special education, I like being able to give the kids control of their own outcomes, because they may not have control of many other aspects of their lives. I like that in circus, they can determine what they want to do with their own effort. That’s what I love about teaching and circus skills.


What’s different about working with youth versus working with adults?
I don’t know if much is different. Kids don’t know what’s hard, I suppose, and I think adults will say “I can’t do that, I can’t do that,” and they won’t bother to try, but kids will say, “I can’t do that,” and then they actually will.