© Christian Trick


Our former Zirkus|Wissenschaft intern, Riikka Juutinen, gives a short overview on contemporary circensic research. If you would like to know more about Riikka's experience as Zirkus|Wissenschaft's intern, please click here.

It is difficult to say what circus research actually is about. Considering the immense diversity of the circus art, research focuses are, too, split among different themes and standpoints. Still, current themes of circus research at the moment center on roughly six trends; identity, risk, circus and its others, circus dramaturgy, circus and space, and women in circus.

© Friedrich Schäper, Franzi Kreis

“Circus and Space” is the theme for the international-conference UpSideDown in Münster. Space is approached in circus research on many levels – as a protean factor that as well enables artists to create splendid shows as it sets limits to performances. The performance space in traditional circus is circular, whereas the new and contemporary circuses mostly use a variety of frontal seating arrangements. Circus space is also all about culture and creating it, as the circus is always a part of cultural context or contexts, but at the same time it also shares its own culture. The consideration of the performance space has significance in creation of differences and meanings, but it also plays its part in the formation of the circus body, another big research topic among circus scholars. But what then is the circus body? It carries various meanings and interpretations of lightness and masterful physical skills, but also the fear of brokenness and danger.

Risk is an immanent part of circus. As Tait acknowledged, circus performs danger, but circus is also a performance of safety. This is the paradox of risk at circus; circus as an art form plays with the idea and feeling of present possibility of something terrible might happen. Then again, as circus performers master their disciplines, the possibility of danger turns into something admirable, acts defying gravity and the limits. (Tait 2016, 528). Risk is widely researched in the field of circus studies (see for example Goudard 2005: Arts du cirque, arts du risque, Instabilité et déséquilibre dans et hors la piste) and it was also one of the themes of the first international CARD-Conference organized by DOCH in Stockholm in 2012.

The identity and question of the Others in circus is as well intriguing for circus scholars. Often living a nomadic lifestyle, the typical stereotype of a circus artist as a social outcast has as well been present in the circus. In its history, circus has been the place of Otherness, where people were objectified in freak shows. Discussions in the Encounters with Circus and its Others in 2016 raised gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, social class and race as topics of otherness. The OTHERHOOD: Circus and Identity in Zagreb raised nevertheless the questions of existence of this otherness of circus people; in a globalized and transnationally entangled world people, ideas and art disciplines are on the move. What does this mean for circus performers and negotiations on their identities?

© Dmitry Shakhin

Women in circus has also been a point of interest for researchers as well. The OTHERHOOD-Conference was preceded by the Women and Circus-Conference (2009) with different approaches to women in circus. As, for example, clowns, acrobats and equestrians, women are an inseparable part of circus. Gender is played with in circus performances and sexlessness is present in many circus disciplines – or the attempt to fade away gender altogether. Circus and gender are topics of many discussions, one important being the Semaine de Cirque on the title “Femmes de cirque” in Montpellier at the year 2011 and the last one taking place in Barcelona this year (FACE Conversations), in the form of a seminar on "Gender & Circus – Who's on stage?”.

The sixth research area of the ones picked up in this article is circus dramaturgy. The traditional circus has historically been about stunning performances, but not storytelling. As the new and contemporary circus emerged, circus performances started to include storylines, which is, according to Professor Patrick Leroux, also the reason for the growing need of circus dramaturgy research (Theatre Topics 2014). For example the Montréal Working Group on Circus has been researching on the poetics of the contemporary circus, dramaturgies and grammars of a writing in movement. Their focus has been on questions concerning dramaturgical choices in show creation and the dramaturgical conventions on co-productions between circus and non-circus artists.

© Dmitry Shakhin

These six topics presented here are by no means the only foci of contemporary circus research, nor are these clearly distinguishable from each other. After all, it is not possible to conduct research on circus identity and bypass gender, or research the topic of risk in circus without taking the topic of space into account. It mirrors the multidimensionality of circus which calls the need for an interdisciplinary research approach. In other words, circus research is a multifaceted source of information, intertwined around the fascinating world of circus.


Goudard, Philippe (2005). Arts du cirque, arts du risque, Instabilité et déséquilibre dans et hors la piste. Études théâtrales, Montpellier III, 2005, 315 p.
Tait, Peta (2016). Risk, danger and other paradoxes in circus and in Circus Oz parody. In: Peta Tait and Katie Lavers 2016. Circus Studies Reader. Routledge.
Theatre Topics (2014). Contemporary Circus Dramaturgy: An Interview with Louis Patrick Leroux. Volume 24, Number 3, September, pp. 269-273.