In its modern form with a ‘big top’ and central arena the circus has existed for around 150 years. Contemporary or ‘nouveau cirque’ events focus more on acrobatic performances and feats of human endeavour rather than the historically prevalent displays of animal training and performance. However, animals are still often part of a modern circus show. Although they tend to be based in one geographical area, circuses travel the country, and often the larger world, announcing their arrival through colourful posters that are distributed in the local area prior to an event.

The founder of the modern circus as we know it is Philip Astley who opened his first circus in England in 1768. Originally performing a show made up of equestrian performances, the format developed over the next 50 years to include historical battle re-enactment and more exotic animals. The latter part of the 19th century saw the arrival of the ringmaster who would introduce a number of choreographed performances to the circus show. This was the predominant style up until the mid 1970’s across most of the Europe.

The earliest modern circuses were performed in open air structures with limited covered seating. The famous large tents, commonly known as ‘big tops’ were introduced in the mid 19th century as touring circuses outgrew smaller venues.

In 1838 Thomas Taplin Cooke returned to England from the America with an American style circus tent.  Circuses were popular in Britain at this time but usually frequesnted smaller local venues across the country from as far afield as Newcastle Edinburgh, Portsmouth and Southhampton. Pablo Fanque who was Britain’s first black circus proprietor operated one of the most celebrated travelling circuses in Victorian England and chose to erect temporary structures for his smaller performces or reapropriated existing structures. One such structure in Leeds collapsed, resulting in minor injuries to many and the unfourtounate death of Fanque’s wife. 

Early travelling circuses introduced the circus to Latin America, Australia, South East Asia, China, South Africa and Russia as well as bringing their influcene home, with Chinese acrobatics being introduced to the European circus in 1886. 

By this time the curcus had expnded to a large scale operation including the tent and circus train and a combination of circus acts, a zoological exhibition and freak shows. This format was adopted by most European circuses by the turn of the 20th century.

The influence of the American circus brought about considerable change in the modern circus. In arenas too large for performers voices to be heard, the comic act of the clown became less intergral to the show, while the vastly increased amount of performance equiment on stage forced the tradional equestrian events out of the performance. In place of the equestrian event spectaclur and daring acrobatic performances and exhibitions of skill, strength and darin took centre stage. This required huge numbers of performers and often complicated, expensive machinery

Contemporary circuses perform in a variety of venues including tents, theatres and casinos. Contemporary circus has been credited with reviving the circus tradition with a number of circuses based almost solely on human skills and which drew from other performing art skills and styles.




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