Circus as Art. Circus as Entertainment.

One of the recurring topics at the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival in June was circus as its own art.  There is a movement to have circus classified as its own art form for funding applications, and to bring circus to university programs as its own course of study.  I fully support the expansion of circus as art in the US (we need a few more options on the spectrum beyond Ringling Brothers and Cirque du Soleil), but I have mixed feelings about fighting to be part of the non-profit arts structure of the US.

First, funding.

There is none.  No one in contemporary concert dance makes money by putting on shows or performing.  There is no money to be had.  Perhaps my experience is too limited in the performing arts.  Maybe theater and music are experiencing more success with the current model, but in dance, it is a crumbling structure.  The model is: go through a program, audition around a little, start your own project-to-project company, apply for non-profit status, apply for the same grants every other struggling dancer/choreographer is applying for, start a KickStarter and fill your friends’ Facebook feed with irritation and guilt.  Even the big name companies struggle.  And even in dance meccas like New York and San Francisco, the quality of work suffers, because very few can afford to rehearse long enough to make interesting work, and those who can are too afraid of losing their funding to take a risk.  This does not move an art form forward.

Here is a photo of me from Tourettes Without Regrets, because this post is too wordy and needs some circus.
Here is a photo of me from Tourettes Without Regrets, because this post is too wordy and needs some circus.

So, why should circus jump on this sinking ship?  We are fighting for our own dedicated piece of the same size pie, even though there is already not enough for every person with a fork.  Not even enough for every supremely talented person with a fork.  In fact, as a friend of mine pointed out, right now we can stick our fork in two different pieces of pie:  theater or dance.  Two well established pieces of pie are always going to be more pie than one baby piece of pie for the new art form at the table.

The non-profit funding structure is failing.  It is not promoting the creation of good art.  It is not promoting the creation of actual paying opportunities for artists.  In the US, participating in the non-profit arts funding structure unfortunately tells your audience you are not worth investing in.

Now, to talk about circus in higher education.

I have a bachelor’s degree in dance.  It has earned me zero jobs.  I have no more money or opportunities because of this degree than I would have without that piece of paper.  I have actually been at an interview for a non-arts job, and been near laughed at for my degree.  I read an article on how university dance programs are a pyramid scheme–get your bachelor’s so you can get your master’s so you can teach at a university, which is the only way you will pay off your massive school loans by working in your field.  And I agreed with it.  But if I could make a different choice, would I?

My university dance program indirectly lead me to my position as a dancer at Busch Gardens.  That opportunity indirectly led me to circus.  Because of this, I would not make a different choice.  I got to travel, to experience the luxury of daily technique classes and high quality artistic opportunities, and to learn how to balance a crazy full schedule (my record was 22 credit hours in one semester–and the 16 hours per week of technique class only translated to 8 of those credit hours).  I learned how to write about art and how to make dances.  I learned a lot of valuable things, and it undoubtedly formed me as a person.  But I was also extraordinarily fortunate not to graduate with massive crushing debt, and I simply cannot say if the value of my college experience would be worth that lifetime weight.

So I have a mixed opinion on this.  Here are the pros and cons:

Pros

  • >Lends legitimacy to the art of circus.  Creates a path for more artists to participate, which hopefully moves the form forward.
  • >Serves as an incubator–Easy access to training space and quality coaches, hours upon hours of rehearsal, a fully staffed and equipped theater, access to a costume department and perhaps even costume design students, not to mention young eager bodies to set work on.
  • >To a certain extent, students learn to be around non-circus people and study some non-circus topics, which hopefully helps to prevent too much navel gazing.  Maybe.

Cons

  • >It is a pyramid scheme.  To have teaching positions and programs, you have to have students.  To have students, you cannot tell them how small their chances of making a living from being an artist are (or you can tell them, and trust that they are all young artists and think they are too special to not make it).  Very few 18 year olds choose to go to school to study an art form so they can administrate really efficiently within that art form.  Some may have a passion to teach, and uni is a great way to hone that skill.  But the vast majority are there because they want to be a performing artist in that art form, and the sad truth is there are a finite number of self sustaining opportunities out there.  The solution to this is that if we are to bring circus to universities, we must emphasize the need for circus artists to create actual paid opportunities for ourselves and to keep circus relevant outside the university setting.
  • >It is a breeding ground for politics and pretension.  But probably so are private training programs.
  • >Tenure is great for teachers, but is it great for students?  Which is better, a professional training program whose staff may rotate or bail to go off on tour, or a university program whose staff will be consistent but may be out of touch from the market outside academia?
  • >May promote navel gazing, because everything is so easy access.  Why look outside yourself if it’s all right there for you?

My biggest fear with using the non-profit funding structure and university programming to legitimize circus as art is that it will create a great divide between art and entertainment.  We occupy this rare space, where what we do is dangerous and therefore inherently entertaining, and that leaves some room to play.  To play with an odd character.  To risk saying something.  To make something out of nothing.  And to get paid for it.  All the circus artists I know take part in both artistic performance opportunities and entertainment based gigs.  That does not exist in dance.  Modern dancers do not moonlight as music video dancers to get a paycheck–they are two completely separate careers.  One pays, and one doesn’t, and they both suffer because there is no crossover between the two.  I do not want that for circus.  I thoroughly enjoy being able to make a living from my art–knowing that even though my more artistic circus endeavors are not likely to sustain themselves, it is not such a leap to tweak the music, timing and costuming to appeal to an entertainment crowd.  Our art inevitably has to grown and change from the wave of popularity we are currently riding, but we must maintain our functionality and avoid becoming just another under-funded art form in the US.