Whenever I think of the circus (which, admittedly, is rarely), the first thing that comes to mind is Bruce Davidson's famous photograph of a forlorn clown smoking a cigarette and clutching a fistful of wilted flowers in the mud outside a ratty circus tent. Fittingly, I first saw this striking image on the cover of Heinrich Boll's 1963 novel, The Clown. The titular protagonist isn't the creepy backyard children's entertainer we've come to associate with the form. He's troubled and high-strung, and sees himself first and foremost as an artist — and something of a mystic, to boot. Judging by Duncan Wall's memoir/history, The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present, Boll's portrayal is far and away the more accurate one.
For Wall, and most Americans, the circus barely registers as a cultural entity. Of his limited childhood circus experience, Wall writes, "I can remember walking across the enormous asphalt parking lot with my father, hand in hand, past the rows of cars and the soot-stained trucks. ... I remember watching the show with a mixture of confusion and boredom. The overweight acrobats wore out-of-style sequins. The tigers looked sluggish and distracted." It sounds more like a High-Stalinist carnival where attendees were forced to mime joy, but fits well with Davidson's stark photographic representation.
Wall decided to push past his first impression and dig a little deeper, ending up on a Fulbright fellowship at a French institution dedicated to teaching the theory and practice of the modern European circus. This is a far different animal than the grim American stereotype. Here, despite having no previous training in acrobatics, clowning, or even basic juggling, Wall set out to learn rudimentary circus skills and also to uncover some of the ancient trapeze regime's lesser-known historical touchstones.
From an anthropological standpoint, the circus isn't the easiest thing to research. As Wall writes, "The history of the circus has long suffered from neglect. Writing in the seventies, Edward Hoagland noted that the circus 'remains a private passion for children and loyal fans; among sophisticates it occupies a niche similar to that of primitive art.' That is still true today." He notes that the author of the world's only complete trapeze history worked, while he wrote it, as a ticket salesman at a train station in Bloomington, Ill., "where he also cleaned the bathrooms." The point is that the circus — strictly speaking, neither theater, art, sport nor entertainment — is ignored academically because it is so difficult to define and quantify.
Though an important and tantalizing move in the right direction, Wall's book suffers a bit from a similar identity problem. He uses his own experiences at the National Circus School as a springboard into historical digression, but the result is occasionally a frustrating superficiality in both realms. Whether he's talking about his time with the mercurial "godfather of modern juggling" Jerome Thomas, or Roman-era saltimbanques and the medieval proto-circus, the feeling sometimes is that there are too many balls in the air. The Ordinary Acrobat contains two or three solid books squeezed into a single volume.
That's not to say that Wall doesn't do an admirable job of pursuing the circus's road-show mysteries and endlessly winding paths. His accounts of "ghost hunting" — looking for bygone locations and artifacts — capture the sense of neglect and loss of the histories of circuses past. It's truly disheartening to read of his search for (and failure to find) the missing gravesite of Philip Astley, today known as one of the founders of the modern circus. Wall's reverence for the forgotten pioneers contrasts nicely with his begrudging admiration but barely-concealed suspicion of the Cirque du Soleil corporate machine.
But maybe Wall's contorted approach to his subject is the right one. When he first talks to Andre Riot-Sarcey, leader of an important French clown troupe called Les Nouveaux Nez, Riot-Sarcey quotes Henry Miller (a clown is a "poet in space") and explains that a "clown is a searcher. He's lost. He's looking for something, but he doesn't know what. The audience becomes his radar — his guide for how to behave." In that regard, The Ordinary Acrobat is an ambler, too. It isn't a conventional memoir, but the circus isn't a conventional subject, either.