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A circus is a company of performers that specialize in the circus and variety arts. Circus companies typically include various ground acrobatics, balance acts, manipulation acts, aerial acts, and trained animal acts, among many others.

History of the circus

The circus has a long and involved history, with its roots dating back to Ancient Rome. Much of the earliest history is heavily debated. What is presented here is a middle of the road view suitable for the general public.

Circus in the ancient world

In Ancient Rome the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, displays featuring trained animals, jugglers, and acrobats. The circus of Rome is thought to have been influenced by the Egyptians and Greeks, with chariot racing and the exhibition of animals as traditional attractions. The Roman circus consisted of tiers of seats running parallel with the sides of the course, and forming a crescent round one of the ends. The lower seats were reserved for persons of rank; there were also various state boxes, eg. for the giver of the games and his friends. In Ancient Rome the circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated.

The first circus in Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Next in importance to the Circus Maximus in Rome was the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Neronis, from the notoriety which it obtained through the Circensian pleasures of Nero. A fourth, the Circus of Maxentius, was constructed by Maxentius; the ruins of this circus have enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the Roman circus.

Following the fall of Rome, Europe lacked a large and animal rich circus. Itinerant showmen traveled the fair grounds of Europe. Animal trainers and performers are thought to have exploited the nostalgia for the Roman circus, traveling between towns and performing at local fairs. Another possible link between the Roman and modern circus could have been bands of Gypsies who appeared in Europe in the 14th century and in Britain from the 15th century bringing with them circus skills and trained animals.

Circus in China

In China's Eastern Han Dynasty, scholar Zhang Heng was one of the first to describe acrobatic theme shows in the royal palaces in his writing "Ode to the Western Capital". A grand acrobatic show was held by Emperor Wu of Han in 108 BC for foreign guests[1]. Most western texts describe the circus as a "Chinese Circus". The Far East generally see it as a separate performance art called Chinese variety art, and is not believed to be a direct predecessor to "Western Circus" despite many stunts and performances being similar.

Early development of the modern circus

The modern concept of a circus as a circular arena surrounded by tiers of seats, for the exhibition of equestrian, acrobatic, and other performances seems to have existed since the late 18th century.[2] The popularity of the circus in England may be traced to that held by Philip Astley in London, the first performance of his circus is said to have been held on January 9, 1768. One of Astley's major contributions to the circus was bringing trick horse riding into the ring, and in doing so he set the diameter of the circus ring at 42 feet, which is the size ring needed for horses to circle comfortably at full gallop. Astley was followed by Andrew Ducrow, whose feats of horsemanship had much to do with establishing the traditions of the circus, which were perpetuated by Henglers and Sangers celebrated shows in a later generation. In England circuses were often held in purpose built buildings in large cities, such as the London Hippodrome, which was built as a combination of the circus, the menagerie and the variety theatre, where wild animals such as lions and elephants from time to time appeared in the ring, and where convulsions of nature such as floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been produced with an extraordinary wealth of realistic display.

Antonio Franconi, the founder of the French circus, is credited by many to be a co-creator of the modern circus, along with Philip Astley.

Development of the modern circus 1800’s – 1950’s

In the first two decades of the 19th century The Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured from Montreal to Havana, building circus theatres in many of the cities they visited. Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States. In 1825 Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance. Circus pioneer Dan Rice was probably the most famous circus and clown pre-Civil War, popularizing such expressions as "The One-Horse Show" and "Hey, Rube!". The American circus was revolutionized by P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched Barnum and Bailey Circus|P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, a travelling combination animal and human oddities, the exhibition of humans as a freakshow or sideshow was thus an American invention. Coup was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus from town to town; a practice that continues today and introduced the first multiple ringed circuses.

In 1840 the equestrian Thomas Cooke returned to England from the United States, bringing with him a circus tent. Three important circus innovators were Italian Giuseppe Chiarini, and Frenchmen Louis Soullier and Jacques Tourniaire, whose early travelling circuses introduced the circus to Latin America, Australia, South East Asia, China, India, South Africa and Russia. Soullier was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus when he returned from his travels in 1866 and Tourniaire was the first to introduce the performing art to Russia where it became extremely popular. Following Barnum's death his circus merged with that of James Anthony Bailey, and travelled to Europe as Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show On Earth" where it toured from 1897 to 1902, impressing other circus owners with its large scale, its touring techniques including the tent and circus train and the combination of circus acts, zoological exhibition and the freak-show. This format was adopted by European circuses at the turn of the 20th century.

The influence of the American circus brought about a considerable change in the character of the modern circus. In arenas too large for speech to be easily audible, the traditional comic dialog of the clown assumed a less prominent place than formerly, while the vastly increased wealth of stage properties relegated to the background the old-fashioned equestrian feats, which were replaced by more ambitious acrobatic performances, and by exhibitions of skill, strength and daring, requiring the employment of immense numbers of performers and often of complicated and expensive machinery. In 1919, Lenin, head of the USSR, expressed a preference for human skill over animal and nationalized the Soviet circus. When the company began international tours in the 1950's, it was a dramatically different performance than any contemporary- and paved the way for the far more lucrative animal-free circuses of the new wave.

Contemporary circus

In the 1960s and 1970s, the circus began to lose popularity as people became more interested in alternative forms of entertainment. Some circuses have stayed afloat by merging with other circus companies.

Cirque Nouveau / New Circus is a performing arts movement that started its development in the 1970s. The New Circus movement developed simultaneously in France, Australia the West Coast of the U.S. and the U.K . There are typically no animals used in this type of circus and influences are drawn as much from contemporary culture as from Circus History.

In the 1990’s circus started to see a resurgence, as youth circus started to become a popular youth activity.

In the 2004 a new form of circus began to appear called Cirque Noir in the NW of America. Several Hub cities have sprouted its own form of this new circus movment, LA, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and has continued to blossom all over the world.

For more information, see: Cirque Noir.

Circus Timeline

  • Rise of the Roman Circus
  • Fall of the Roman Circus
  • Medieval Era. During the medieval era groups of performers traveled from village to village, putting on shows, telling stories and singing songs for the towns people. During this era, these itinerant performers were often the only source of news from the outside.
  • 1500s. During the 1500’s a number of laws were passed around Europe that forbid performers from traveling from village to village, as they were seen as a threat to the control of those then in power. In response to this, many performers started holding shows in fixed locations, and constructing buildings specifically designed for the events.
  • 1600s. During the 1600’s Country fairs became popular throughout Europe. Acrobats, jugglers, rope dancers, bear trainers and riding exhibitions became permanent fixtures at the country fair.
  • 1768. Philip Astley is credited with the creation of the modern circus. Astley opened an equestrian riding-school in London, England. To supplement the equestrian shows his school put on, he hired clowns, acrobats and other performers to help fill in the show. Within a few years, the circus shows were more popular than the riding school, and Astley opened more circuses throughout England
  • 1825. Joshuah Purdy Brown (1802?-1834) replaces the then common wooden structures with a full canvas tent. Canvas tents became commonplace by the mid-1830's.
  • 1836. British equestrian Thomas Cooke brings the circus tent from America to England.
  • July 6, 1944 – The Hartford Circus Fire
  • Founding of Circus Oz [1]
  • Founding of The Pickle Family Circus [2]
  • Founding of Circus Burlesque
  • Founding of the Nofitstate circus [3]
  • Founding of Cirque du Soleil [4]
  • Founding of Club Swing
  • Founding of Cirque Éloize [5]
  • Founding of Les Sept Doigts de la Main [6]
  • Founding of Guinée
  • Founding of Circus Baobab
  • Founding of Le Cirque Imaginaire, later renamed Le Cirque Invisible
  • Tiger Lillies
  • Circus Monoxide
  • Acrobat, Dislocate[7],
  • Rock'n'Roll Circus [8] (now CIRCA)
  • 1974. In 1974 the Festival du Cirque de Monaco (International Circus Festival of Monaco) was founded by Prince Rainier III of Monaco as the first international awards for circus performers.
  • October 31, 2004 PURE Cirkus was founded by Xavier Frost and several other Seattle circus performers. PURE Cirkus is classified as Cirque Noir and modern movement of Dark Circus performances. [9]

The circus performance

A traditional circus performance is led by a ringmaster or master of ceremonies. The ringmaster presents performers, speaks to the audience, and generally keeps the show moving. The activity of the circus takes place within a ring; large circuses may have multiple rings, like the six ringed Moscow State Circus. A circus traditionally has its own band.

Other circuses are presented without a ringmaster, and instead use other frameworks to carry the show, such as a story line, or specific music. These shows are usually presented by companies of the New Circus movement.

Circus acts

For more information, see: Circus Acts.

Circuses commonly include a wide variety of acts. Some of the more common acts include:

  • Ground acrobatics acts (tumbling acts, hoop diving acts, etc)
  • Aerial acts (trapeze, aerial silks, lyra, etc)
  • Object Manipulation acts (juggling, diabolo, devil sticks, etc)
  • Equilibristic acts (wire walking, stilt walking, rolling globe, etc)
  • Clowning acts
  • Magic acts
  • Daredevil acts (human cannonball, Globe of death, etc)

Circus Training

For more information, see: Circus Training.

Circus training can range from informal clubs, to recreational programs, to pre-professional programs, to degree granting programs, and anything in between.

Many pedagogies or classification systems exist for circus skills. Some of the most famous systems include:

  • The Gurevich system of the Moscow Circus School
  • The Lecoq system of the LeCoq school in France
  • The Hovey Burgess system (made famous from the publication of his 1976 instructional book “Circus Techniques”)

In addition to these major systems, virtually every circus school in the world - and to a lesser extent every circus arts teacher in the world - has, over time, developed their own pedagogies for teaching circus arts. While most of these pedagogies evolved to fit the needs, strengths and teaching styles of the individual school or teacher, some pedagogies evolved from more pragmatic approaches, with categories being based more on objectively defined criteria, and less on how the individual school or teacher approaches the teaching of the skills.

Animal acts

For more information, see: Circus Animal Acts.

A variety of animals have historically been used in acts. While the types of animals used vary from circus to circus, big cats, elephants, horses, birds, sea lions and domestic animals are the most common.

Circus music

For more information, see: Circus Music.

The atmosphere of the circus has served as a dramatic setting for many musicians and writers. The famous circus theme song is actually called "Entrance of the Gladiators", and was composed in 1904 by Julius Fučík. Other circus music includes "El Caballero", "Quality Plus", "Sunnyland Waltzes", "The Storming of El Caney", "Pahjamah", "Bull Trombone", "Big Time Boogie", "Royal Bridesmaid March", "The Baby Elephant Walk", "Liberty Bell March", "Java", Strauss's "Radetsky March", and "Pageant of Progress".

Circus films and plays

For more information, see: Circus films and plays.

Plays set in a circus include the 1896 musical The Circus Girl by Lionel Monckton, Polly of the Circus written in 1907 by Margaret Mayo, He Who Gets Slapped written by Russian Leonid Andreyev 1916 and later adapted into on of the first circus films, Caravan written in 1932 by Carl Zuckmayer, the revue Big Top written by Herbert Farjeon in 1942, Top of the Ladder written by Tyrone Gutheris in 1950, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off written by Anthony Newley in 1961, and Barnum (musical)|Barnum with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics and book by Mark Bramble.

Following the First World War circus films became popular; in 1924 He Who Gets Slapped was the first film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer|MGM; in 1925 Sally of the Sawdust (remade 1930), Variety, and Vaudeville were produced, followed by The Devil's Circus in 1926 and The Circus (film)|The Circus starring Charlie Chaplin, Circus Rookies, 4 Devils; and Laugh Clown Laugh in 1928. German film Salto Mortale about trapeze artists was released in 1930 and remade in the United States and released as Trapeze (film)|Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster in 1956; in 1932 Freaks was released; Charlie Chan at the Circus, Circus (USSR) and The Three Maxiums were released in 1936 and At the Circus starring the Marx Brothers and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man in 1939. Circus films continued to be popular during the Second World War, The Great Profile starring John Barrymore was released in 1940, the animated Walt Disney Feature Animation|Disney film Dumbo, Road Show and The Wagons Roll at Night in 1941 and Captive Wild Woman in 1943.

The film Tromba, about a tiger trainer was released in 1948 and in 1952 Cecil B. de Mille's Oscar winning film The Greatest Show on Earth was first shown. Released in 1953 were Man on a Tightrope and Ingmar Bergman's Gycklarnas afton released as Sawdust and Tinsel in the United States; Life is a Circus; Ring of Fear; 3 Ring Circus and La strada (film)|La strada an Oscar winning film by Federico Fellini about a girl who is sold to a circus strongman; Fellini made a second film set in the circus called The Clowns in 1970. Films about the circus made since 1959 include B-movie Circus of Horrors, musical Billy Rose's Jumbo (film)|Billy Rose's Jumbo, A Tiger Walks a Disney film about a tiger that escapes from the circus and Circus World (film)|Circus World starring John Wayne.

Hugh O'Connor's 2005 screenplay "Circus in a Bad Place" drew much attention when published as a novel, inspired several street performances and a short-lived stage play. Originally envisioned as an auto-biography the final work features monkeys, dogs playing poker and robot clowns. The dialogue is troublesome and centres on the search of the protagonists search of self while battling with ebola, in a circus.

Circus Buildings

In some towns, there are circus buildings. The best known are

  • Circus Krone Building in Munich
  • Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard in Moscow
  • Shanghai Circus World in Shanghai
  • Cirque du Soleil#Resident productions|Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Cirque d'Hiver, Paris
  • Blackpool Tower Circus
  • Hippodrome Circus, Great Yarmouth

In other countries, purpose-built circus buildings still exist which are no longer used as circuses, or are used for circus only occasionally among a wider programme of events; for example, the Circus Schumann in Copenhagen, Denmark or Cirkus (Stockholm)|Cirkus in Stockholm, Sweden.


  1. Qiao. "Qiao." The acrobatic Theme show and its origin in the Hundreds Entertainment. Retrieved on 2007-05-25.
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the 1791 book The History of the Royal Circus about Philip Astley's troupe as the first written use of the word to describe the modern circus.