This glossy, squat paperback, with its bold imagery, large clear fonts, and strong design, beckons the reader in with a relaxed ‘trust me, I’m accessible’ gleam, emphasising its contemporaneity and current relevance. It’s split into four distinct parts, and the first three – penned by Purovaara – contextualise circus as it was in the past, in its defining features, and as it has developed since the 1970s and the birth of ‘new circus’. The fourth part is again split, with chapters dedicated to the contemporary circus developments in Finland (Purovaara), Denmark (Degerbøl and Verwilt), Norway (Waage) and Sweden (Damkjær and Muukkonen).
The focus is on the cultural, political and artistic environments that have shaped circus evolution over time and across national borders; circus arts are situated within the wider art field, and a wealth of influences and exchanges are laid out, from Russian Communism to Steve Paxton’s development of contact improvisation, providing fascinating points of reference for readers approaching the subject of circus from other artistic disciplines.
As circus is an international art form, the four chapters focusing on ‘national’ developments relate naturally to global interests, and each have been written in a unique style. To the general reader, the slew of names and dates may encourage skipping through the Danish and Norwegian sections – but these will offer great local insight to the dedicated scholar. The most engaging of these final chapters is the Swedish compilation of interview fragments from leading performance and education professionals, which also contains a graphic timeline of nationally relevant encounters and generative developments. (I can’t help wondering where Iceland is in this Nordic circus landscape… this year they are hosting The Circus Village for the first time in Reykjavík and we will, no doubt, hear more from them in the future.)
The text is well referenced, with a full bibliography (although, due to the emerging nature of contemporary circus discourse internationally, many of the cited texts are in Nordic tongues), and it also boasts some beautiful full-page photographic images from Scandinavian artists and events.
With its short chapters and headed sections, the book lives up to its promise of accessibility for the most part, with just a few grammatical slips in the translation that necessitate a re-reading of sentences now and again. (Although I sometimes feel the brevity of text between page turns restricts the flow of the articles, and the shiny print is also a distraction at times. But these are surface concerns) The content of the pages is comprehensive, and provides vital background knowledge for anyone hoping to explore circus in all its forms today. Even more so if their interest is in Nordic culture.