‘The Routledge Circus Studies Reader’, Edited by Peta Tait and Katie Lavers

The  Circus Studies reader from Routledge is the first of it’s kind, combining academic essays from a global collection of scholars into one English language volume.  The result is a rich and diverse collection of insights and research angles that offers inspiration both to newcomers upon the subject and to worldly circus veterans.

Editors Katie Lavers and Peta Tait provide an introduction that discusses the difficulties and merits of defining circus practises. Recognising that there has been no singular, comprehensive description articulated that covers all the corners of the field, they posit considerations of skills, contexts, history and politics to arrive at a working definition:

‘Circus is an art form which explores the aesthetic potential of extreme physical action by bodies (animal, human and post-human) in defiance of cultural identity categories including species, and usually performing live with apparatus… …Audiences have an expectation that circus offers extended muscular action and physical expertise with dynamism that exceeds social norms and is framed in ways that will surprise and excite, and circus is particularly focused on direct engagement with audiences. The skills needed to make circus are a unique blend of acrobatic and artistic and, in its immediacy, its liveness, the circus performer places herself/himself at risk, whether perceived or actual.’

The 35 essays take on elements of those considerations, and are split between three sections: Perspectives, in which circus examples are refracted through the lenses of other specific interest areas – aesthetics, gender, sexuality, music, aboriginal identity, sports, business; Precedents, which includes research on the circus of a particular period or region, on individual figures of circus history, and on animals as performers; Presents, where studies of particular institutions and approaches to contemporary circus work – including social circus, support industries and research  itself – are laid out.

The research is thorough, clearly delivered and, in many cases, has a surprisingly engaging tone for academic text. Each essay includes its own endnotes and bibliography, while an extensive bibliography can be found at the back of the book covering 38 pages, followed by a 15 page index.

It’s not immediately apparent on reading that the essays were originally published over a period of more than 30 years, and some give the impression that they are detailing a current situation that, in fact, no longer exists. The original publication dates are declared in the Acknowledgement section in the front matter, so these should be checked to avoid misconceptions from forming. The volume stands alone as a fascinating kaleidoscope of studies around circus’ relevance, and also provides an excellent launchpad for further research. It will surely become a classic in the field.

routledge-bookLavers, Katie & Tait, Peta (Eds.). The Routledge Circus Studies Reader (Abingdon: Routledge. 2016) ISBN: 978-1-138-12535-3


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