‘Freaks & Fire: the underground reinvention of circus’, by J. Dee Hill

These pages are filled with characters who sit on the boundaries between circus and performance art in the US, as J. Dee Hill takes us through ten chapters of interviews, anecdotes and descriptions that evoke the seedy, grungey underside of the circus and freak-show traditions, whilst illustrating the professional lives and practicalities of this particular performance lifestyle.

Focusing on the sense of community, or tribe, that has long been associated with travelling performers – who share their lives in a way mainstream society no longer allows, living, working and playing together for survival and satisfaction – ‘Freaks & Fire’ emphasises a world that values people for their individuality and difference, rather than their conformity (offering up some strange and shocking acts and experiences along the way).

In each chapter, we meet a new collective, from fire troupe Flam Chen to the vaudeville band and burlesque Yard Dogs Road Show; from tattooed men and women of the traditional sideshow to the bodily fluids and genitalia of the Know Nothing Zideshow.  The performers’ backgrounds and paths toward their unusual professions are explored, alongside the development of their acts (including body mutilation, live piercing, fire-breathing and geek show exploits such as eating slugs, as well as more common performing art forms).  The author’s exploration into ‘alternative’ circus culture suggests that the way of life often comes first, and the acts are sometimes secondary; the creation process can be more important than a desired impact on an audience.

The book is peppered with Phil Hollenbeck‘s nostalgia-tinged black and white photographs of pyrotechnics, painted faces and more piercings than you can shake a petrol-covered skewer at.  Anecdotal references to the history of sideshow arts and freak acts, alongside the author’s own interests in ritual, anthropology and ‘modern primitives’, give the book a feel that dates it older than its 10 years.

For anyone considering a route into this lifestyle, there is a wealth of experience in ways to live and work collaboratively, and in finding ways to perform in a highly regulated and risk-terrified society.  For anyone who enjoys the illicit thrill of voyeurism that has filled the pockets of sideshow proprietors for centuries, this is also the book for you.  What’s more, it’s pleasing to see a book dedicated to recording recent forms of circus based entertainment that veer away from the mainstream understanding of big-tops, corporate gigs and commercial successes.

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Hill, J.Dee Freaks & Fire: the underground reinvention of circus (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2004)

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  1. Just got back from the funniest circus I’ve ever seen: Clive Webb and Danny Adams in Cirque du Hilarious. They’re in a real big top on Southwold Common everyday until August 31 and I urge everyone within a 100 miles to make the trip!

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