‘The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present’ by Duncan Wall
Knopf) - ‘The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present’ by Duncan Wall
By Elizabeth McCracken,
May 03, 2013 08:56 PM EDT
The Washington Post
It is called “the circus,” singular noun, definite article, as though there were only one. But the history of the circus is multitudinous, badly documented, clouded by legend and stereotypes; it is the history of many circuses over many years, each circus composed of many acts — rings within rings within rings. It’s hard to know where to start looking at it.
In his lovely new book, “The Ordinary Acrobat,” Duncan Wall finds useful spots from which to peer at the history of the circus: from the top of the trapeze platform, beneath a cascade of juggling balls and behind a red nose on his own face in the circus-mad Paris of 2003. He joins the circus to understand it.
Wall wasn’t always a circus obsessive. His conversion occurred while he was in Paris during college, attending a circus in the Parc de la Villette. The performance was nothing like the circus of his youth: “The juggler had a Mohawk. The acrobats were unshaven and dressed in ratty black suits with the cuffs rolled up. . . . It was visceral, real, and admirably raw.” Thereafter, Wall was what the French call a circusphile and the Americans “a gawk”: lovestruck, circus-struck. A year later, in 2003, he returned to Paris on a Fulbright fellowship to enroll in the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois. In other words, he came to gawk from the inside
“The Ordinary Acrobat” interlaces chapters about his triumphs and phobias in his studies, his interviews of Parisian circus figures and the wider history of the European circus. The history in the book is effortless and compact, if necessarily less than comprehensive. He covers an astonishing amount in a 300-page book, with sections on Philip Astley (the English businessman who essentially invented the circus), P.T. Barnum, Cirque du Soleil and the earliest origins of the feats that eventually became the compilation known as the circus.