Skip to main content

By Aleksander Grimailo, Director of the Studio Grimailo

The future of the Circus mainly depends on our attitude. If the circus fascinates us, we’ll pay attention to it and take care of it, the same way we take care of our children. We are concerned about what we cherish and like. We all know, for example, that if we badly exploit our environment, not just us but our children will bear the consequences. In nature, like in the circus, everything is interrelated.

We cannot ignore how much the Chinese circus has developed lately. The Chinese school has a direct impact on the European circus. But the Russian circus also has an influence on the Chinese, the European and the Canadian circuses. And now the Ukrainian circus has also started developing fast! And then there’s Vietnam, Mongolia, Hungary and Cuba — they are all developing now, and even Africa is trying to catch up.

Guest performances, festivals, previews, video and the Internet have all accelerated and simplified the dissemination of information. You do not even have to see the finished act in order to have an opinion about it. Often, while the act is still in the rehearsal stage, its video is already on the Internet. While the directors and artists are getting prepared to amaze the world with an original act, somebody else may have copied these ideas already and even be able to present it before its originators. And all of a sudden you have lost the sensation of your creative idea. The copycat disregards the fact that you are the inventor. He or she just wants to show the novelty to the public faster than you.

In the rehearsal phase it’s getting more and more difficult to preserve the “secrets.” Practicing behind closed doors is outdated but that also means that the “surprise effect” is lost. It makes copying an act easier.

Copyright protection has become a serious problem. It has been discussed in the past, but we must look for a workable solution. Composers, musicians, poets, writers, masters of ballet, theatre and movie directors, etc. have a copyright system protecting their works. But nothing safeguards circus directors who are authors or inventors of their acts or shows. That means that the freedom to copy is easy. It also means using other peoples’ ideas has become a common practice. But in reality, it is simply a theft.

One may argue that it is impossible to copyright a somersault’s, a coolbits, a club spin or a headstand. However, the composition of the tricks and their original development, the themes, images, and the artist’s character, together produce a totally new performance which should be protected by copyright.

Anyone can do a handstand or flip. Some do it better and some do it worse.

But the set-up, atmosphere, special nature of the genre, individual features, sequence of tricks, composition, theme, presentation impact, style of the artist and accompanying music, costumes and the props are all part of the creative process.

For example, Oleg Izosimov, Zalevskij, the Zebras, etc. appear to be simple. They are the best, yet are not afforded any sort of copyright protection. That allows other directors and artists to copy the original tricks and to use the same combinations, style, costumes and even personal characteristics without even asking either the creator or the artists for permission. The less scrupulous even go as far as pretending that they are the inventor.

As circus directors, agents and managers know, the original act cannot appear in all circuses or shows at the same time. That not only allows, but actually promotes impostors. It often does not matter if the quality of the act and/or the fees are lower. What is most important to the impostors is to “get the contract.” The result is that a copied act is presented by a young, inexperienced artist, and the act is anything but the best.

The consequence is that the original artist who is capable of experimenting gets his/her ideas stolen. The search ends, and the development of the genre is interrupted.  The need for new acts does not mean that classic numbers don’t need to be reinvented. But that is different than being blindly imitated. What would the art world be like today if impostors only copied the great works of Van Gogh or Manet?

Copying is for commercial purposes only, and has nothing to do with creativity. Regardless of how good the imposter is, a copy is still just a copy. And if young people are content with this mediocrity, then the future of the circus will be mediocre. Is that the future we want to see? Of course not!

So what can be done about this situation?

First of all, the professionals themselves must agree not to focus on producing or supporting the production of copies, but rather focus on original works. Secondly, we have to insist on copyright laws for circus directors and even artists.

Furthermore, we must encourage young artists to take more risks to innovate, and we, as professionals, must support them. We have to give them the opportunity to perform new acts even though they might not have reached perfection yet. This approach resulted in important achievements and successes in former Soviet Union, particularly in Moscow in the 1980s at the Studio Gneuscheva and the Studio Grimailo. The result was the avant-garde circus providing the momentum for modern European and Canadian circus.

As founder of Studio Grimailo, I wanted to organize a new kind of a festival for creators and directors to present new ideas rather than new acts. However, that was not possible in Russia. The Circus is the most democratic art form, and it feeds on the inclusion of young people and fresh ideas. The Festival in Wiesbaden, the New Generation in Monaco and various Russian children festivals are the true pioneers in searching for young talents and in being courageous to take the risks and try new experiments.

Today in Europe, there is a trend of inventing new genres or mixed genres (combination of acts), and there is high demand for new flexible forms. Sometimes the performances aspects are overshadowing, and sometimes they don’t feature circus feats anymore. It’s hard to imagine artists dancing around a springboard without somersaults and pirouettes, or jugglers without their clubs swirling. Both the performance aspect and the circus displays have to develop in parallel. Otherwise we may forget what a coolbit or somersault look like. But rest assured, if we forget, the Chinese and Russian will remind us!

Maintaining Professionalism in Circus Arts

What makes circus arts so special? Theatrical plays and movies are based on scripts, screenplays and actors. The characters are well elaborated and the audience follow their progress during the spectacle which might last 2-3 hours. And, the parts can be played by any number of good actors in any theatre at any time. Not so in the circus.

The circus uses its own language and is guided by its own set of rules and conditions. You cannot take out a personality from a movie or a novel and simply transfer them to the circus ring. In the circus, the performer does not have 3 hours to develop a personality and give a moving performance. Rather, the circus artist must accomplish this is less than eight minutes!

Based on my long work experience with artists and directors as the founder of the Studio Grimailo in Russia, I came to the conclusion many of the artists and directors are attracted by the “dullness” of it al. Their sort of strange way of thinking says: “I stage the act on a certain philosophical plane, and if you haven’t understood it, then you are simply not mature enough.” For me that’s an “easy out” for the artist or director.

This excuse brings up a confusion of terms. Helplessness and a lack of professionalism are hidden behind this “pseudo philosophy.” This is also the reason for the over-production of music, a depressive atmosphere and simply the lack of taste. Often, in the low light situations the artists cannot be easily seen. Directors and pseudo-philosophers deem this to be the atmosphere of innovation and avant-garde. To me this is simply a lack of professionalism.

But the circus is a medium where difficult messages may be easily understood. You can’t hide good quality! Circusgoers engage with the performers and even amuse themselves. Let’s experiment and work within the realm of the avant-garde, but always be aware of the fraudulent. All art is good, unless it is boring. All new ideas are good, unless they are boring. And, the circus is not a place for the boring!

As artists and directors, we must guard against the disappearance of the original. Contemporary circus acts should not become mundane. Too often, there is no difference between streetwear and circus costumes: t-shirts, trousers, swimsuits, etc.  are lacking in imagination. They are cheap, which makes the act look cheap and boring.  Too many times artists don’t even put on makeup. We hardly see faces anymore . . . just dull faces in the spotlight. And thus, you create an end to the festive ambiance and electric atmosphere of the circus.

As a director, I do not care for the dull, melancholic performance that provike sadness in the audience. All my recent performances produce smiles, happiness and irony. Among my favourites are the “New Russians,” the “White Crow,” the Kharitonovs, “Pisces.” “Mister Dolmatin,” Romanovsky, “Basketball on a Trampoline,” “Salvador Dali” and the “Wedding.” All my artists know that they are not to be afraid of being funny and edgy!

Simplification is not the answer. Humour, eccentricity and irony are disappearing. There are fewer and fewer friendly and cheerful performances with colourful images and characters where the artists trigger positive emotions by making a lasting impression on the audience with outstanding acts. It requires the smart use of props, costumes, music and masks. Magic shouldn’t be exiled from the ring.

In other words, all the above components produce a special style of performance that will be long remembered. Some of the best examples of this creativity are Kiktev, Zebras, Bolero (China), Sky Angels, Abakarovs in Cirque du Soleil. These circus displays have everything: artistry, costumes, masking, music, etc. This is circus professionalism at its best.

Back in the 1980s when I started developing my concept of the “Geometric Circus,” I started looking for new forms of props, devices and scenery. At the beginning this idea was not very popular among the public employers of the Soviet State Circus, but thankfully that situation has changed. I was keen on the idea of “bent metal tubes,” thereby inventing new forms. And this was how cubes, spheres, pyramids, nodes, crystals, polyhedrons, triangles, spirals etc. came into the ring. Today they are overcoming conservative views. In fact, the geometric forms and concept have become generally accepted. The artists and the audience like them, and they are constantly being further developed. However, I was originally forbidden to work on that project and faced serious resistance in developing my the case of my show called “Zodiacs” with 12 acts. It was composed around the 12 signs of the Zodiac: Gemini – Gyro wheels with the Sannikovs; Virgo – ”M. Adamova: Capricorn – N. Rukol: Pisces – the Charitonovs  Jugglers; etc.

I’m proud that I have never stopped working for what I believe in. Who could imagine a circus today without a hula-hoop act? When V. Simonenko first showed this act in the Soviet Union it caused conflicts and scandals. Today, we find hula-hoops in many circus performances.

There is an authorship for all theatrical productions – be it good or bad.

Some artists and producers choose not to name the author. The problems start not in the creative stage, but later, when the work is finished and publicly performed. The artists are not legally obliged to recognise the copyrights, so we must start implementing a new standard based on mutual respect and obligations. We are obliged to comply with the quality standard of the performance.

We have to protect and promote the inventions and their authors and pay for their work! And if we cannot do that, then the least we can do mention the names of the authors, inventors and/or directors in the circus programs or booklets, during the shows, in newspapers or in encyclopaedias. Young people should be aware of this, because we cannot accept so-called impersonal authorship

There are many other cases where innovative artists and directors have had an impact of circus performances. Such as the stage sets of Andre Simar; the catching devices by Piradse, the “Semaphor” Koh,  or the death wheel or sphere developed for motorcycles by Majazkij. Every new circus invention has an individual creator who introduced it. Also, there are typical styles produced by certain directors, such as Gneuschev, Grimailo, Ganejev, Fomin’ Dubrowskij’ Poldi’s and others.  In the theatre, there is a so-called Stanislavski system.

There should be cooperation among artists, directors, agencies and the press. But I emphasize, compliance with and respect of copyrighted works and naming the authors and the directors will improve the quality of the acts, the shows and even the programs.

If a number is a success, then it create merit for the person who created it. Likewise, If an act flops, that experience will impact its creator. After all, negative publicity is publicity too. Because, if no one speaks about or remembers the act or its creator, that means “you don’t exist”.

The director plays an important role in the development of the artist. We often watch a performance of an artist that does not trigger any reaction or interest. Then later, the same artist, who is now working under the guidance of a good director, manager and/or producer, will give a performance that everyone admires and remembers. Everybody is enthusiastic about the artists and wants him/ her in their shows or festivals. Everyone thinks this was only thanks to the artist’s hard work. But in reality, he/she was discovered and trained by a professional director, manager and/or producer.

When a mediocre football team who gets a new coach starts winning with the same players, isn’t that because of the new coach? Why is it hard for people to accept this in the circus? Why do we acknowledge coaches and managers in sport, ballet, and theatre and in movies, but not in the circus?

Also, when I see something special in an artist and create an act just for him/her, why shouldn’t I call them my artists? No one would dream of contracting an artist or football player etc. without the consent of the director, the club etc., because there are rules and contracts governing this. In the circus, however, these procedures are simply ignored.

By promoting the initiative of directors and “practitioners” we are passing the baton on to young people who will then pass it on the next generation. And, we must also pass on the idea of professionalism and striving for historical values – values that cherish the authentic and transparent history rather than those that adhere to a distorted reflection of history. This is how we build a productive future for circus arts.

The young generation should build on the basis of their experiences and knowledge to design new, modern acts. Yet, our task is to pass on as much information, knowledge and skills as possible to young people. To use modern computer slang: we need to “programme” circus people with knowledge and experience.

After all, circus arts is mass art form, developed as a mass phenomenon and defined by its popularity. In circus arts, the acts and the shows influence the audience.  It is the circus directors’ dream and ambition to overcome the stereotypes and create something new and unique or at least preserve traditions at a high level.

Time will make the real selection and preserve true circus the values. And after a while, it might not be so easy to remember who invented what, or who the first to achieve an endeavour was. At some point, all great circus achievements may belong to the public domain!

When I think of my role as a circus director, I think of Prometheus, the god who brought us fire, passed it on and paid the price, but fire provided heat and light for all!. What a feat of true directorship! Often we directors are like Prometheus: 007 spies that everyone knows about, but none have actually seen. In fact, you may wonder if all these directors, authors and creators of circus world exist at all?

I’m here to say “Of course, they do!” We all know them! We choose to promote those who exists and support those still to be born. After all, it’s so simple to mention them all along the way.

Because if you can name them, then the future of the circus is secure for another 250 years!

Subscribe to our newsletter

We keep your data private and share your data only with third parties that make this service possible. Read our Privacy Policy.