Body, crisis, risk, laughter


Montpellier 7 & 8 October 2021

Conference co-organised by

Charlène Dray, Pierre Philippe-Meden,

Franziska Trapp, Karel Vanhaesebrouck, Nele Wynants


Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (UPVM3/RiRRa21)

Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB/CiASp)

« The circus is the body at two hundred percent » (Sun, 2017)

In the last decades, circus history and, on a more general level, circus studies, have developed into a broad dynamic field, mobilizing a wide variety of methodologies and theoretical frameworks as scholars eagerly scrutinize the wealth of historical material available all over the world. The variety of sources, stories, archives, private and public collections, on which the history of the circus today is based, is extremely diverse, in France and its neighbouring countries but also on a more intercontinental scale, ranging from the Fonds cirque (CollEx), BU Ramon Llull (UPVM3), Fonds Vesque (MUCEM) over the Rigas Cirks Biblioteka, University of Memphis to online collections like Circopedia, Les Arts du cirque, l’encyclopédie (CNAC/BnF, 2019) or private collections (A. Frère, P. Jacob, Zirkusarchiv Winkler, Raffaele de Ritis). This vast diversity allows multiple explorations for both researchers and artists and the recent developments in the field of circus studies has demonstrated a growing scientific interest into circus historiography and its role in cultural history.

As the renowned circus expert Paul Bouissac (2021) postulated the decline of the traditional circus in his recent publication, the research on circus history has become all the more significant. Pioneering work of historians from diverse horizons has provided the fertile ground for historiographical approaches to circus in France. Worth mentioning in this context is for example the research on the sounds and images of the Roman circus (Nelis-Clément, Roddaz, 2008), explorations of the juggler in medieval illuminated manuscripts (Clouzot, 2011), the birth of the modern circus around the equestrian body (Hodak, 2018), « strange » or unfamiliar bodies (Coutelet, 2014), Joseph Kabris (Granger, 2020), Sarah Baartman (Blanckaert, 2013), Rafael (Noiriel, 2017), the know-how of the clown costume (Perault, 2015), the Alexis Gruss Company (Petiteau, 2018) or the new circus (Maleval, 2010) and the Fratellini ecoformation (Bezille, Froissart, Legendre, 2019).

However, this stimulating research dynamic is all but limited to France. The multiplication of publications in the history of the circus arts on an international scale, particularly in English (Stoddart, 2000; Tait, 2005; Arrighi, 2014; Holmes, 2016; Nishra P R, 2020), invites circus historians to meet, allowing PhD students, young researchers and circus artists to discuss their work.

An evident but crucial observation comes to the surface in recent research: the history of the circus is a history of the body. From Georges Strehly (1903) to Alain Frère, enthusiasts, enlightened amateurs, collectors and essayists have written a history of the circus that is the history of the « celebrated body » (Hamel, Thareau, 2020):

« Eyes, mouth, hands, thighs, breasts, buttocks. And the belly too. The body is undoubtedly the most powerful artifice that the circus has shaped. Flesh of the ring. The eyes, the mouth, the legs, the mane, the chest, the croup. And the belly again. The equestrian body, in all its power, is without a doubt the most formidable dramatic spring that the circus has shaped. » (Jacob, 2017)

The body of the circus artist is a « laboratory of the living » (Goudard, 2010). The history of his/her embodied expertise (Héas, 2014), of his/her physical and cognitive engagement, « constitutes in our culture an anthropological frame revealing implicit knowledge, ideological issues and practices attached to emotion. Its analysis makes it possible to highlight the persistence of old attitudes, a deep cultural crisis but also a capacity of invention to propose new perspectives » (Pradier, 1990).

The « ecocircus » and holographic animals are, for example, an emerging peak of the crisis of the living in its multifactorial components (Régnier, Héas, 2019; Dray, Porcher, 2020) which would tend towards a disembodied circus. However, if « the circus is the risk of the flesh » (Pierron, 2003), we propose that « the risk » (Goudard, 2010, Wallon, 2002) in the writing of the history of circus artists be analyzed as an aesthetic response to the periods of crisis that it is going through. Risk puts the artist’s physical, economic and cultural equilibrium in crisis, while the apotropaic dimension of the clown’s laughter opens up the world and revives life. The crisis does not have the last word (Le Breton, 2018).

To what extent could the writing of the history of the circus body (techniques, aesthetics, sensibilities, imaginary, representations…) articulate the historiographies of a « composite art » (Goudard)? This question concerns multiple disciplines and asks for an interdisciplinary approach, from cultural history of techniques, apparatus and physical education, history of theatre and performance, anthropology, history of physical practices and aesthetics, micro-history, life writing, history from below… What methodological and epistemological frameworks and references can inform circus historiography? What kind of reflections concerning archives does it engage? How do circus artists use archives when trying to write or reconstruct their own lived history?

Particular attention will be paid to contributions that shed new light on how the historiography of the circus artist’s body (animal/human) is constructed around the following themes:

  1. historiography of the practices of circus archives and collections, private/public, their conservation, accessibility, valorization; the question of living archives (Bénichou, 2020); the safeguarding of circus intangible cultural heritages;
  2. historiography of circus nomadism (artists, arts, festivals…) between different regions of the world (Turkey, India, Japan…), institutions (cabaret, music hall…) and even between disciplines (transfers of skills and knowledge);
  3. the history of the body of the circus artist as a scientific or pseudo-scientific object (learned beliefs, naive beliefs); cognitive biases and nominal ethnocentrism inherent to his or her marginalized physical identity (phenotype, gender, handicap, tattoos, body modifications, inter-species relations…);
  4. historiography of training, maintenance and/or physical education, the effects of the exercise of the body, the hygiene and the health of the “high-level” artists, new pedagogical trends, methods and relations.

Particular attention could also be paid to the history of « the perception of history » by the artists themselves. Indeed, following the observations of Vincent Berhault (Maison des Jonglages), « many artists consider the history of the circus as a dynamic process that allows them to rely on a referential past and to build a future that is also situated.” How does the historiography of the circus body become necessary to the practice of creation itself? The proposals are thus invited to take into account the history of the « intelligence of the body » of circus artists (animal/human), the tacit knowledge manifested in their performative and/or spectacular practices (Pradier, 2000; Andrieu & al. 2022), their processes of adaptation, action and creation.

Keywords: circus, history, body, aesthetics, identity, technology

Please send us your proposal before May 31, 2021. 

– For academics: your proposal (in English or French) will consist of a title, an abstract of 250 words max., sources, methodological/epistemological references, five key words and the main bibliographic references and should be accompanied by your bio-biblio of 200 words max.

– For artists: a summary of the paper, a short biography and possibly your technical needs for performative forms.

Your proposals should be sent to both addresses: and

Presentations can take 20 minutes and will be followed by 10 minutes Q&A.


  •           Andrieu B., Bender R., Collard J., Dietrich G., Fasoli G., Thomas C. 2022. « Théorie du corps lors de l’émersion de ses sensations internes : les dessins de conscience au Centre national des arts du cirque », L’Évolution psychiatrique, n°87 (1) :
  •           Arrighi G. 2014. “Towards a cultural history of community circus in Australia”, Australasian Drama Studies, n°64: 199-222.
  •           Bénichou A. 2020. Rejouer le vivant – les reenactments, des pratiques culturelles et artistiques (in)actuelles, les Presses du réel.
  •           Bezille H., Froissart T., Legendre F. 2019. Qu’apprendre de la formation des artistes de cirque ? L’expérience Fratellini, L’Harmattan.
  •           Blanckaert C. (coord.) 2013. La Vénus hottentote entre Barnum et Muséum, Muséum.
  •           Bouissac P. 2021. The End of the Circus, Bloomsbury Academic.
  •           Clouzot M. 2011. Le Jongleur. Mémoire de l’Image au Moyen Âge. Peter Lang.
  •           Coutelet N. 2014. Étranges artistes sur la scène des Folies-Bergères. PUV.
  •           Dray C. & Porcher J. 2020. « Le travail des animaux au cirque : Un problème d’exploitation ou de mise en scène ? », Le cirque dans l’univers, n°278 : 24-27.
  •           Goudard P. & Vienne-Guerrin N. (dir.) 2020. Figures du clown, PULM.
  •           Goudard P. & Barrault D. (dir.) 2020. Médecine et Cirque, Sauramps Médical.
  •           Goudard P. 2010. Le Cirque entre l’élan et la chute, une esthétique du risque, Espaces 34.
  •           Goudard P. 1989. Bilan et perspectives de l’apport médical dans l’apprentissage et la pratique des arts du cirque en France, Thèse de doctorat en médecine sous la direction de Michel Boura, Université de Nancy I Faculté de médecine.
  •           Granger C. 2020. Joseph Kabris ou les possibilités d’une vie 1780-1822, Anamosa.
  •           Hamel C. & Thareau L. 2020. Le Cirque enchanté du Dr. Alain Frère, Gilletta.
  •           Héas S. 2014. « Les experts corporels : entre hériter, transmettre et innover », Épistémé, n°12 : 225-246.
  •           Hodak C. 2018. Du Théâtre équestre au cirque, Belin.
  •           Holmes K. 2016. “Arial stars: femininity, celebrity & glamour in the representations of female aerialists in the UK & USA in the 1920s and early 1930s”, UE.
  •           Jacob P. 2017 (2007). « Cirque. Des corps de cirque », dans M. Marzano (dir.), Dictionnaire du corps, PUF : 201-205.
  •           Le Breton D. 2018. Rire. Une anthropologie du rieur, Métailié.
  •           Maleval M. 2010. L’Émergence du nouveau cirque 1968-1998. L’Harmattan.
  •           Nelis-Clément J. 2008. « Le cirque et son paysage sonore », dans J. Nelis-Clément & J.-M. Roddaz (dir.), Le cirque romain et son image, Ausonius: 431-457.
  •           Nishra PR. 2020. Jumbos and Jumping Devils: A Social History of Indian Circus, Oxford Scholarship.
  •           Noiriel G. 2017. Chocolat : la véritable histoire d’un homme sans nom, Pluriel.
  •           Perault S. 2015. Le costume du clown blanc : Gérard Vicaire la passion pour seul habit, Chapitre douze.
  •           Petiteau N. 2018. Histoire de la compagnie Alexis Gruss, Print Team.
  •           Pradier J.-M. 2000 (1997). La Scène et la fabrique des corps. Ethnoscénologie du spectacle vivant en Occident (Ve siècle av. J.- C.-XVIIIe siècle), PUB.
  •           Pradier J.-M. 1990. « Le Théâtre des émotions », Évolutions psychomotrices, n°7 : 18-28.
  •           Régnier P. & Héas S. 2020. « Prolégomènes à une analyse des points de vue antispécistes et véganes », L’Homme et la Société, n°211.
  •           Stoddart H. 2000. Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation, MUP.
  •           Strehly G. 1903. L’Acrobatie et les acrobates, Delagrave.
  •           Sun S. 2017. « Trapèze, existence-ciel », dans G. Freixe (dir.), Le Corps, ses dimensions cachées. Deuxième époque : 81-87.
  •           Tait P. 2005. Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance, Routledge.
  •           Wallon E. 2013 (2002). Le Cirque au risque de l’art, Actes Sud-papiers.



Site Saint-Charles 2 (UPVM3). 10 rue du Professeur Henri Serre, 34090, Montpellier / Amphithéâtre de Saint-Charles

Registration fees: the registration fee for contributors is 30€. Transportation and accommodation are at the expense of the contributors. Registration is free for the public.

The contributors’ lunches are paid for by the organization.