Artistes of Colour: Review

Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus
By Steve Ward, PhD
Published 2021 by Modern Vaudeville Press


There is so much to say and unpack and understand about race and ethnicity in circus that it’s hard to know where to begin this review. However, I suppose I will start by saying that I enjoyed reading this book very much. While it is not within the book’s purview to address all of circus’s complicated past, it focuses specifically on the Victorian Era (1837-1901 CE) in the UK. And a remarkable time that was.

By this period, modern Western “circus” was young-ish but already about 70 years old, as many consider its founding to be in 1768 by the equestrian and master of pageantry, Philip Astley. It all began with:

“Lavish hippodramas…, spectacular pageantry, and reconstructions of famous battles, all involving men and horses, pandered to [British] public nostalgia and enthusiastic nationalism. So the circus was to reinforce Britain’s view of itself in the world and its attitude towards foreigners and a perceived ‘evil’.”

Ward, p. 9

And British circus more or less continued to be that.

But as Ward describes through incredible individual stories, this fervor for the ‘exotic’ took on a different tone through this era of industrialization. British interest in other people became more curious, imaginative and daring, fueled by nascent scientific and ethnographic endeavors. While these interests largely continued to place light-skinned British people at the tippity top of the human hierarchy, they also enjoyed and celebrated independent performers from around the world. (Still horrid, but a sign of progress? Open for discussion.) Many of these performers became celebrities in their own right, owned and ran performance venues or troupes, ran in high social circles– but let’s pause here, because I think I might be making a very fun book sound kind of boring with my historical description.

Ward’s book is like following a detective down the winding paper trails of seemingly-mythical humans.

Each chapter is dedicated to a different person, or a different group of people operating under the same performance name, or a different group with a certain type of ‘exotic’ performance.

I found myself in alternating states of amused, infuriated, surprised, fascinated and horrified– each set of stories evokes a fresh aspect of performing in this time period. It is rarely predictable. I don’t want to give away any of the fun surprises.

It’s clear that Ward spent a lot of time researching; as a researcher myself, I doff my cap. These stories are built from the tiny puzzle pieces of show billings, court records, newspaper announcements, and (if you’re lucky) official records of births, deaths and marriages that together assemble the story of each artist. And oftentimes even these documents lie! Between the circus’ tendency for hyperbole, smear campaigns, a competitive market, experimental marketing and plain ole terrible record keeping, this book is an incredible feat and keeps you on your toes.

Nothing could stop these enigmatic performance pioneers of the 1800’s from striving for success; floods, fires, financial woes (of which there are many), pain, serious injuries, sudden deaths of beloved performers, violence, and multiple remarriages of varying success (generally by men, and often without evidence of the previous wife’s acquiescence). All of these obstacles seem to have plagued those whose stories are told within these pages.

And yet they carried on, show after show.

Few of the artists retired to a peaceful old age, as far as we can tell.

While we can’t go back and change the experiences of the past, I’m appreciative of authors shining light on our circus ancestors’ lives. It’s intriguing to put these eras, and consequently our own, into perspective; what privilege our generation enjoys in its current stage of multiculturalness and ease of international travel! In the world of the Victorian Era British, the circus was, for many ordinary people, one of the few times they would ever have access to see someone from Japan, or Morocco, or from anywhere that wasn’t ‘home’.

Artistes of Colour left me wanting more, in a good way. Things I would love to see more of:

  • Stories of women, female-presenting and trans artists. I understand the literature is scarce, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting it.
  • Perspectives from the artists themselves and how they experienced this environment, more than reconstructed perspectives based on available circumstantial evidence. Circus artists– that’s right, I’m talking to you— write down your current experiences! Future circademics will thank you.
  • More depth and stories on performers from India, China, Japan and South America, which are begun here but surely could have whole books dedicated to the subjects.

Bottom Line:

A very useful, entertaining and delightful read. I thank the author for bringing these stories to life.


*How do we decide which books to review? These book reviews are not paid by either the authors or publishers. We do sometimes receive a free book though, which is pretty great. We love books. We are not obligated to post any review, positive or otherwise; we post reviews because no one else seems to be doing so and we wanted to read circus book reviews. We hope they’re helpful to you as well. Some books were already part of our collection and we wanted to show them off. Some books we found in a small free library or the thrift store or bought ourselves. If you’d like us to review your book, or a book of your choosing, email us at circusdistrict@gmail.com.

Artists of Note: Rudy Horn

This is a continuing series highlighting circus performers and producers who’ve made an impact on circus arts history and culture.

Photo courtesy of Bradford Timeline, (c) 2012. https://flic.kr/p/PfGsgP https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

This week’s featured artist is Rudy Horn. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1933 and began juggling at age 7. Instigated by his father, who gave him three apples and encouraged him to juggle, Rudy took those apples to greater heights than anyone could have imagined.

During the 1940s, he entertained U.S. troops in Germany in exchange for cigarettes and chocolate, which were valuable bartering tools at the time. In the 1950s, he joined Circus Krone and began touring the U.S., appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and in other exhibitions of variety arts.

Rudy’s unbelievable tricks included a series in which he rode a six-foot unicycle while flipping cups and saucers onto his head one by one; a seven-ball force bounce off of a drum; and a long seven-ring cascade with a lamp balanced on his forehead.

See them all in the video above! Ball bouncing @1:05, Rings @ 1:53 and Unicycle @ 2:51. Talk about an exhausting and fast-paced routine!

Rudy didn’t see another performing juggler until 12 years into his juggling practice, making his achievements even more incredible. Imagine going 12 years without being able to ‘Google’ somebody and instantly pull up their act on YouTube. You could say those were simpler times, but Rudy’s juggling was far from simple.

In January 1965, the International Jugglers Association newsletter reported the following:

“If you prefer juggling that is high wide and handsome and full of suspense you should certainly see the phenomenal Rudy Horn.”

To celebrate Rudy’s juggling, toss some cups and saucers on your head. Just kidding! Leave that to the professionals.

Unless you like breaking a lot of plates, learn a foot balance instead! As Rudy demonstrates, using an object that is taller with a heavier top makes the balance easier.

Warm up by balancing on one foot for 30 seconds to a minute. Then, place the base of the object on the part of your foot just above your toes. Look at the top of the object and stay underneath it. Try to keep its motion right-to-left as opposed to forward-backward. It’s harder to recover when it’s falling towards you or away from you. This a fun trick to try with a cane or with an upside-down, folded umbrella.

Stay inspired, and keep creating art!

Circademia

“How did circus get so awesome?
…and what else can it do??”

These are the questions of a circademic, and if you’ve ever pondered them, you’ve taken your first steps into a fun and often overlooked corner of circus life. Welcome to Circademia. 🌈🥳

Despite images of super strong athletes and feats of physical prowess, circus is also fundamentally nerdy.

one side of circus:
daring feats of strength and bravery
the other side of circus:
my evaluation roadmap for social circus, ACE Conference 2016

Have you seen a juggler map out a new toss pattern for others to learn? or an aerialist watch dozens of rehearsal videos to get a hand wrap just right? Every discipline has its debates, theories, histories, traditions, teaching methods, possible social impacts, and technical skills, not to mention the politics and changing perspectives of circus as a whole.

All of these combined comprise circademia, and the people who are fascinated by it are called circademics. Some might call it an academic pursuit, others might call it an addiction.

Watch out, you will want to proceed with some caution.

Once the door is opened, you’ll find circademia is still a Wild West–
any and every topic is fair game, and there aren’t
many regulatory bodies to check writers’ accuracy.

In the past decade or two, pioneers have gained traction by uniting their love of circus with established careers in various non-circus disciplines, which has brought much needed validity to the studies of health, injury prevention, body movement, therapeutic uses of circus, teaching methods, social and emotional uses, youth development, and social impact. In the spotlight these days we find circus history and culture, especially in regards to gender, race and political power, which is very exciting. Who knows what we’ll tackle next?

These researchers are integral to our everyday experience of circus, helping shape and guide how we perceive, how we perform and how we prepare for the future.

Why did we bring this topic up today? Because you may have already read some of our previous articles written by our in-house circademic, such as 1918: Circus & the Flu, and soon we’ll be launching an exciting series for circus book reviews. You’ll start to get curious sooner or later, and you’ll start to wonder, how do I find out more? And we’re already here for you. You can come back here anytime and fall into the rabbit hole of circus science and history and lore.

To get you started, here’s some really useful stuff:

ACE (American Circus Educators) Resources
Info and links to research projects that ACE has been involved with, including self-determination through circus arts and the Weikart Center’s research showing positive impact of circus programs on youth at-risk.

ACE Circus Research List

ACE Social Circus Toolkit
Provides access to resources that can help strengthen social circus programs, including an evaluation toolbox, research on social circus, help with raising money, and the Case for Social Circus.

Circademics on Facebook
Come chill with the gang and see what’s hot.

Circus Arts Research Platform
A very cool and extensive free, collaborative project between circus arts resource centers, circus networks and researchers around the world. Find a directory of scholars, map of resources, info on conferences, and citations of academic papers.

Cirque du Soleil’s Social Circus Map
Turns out, people like us are all over the world.

History
Circus Historical Society
Circopedia

FEDEC
Supports the development and evolution of training, education and creation in the field of circus arts in Europe.

Les Arts du Cirque
Encyclopedia of circus things, people and places. Might be only available in French.

Social Circus Research Index
A couple years ago, I wrote a master’s thesis on developing evaluation tools and how social circus can help prevent urban youths from adopting lives of violence. To do so, I gathered this list of research papers, which is now woefully incomplete, but still not a bad starting place.

Use Google Scholar
One of the best free tools to check out random, actually published circus research.

Dispatch from Seattle, Part Four

Note: This is the final article in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three here.

LISTEN TO THIS ARTICLE:

This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. Like every other U.S. city, Seattle saw its circus events, workshops and performances grind to a halt in March, as the pandemic forced almost all circus artists to put their usual social and professional activities on hold.

We’ve seen how important [circus] is to so many people. I feel a huge responsibility. I can’t just walk away from this.

BEVERLY SOBELMAN
Versatile arts, photographed prior to the pandemic by David Inman.

Beverly Sobelman is the executive director of Versatile Arts, an aerial studio she founded in northern Seattle in 2007.

Getting through the pandemic has been a trying experience, but Sobelman said her peers in the circus community have been there to collaborate, commiserate and overcome the unimaginable circumstances.

“I’ve worked hard to try to get the Seattle community to be very cooperative as opposed to competitive, because it’s a huge market,” Sobelman said. “There’s no reason for us to see each other as competition.”

In the wake of the shutdown in March, Sobelman worked with the American Circus Educators’ safety committee to develop a Covid resource kit for circus schools. This industry-specific document aimed to provide much-needed guidance for spaces like Versatile Arts, which was able to reopen its doors in the summer.

With many circus schools struggling to adapt the guidelines for fitness centers and climbing gyms to their unique spaces, Sobelman said she had to blaze her own trail in lieu of specific governmental recommendations and enforcement.

“I feel like we did an amazing job, because our students said our studio was one of the only places they felt safe outside of their own homes,” Sobelman said. “It makes sense, because when you run an aerial studio, safety has to be one of the things that you think about all the time anyway. So this was just a new way to think about safety.”

performers from a ‘silver foxes’ show at Versatile arts prior to the pandemic. Photo by John Cornicello.

Versatile Arts also survived Washington’s second state-mandated shutdown from mid-November to early January. But the past year has taken its toll.

Even though she received grants and government aid to stay afloat, Sobelman said ‘hidden costs’ continue to burden small businesses like hers.

“Most of my employees are now filing for unemployment, which I want them to do. And yet, the amount I pay for unemployment insurance is going to go up dramatically for years to come,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take us to recover financially.”

Sobelman has consistently operated her business at a manageable scale. But no amount of business savvy could prepare her for the trials of 2020.

“Versatile Arts has always been profitable. I just started small. And we’ve only ever grown to where we could already support the size,” she said. “We’ve always been in the black. So to be in this position of having to ask for  help is very humbling.”

Sobelman set up an online patronage program that is currently yielding $1,000 per month from 30 donors, who were grateful for the opportunity to help defray her operating costs during this time.

While the challenges continue to mount in the new year, the temporary closure of circus businesses has magnified the role they play in maintaining their students’ physical and emotional health.

“We’ve seen how important it is to so many people,”  Sobelman said. “I feel a huge responsibility. I can’t just walk away from this.”

“I’ve tried to leave circus many times,” she said, recalling short-lived stints in the tech industry and graduate school. “Running a circus school is more fun.”

Versatile Arts will present a virtual retrospective of their past shows featuring ‘aerialists of a certain age’ in Silver Foxes 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward tomorrow (3/13) at 9 p.m. EST. Get tickets at this link.

Dispatch from Seattle, Part Three

Note: This is part three of a four-part series. Read part one and part two here.

listen to this article:

This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. Like every other U.S. city, Seattle saw its circus events, workshops and performances grind to a halt in March, as the pandemic forced almost all circus artists to put their usual social and professional activities on hold.

I believe that in the burlesque industry especially, we make art that is political. We make art that is reflecting the world back at itself and turning it upside-down.

MOSCATO EXTATIQUE
Moscato extatique, ‘the them fatale of Burlesque,’ photographed by derek villanueva.

Unsurprisingly, venues for live entertainment in Seattle face an uncertain future as they have grappled with unavoidable financial stress and organizational rebranding in the past year.

Re-bar, a nightclub that hosted cabaret, music and LGBTQ+ events for 30 years, announced the closure of its longtime location this past May, with hopes to reopen elsewhere in late 2021.

Burlesque performer and educator Moscato Extatique, known as ‘The Them Fatale of Burlesque,’ said that Re-bar was the site of their first live performance.

“Re-bar has been such a staple in our city for drag, burlesque and cabaret nightlife,” Moscato said. “The whole city — the arts community and the nightlife community — really had to grieve that loss, and the reality of the effects that the pandemic is having.”

Moscato is a member of the burlesque troupe Mod Carousel, which immediately responded to the shutdown by shifting their focus to virtual spaces.

“We definitely just adapted to the times and hit the ground running,” they said, noting that the March 28th edition of their show 6 Foot Cabaret quickly surpassed 100 viewers, requiring them to upgrade their Zoom account mid-production.

As the shutdown dragged on, Moscato said that being stuck in the digital realm didn’t always feel like artistic punishment.

“People are finding new ways to be more innovative with their art, discovering ways to present something that you can’t do on a physical stage live,” they said. “I think that’s where I’m very inspired, and I want to continue to do more of that work.”

Moscato extatique by wittypixel photography.

For Moscato, 2020 initially felt like it would be a breakout year, one where their many years of training in dance and burlesque were starting to pay off for their solo acts and group performances.

“We had a European tour on the books, and that would’ve been my first time out there,” Moscato said. “I was just so excited to finally experience that, and show my art to another audience. But of course, those plans were foiled.”

Moscato had also been invited to perform in Las Vegas in the Burlesque Hall of Fame‘s Tournament of Tease, “which is considered like the Olympics of our industry,” they said. If not for the pandemic, that competition would have happened in June 2020.

Brick and mortar performance spaces are trying to roll with the punches. Alternative venues like Theater Off Jackson in Seattle’s International District have invited local groups to co-produce online shows in their otherwise dormant spaces.

Moscato said that organizational efforts to meet the unique challenges of Covid — while also boosting diverse representation in the arts — have not gone unnoticed.

“I believe that in the burlesque industry especially, we make art that is political. We make art that is reflecting the world back at itself and turning it upside-down,” Moscato said. 

“I want to see more black and brown bodies on stages virtually and physically. I want to see producers not tokenizing black and brown bodies,” they said. “I think that that is something that is going to carry on into the future.”

Moscato’s upcoming shows include For the Love of Marinka — a benefit show for the late burlesque star — on March 6 at 8 p.m. EST, Booklovers Burlesque: Once Upon a Tease on March 6 at 10 p.m. EST, and The Noire Project presents Black and Brown Excellence on March 12 at 7 p.m. EST.


Come back next week for Dispatch from Seattle, Part Four, which profiles Versatile Arts owner Beverly Sobelman.

Dispatch from Seattle, Part Two

Note: This is part two of a four-part series. Read part one at this link.

LISTEN TO THIS ARTICLE:

This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. Like every other U.S. city, Seattle saw its circus events, workshops and performances grind to a halt in March, as the pandemic forced almost all circus artists to put their usual social and professional activities on hold.

A performance at Arcadia aerial studio. Photo by Marcia Davis.

Despite the camaraderie and mutual support among many circus organizations in Seattle, the pandemic left some businesses in the dust.

Charly McCreary opened her studio Arcadia in 2018. She is the managing director of The Cabiri, an aerial and dance troupe she co-founded in 1999.

In designing a home for The Cabiri’s classes and shows, McCreary built Arcadia with a unique theatrical feel that nourished her community’s imagination. 

Mirrors lined the studio’s walls for rehearsals. Curtains, lights and sound equipment “reminded us that these art forms exist out of storytelling and performance,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, McCreary spent most of her time applying for grants and government aid to weather the storm.

“I really appreciate the weight and heaviness of rallying yourself to apply for funding when your heart is just so crushed about what’s happened,” she said, describing the months-long void of physical classes and performances.

Through financial aid from groups like 4Culture (a cultural funding agency) as well as support from the state and federal government, McCreary was able to reopen Arcadia in July.

Unfortunately, Arcadia’s lease was up in December 2020, and McCreary’s landlord asked her to vacate the space by the year’s end, leaving her future prospects in limbo.

“For us as a volunteer-run non-profit, it’s really hard to look good on paper to a landlord,” McCreary said, noting that Arcadia’s annual revenue was half of what it had been in 2019.

“It’s a sad story, and not an uncommon one,” McCreary said. “A lot of facilities have closed in 2020 because of Covid and unsympathetic landlords.”

Charly mccreary performs on lyra at arcadia. Photo by bogdan darev.

While she lost her studio, McCreary said the strength of the Seattle circus community — which relied heavily on its interdependence to expand and build legitimacy in the late 90s and early 2000s — does give her hope.

“I continue to be in awe of the cultural and artistic community as a whole, in terms of its creativity and its adaptability,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s what will continue to get us through crises like Covid.”

McCreary’s background paved the way for her discovery of circus arts. Her childhood in northern California was spent performing in musical theater productions, but she took a break from theater during her college years in Seattle.

Upon graduating, she craved a creative outlet. During a trip to Burning Man, McCreary fell in love with fire dancing. Back in Seattle, theatrical circus groups like Circus Contraption, Unidentified Moving Objects, and Magmavox (a fire performance ensemble) inspired McCreary to build The Cabiri’s shows around mythology and storytelling.

In addition to producing shows inspired by the mythologies of extinct and endangered cultures, Arcadia also served as a hub for groups like the Bulgarian Cultural and Heritage Center, the Rahaa Persian Dance Group, and the Seattle Kokon Taiko drumming ensemble.

“Arcadia was never intended to be a school,” McCreary said. “The tagline is ‘A Sanctuary for Arts and Culture.’ That’s what it always was. And that’s what it absolutely will be if it rises again someday.”


Come back next week for Dispatch from Seattle, Part Three, in which we hear from Seattle burlesque performer Moscato Extatique, who is embracing the challenge of reaching audiences through digital media.