From cirkus to nouveau cirque to contemporary circuss

When in the early 90s I understood that what was known as “nouveau cirque” (new circus) was an art form of its own, it was like discovering my language, the one I wanted to speak and influence the world through. The language of everything is possible! People flying in the air and running on walls. People who did not sit at tables but instead balanced them on their heads or swallowed the table legs. A language where the boundaries of what is physically and creatively possible were constantly being pushed. Not only were physical boundaries stretched and exceeded, but here street culture met high culture, the line between audience and stage was blurred, old traditions were blended with new ones. In the intermingling of different nationalities and cultures, clashes arose and out of these clashes new idioms were created – a new art form!

Tilde Björfors

Does the history of the circus begin with the ring or with the circus performers? Is the circus a "form" or is it the people in the "form" who create the art? Some claim that there is no such thing as “nouveau cirque”, new circus, since what we call “new” is in fact a return to the motley background out of which the circus evolved. Although there may be some truth to this, today “new circus” is very much an established art form, with higher education possibilities and supporting social structures in many countries.

The history of nouveau cirque (new circus) and of contemporary circus – which arose in the wake of 1968 and the prevailing political climate of the time – is in many ways the story of an art form that shares its early origins with the other performing arts, but that took its very own, completely different route. Many believe that the circus was created in 1768 by the British horse breeder Philip Astley. He presented advanced equestrian spectacles in a ring, and to fill the interludes between horse acts, he brought in performers such as jugglers, acrobats and tightrope dancers.

Others, such as Tomi Purovaara and Pascal Jacobs, believe that it is the artist with their feats and craft that form the basis of the circus as we know it today and that we can trace the circus back to the deepest roots of performing arts history, to the gladiator games, the clown companies that traveled between Europe’s medieval cities, even finding connections to the Dionysian festivals of Ancient Greece and to carnivals. In his book "Contemporary Circus – Introduction to the Development of Circus Art", Tomi Purovaara writes: "Everything emanates from the artist, the starting point of the circus is the physical art of the individual." From that perspective, the traditional tent circus that we so strongly associate with circus is only a small, albeit important, part of circus history, where the art form has been captured in a specific “mold”.

If the traditional circus has its origins in Astley's horse shows, cirque nouveau brought with it a huge shift by turning what began as interlude acts into main acts. Although there are some cirque nouveau-related companies that work with horses and several that work in tents and arenas, that is not what defines the art form itself. However, if we go back to the traveling groups where the artist, their tricks and craft were in focus, the step to today’s contemporary circus is not particularly long. Then, the journey of nouveau cirque and contemporary circus becomes more about placing the circus in an artistic context.

The history of nouveau and contemporary circus has only been documented extremely sporadically. Since the art form is so young that many of its founders and key figures are still alive, it is a history that continues to "write itself" in real time through interviews, images and films created by the practitioners, as well as through what is highlighted in the media. Considering the art form's short existence of just over forty years, the evolution that has taken place from the boundary-crossing "everything is possible - progress" of the first nouveau cirques to the "monodisciplinary" performances featuring only one circus discipline is nothing short of revolutionary.

Tilde Björfors has studied how the circus has historically inspired and been represented in the other art forms. She has searched her way through non-fiction, biographies, novels, articles and history books. Through interviews with approximately one hundred performers and circus experts, a contemporary history that cannot be found in any library unraveled and spread like a net across Europe, with threads to Australia, Canada and the rest of the world.

I wish I could have compiled this fabric into a book, but along the way I realized that I am not the historian or theater scholar who could do the material justice. Rather, I am rather a historian artist or an artistic historian, and my role is to put my art in historical perspective and to understand what "blood flows through my veins"; what makes a circus heart beat and what has driven this art form, where the stakes are literally life itself, to continue throbbing its way into our present? What is it that gives contemporary circus such an acute ability to transcend the boundaries of social structures and set its surroundings in motion?

Tilde Björsfors

I have tried to do two things in my research: firstly, to place my own creating in a historical context to understand where I find myself in this partly unwritten history. The second aspect has been my quest for the circus heart. In my research, I have tried to "read, interpret, understand" what the contents of a circus heart might be.

Tilde Björfors

Tilde Björfors has studied and made use of the material she herself produced through her artistic processes in the performances Inside Out and Wear it like a Crown, as well as in her research on circus disciplines and her CircusTransfer research.

Think like an acrobat – Read more about Tilde Björfors' circus research

Cirkörs' artistic director Tilde Björfors is one of few circus researchers in the world. She explores the circus discipline's dimensions in relation to art and society together with researchers from different fields of science.