‘A Seat at the Circus’, by Antony Hippisley Coxe

As the author declares in the first few pages, this book sets out to furnish circus-going audiences with a heightened appreciation and enjoyment of any act presented to them, by allowing an insight into the nature of the skills involved, and benchmarks by which to judge them.

A Seat at the Circus’ is clear and accessible and, despite having been published over 30 years ago – and that a revision of the 1951 original – this book must be an invaluable companion for anyone hoping to look critically at any form of circus art today.

Each chapter opens a window into one of the features that characterises circus, grouping acts together based upon skillset (such as balance, strength, riding skills etc). These chapters are peopled with historical innovators and supremos, as well as descriptions of technique and style, with diagrammatic illustrations.

For a stranger to the gamut of disciplines involved, Coxe offers a pragmatic lesson that allows an observer to differentiate between varieties of somersault, juggling act or equine pirouette. The glamour a circus presents to the outside world is bypassed for behind-the-scenes realities of heavy training and lifelong dedication; the author strives to clarify that which marks a beginner from a master performer to the previously untrained eye.

The academic research that supports every aspect is superb, and the book contains a full bibliography and glossary of technical terms. The text feels a little overfull of names at times, but this is more from the author’s desire to impart as much background information as possible than from any cheap name-dropping.

The chapter on wild animal trainers also contains a wonderful personal account of how a group of domestic cats were taught to perform, disproving critics who claimed animals could not be trained with kindness alone.

This 1980 revision still has a definite flavour of the 1950s in its writing style, and Coxe has very definite views on what circus should and shouldn’t be. For in-depth study into any particular discipline, further reading will be required, and a growing popularity of certain circus forms among the general public may have left several of the ‘current records’ behind but, as a strong introduction across the range of circus arts, this book comes rated very highly.

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Coxe, Antony Hippisley, A Seat at the Circus (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1980) ISBN: 0-333-29067-4

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