It is called “the circus,” singular noun, definite article, as though there were only one. But the history of the circus is multitudinous, badly documented, clouded by legend and stereotypes; it is the history of many circuses over many years, each circus composed of many acts — rings within rings within rings. It’s hard to know where to start looking at it.
In his lovely new book, “The Ordinary Acrobat,” Duncan Wall finds useful spots from which to peer at the history of the circus: from the top of the trapeze platform, beneath a cascade of juggling balls and behind a red nose on his own face in the circus-mad Paris of 2003. He joins the circus to understand it.
Wall wasn’t always a circus obsessive. His conversion occurred while he was in Paris during college, attending a circus in the Parc de la Villette. The performance was nothing like the circus of his youth: “The juggler had a Mohawk. The acrobats were unshaven and dressed in ratty black suits with the cuffs rolled up. . . . It was visceral, real, and admirably raw.” Thereafter, Wall was what the French call a circusphile and the Americans “a gawk”: lovestruck, circus-struck. A year later, in 2003, he returned to Paris on a Fulbright fellowship to enroll in the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois. In other words, he came to gawk from the inside.
“The Ordinary Acrobat” interlaces chapters about his triumphs and phobias in his studies, his interviews of Parisian circus figures and the wider history of the European circus. The history in the book is effortless and compact, if necessarily less than comprehensive. He covers an astonishing amount in a 300-page book, with sections on Philip Astley (the English businessman who essentially invented the circus), P.T. Barnum, Cirque du Soleil and the earliest origins of the feats that eventually became the compilation known as the circus.
Wall, however, concentrates on a handful of acts, however — what might be described as a variety of human arguments with gravity: acrobatics, juggling and clowning. He explains how acts evolved: how jugglers changed their emphasis from seeing what extraordinary things they could keep in the air to simply seeing how many; how acrobats moved from displaying beauty to risking death; how clowns, once satirists, became beholden to the tastes of children.
Wall breaks the reader’s heart with stories of the acts he was born too late to see. Perhaps you don’t mind having missed the 800 bear trainers at Ivan the Terrible’s wedding, but what about the retracting stage at the Nouveau Cirque in the late 19th century, which revealed a swimming pool for pantomimes nautiques, including one featuring 30 polar bears on slides? Or the clown who performed in a mobile designed by Alexander Calder? Or the rope walker Saqui: “Men flocked to ogle her bravery and catch a glimpse of her thigh. Women copied her style.”
Wall trains with the acts himself. In the most oddly thrilling chapter, he juggles with the legendary Jerome Thomas. Wall exaggerated his juggling skills the first time they’d met, and has had to cram: Now he shows Thomas what he can do. “You have some nice tricks there,” Thomas tells him. “Now let’s work on the quality of the gesture.” Wall writes particularly well about jugglers, who might seem the least likely of artists — surely juggling is a party act! — but who, as he describes them, are sculptors of space. One of the students at the school where he studies theorizes that the jugglers (“the crazy ones,” a tumbling coach calls them) break into the building at night to practice.
There are some hitches. The book wants to retrofit a memoir — the journey of a young man investigating the circus — into the history and research. But there’s not much drama to those first-person events. The book also suffers from an occasional gee-whiz tone: By showing himself being disabused of his circus prejudices, Wall wants to disabuse the reader at the same time. Indeed, the opening pages discuss how dull the circus was to Wall as a child (which is irksome if you’re already interested). But Wall the author and current professor at the National Circus School of Montreal surely knows more and has traveled further from those misconceptions. At any rate, the circus, as he points out, is not entirely a young person’s game. His clowning mentor, Andre Riot-Sarcey, puts it this way: As most clowns “get older they get better. . . . They get sadder, too, but that has to happen naturally, as the soul replaces the body.”
One of Wall’s missions is to convince nonbelievers that the circus — as a whole and its component parts — is art, and the book is lovely and light on that subject. Art, the juggler Thomas explains, requires the spectator to work, to ask questions: Who is this performer? What does his act mean? Who is he influenced by? The spectator, he says, thinks about all this without even realizing it.
Wall asks how it is possible to make someone think without realizing it. “You make . . . him work . . . his imagination,” the juggler says, spacing the words out slowly. “You make him dream.” There is plenty in “The Ordinary Acrobat” to set circusphile and circus-skeptic alike to dreaming.
THE ORDINARY ACROBAT
A Journey Into the Wondrous World
of the Circus, Past and Present
By Duncan Wall
Knopf. 322 pp. $26.95