Last week, I enjoyed an evening at the Civic Center when the Cirque du Soleil made its first visit to Savannah.
This acrobatic and dance extravaganza told the story of a young girl who enters an imaginary world. Like many of the arts, the performance can be interpreted at so many different levels. I was fascinated by the dream-like feeling of the production in which random characters would appear on the periphery of the acrobatic action. The interaction of the adults, whom we assume are the young girl’s parents, was fascinating. They depicted, without speaking, reading the newspaper, being oblivious to their daughter, having a heated discussion and showing disappointment, sadness, loss and love.
The show left the audience amazed by the fitness levels of the highly energetic 50-member cast and their unbelievable skills that can command the human form to perform such incredible contortions and acrobatics.
Cirque du Soleil, which translates from French as “Circus of the Sun,” began as a contemporary-style circus about 30 years ago near Quebec City in French-speaking Canada. According to www.cirquedusoleil.com, it is the brainchild of former street performer and founder Guy Laliberte.
Of course, the tradition of the travelling circus is much older, and Cirque du Soleil combines many traditions from around the world. According to www.pbs.org, circus acts of today originated from ancient Egypt, China and the Roman Empire. Famously, Roman writer Juvenal comments on the “bread and circuses” that were used to appease the common people and stop their questioning of the political goings-on.
Entertainers such as jugglers and acrobats flourished in medieval fairs in Europe. However, as the early Protestant-church moral reforms, which disapproved of such frivolous, occasionally bawdy entertainment, took hold, it was the beginning of the end of these fairs, especially in England and France.
The modern-day circus ring originated in the 18th century from an Englishman’s idea. Philip Astley, whose riding skills were developed through military service and led to him opening a riding school in London, opened the circular arena in the evenings and performed riding tricks ? such as standing on the backs of galloping horses ? for which he began charging customers. By 1770, Astley introduced jugglers, acrobats, ropedancers and clowns into his act, which was so successful he was able to expand to Paris in 1782.
It was not long before this “circus” spread to the United States. In 1793, John Bill Ricketts opened a one-ring circus in Philadelphia. By the 1800s, the circus was following the many Americans who were loading their wagons and heading west to colonize lands away from the Eastern seaboard. The invention of the canvas tent in the 1820s also made the circus more portable.
However, by the 1830s growing levels of American moral piety meant that the circus was heavily taxed in some states and banned in others. Not for the first time, the circus tradition had to adapt to survive in a changing world, which it did this time by focusing on educational aspects. Exotic animals were imported from all over the world, and audiences passed through these menageries before taking a seat in the big top.
As this became more and more popular, P.T. Barnum took a traditionally American approach to this challenge - making the circus bigger and better. He added a second ring in 1872 and a third ring in 1881 to accommodate more people.
Barnum teamed with James Anthony Bailey to create an even bigger circus, and after his death, the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus, which ensured the survival of the brand.
Exotic animals once drew large and admiring crowds, but the animal rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s challenged this tradition, so the circus evolved yet again. Shows like the Big Apple Circus work exclusively with domesticated animals and, of course, Cirque du Soleil does not include animals at all in its performances.
As I watched the performers last week, it occurred to me that it is refreshing that in today’s world, where the special effects of movies and amazing computer images are so easy to download, the evolution and survival of the circus tradition is a testament to our desire to see real people displaying real skills in real time.
So why did Guy Laliberte name his circus Cirque du Soleil? He explains it this way: “The sun stands for energy and youth, which is what I thought the circus should be about.” And I can report that it was.
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com