Roll up!! Roll up!! Daring trapeze artists,
agile acrobats, marvellous magicians and kooky clowns ... these
are just some of the acts you can see at the circus.
Do you know how long humans have been enjoying the circus? The
Chinese Circus dates back over two thousand years to the Qin
Dynasty of 225 - 207BC. Chinese circus performers displayed
their skill, strength and daring though a variety of incredible
acrobatics as well as other acts you may not be so familiar
with, including spinning plates on the end of bamboo sticks,
flipping bowls with their feet and juggling pottery!
At the same time on the other side of the world, the Romans
were enjoying their version of the circus. Thousands of people
crowded into large open air stadiums called amphitheatres
to watch lavish entertainment programs which often lasted several
days! These ancient circuses were an ongoing spectacle of gladiators
fighting to the death, chariot races, displays of skilled horsemanship,
acrobatics, wrestling and exotic wild beasts.
For a long time after the fall of the Roman
Empire, there was nothing in Europe to match the scale and decadence
of these events. Many smaller troupes of performers travelled
the country, entertaining people in town and villages. Some
of these groups included animals in their performances - often
wild animals like bears or monkeys to amaze their audiences,
or more familiar animals such as horses. Hundreds of years later
a new type of circus evolved, beginning with displays of trick
riding and skilled horsemanship.
In 1768, an English soldier called Philip
Astley used his expertise with horses to draw large crowds to
shows in London. He taught riding each morning and then demonstrated
his amazing skills for the public in the afternoon in a circular
arena called a circle or circus, later known as
the ring. Astley's shows were so popular that soon others
copied him. To ensure his show remained successful, he added
new elements such as acrobats, tightrope dancers, jugglers and
a clown. A new form of circus was born, spreading across Europe
and then America.
When the circus was introduced to America in
the late 1700s, the performers, animals and equipment travelled
to settlements in remote places across the country. To make
things even more difficult, these far-flung towns often did
not have a venue for the performance. The large scale 'travelling
show' was developed, complete with wagons and a huge tent or
Big Top which was erected in each new location, providing
a perfect undercover venue for the circus.
America developed a circus which was quite different from its
European and Asian counterparts. It incorporated song and dance,
as well as the display of weird and wonderful human talents
known as Freak Shows. The American circus was very successful
and produced popular personalities who attracted much recognition
and celebrity - much like today's movie stars! P.T Barnum was
one American circus owner who's success was complete when Her
Majesty Queen Victoria attended a performance.
From the mid 1800s, both European and American circus companies
travelled widely. The circus is a highly visual form of entertainment
and so overcame language barriers with ease. Think of the skill
of an acrobat or the antics of a clown - they can be enjoyed
with no need for words.
Travelling to Australia, these circuses drew
large crowds and influenced the establishment of local circus
families such as the Fitzgeralds and the Wirths. Other families
immigrated to Australia from Europe, such as the famous Jandaschewsky
clowning dynasty. In return, Australian circus stars toured
overseas. May Wirth of the Wirth Family Circus was one such
star - a talented trick rider who was highly successful in America
as well as in her home country.
Circuses and other variety shows known as Travelling Tent
Shows had to travel vast distances to reach the gold-rush
settlements and other young towns in Australia. During World
War II they also visited Army camps to entertain the troops.
In the early and mid 1800s, the roads were often unsealed dirt
tracks and there were very few railways. Children who saw the
wonderful performances in towns may have dreamt of running away
to join the circus, but in reality, travelling across Australia
was hot, dusty and tedious. In the late 1800s the shows began
to travel by train and truck, but life on the road was still
very hard work.
There were many different focuses in these travelling shows,
including acrobatics, music, dance, comedy and the display of
the weird and wonderful. This was all part of the allure - the
sense of magic, mystery and the unexpected that surrounds the
Big Top. Wild animals were a vital part of the circus for this
reason, being exotic and new to most of the audience, not to
mention adding a little danger!
Many of the traditional elements of the circus have changed
or disappeared over the years. The rise of other forms of entertainment
such as film, television and radio during the 1900s saw a decline
in the popularity of the circus. In the last fifty years there
has been an increasing concern for animal welfare which also
impacted greatly upon circuses - there is now much less use
of animals in performance. Instead, modern circuses tend to
focus more on human abilities and displays of daring and skill.
There are other traditional circuses which still incorporate
animals into their shows - most often horses, which have now
been part of the Western circus for thousands of years.
These days, the circus is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
Australia's Circus Oz travels the world, their original
performance incorporating elements of European and Asian circus.
The French Cirque du Soleil is another successful modern
circus troupe and there is even an Australian circus consisting
entirely of child-performers - the Flying Fruit Fly Circus!
The circus has overcome all obstacles and remains a unique and
highly popular form of entertainment. It has proved it can adapt
to find new ways of delighting and astounding audiences - can
you think of any other form of entertainment with such a long
and varied history?
Find out about the dedication, inspiration and cooperation
behind Circus Oz. You can even enroll in a circus workshop.
The National Circus and Physical Theatre
Information on everything from training opportunities
to road stories and interviews with circus performers.
The Imperial Circus of China
Learn about the history of the Chinese Circus and view
images of their performers in action.
The Flying Fruit Fly Circus
Check out this circus troupe - all its members are school