10 Offbeat Circuses

Cirque du soleil performs in the air and on the stage during the opening ceremony of the Toronto 2015 PanAm games.
Circuses have experienced many permutations and adaptations since the first one centuries ago.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

I wonder if it would surprise 18th century Britons to hear circuses described as "traditional" versus "offbeat." After all, the modern circus has always been a little countercultural. While it might attract audience members from all walks of life and social statuses, it certainly showcased the kind of performers that were considered "alternative," in their times — and perhaps it still does.

The circuses we'll look at take the concept of the old Barnum-and-Bailey-Ringling-Bros. circus and either tweak it just a bit or turn it completely on its (hair-hanging, gravity-defying) head. We'll start with a circus that originated as a bit of an eccentric take, and later became one of the most popular live shows around. Step right up, ladies and gentleman, to learn all about the exotic Canadian circus that would become the Circus of the Sun. (Or something like that.)


10: Cirque du Soleil

Acrobats from Cirque Du Soleil perform in the show 'OVO' at Carpa Santa Fe on October 29, 2011 in Mexico City, Mexico
Cirque du Soleil keeps its act fresh by constantly embracing new themes and aesthetics.
Victor Chavez/WireImage

Let's start off slow with a circus that — while maybe not a three-ring, step-right-up kind of a deal — is still a bit more on the traditional side. But the famous Cirque du Soleil really did start off as an unconventional group of theatre performers who busked in small town Quebec as jugglers, stilt walkers, dancers and fire-breathers [source: Cirque du Soleil]. In 1984, the little group took a tour of the province in honor Canada's discovery, and became a hit around Quebec.

Since then, Cirque du Soleil has become a phenomenon, albeit not as a traditional circus. Instead, the shows — which both tour and have a permanent home in Las Vegas — are widely known for their aerial acts and their amazing costumes. The shows themselves range from Michael Jackson tributes to fantastic imaginings of a carnival-like funeral (fun!). They might feel more like the theatre or a concert, depending on what you see. But they do feature live music, clowning, acrobatics and illusions that make it the most successful "offbeat" circus around.


9: Cirque Berzerk

Cirque Berzerk performs on stage at the Los Angeles opening night at Club Nokia.
Start with a typical circus and add equal parts burlesque and goth aesthetics and you have Cirque Berzerk.
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Cirque Berzerk is a Los Angeles outfit that is half circus, a quarter burlesque, a quarter goth Moulin Rouge — and all full spectacle. Although the acts themselves might not seem that different from a regular circus, it's a highly stylized, cool-kid version that takes on a darker, edgier look. Like a Cirque du Soleil kind of performance, Cirque Berzerk has an overarching narrative that guides the story of the performances, but each act is also pretty impressive in its own right, from fire performances to acrobatics to cheeky cabaret.

The original Cirque Berzerk started at Burning Man in 2005, the annual desert retreat for alternative communal culture [source: Cirque Berzerk]. So it's probably no surprise that Cirque Berzerk draws heavily on the counter-culture aesthetic to give its shows an edge. From costumes that are more titillating than figure skater's and music that's more punk than pokey organ, Cirque Berzerk even has an after-hours lounge for all-night drinking and carousing. In other words, this is not baby's first circus so don't go expecting goofy, sweet clowns and lovable elephants.


8: Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque

Lucent Dossier performs at the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque Performance at The Edison.
The Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque Performance adds a layer of sensuality and maturity to make their shows stand out.
Jeff Kravitz/Contributor

Circuses, we should point out, were always a little exotic. The "modern" circus began as a strictly equestrian performance, where riders would do acrobatic tricks in a hippodrome-like ring [source: Speaight]. Clowns and acrobats were added between performances for interest, and eventually animals and sideshow performers were brought in. Of course, this transformation took place only over the course of a few decades — circuses, in other words, moved quickly to keep up with demand and forestall waning interest.

The Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque is a great example of an offbeat circus that has evolved to fit more modern tastes. It's also based in Los Angeles, but will travel to events like Coachella. The circus also performs often with musical acts in concert, or in music videos. At the heart of the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Circus is a more sensual performance: Although you may be watching acrobats and contortionists, it's a cabaret-like atmosphere that's decidedly mature [source: Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Circus]. Don't go to the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque expecting cotton candy; you're more likely to be served absinthe.


7: The Insect Circus

The Insect Circus bus outside of a venue.
Imagine your favorite circus acts done with creepy-crawlie outfits on. That's how you get The Insect Circus.

Now don't you worry, we'll tumble our way down the list to a flea circus eventually. But the Insect Circus is another breed entirely. It's not about training ladybugs to jump through hoops or pushing spiders on a swing. Instead, the Insect Circus features players dressed as your favorite (or most nightmarish) creepy-crawlies, preforming various stunts and acrobatics, alongside human counterparts.

The Insect Circus also features a kind of sideshow that harkens back to the early days of the modern circus. The Travelling Museum features dioramas and working models of insects performing "tricks," all designed by Mark Copeland, the artist who founded the Insect Circus and serves as its ringmaster [source: Blustin]. The museum also serves as a kind of faux-history of the Insect Circus itself, where Copeland has created an exhaustive collection of mementos and souvenirs from the "history" of the Insect Circus Society [source: Insect Circus].


Now tongue-in-cheek circuses are all well and good, but let's rev our engines on an unusual circus that truly offers some death-defying performances.

6: Wall of Death/Car Circus

Indian performers ride in cars inside a makeshift wooden cylindrical 'Wall of Death' structure, during the annual farmers fair at Shama Chak Jhiri, some 22kms from Jammu.
The Wall of Death has it's own variations, and they're all pretty dangerous.

What's more dangerous than riding in a car with a lion? Riding in a car with a lion at breakneck speed around a vertical — yes, vertical — track. Yes, you might be thinking: surely that's just the fever dream of some sort of daredevil/ringmaster. Not something we would encounter as a fun weekend activity. How wrong you are.

Okay, you might be a little right. Because although the Wall of Death has been an act entertaining crowds for years (and a famous video from the Diamond Maruti Car Circus has gone viral showing the act), it doesn't generally include a lion these days [source: GTSpirit]. Nor monkeys or bears, which were the other animals that occasionally rode shotgun in the 1920s Wall of Death performances [source: Wall of Death]. And although not strictly a circus act, these car tricks are certainly part of the offbeat circus tradition. Using inertia and centrifugal force, these cars or motorcycles can seemingly climb walls, and their drivers race wildly close to spectators cheering them on.


5: Acme Miniature Flea Circus

Three fleas are harnessed to miniature chariots at the start of a Roman-style race, just one of the attractions in John Torp's American flea circus circa 1956.
Sometimes talented fleas can blow elephants and lions out of the water.

Confession: I have no idea if the Acme Miniature Flea Circus is real. I mean, flea circuses aren't real, right? Of course not. They're just illusions and tricks performed by hucksters and swindlers.



The Acme Miniature Flea Circus has me almost completely convinced. Professor A. G. Gertsacov swears that he uses pulex irritans (human fleas, bigger than fleas on animals) and trains them to pull miniature chariots and dance on high wires [source: Viera]. (Well, high to them.) Gertsacov (not, as far as I can tell, a tenured professor but a bona fide graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College) uses a magnifying glass to highlight the fleas, but most audience members over the age of 8 might be hard-pressed to confirm that they actually see them [source: Acme Miniature Flea Circus]. That doesn't stop members for excitedly rooting for Midge or Madge (the flea performers) to win a race or do an acrobatic stunt.

But who needs proof to be impressed by the illusion? Enjoy your flea circus just as much as the Victorians did, when the little bugs (or their imaginary avatars) proved popular entertainment.

4: La Soirée

Hula hoop artist 'Marawa' performs during a photocall to promote the 'La Clique' Cabaret in London.
Many of the performers of La Clique have gone on to become a part of La Soirée.

Oh, I'm sorry, are you not expecting a review of a circus to have the description of "sex-obsessed" in the headline [source: Billington]? Pity for you, who clearly haven't yet fully dived into the world of offbeat circuses. If you haven't gotten the idea so far, a lot of the unusual circuses we're covering borrow heavily from cabaret and burlesque to create a more scintillating adult show, with circus-like elements. La Soirée is one of the more popular acts that presents a sexed-up version of the ring.

And really, it's not even close to family-friendly. You might see performers wear S&M style bondage gear — and that's before they start stripping down as part of the act. The performances could be described as soft-core, with a healthy dose of audience participation. But hey, life is not all a cabaret. There are also jugglers, acrobats and clowns that populate the titillating world of La Soiree [source: Isherwood]. You can catch La Soiréeon tour, although keep in mind that it's more like a naughty bachelorette party than 9-year-old birthday celebration [source: La Soiree].


3: The Acro-Cats

A cat performing during a show in the Moscow Cat Theatre, founded by famous Russian clown Yuri Kouklatchev.
And you thought cats didn't take direction well.

Call all the Web developers you know, and tell them that they're out of a job. The internet is officially a Finished Product, and no longer needs their attention. The best website in the world is online, and there is no reason to make any more. Behold, the power of Acro-Cats [source: CircusCats.org].

I know what you're thinking. Isn't this just a herding cats metaphor waiting to happen? Yes, it is. But that's what makes Acro-Cats (and their friends, The Rock Cats) one of the best offbeat circuses around. You'd really think it was impossible to get train cats to do much at all, besides give you sullen stares. But the Acro-Cats run agility courses, ride skateboards and do all sorts of awesome circus tricks. Not to be outdone, the Rock Cats play instruments and give a totally no-holds-barred performance.


What's even nicer is that the cats do seem to be in charge of their own schedule. According to trainer Samantha Martin, the cats' cages are opened for the performance, and if they don't want to do the act, they stay put. Instead of cajoling them out for performance on demand? Martin simply moves on. Why waste energy trying to convince a cat [source: BBC].

2: Hair Hanging Circuses

Two hair hanging performers.
Those hair commercials never told you healthy hair could do this!
Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

So most of our offbeat circuses are much more modern takes on the old three-ring form. From incorporating strippers to throwing in a bunch of cats, the circus acts were probably not something you could catch on a weekend in, say, Victorian England.

But hair-hanging performances are actually part of a longer tradition of circus acts. Chinese circuses have been performing acts where contortionists or aerialists perform various acrobatics while hanging by their hair for nearly a century [source: Barr]. Hair hanging really came into its own during the 20th century, however, and modern circuses often employ hair hangers as performers [source: Murray]. But don't think you can simply wrap your hair around any darn thing and proceed to do somersaults 35 feet up. The braid, for one, has to be structurally quite durable, and of course the system of pulleys and cables better be highly precise.


Further, hair hanging circuses like the Finnish Capilotractées requires performers who've spent years learning — and becoming a little numb — to the act [source: Winship]. It's not just acrobatics; performers in a hair-hanging circus might juggle, play with fire or even hold other performers while suspended from their hair.

1: Circus Maximus

Circa 50 BC, A chariot race at the Circus Maximus, Rome.
Circuses have been around in various forms for centuries.
Hulton Archive/Handout

Is it cheating to cite Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman races, as an offbeat circus? Hear me out:

A lot of people assume that the Circus Maximus was, in fact, the first circus. It really wasn't, in the traditional sense. There certainly weren't ringmasters welcoming ladies and gents, nor were there acrobats or clowns. But there was bloody, thrilling spectacle — which, some would argue, is exactly what audiences today are banking on seeing at circuses that promise performers cheating death or animals that could turn wild at any moment. So in a way, the competitions of the Roman Circus Maximus was its own offbeat version of the modern circus, with raucous spectators looking for some down and dirty entertainment.

Originally designed for chariot racing, Circus Maximus also hosted gladiatorial contests and "hunts" for wild animals [source: Grout]. In a way, we might think of Circus Maximus as the coming-together of several offbeat circuses we've learned about. Like certain car circuses that compete on the Wall of Death, the chariot races made one's heart pound. In the first or second century C.E., it also had a bit of provocativeness that we saw in the more adult-themed circuses: Men and women were allowed to sit together, unlike at the Colosseum or theatre [source: Grout]. And like the Acro-Cats, spectators got to sit close to the wild animals ready to spring into action. Okay, that's a bit of a stretch but you get the idea.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Offbeat Circuses

If there's anything to learn from reading about offbeat circuses, it's that a lot of people would gladly pay good money to see some really bizarre entertainment. One is left wondering if — marketed correctly — an entire circus could be devoted to mundane tasks, done with some degree of danger or even aplomb. Step right up and watch me clean the windows wearing a skimpy costume and bending over backwards. Why not?

Related Articles

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  • Baird, Simone. "New Wave Circus Performance." Time Out. June 18, 2007. (April 22, 2015) http://www.timeout.com/london/clubs-nightlife/new-wave-circus-performance
  • Barr, Meghan. "'Hair hanging' a rare, painful circus act." Boston Globe. May 5, 2014. (April 22, 2015) http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/05/05/hair-hanging-rare-painful-circus-act/AHkuk1EUK00ooz6tOH7KyH/story.html
  • Billington, Michael. "La Soiree review — raucously enjoyable, sex-obsessed circus." Nov. 12, 2014. (April 22, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/nov/12/la-soiree-southbank-review
  • Blustin, Oscar. "Preview: The Insect Circus, Hoxton Hall, London." The Independent. Dec. 11, 2006. (April 22, 2015) http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/preview-the-insect-circus-hoxton-hall-london-427920.html
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