Circus arts and occupational cultures at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

by James Deutsch, Smithsonian Folklife Festival Curator 

 

Often referred to as “a museum without walls” or “an outdoor museum,” the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival was established in 1967 to honor some of the finest practitioners and bearers of traditional culture. Following the original mission of the Smithsonian Institution, which was created in 1846 “to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Festival seeks to promote cultural democracy, cultural diversity, and cultural sustainability in communities across the United States and around the world. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2017, the Festival brought some 500 acrobats, aerialists, clowns, cooks, equilibrists, musicians, object manipulators, riggers, and more to participate in a program titled Circus Arts.

During those 50 years, the Festival has managed to celebrate the traditional cultures of roughly 100 different countries, every U.S. state, and a wide variety of religious and occupational groups—and to do so on the National Mall of the United States. Administered by the U.S. National Park Service—the same federal agency that maintains and preserves Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and many other special places in the United States—the National Mall is arguably the nation’s most important civic space. It is where Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream in 1963, where large protest marches and demonstrations regularly take place, and where millions of people stood in below-freezing temperatures to watch the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. The Folklife Festival almost always takes place for a period of ten days: during the week before and the week after the Fourth of July, which is the nation’s most important civic holiday.

The Festival’s handling of occupational groups has been one of its most distinguishing characteristics—and one that differentiates the Smithsonian event from other folk festivals that exclusively highlight music, dance, and food. Folklorists are well aware that all occupational groups have their own set of skills, specialized knowledge, and codes of behavior that not only distinguish them from other occupational groups, but which also meet their needs as a community.

Accordingly, curators at the Smithsonian have presented a wide variety of occupational groups and their culture(s) at the Folklife Festival for much of its history. These have included sleeping car porters in 1978, stone carvers and firefighters in 1979, airline pilots and flight attendants in 1983, trial lawyers in 1986, White House workers in 1992, Smithsonian workers in 1996, masters of the building arts in 2001, and even government workers from the U.S. Forest Service in 2005, National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2008, and Peace Corps in 2011. These occupational programs allowed the Smithsonian to stretch boundaries and expectations about definitions of folklife. Many visitors were surprised—but also intrigued—to see trial lawyers and NASA scientists at a Folklife Festival, sharing stages along with banjoists, gospel singers, quilters, and others more commonly associated with folk culture.  

This kind of boundary-stretching was one of the elements that helped pave the way for the Circus Arts program in 2017. It was also important for the Folklife Festival—on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary—to think more about what the Festival can be and what it can do. Circus Arts provided a perfect opportunity for the Festival to tell some of the American stories that are often overlooked, to become engaged with communities that have a deep and rich history, and to highlight groups that are facing challenges in the future.

Like many Festival programs, the conceptual basis and planning for Circus Arts had begun some three years earlier, after Preston Scott had been meeting many circus artists in Sarasota, Florida, where he had been living since 2005. Scott had already curated two Festival programs—Bhutan in 2008 and Kenya in 2014—and saw great potential in a program on circus arts that would highlight the artistic excellence and the longstanding traditions of this highly distinctive occupational group. As Scott explained, he hoped to confront and challenge many of the long-held negative stereotypes about the circus, while at the same time underscoring the inclusive spirit with which performers and the people on whom they depend carry out their work.

During the next two years, Scott greatly expanded his knowledge of contemporary circus arts by attending circus performances, festivals, and conferences—including the Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo and the American Youth Circus Festival—and by visiting many different circus schools and troupes across the country, all of whom were intrigued by the prospect of demonstrating their traditions and artistry at the Smithsonian event. Of particular interest to the Smithsonian, and its goals of promoting cultural democracy and cultural sustainability, were the troupes and schools that were working to enhance personal growth and social change through the principles of social circus.

In the midst of developing plans and agreements with a variety of circus organizations, two external events helped crystallize the Festival program. In October 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts presented the National Heritage Fellowship—the highest honor in folk and traditional arts—to a circus artist for the first time in its 33-year history. The recipient was Dolly Jacobs, a renowned aerialist and circus arts teacher. As the daughter of Lou Jacobs, a famous clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for more than 60 years, and as the co-founder (with Pedro Reis) of the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota, Jacobs epitomized the history and traditions of the circus arts. The second external event was the announcement in January 2017 that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—which had once billed itself as no less than “the greatest show on earth”—would be folding its tents after 146 years in operation.

The first event confirmed the country’s recognition that circus performers were not only artists, but also steeped in tradition and cultural heritage. The second event afforded the opportunity for the Smithsonian to demonstrate that the circus arts are thriving in schools and smaller troupes around the country, even while the largest circus of them all was no longer commercially viable.

And so on June 29, 2017, the Circus Arts program opened to the public. The schools and troupes with ongoing performances and demonstrations included the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus from New York, Circus Arts Conservatory and Sailor Circus Academy from Sarasota, Circus Bella and Circus Center from San Francisco, Circus Harmony from St. Louis, Circus Juventas from St. Paul, Circus Smirkus from Greensboro (Vermont), Happenstance Theater from Rockville (Maryland), Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe from Shijiazhuang (China), Imperial OPA Circus from Atlanta, New England Center for Circus Arts from Brattleboro (Vermont), Quat Props from Cardiff (Wales), School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts from Seattle, UniverSoul Circus from Atlanta, Wallenda Family Troupe from Sarasota, Wenatchee Youth Circus from Wenatchee (Washington), and Wise Fool New Mexico from Santa Fe. In addition, there were individual artists—many of them very well-known—who had performed with the Big Apple Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Medical Clown Project, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Trapeze School New York, and others.

At almost any given time during the ten days of the Festival, there were 14 different venues with scheduled performances, demonstrations, and hands-on activities. Dominating the skyline was the 65-foot-tall Big Top, a state-of-the-art single-ring fully-rigged circus tent constructed in Italy in the 2000s and owned by the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota. But Festival visitors also eagerly found their way to the Circus School inside the Smithsonian’s historic Arts and Industries building, the Cookhouse where circus chefs demonstrated their culinary skills, the Circus Science tent where the synergies of science and skill were illustrated, Clown Alley and Juggling, Two Hemispheres Circus Wagon, and outdoor rigs for high wire and trapeze.

One of the hallmarks of any Festival program is a discussion stage where structured conversations take place between the public and participating circus artists and scholars. On this stage, known as Circus Stories, the topics ranged from social circus, circus families, and circus in American culture to some of the ways in which the circus has changed over the years and how it reflects the changing times.

Conversations on the Circus Stories stage described how the circus arts evolved over time to reflect changing social tastes and values, technological innovations, and performance styles. Visitors also learned how the circus arts in the United States have benefited from the arrival of immigrants from all over the world who contributed their creativity and skills, foods, languages, rituals, and more. And they also heard compelling stories from dozens of students and teachers in circus schools across the country.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival makes no claim to being “the greatest show on earth.” However, by bringing together national and international stakeholders and by presenting on the National Mall the occupational culture of circus arts at a critical moment in 2017, the Festival not only helped expand and elevate visitors’ understanding and appreciation of an especially distinctive occupational group, but also helped to champion the vitality of circus arts around the world, thereby paving the way for future collaborations. At the same time, the Festivalprogram brought new dimensions of wonder to the National Mall. As described by two young videographers who were previously unfamiliar with the circus arts, “We wanted to capture the sheer wonder we felt during our two weeks at the circus. More than visual awe, we had witnessed the humanity of those who live its traditions.”   

The Circus Artsprogram was presented by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and Circus Arts Conservatory Sarasota, in partnership with the American Youth Circus Organization, American Circus Educators Association, and National Park Service.