Long Live the Circassian

Circassian
‘Sir-kas-e-an’
Noun

Noun: circassian; plural noun: circassians.
1. a person whose primary activity or profession is circus.
Her father thought she would become a lawyer, instead she became a circassian”

“Oh so what do you do?

I’m a circus artist,” you say, feeling pretentious.

I’m a circus performer,” you say, without doing yourself justice.

I work in the circus”, to pull intrigue. ‘I work in the arts’, to dissuade intrigue.

I’m unemployed”, to avoid the far too regular questioning: Elephants? Clown make up? Can you actually make a living doing that?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame non-circus people for their preconceptions of how I make a living, I just wish I had a way to direct their line of questioning in a more educative direction. If only we had a word to describe ourselves, like actors or dancers or musicians…. Well we do. We are circassians.

The word circassian (sir-kas-e-an) is French, actually spelt circassien. However, for our Anglophonic tongues using an ‘a’ instead of an ‘e’ helps us to sound less like those annoying people who randomly use badly pronounced French words in the middle of a sentence. ‘GWAAARF GWAARFF this champagne is a bit ‘je ne sais quoi’ GWARRFFFF’.

It might seem like an insignificant thing, one word, but language is our primary tool of communication; it influences how we think, how we see the world and how we see ourselves. The National Centre for Circus Arts – formerly Circus Space – changed their name in 2014 for this very reason: there was a need to be taken more seriously by the outside world (please don’t mistake serious with solemnity) but, more importantly, to give a sense of validation for the students and users of the school. Having art next to circus was an integral part of this name change. In France the creation spaces known collectively as Pôle National des Arts du Cirque have started the process of removing the word art from their title. 16 years after they opened, it has become the accepted societal consensus that circus is art.

There are practical reasons for using one word where we would normally use two. Word limits in show blurbs, marketing packs and funding applications are instantly expanded. We can stop the nihilistic tendency of questioning if we are artists or performers, and we can make another small step in changing the societal view of our occupation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe for a second that one word is going to change much, but the devil’s in the detail. Making good circus is the best way to evolve circus, but talking good circus is in close second.

Circassians reading this: its up to us. Lets not feel embarrassed to use our title, lets embrace and enjoy it. Public perception of what we do will never change, if we don’t change our own.

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  1. “but language is our primary tool of communication”. What! What are you saying? Word counts!

    Circus Space took years and years to change their name (Tim Roberts told me a figure but I forgot it. 8 years of stakeholders focus groups, 12?). Good gods!
    They changed from an iconic, beautiful, poetic, spacious, inclusive and historic name (there was linkage to Action Space Mobile, who ran The Drill Hall to say nothing of real HISTORY of the place.) and they decided, by committee I should guess) to find a name and acronym that is instantly forgettable and has all the impact of a fart in a big top. Even now I struggle to remember, ADAC (Attention Deficit Arts Centre)?
    Now, they have aligned with the taxonomy of the oligarchy but lost the verve, ring, spark and punch of autonomy and even the slightest whiff of teen spirit or in your face and crotch physicality, have now lost even the vestiges of the vocabulary that those fully communicating non verbal human bodies and minds once strove for, rejoiced in.

    But that just me obviously. We would have to ask the committee for a full official answer. Obviously.

    Peace, love, dave.

    dave @ spathaky.name

  2. I think you reinforce the point Dave – the poetic, punchy, informal name Circus Space didn’t speak to the arts industry gatekeepers, who wanted something more legitimate, businesslike sounding that they could understand on THEIR terms. The 8/12 years of consultation you mention shows how seriously the decision was taken (although I get the impression that large sectors of the circus world were not included in the consultation, as the sudden ‘nationalising’ of the institution came as rather a shock to many!). Will be nice if we can get to a phase, like in France, where the word circus commands its own legitimate autonomy again 🙂

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