Thinking Outside the Big Top:

Transformations of Ritual and Culture in the American Circus

Kelly Rushing

Illinois State University

Anthropology Department

Dr. James Stanlaw, Advisor


The change in popularity from traditional to new American circus, though often discussed, has never been analyzed from an anthropological perspective.  The purpose of this paper is to determine what cultural and social factors account for this change.  The paper examines the creation of the new circus, the reaction of the American circus community, and the reaction of the general public.  Data were gathered on historical aspects of this topic from several books and articles on the history of circus.  Also, circus reviews were used to show how both the public and the circus world feel about the differing rituals in traditional and new circuses.  Finally, theories of cultural change, performance, and experience were used to analyze these opinions.  This paper shows how the departure from previous customs has caused many traditionalists to reject the new circus while the new focus on artistry has caused the public to embrace it. 


            One of the most controversial topics in the circus world is the development of the new American circus.  It differs from the traditional American circus in that it is more focused on artistry and less on spectacle.  The traditional circus consists of a string of unrelated acts interspersed with pitches for souvenirs.  The action is often stopped to emphasize the difficulty of an upcoming trick.  The new circus attempts to tie the acts together with some type of theme or storyline, which is usually given more emphasis than any particular trick.  In order to maintain the show's cohesiveness, nothing is sold during the show (Albrecht 1995).

The new circus has been met with varied acceptance.  As shown by newspaper reviews and the new circuses' abilities to sell out their shows in single cities for weeks at a time, the response from the general public has been overwhelmingly positive.  However, the response of traditional circus people has been much less so.  Although most agree that they are shows of exceptional quality, some declare that the new shows break too many traditions to be considered circuses.  Others criticize the quality of the shows as well, asserting that they are filled with too much "nonsensical fluff" and try "to be too deep [and] pretentious in hidden meaning" (Little 2000:8).

            The purpose of this paper is to determine what cultural factors account for the declining popularity of the traditional circus and the increasing popularity of the new circus in America as well as for the conflict between the traditional and new circuses.  The paper will examine the creation of the new circus, the reaction of the American circus community, and reaction of the general public.  Data will be gathered on historical aspects of this topic from several books and articles on the history of circus (Albrecht 1995; Carpenter 1999; Carpenter 2000a, 2000b, 2000c; Chindahl 1959; Murray 1956).  This paper will also examine the differing rituals in traditional and new circuses and explain how the change in rituals may have caused the traditional circus community to reject the new circus while the new focus on artistry caused the public to embrace it.  Publications such as Spectacle and Circus Report will be used to show the opinions of the public and the circus world. Theories of cultural change, experience, and performance will be used to analyze these opinions. 

The Study of Circus

            The proliferation of literature devoted to the study of circus suggests that reading and writing about the circus is almost as popular as going to see it.  Much of the earlier literature was devoted to tracing the history of the circus.  Some authors began in ancient Greece and Egypt, following the development of circus through Rome and medieval Europe, to the emergence of the modern circus in Europe in the 1700's (Murray 1956; Carpenter 1999, 2000a, 2000b, 2000c; Van Buren 1992; Coxe 1988).  These authors then went on to explain the rise of circus in America.  Others began their accounts with the origins of the American circus (Ballantine 1999, 2000; Chindahl 1959; Saxon 1988).  However, most of this literature did not analyze the circus as an art form, it simply described what had occurred. 

            With the emergence of the new American circus, analysis became much more common.  Although critics had written reviews of the traditional circus before, they were suddenly able to begin comparing it to the new circus.  Thus while some of the literature consisted of relatively unbiased accounts of how the new circus came into being and of specific new circuses (Albrecht 1995, 1999a, 1999b, 2000a, 2000b; Beal 1999; Brun 1999; Christensen 1999; Covington 2000; De Ritis 1999; Drake, Robert, and Bezark 1993; Fratellini 1988; Jando 1999; MacKinnon 1999; McGill 1998; Renevey 1988; Stacey 2000; Stokvis 1998), there were also a large amount of reviews that compared the new circuses to traditional circuses.  Some of these reviews praised the new circuses (Cunningham 1999, Greiner 2000, Hallowell 1998, Knaff 1998, Lessard 2000, Simpson 2000, Vermeylen 1999), while others criticized them, saying they were corruptions of the circus that could not be called circuses themselves (Bridwell 1999; Meltzer 1999a, 1999b; Parker 2000; Ridenour 1999a, 1999b, 1999c; Taylor 1999).  Still others liked the concept of the new circuses, but disapproved of some of their practices, such as selling expensive VIP seating packages or filling their productions with too many abstract images (Craig 2000, Little 2000). 

The Anthropology of Spectacle and Performance

            There are many anthropological theories that can be applied to the new American circus.  One of those is the theory of cultural change.  Clifford Geertz (Rice 1980) has written extensively on this topic.  In one article, Geertz described the functionalist perspective and how it is incapable of dealing with change.  He explained that functionalism has dominated many explanations of religion, but that this is inappropriate because functionalism emphasizes cultural systems that are in equilibrium.  Religion has the power to change social structure and form a new type of society.  Functionalists equate social structure and culture, and thus often say that culture has been destroyed when the social structure changes (Rice 1980:29). This theory can be applied to instruments of change other than religion.  In another article, Geertz explained how culture change is often viewed.  He explained that people construct their ideologies through ordering the symbols and rituals to which they are accustomed.  When these symbols and rituals change, they feel that the new ones do not fit into their ideologies and they often reject them (Rice 1980:58-59). 

Other theorists have studied cultural change as well.  Daniel Chirot (1994) used historical patterns of change in Western culture to set forth his theories. He expressed his beliefs that change occurs when a culture realizes it is not functioning well.  He listed two signals that let a society know change is needed.  The first is when "neighboring societies become stronger and defeat it in war."  The second is when "the economic performance of other societies is superior to one's own" (1994:121).  The second signal is the one appropriate to the study of new circuses.  Catherine Cameron (1990) has taken a more focused look at cultural change.  In her article, she demonstrated how avant-gardism can be a method of changing cultures.  

            Theories of experience and performance can also be applied (Turner and Bruner 1986; Turner 1979). Victor Turner has written extensively on these topics.  The anthropology of experience is based on the assumption that people can not fully understand anyone's experiences but their own, but can attempt to understand the experiences of others through their expressions.  The anthropology of performance studies performances as expressions of society.  This body of theory is based on the premise that much can be learned about a society by studying its performances, festivals, and spectacles (Turner and Bruner 1986:5). 

Turner also put forth theories of flow.  Flow is "the merging of action and awareness, …the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement, a state in which action follows action according to an internal logic, with no apparent need for conscious intervention on our part."  Flow is when one gets lost in the actions one is performing and has no conscious awareness of one's actions.  According to Turner, flow is the happiest state in which a person can be (Turner 1979:113, 154).

            Some anthropologists have looked more specifically at theater and spectacle.  Don Handelman (1997) has discussed the differences between rituals and spectacles and what each means for the societies that produce them.  William Beeman (1993) has studied the institutions of theater and spectacle and the ways in which societies use them to create cultural meaning. 

The Anthropological Study of Circus

            Several anthropologists have used anthropological theories to study the circus.  Yoram Carmelli (1987) has mainly studied British circuses.  He has explained their rise and fall as a product of the varied marginalization of circus in Britain.  Kenneth Little (1993) has studied the anthropology of performance through various circus acts, usually clown acts.  Paul Bouissac (1976) has written on circus performance as ritual and has described the circus as a mode of expression.  He stated that "the circus presents, in a ritualistic manner, spectacular events that are remarkably patterned and highly meaningful for large audiences" (1976:ix).


            In order to explain how the new circus has gained such great popularity, it is first necessary to examine how it was created, how exactly it differs from the traditional circus, and how various groups of people have reacted to it.  To compile this data, this paper relies chiefly on the work of circus historians and circus reviews.

            The origins of the new American circus lie not in America but in Europe.  In the 1960's, the commercialism that pervaded the American circus invaded European circuses.  Circus fans were disgusted with the result, and the circus declined in popularity.  However, this low period did not last long.  In 1974 Alexis Gruss created a new circus that was designed to replicate the Parisian circuses of 200 years before.  He brought a high level of artistry back to circus performance and revived the status of the European circus. The circus in Europe had once again gained the respect of the social elite and was evaluated as an art form that could be favorably compared to the theater (Albrecht 1995:4-6).

            The revitalization of the European circus was helped along by the foundation of circus schools.  Annie Fratellini created the first of these.  Like Alexis Gruss, she sensed the decline of the European circus and wished to do something to reverse it.  After her daughter expressed a desire to become a circus performer, Fratellini decided to start a school.  In 1971, with the help of the French government, Fratellini and her husband Pierre Etaix established the National Circus School Association.  In 1974 they created the first National Circus School in a Parisian youth club.  The school was extremely popular and was quickly followed by the establishment of other schools, including one started by Alexis Gruss, Jr. (Stacey 2000:9).  Schools such as these allowed people who did not have circus backgrounds to become circus performers and thus allowed a flow of new ideas to enter the circus world.

Some Americans felt that the American circus had become overcommercialized and corrupted as well.  They were inspired by the changes in the European circus.  These people felt that the pure traditions of the classical European circus had been corrupted by American values after the circus came to America.  In the words of Ernest Albrecht, "they wanted to return to a time when the American and European circus had gone their separate ways and, once there, to start all over again" (1995:7).  These people felt that bigger circuses were not necessarily better.  They desired to return to the European one-ring style instead of the customary three rings.  The changes they wanted to make consisted of much more than simply reducing the number of rings.  They wanted to change the entire philosophy of the circus.  These people became the founders of the new American circus.

            One of the most influential people in the creation of the new American circus was Hovey Burgess.  Burgess had dreamed of joining the circus since he was a young boy.  However, two obstacles stood in his way.  First was his belief that few outsiders, people whose families were not circus performers, were allowed to join the circus.  The second was the decline in popularity and financial viability of the traditional tented circus.  Burgess overcame both of these obstacles by helping to create a new tradition of circus in which these problems were not present (Albrecht 1995:12-13).

            In 1965 Burgess went to Europe and visited the classical European circus buildings, with which he had become acquainted through old circus movies.  Although the shows themselves no longer existed, he deduced much about them from the architecture of the buildings in which they had been housed.  Burgess began to envision a circus beyond traditional American tents.  While in Europe, Burgess supported himself by juggling in the streets.  This experience taught him the value of close contact with the audience.  It also allowed him to combine his two loves, circus and commedia dell'arte, "a form of improvisational street theatre developed in Italy in the sixteenth century" (Albrecht 1995:15).  Burgess's fusion of circus, theater, and street performing were to play a major role in the creation of the new circus. 

Once he got back to the United States, Burgess began teaching circus skills to actors at the New York University School of the Arts.  Soon afterwards, he formed a group known as Circo dell'Arte with several of his students.  The group wore the medieval costumes of commedia dell'arte and performed circus skills in the city streets and parks.  Although the group disbanded shortly after it was created, it was vitally important in the history of the new circus, as several of its members went on to create new circuses of their own (Albrecht 1995:18).  Therefore, although Burgess never started his own circus, his teaching was very influential in the new circus movement.

The first of these students to create a new circus was Larry Pisoni.  After leaving Circo dell'Arte he moved to San Francisco and began teaching circus skills to the San Francisco Mime Troupe.  This experience furthered his associations between circus and theater.  To make some extra money, became a street performer.  With Peggy Snider, whom he met through the Mime Troupe, and Cecil MacKinnon, whom he knew from Circo dell'Arte, he formed the Pickle Family Jugglers.  This was the group that preceded the Pickle Family Circus, which became the first new circus in America (Albrecht 1995:22).

The Pickle Family Circus was an outdoor, one-ring circus.  An initial lack of funds gave the show a makeshift feel that audiences came to love and which they demanded even after the circus began to make more money.  It was the complete opposite of the elaborate shows of the traditional circus.  The performers had to work together both onstage and off to make their circus work.  This spirit of camaraderie came through in the shows and endeared the performers to the audience.  This is best illustrated in "the big juggle," the act that always ended the show.  This act included everyone in the company who could juggle, from the performers to the ticket sellers, passing clubs to each other in the ring.  It was the ultimate demonstration of their cooperation, and it gave the circus a spirit of unity that came to dominate all new circuses (Albrecht 1995:24-47).

While Larry Pisoni was with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, he left a large impact on several of his students.  Two of these were Michael Christensen and Paul Binder, who became the co-founders of the Big Apple Circus.  Pisoni and Christensen formed a juggling partnership and planned to go to Europe to become street performers.  However, Pisoni fell in love with Peggy Snider, his future partner in the Pickle Family Circus, and decided not to go.  Christensen took Binder along instead.  As they traveled across Europe performing in the streets, they learned a great deal about how to hold an audience.  This would serve them well later when they began their own circus. 

While Christensen and Binder were in Paris, an usher who knew his theater was looking for new variety acts discovered them.  While they were performing for the theater they met Annie Fratellini and Pierre Etaix, the founders of the French National Circus School, who were in the process of putting together the Nouveau Cirque de Paris.  Christensen and Binder performed in several fund-raising events that were staged on behalf of the new circus and later performed in the circus itself.  The influence of this circus, along with other European circuses such as Circus Gruss, Circus Knie, and Circus Schumann, led Binder to the dream of creating his own circus and circus school.  Although the school has never fully lived up to his expectations, the Big Apple Circus has been a huge success for the last twenty years (Albrecht 1995:43-44).

The Big Apple Circus seeks to combine the best of the European classical circus with Broadway theater.  Binder was always concerned with giving the show a feeling of unity, and since 1985 this has been done with the use of themes.  Each year the show is given a new theme, which ties the acts together.  The theme is introduced to the audience first through poster and program designs, and then dramatically in the opening of the performance.  After the acts begin, they are related to the theme through the transitions and the costumes worn by the performers.  The Big Apple Circus remains true to the European classical circus through its use of one ring and the constant emphasis on the skill and artistry of the performers (Albrecht 1995:53-55).

Like the other new circuses, Cirque du Soleil also had its beginnings in street performing.  In 1981, Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, toured Europe for one year, following the same general path as Binder and Christensen, performing in the streets and picking up circus skills such as stilt walking, juggling, and firebreathing along the way.  Once back in Canada, he and Gilles Ste.-Croix put together a summer festival of street performers, called Fete Foraine, which drew more than 25,000 people.  After this festival street performers began to receive recognition as legitimate artists (Albrecht 1995:70; Drake, Robert, and Bezark 1992:134).

            The following year, 1983, Laliberte staged his festival again with the support of the Canadian government.  After it was over he began to dream of putting together a troupe of street performers to tour Quebec.  When the government refused to fund his idea, he came up with a new one.  He decided to create a new circus, Cirque du Soleil.  After spending most of the next year in Europe studying European circuses, Laliberte was ready to create his own.  He got together with Guy Caron, the founder of Canada's national circus school, who shared his aspirations.  Laliberte and Caron, along with Ste.-Croix, put together the first rough version of Cirque du Soleil, which toured Quebec with great success.  The show toured Quebec and Ontario for two years before the government decided to grant funding.  Because of this support, Cirque du Soleil managed to climb out of debt enough to take the circus into the larger world.  In 1987 Cirque du Soleil left for Los Angeles.  If it was a success, Cirque du Soleil would be launched into new markets.  However, if it failed, Laliberte would have to sell the tent in order to have enough money to get the performers back to Canada.  Fortunately for the performers, the show was a huge success (Albrecht 1995:73-75).

            Since that time, Cirque du Soleil has become even more successful.  Its first full-scale show, Cirque Reinvente, was soon followed by a second show, Nouvelle Experience.  Cirque du Soleil has continued to expand its shows and its tours.  Currently, there are four permanent Cirque shows and three more on tour.  The permanent shows are Alegria in Biloxi, Mississippi; Mystere in Las Vegas; "O", also in Las Vegas, and La Nouba at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.  The touring shows are Dralion in North America, Quidam in Europe, and Saltimbanco in Asia and the Pacific. 

            Of all the new circuses, Cirque du Soleil is the most theatrical.  Although it has come the farthest from its origins in street performing, it has at the same time remained most faithful to the spirit of street performance.  In order to have an audience, street performers must divert the attention of passers-by and convince them to stop and watch for a moment.  In order to hold an audience, they must continually amaze and delight, because the moment they let up, the audience will lose interest and walk away.  Cirque du Soleil operates under this same premise.  It seeks to dazzle the audience with every moment of the performance.  To this end, it has developed a style that requires all the performers to have reasons for everything they do.  In the words of Ernest Albrecht, "There are no tricks, as such.  There are only situations that require certain actions which are performed by characters who think and feel. . . .the acrobat, like the actor, must have a subtext" (Albrecht 1995:76).  Some claim that this style makes Cirque du Soleil less of a circus and more of a theatrical company. 

            Cirque du Soleil has departed from circus traditions in several other ways as well.  One important difference is that it does not technically have a ring.  Although the stage is circular, there are no ring curbs to define the performance space, as there are in most other circuses.  Another difference is its lack of animals.  Although this distinction has made Cirque popular with animal rights groups such as PETA, the decision was made for artistic reasons rather than political ones.  Although animals can be taught many things, they cannot be taught to count music, which is essential for the amount of choreography that goes into a Cirque du Soleil production.  The way in which the show is put together differs as well.  The music is written first, then acts are placed in order to fit the music.  If an established act auditions for Cirque, its costumes, music, and sometimes the act itself will be changed.  One final difference is the travelling schedule.  Unlike many traditional circuses, Cirque du Soleil does not play one to three day stints before moving on to the next town and performing again a few days later.  Setting up can take anywhere from two weeks to a month.  Once Cirque begins performing in a town it continues for at least a month.  The amenities provided for performers and patrons are far superior to those of traditional mud shows.  In addition to its unique style, these changes in tradition are what have made many people object to its status as a circus.

            Each of the early new circuses was an extension of the ones that had come before it.  The Pickle Family Circus formalized and refined the street performances by which it was inspired.  The Big Apple Circus based itself on the Pickle Circus's level of skill and artistry and on the one-ring European classical circus.  Cirque du Soleil took those characteristics and added a high level of theatricality and technical skill.  Circus Flora brought the new circus movement full circle by keeping the theatricality but returning to the makeshift feel of the Pickle Family Circus.  It also added a few things that the other new circuses lacked, animals and an actual storyline (Albrecht 1995:101).

            Ivor David Balding, the creator of Circus Flora, grew up around horses.  His grandfather had sold horses to European circuses, and his father had trained polo horses.  Therefore he grew up hearing about the circus from his grandfather and was exposed to the worlds of art and theater through his father's elite circles.  After trying his hand in the theater, he found himself drawn to the circus.  Eventually, he wound up as a producer for the Big Apple Circus.  Despite his success in this position, he was frustrated because he wanted to have more control.  He wanted to start his own circus.  When he suddenly acquired a baby elephant through his circus connections, he saw that his opportunity had arrived.  Along with Sacha Pavlata from the Big Apple Circus and Cecil MacKinnon, who had been another student of Larry Pisoni, Balding created Circus Flora, named after the elephant that had started it all. 

            Balding wanted his circus to go a step beyond the themed circus; he wanted it to actually tell a story.  This meant he had to hire a playwright to craft a script and convince his performers to become actors.  He found that only a simple script that called for the performers to play themselves would work.  Thus his first production told the story of the Baldinis, a family of European circus performers that had brought their circus to the New World, landing in Charleston, South Carolina.  The story was set in the 1840's and was based on the Baldinis' migration west to St. Louis, where they and Circus Flora eventually landed.  Balding believed that travel through the New World could provide an endless supply for adventures, on which many new shows could be based.  Despite the seeming complexity of this plan, it has been quite successful since it was first implemented in 1986 (Albrecht 1995:101-103).

            Since the creation of these four new circuses, many clones have been created.  Cirque du Soleil has inspired other French Canadian shows such as Cirque Eloise, Cirque Ingenieux, La Cirque Bohemian, and a show that is simply entitled Cirque.  Circuses such as Circus Chimera, Universoul Circus, The Midnight Theatre of Chicago, Fern Street Circus, Circus Diva, and The Big E have cropped up across the United States.  Several of the original new circuses have produced their own offspring.  The creators of the Big Apple Circus created a new show entitled "Oops! The Big Apple Circus Stage Show."  The premise of this production is that a circus and a Shakespeare company have rented the same stage for the same performance time.  The show follows the mishaps that result from this error.  The Pickle Family Circus declared bankruptcy in 1993 and recreated itself as the New Pickle Circus, a version that was much more theatrical than the original. 

            In addition to these newly created circuses, a few established circuses have adopted some aspects of the new circus.  One example of this is Circus Smirkus, a circus for kids that tours the New England area every summer.  Established in 1987 by Rob Mermin, Circus Smirkus was always a European style circus.  However, it did not become theatrical until 1994, when Jeff and Julie Jenkins took over its direction for a year.  They began to choreograph the acts and to make the circus tell a story.  Circus Smirkus became one of the first circuses to have an actual plot.  According to some reviewers, this amateur circus has accomplished this feat far better than most professional circuses (Stovkis 1998:8).

            Another example is Illinois State University's Gamma Phi Circus.  This circus gave its first performance in 1932, and was very much a traditional style circus until the 1970's.  At this time, the individual acts within the show began to have themes, mostly demonstrated through music and costumes.  However, the directors of Gamma Phi have recently decided to give the entire show a theme in order to make it a more cohesive whole.  They first implemented this idea of an overall theme in the 2000 show.  Although the circus still contains some of the trappings of the traditional circus, it is on its way to becoming a full-fledged new American circus. 

            The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is another that has adopted a few characteristics of the new American circus.  However, they made these changes decades before the new circus movement in America came about.  In 1939, John Ringling North caused a great deal of commotion in the circus world when he changed his big top from the traditional version with six poles down the center to a smaller version with only four and painted it blue instead of the traditional white (Albrecht 1998:6).  The extent of the circus fans' objections to his actions indicates just how opposed they were to any type of change.  They objected even more strongly when North decided to change the style of his show as well.  In 1956, he introduced a number called "Spec" in which the entire company paraded around the rings dressed in costumes designed to portray a theme.  This new practice was viewed in disgust by many circus fans.  Bill Ballantine wrote in 1962 that North had transformed the circus into a "girlie-girlie extravaganza, with acts and effects that would not have been out of place in a Parisian night club" (Ballantine 1999 [1962]:1).  However, this all happened so long ago that by the time of the new circus movement the changes had come to be considered a part of the traditional American circus. 

As shown by their willingness to innovate in the 1930's, the producers of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus have never been opposed to trying new things.  They proved this again in the 1990's, with their creation of a new style circus, Barnum's Kaleidoscape.  The Kaleidoscape is a one-ring European style circus, but beyond that characteristic, everything else is innovative.  It seeks to make the circus an experience that is different from any other show in the world.  As the audience members enter, the performers greet them, each performing their own skills in different areas, giving the entranceway the feel of a street fair.  More opportunities to meet the performers in the post-performance activities make this circus a truly interactive experience, unlike any other (Albrecht 1999b:7).

Now that the origins of the new circus have been described, a discussion of how exactly the new circus differs from the traditional circus is necessary.  Some of the characteristics of the new circus are a focus on artistry, one ring shows, theatrical lighting and staging, non-traditional music, themed productions, plots, a lack of animals, and a lack of commercialization.  Table 1 shows to what extent each of the circuses discussed in this paper exhibit these characteristics (Albrecht 1995; Albrecht 1997:26, Stovkis 1998:7-8).

            Table 1 shows that all the new circuses discussed here have a few things in common.  They all have one ring, they are all focused on artistry more than spectacle, and they all have theatrical lighting and staging.  The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus (RBBB) does not have any of these characteristics.  Circus Smirkus and Gamma Phi Circus, which are both on their ways to becoming new circuses but not quite there yet, exhibit some but not all of these traits.  A focus on artistry means that the circus is more concerned with the flow of the show than with emphasizing any particular trick.  In a new circus, the announcer will never break in to build up the next trick a performer will do, which happens frequently in the traditional circus.  Also, new circus performers never purposely miss their tricks in order to get a bigger round of applause on their second, successful attempt, as also happens frequently in traditional circuses.  This characteristic, along with the intimate one-ring setting and the mood created by lighting and staging, is essential in defining a new circus. 

Most new circuses also use a theme or plot to tie the acts together.  The Pickle Family Circus and Barnum's Kaleidoscape do not use explicit themes, but they are unique cases.  The Pickle Family Circus was formed as an extension of street performing.  This showed through in all the acts and in the style of the entire circus and thus took the place of a formal theme in tying the show together.  Barnum's Kaleidoscape was created to resemble a medieval street fair, which comes through in the entire experience of going to see this show.  Again, this takes the place of a theme in making the show feel like a cohesive unit (Albrecht 1995).

            Music is also an essential part of the new circus.  Traditionally, circuses used music that was composed for other venues.  Circus music consisted mostly of marches, gallops, polkas, and ragtime that were long since out of fashion anywhere else.  In the new circus, music is generally composed specifically for each show.   This music is radically different from traditional circus music.  The Pickle Family Circus used originally composed jazz music, while Circus Flora, although its music is not original, uses opera music.  Other new circuses use music specifically composed to fit the mood or theme of the show (Albrecht 2000c:6).

            Another important issue in new circuses is the use of animals.  Some have simply chosen to leave them out, claiming it is easier artistically to not have to worry about animals.  Although animals can be taught many things, they cannot be taught to keep time with the music, which is very important in some of the new circuses.  In new circuses that do have animals, they play a somewhat different role than in traditional circuses.  The new circuses have adopted the philosophy of European animal trainers, that the animals must be treated as partners in the acts, not exhibited to glorify the trainer.  Thus the new circuses do more than simply give the animals bigger cages and better conditions.  They develop close relationships with their animals.  They also explain to the public that the tricks the animals perform are merely extensions of their natural actions and that an animal is never asked to do something that it cannot do (Albrecht 1995:212-214).  If an animal exhibits a desire to stop performing, this desire is honored.  This is evident in the return of Flora the elephant, the star performer of Circus Flora, to Africa.  According to Balding, Flora expressed discontent with performing, and therefore she will not be made to do so any longer.  She will be going to a safari and conservation camp in Botswana (Talburt 2000:1).

            The final issue is the commercialization of the circus.  Here the new circuses are evenly divided.  The Pickle Family Circus, the Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora, and Cirque du Soleil all started out as not-for-profit organizations.  They were active in their communities and performed benefit shows for charities.  Some new circuses have maintained this status, however, Cirque du Soleil soon gave up its not-for-profit status and its government funding and is now very much focused on commercialism.  Although it still does not sell anything during the performance, it has separate souvenir tents, as well as extremely high ticket prices.  The price goes as high as $100 a ticket for its newest show, "O".  Some newer circuses, such as Cirque Ingenieux, Cirque Eloise, and Barnum's Kaleidoscape, benefitted from the success of the earlier new circuses and did not have to go through a government-funded period.  They have been commercialized from the beginning.  However, despite the commercialization of these shows, their producers are still devoted to producing a highly artistic show.  This, after all, is the draw of the new circus.  Instead of getting bigger each year, the new circus gets more creative (Albrecht 1995).

            The new circuses have all received a very positive reaction from the public.  Writers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the L.A. Times have given Cirque du Soleil positive reviews, while the Mesa (Arizona) Tribune reported that local residents were disappointed to learn that Circus Flora was not going to visit their city and that the scheduled performance of the Big Apple Circus had been canceled (Marcks 2000:2; Greiner 2000:1; Lessard 2000:8).  Also, the new circuses have the ability to stay in the same city for several weeks and sell out all their shows.  The new circuses have attracted a large audience, including people who are not interested in the traditional circus.  Cirque du Soleil has been especially successful.  It has even been able to establish several permanent shows that continue to sell out even at very high prices.  This phenomenon can be compared to Broadway theater, where plays sell out for years at a time despite high ticket prices.  Indeed, the new circuses have elevated the circus to the prestige level enjoyed by theater and opera and have attracted similar audiences (Greiner 2000:8; Lambert 1999:8).

            Circus performers and fans of the traditional circus have given the new circus mixed reviews.  Some praise the new circus, while others discount it, claiming it is not really circus.  However, they do not depreciate all new circuses.  There is a clear division between their opinions of Cirque du Soleil and the shows it inspired and other new circuses such as Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora, and Barnum's Kaleidoscape.  The latter have received very few bad reviews by anyone, whether they were fans of the traditional circus or not.  However, Cirque du Soleil and other such shows have been heavily criticized.  Gordon Taylor wrote that Cirque du Soleil was a "semi-circus" and criticized it for having too much "attitude" and being unwilling to "appreciate or even acknowledge applause" (Taylor 1999:18).  Sheelagh Jones compared the Big Apple Circus favorably to Cirque du Soleil when she wrote that the Big Apple Circus was not "as over styled or in its own world as some of the nouveaux shows can be" (Jones 2000:3).  Kimberly Little agreed, claiming Cirque du Soleil was full of "nonsensical fluff" such as "headless, umbrella-toting street performers, rag-wrapped mime jugglers, and zombie-esque aerial cuties."  She went on to say that Cirque du Soleil was "too deep and pretentious in hidden meaning," which set it apart from other "theatre-like circus companies" (Little 2000:8).  People who criticize Cirque du Soleil seem to attack its lack of animals, its "new-age," abstract imagery, and its attitude, none of which are present in circuses such as The Pickle Family Circus, Big Apple Circus, or Circus Flora.


            In order to explain the cultural changes that resulted in the shift in popularity from the traditional circus to the new circus and the reasons for the conflict between them, it is first necessary to analyze the reasons for the creation of the new circus.  One reason can be explained by an application of Daniel Chirot's theory of why change occurs (1994: 121).  When Hovey Burgess heard that the tented circus in America was on its way to extinction because of financial reasons, he knew he had to do something about it.  He then borrowed ideas from the successful new European circus in order to revitalize the American circus.  Because the traditional American circus did not seem financially viable at the time, he felt the need to transform it into a new type of circus that would be successful (Albrecht 1995:13).

            Chirot's theory can explain why a change in the American circus occurred, but it cannot completely account for the type of change that was made.  Catherine Cameron's theories can help reveal why the American circus took the turn that it did in the 1970's  (1990).  In the 70's avant-gardism was popular throughout many forms of art and caused much artistic change.  The new circus was very much influenced by avant-gardism.  All of the first new circuses grew out of counter-culture movements of street performers.  They rejected traditional ways of life and of circuses and formed their own path, which resulted in a creative new style of circus in America. 

            In addition to analyzing why the new circus evolved in the way it did, it is also necessary to analyze the precise differences between the new circus and the traditional circus.  The new circus can be identified by the ways in which it differs from the traditional circus.  A componential analysis of the new circus reveals that all the new circuses examined here focus more on artistry than spectacle, have one ring, use theatrical lighting and staging, and perform to non-traditional circus music.  Traditional circuses do none of these things.  Most new circuses have a central theme in order to tie the show together, while traditional circuses never use this type of theme.  The implication is that new circuses have several universal characteristics, qualities that are present in all of the new circuses but none of the traditional circuses. 

            The componential analysis in table 1 also reveals a dichotomy in the new circus.  Some new circuses have animals, while others do not.  Also, some new circuses are commercialized, while others are not.  For the most part, the new circuses that do not have animals are the ones that are commercialized.  The exceptions are the Pickle Family Circus and Barnum's Kaleidoscape.  The Pickle Family Circus was a very low budget operation.  It did not own animals because it was not economically able to do so.  Animals would have fit well into the Pickle style of show, however the founders could not afford to buy and take care of them.  Barnum's Kaleidoscape was created by the same people who put on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and thus retains some of the trappings of the traditional circus, including both commercialization and animals.  The dichotomy revealed by the componential analysis is reinforced by the many circus reviews.  As mentioned previously, the reviewers consistently praise the Pickle Family Circus, Circus Flora, Big Apple Circus, and Barnum's Kaleidoscape while some criticize Cirque du Soleil and its derivatives. 

            Now that the reasons for the creation of the new circus and the differences between it and the traditional circus have been made clear, it is time to turn to an explanation of the reasons for the change in popularity from the traditional to new circus and for the conflict between the two circus styles.  There are several reasons for the shift in popularity.  Ernest Albrecht explained that after he became an adult, he no longer felt the same way about the circus as he did as a child.  He felt that there was something missing (Albrecht 1995:xi-xii).  This can be explained using Victor Turner's theory of flow.  In all circus performance, when done well, the actors experience flow.  They are so caught up in what they are doing that they are not consciously aware of performing.  Children often become so entranced by the experience of the circus that they forget themselves as well.  However, only the new circus entrances adults to such an extent that they experience flow.  The new circus seeks to enchant its audience, to involve them as much as the theater does.  A good movie or play will cause the audience to become so involved in the story that they forget they are watching actors perform.  The new circus uses themes and artistry to accomplish the same goal, thereby creating a sense of flow in its audience members (Turner 1979:112).

Cirque du Soleil in particular seeks to constantly amaze its audience and to cause them to be completely wrapped up in the show at all times.  This can explain why some adults are more attracted to the new circus than to the traditional circus.  It also explains why Cirque du Soleil is the most popular and most well known of the new circuses.  Cirque du Soleil enthralls people, thus they are willing to pay high prices to go see it.  This reveals why it has become so successful and was able to drop its government funding and become commercialized.

            Another theory that can explain the increasing popularity of the new circus is Turner's theory of experience (Turner and Bruner 1986:5).  None of the people who created the new circus came from circus backgrounds.  They all had very different experiences than the traditional circus performers and fans.  If performance is the expression of one's experience, then people who do not come from circus backgrounds should relate more easily to performances created by people who are not from traditional circus families than those of performers who are.  This can explain why people who are not fans of the traditional circus flock to see new circus performances.

            There are also several reasons for the conflict between traditional circus performers and fans and the new circus.  One possible explanation is ethnocentrism or anti-European sentiments.  As explained above, the new circuses are clearly split into two groups.  What was not explained is that animals and commercialization are not the only characteristics that create the difference.  The Pickle Family Circus, Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora, and Barnum's Kaleidoscape are all "American," created in the United States.  Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloise, and Cirque Ingeniuex are French Canadian, as might be guessed from their names.  It is possible that some people are prejudiced against these shows for that reason.  They favor homegrown American traditional shows.  While this seems contradictory, as both types of circus were inspired by different periods of European circus, it is in the nature of many Americans to feel this way.  Ralph Linton describes these sentiments in his description of the day in the life of an average American.  Linton explains that after dinner the typical American

settles back to smoke, an American Indian habit, consuming a plant domesticated in Brazil in either a pipe, derived from the Indians of Virginia, or a cigarette, derived from Mexico. . . . While smoking he reads the news of the day, imprinted in characters invented by the ancient Semites upon a material invented in China by a process invented in Germany.  As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100 percent American (Linton 1936:327).

            Another explanation is that traditional circus performers and fans feel that the new circus breaks too many traditions to be considered a circus.  This can be explained by Paul Bouissac's theory of circus as expressive culture. He has described the circus as a ritualistic presentation of patterned, spectacular events that are highly meaningful for large audiences (1976:ix).  When the patterned events are changed, the audience to which they are meaningful is not pleased.  This idea applies to the French Canadian shows.  The main complaints of traditionalists are the lack of animals and the fact that Cirque du Soleil, although it has a circular stage, does not technically have a ring.  The presence of a ring is very important in the traditional circus.  It serves to separate the performers from the audience and creates a detached space in which the performers do their tricks.  In Cirque du Soleil the absence of the ring draws the audience more into the performance.  They share the experience with the performers and undergo the same feeling of flow.  This endears Cirque du Soleil more to its audiences but alienates it further from the traditionalists because it goes against the ways of the traditional circus. 

            The lack of animals in the French Canadian shows also alienates it from the traditional circus.  Many traditionalists consider animals to be the heart and soul of circus performance.  In a letter to the editor of Spectacle magazine, Chuck Meltzer declared that the new Ringling show had an abundance of animals acts because "they have learned that audiences want animals" (Meltzer 1999b:5).  Geertz's theory of ideology applies here (Rice 1980:58-59).  The traditionalists have put together symbols and rituals of circus and constructed an ideology of how a circus should be.  Since the French Canadian shows do not have these symbols and rituals, such as the ring and the animal acts, they say that these shows cannot be circuses. 

In addition to the claims that they are not circuses, this theory can also be applied to the criticisms of the quality of the French Canadian shows.  Traditionalists believe that circus should be open, friendly, and appealing to children.  They criticize the "attitude" and new age imagery put forth by Cirque du Soleil.  These things do not fit into the ideology of the symbols a circus should have, so they are rejected.

One final explanation can be found in Geertz's theory of ritual and social change (Rice 1980:29).  The social structure Geertz describes can be equated with the structure and format of the circus, while culture can be compared to the style of circus.  Traditionalists have a functionalist view of the circus.  They say that in the new circus "society" has fallen apart because there has been a cultural change.  They equate the format of the circus with the style, saying that if the style has changed then the structure has been broken down and what is left is no longer circus.  


            This paper endeavored to show the reasons for the increasing popularity of the new circus and for the conflict between the traditional and new circuses.  It has explained the popularity of the new circus by listing the ways in which it is different from the traditional circus.  The intimate one-ring setting, the focus on artistry, the theatrical staging and lighting, and the non-traditional music all help to endear the new circus to its audience, which includes many people that are not fans of the traditional circus.  It has also offered theories of experience and flow that help to explain why audiences are so entranced by the new circus.  This paper has explained the conflict between the new and traditional circuses with theories of ethnocentrism and cultural change.  It explains that traditionalists cherish the rituals of the traditional circus and object to their being left out of the new circus. 

            This paper contributes something new to the study of the new circus.  Many people have traced its history or critiqued its performances, but no one has ever used anthropological theory to compare it to the traditional circus.  The anthropologists who study the circus have up until this point focused on traditional circuses and ignored the emerging new circus.  Beyond this study, much more work can be done on the new circus.  There are many other theories that can be applied to it, such as Victor Turner's theories of ritual and theories of spectacle, festival, and celebration.  Now that theoretical studies of the new circus have begun, there is no end to what can be discovered.

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