In consideration of other reviews here and my own reading taste I will first tell you what I think is most helpful to a majority of readers, there is a lot of circus history here. We are talking about a lot of facts! Author Duncan Wall who decided to enter a circus training school in Paris essentially on a whim, becomes not only interested in the experience but has a thirst to learn about the history of the circus itself. I personally read a lot of memoirs and also appreciate varied non-fiction in addition to fiction novels. That said, what some consider dry is actually fascinating to me and that is why The Ordinary Acrobat was a true delight for me to read!
We most often think of the circus being comprised of generational participants with fine tuned skills that are practiced from a very young age. It's described as a way of life and a tradition passed down in families. So when it came to The Ordinary Acrobat, I was expecting the unique view of an "outsider" who jumps into this world. I did expect more of that view than the utter volume of facts however, if you take in mind that the author then goes on teach circus history then you will know better what to expect here. Having read the novel "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" which is a bit of historical fiction, I was familiar with some of the facts beforehand. I have read a few other fictional stories of the circus or travelling shows before that give you the feel but without the history lesson. Duncan Wall brings the two together because the information he discovers is told along with his fascination on the subject. We watch his interest in circus history grow and the telling for me was so moving, I could feel how enchanted and fascinated he was to discover more. His perspective unique and ability to convey his experience with such feeling is remarkable.
His training at the school is interesting, physically and emotionally he had no idea what he was getting himself into. He immediately gets a wake up call to the fact that there is a big difference between being athletic and being able to do acrobatics. Starting from nothing, then getting some basic skills, he goes on to become obsessed with juggling. It's said that's a common thing that jugglers experience. The thing he went in the least interested in or able to relate to was clowning. Keeping an open mind he learns more about the art of clowning than he would have imagined possible, the true theatrical component to it. There is a good deal of comparison between the American and European versions of the circus. While the American pangs a feeling of nostalgia, the European inspires more a vision of art. Hence I am happy to have found this book categorized in the art category here on Amazon. If anything, that's the point that you walk away from the strongest here the art of circus.
Back in the seventies, I went to the circus as a kid and was fascinated (possibly even overwhelmed.) In the 1990's I was treated to the experience of a Cirque du Soleil show and fell in love. We went on to refer to it as "the grown-up" circus and was very dramatic and theatrical, interesting to explain to friends and family who at the time never heard of anything other than the Ringling Bros. sort of circus. The European and world variety takes it to a whole other level artistically. Not to down up on Cirque du Soleil but the criticism of that company from a world view is the commercialism. Still for me at that time, it was so magical, emotional and thought-provoking. This book hit me in that same "new" way.
I wanted to give this a shot because I recently fell in love with Water for Elephants. The best part of the book is that (eventually) you *can* piece together an impression of what the circus is like today. I've taken off two stars because the other reviewers are correct. While the author's personal experience with the circus is in here, so is the history---a lot of history. Some of it is dry, and because it's woven in, the story of the author's experience frequently seems interrupted by History Breaks. It's like watching a great show that keeps getting interrupted with commercials. Even if they're good ones, it's still an interruption. Here's an example from p. 258:
"You must be here for the tour!"
I looked up. Chantal, a small, pert woman in casual Friday attire, stood on the other side of the turnstiles. Her hands were open in a gesture of generosity.
"Welcome to Cirque!" She was smiling.
I beamed back. "It's great to be here!"
And away we went.
**** So now, reader, you are excited, right? The tour is about to begin. But no. Here is how the book continues instead.
IN THE HOLLYWOOD VERSION of the modern circus story, the birth of Soleil in 1984 is often considered the moment when the circus as an art form rushes headlong into modernity . . .
You'll be less disappointed if you know what you're getting into. The story is still worth picking up. Hope this helped.
Author Duncan Wall has done an impressive job combining both a comprehensive history of various (most?) aspects of the original circuses of European and US history alongside his own memoir of his performing life and skills.
One of those narratives would be impressive enough and to combine them both so well is a strong achievement.
For the right audience - performers, those with an interest in creative performance, or those who have relationships with performers - I think this would easily be a five-star book. I think anyone with a connection to creative, physical performance could appreciate the history first, but even more Wall's accounts of the demands and amazing effort required of the participants. For instance, I'd never looked at 'juggling' with any sort of the fine-tuned attention that Wall gives it here. A performer could point to examples and say, "see, this is what I'm doing. Get it?" or a family member could understand, "wait, this is what he had to learn to do?"
Overall, I liked it - for me, without as direct a 'performer' connection, it sometimes provided too much information for my interest level and my attention to the details tailed off. At parts I was completely engaged, and at other times simply less connected with the subject matter.
That's just me as an audience of one, though, and is no criticism of the amazing amount of research that Wall has provided. I think any fan of history will find something to appreciate - some audiences will simply engage differently than others.
This is an aspect of American (and cultural) history that I think it's fair to say is often overlooked. We look at the "circus" as some dusty relic, but so much of the entertainment we take for granted today came from circus backgrounds (Cirque De Soleil is obvious, and Wall mentions them - but, in addition, think of any large-scale "Lady Gaga" concert production, for example). Appreciating that background - which we spend a lot of money to witness - is a result of close studies of books like this.
I went into this book expecting it to be "one's man journey..." into the circus, but I guess I didn't adequately prepare myself for it to be history mingled with a present day back and forth or history intermingled with first person contemplation on said history. Or maybe I did expect this and "The Ordinary Acrobat" failed to mix these two items with enough rapport between the past and the present for each to exist as a standalone and as complements.
While reading this book, I never really connected with the author's journey and felt like the history wasn't as engaging because of this. I also hoped for more illustrations or photographs.
I will say that this book did provide an interesting account of the modern day circus, and that was probably my favorite part of the volume as I have not read any books or magazine articles focused on the topic in such a detailed way. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite make up for the drier tone in the remainder of the book.
The circus is one of those worlds that once inspired dreams and mystical imagery; today, it's largely been relegated to the realm of nostalgia, covered with a fine layer of dust. Or so is the belief the public holds. The truth, as Duncan Wall insists, is far different: the circus is alive and well, evolving to fit modern society, becoming a truly original art form.
Wall blends historical analysis with personal memoir: he fell in love with the circus while in France, and off the cuff decided to join the country's state circus school. THE ORDINARY ACROBAT would be a far superior book if Wall had stuck with the historical aspect; his memoir feels somewhat forced--along the line of "I never had such respect for the acrobats before I entered their world," albeit more poetically put--and is easily the least interesting aspect of the book. This, ironically enough, is arguably Wall's aim; he makes the circus itself so interesting, it overshadows his own little tale. For anyone with a general interest in the circus world, THE ORDINARY ACROBAT may not be the perfect choice, but it's probably your best bet...until the readers that Wall inspires write their own books on the subject.
Duncan Wall's personal journey slash history of the circus will assure that you never look at the 3 rings the same again. You will also realize how far behind Europe the US is when it comes to modern circuses.
The book nominally follows the year Wall spent training to take the entrance exam for National School for the Circus Arts in France. Interspersed with his personally challenges, adventures and explorations is a history so rich, you feel at times trying to sip from the proverbial fire hose. We learn about the ancient origin of each of the major circus arts, e.g., gymnastics, juggling, clowns, etc. And then how they came to together in the 17th century to create the traditional circus as we know it. The Golden Age of circuses in the 19th century is described, as well as the factors that led to the decline in the 20th century, and now the revival in a myriad of forms in Europe. In the US, it is limited to the Cirque du Soleil (a Canadian import), and a few imitators.
The colorful characters that Wall brings to life include teachers, circus aficionados, and circus stars of the past and present. The larger than life stars of the past, some we have heard of and many we did not but should have is the real treat in this book.
We also gain an appreciation of not just the physical skills needed, which though seemingly prodigious, Wall indicates are not beyond our grasp (at least to acquire passable abilities), but how these are turned into acts. The magic of turning the possible into something wonderous.
This book is a fun read, equal measures entertaining and enlightening.
I thought this book had quite a bit of promise and loved the idea of learning more about circus schools -- largely because I had no idea they existed. Mr. Wall takes the reader on two separate journeys; one of his personal experience of training for school and, second, a trip through time to see how the circus has developed and changed over the years. I found the personal narrative to be much more interesting than the history; the historical parts tend to run rather dry with sometimes awkward transitions between past and present and even subject changes. (Stop reading if you don't want a bit of a spoiler) Upon reaching the end of the book the author reveals to the reader how his interests have changed and looking back after reading the book it is really quite obvious that his interest in the circus wasn't what it started out as, and not in a good way. This attitude shift really affects the flow of the story and, while it is totally on a subconscious level, the narrative seems to get heavy and looses a sort of fun, quirkiness that was present in the beginning. I wish the author had included more of his trials and success while training and a bit less of the history of the circus. Do I regret reading this book? Definitely not. Would I recommend this book to a friend? I would, but with fair warning that it tends to get very dry at times and really is more of a history of the circus with an eye turned to the future and how the circus is changing.
I wanted to like this book and can't actually say I didn't like it. The idea of someone totally unrelated to circus life going into the circus is fascinating. I am less fascinated with the history of the circus. Overall, it was a little dry for me and sort of dragged through the historic portions. I have read other reviews from people who loved it, so this is purely my taste. I really do not enjoy reading history. I think, for me, it would have been better purely as a memoir. If one likes history mixed with personal experience, this might be just the right book.
on March 14, 2014
The remarkable thing about Duncan Wall’s circus memoir/history “The Ordinary Acrobat” is how deftly it marries the personal and the global, the macro and micro. His quest to understand the history, structure, and process of the art form is married to his personal desire to join the circus, or at least train at the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque, seven miles east of the center of Paris.
The result is an immensely readable, perfectly paced alternation of personal saga and an exposition of the circus’ past, present, and future. The indefatigable Wall plows across Europe and North America, taking in the scene from the rattiest street performer to the steel-and-glass complex that houses Cirque du Soleil, the monolithic “entertainment company” that turned circus into big business again. (Wall even-handedly surveys contemporary developments, looking askance at Cirque du Soleil’s corporate stylings, reporting but not endorsing the opinion of artists who call it a “factory” or a “Walmart of circuses.”)
Wall’s passion invigorates the narrative. No George Plimpton, he is not a hobbyist nor a “participatory journalist.” He is rigorously honest about both his achievements and shortcomings in the ring, and his attention to the physical, mental, and emotional details of what it means to the perform “feats of activity,” as they were once charmingly called, makes the achievements of big-top stars only more impressive. His travels take him into the heart of circus culture, and trigger a multitude of fascinating discussions with the outsize personalities who keep the art alive.
The book is an immensely powerful starting point for understanding the circus. Wall’s pocket history of the form and its primary disciplines (juggling, acrobatics, trapeze, clowning) gives any interested reader a laundry list of names, and descriptions of acts, that will drive the curious to do more research . . . and maybe even inspire the next Grock, Wallenda, or Rastelli.
Given the circus’ ephemeral nature, its off-and-on popularity, and its sometime disreputable past, many sites and stories have been lost forever – at times, Walls’ quest seems bereft even of ghosts. The ultimate, comforting impulse that pushes the writer to devour all this information and relay it to us is one he finds embodied in Pascal Jacob, circus historian, who donates his collection of memorabilia to circus-friendly Montreal. As Wall helps Jacob sort his historical treasures, he realizes: “The world couldn’t be bothered with circus history. This had been proved to me time and again. Pascal’s passion was a response to this destruction of the past. He was on a mission to gather together what had survived and keep it safe.”
Thanks to Duncan Wall, a vibrant portrait of the art and an author’s relationship to it, is safe.
Wall, on a year abroad, sees a French new circus, becomes enraptured with circus, applies for and receives a Fulbright to study circus at France's national school for circus. *I really loved this book*.
Would I have liked mention of the major (to me and its time) movie "Les Enfants du Paradis"/ "Children of Paradise?" Yes. Lecoq, as a teacher of clowns, was mentioned often, but Etienne Decroux, a teacher of mimes, was not.
I did not know that circus started worldwide two hundred fifty or so years ago, as a way for an entrepenurial cavalryman named Philip Astley to show off his horsemanship. His circuses were held in a ring because that was how horses were and are shown, it allowed room for the horses and trainers. At first, permanent circus buildings were built for them, tents came later. At one point Astley had nineteen circuses in Europe.(How was Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show not a circus?)
Wall's experiences attempting to learn to be an acrobat, flyer, juggler, are interesting. I'm not sure he gives himself much of chance to do clowning, but each of these disciplines is also looked at historically and at modern day and traditional circus companies.
"2002 in France was the `Year of the Circus."' (15)
"Before mass media, [Pascal] said, before television or the movies, the circus had been the world's most popular spectator event, a combination of professional entertainment and professional athletics. Like we glorify athletes or movie stars today, audiences had glorified circus performers. `This was a celebrity poster for the trainer. It's the sort of thing a child might have hung on his wall.'" (43)
"Jerome [Thomas, France's master juggler] takes himself very seriously. He is openly arrogant, even egotistical, and he occasionally refers to himself in the third person, in a way that might be ironic but probably isn't." (94)
When he interviews the Jerome Thomas of clowns, Andre Riot- Sarcey, Wall asks him to define clown. "'Let's say I do this...'
Suddenly his entire physicality changed. He blew his eyes open and puffed out his chest and started strutting in tight circles, his backside jutting out behind him like that of a rooster. I laughed.
Immediately Andre stopped and sauntered back to his seat. `Et viola.'
`What?... That laugh, for a clown, that's magic. Suddenly I know I've done something right. I have approval.' And on the next page Andre insists that Wall takes this note: "CLOWN = FUNNY" (217)
I got this book from Amazon Vine for a review and I love circus and clowns and mime and circus history and new and traditional circuses. And of course America should fund circus as art!!! (We're one of the only countries that doesn't.)