From the ancient Romans via the Big Top to the modern stage, circus has kept us enthralled for thousands of years. Its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve to maintain the fascination of audiences over time is what makes it unique.

WHILE the children of the 30s were wowed by the emergence of the “talkies” – cinematic films with both images and synchronised sound – the modern day teenager thinks nothing of playing tennis on their Wii, setting people on fire in real time and examining the computer generated world of Pandora in three dimensions.

Every day most of the population sits down in front of their television to watch people hang off cliffs, leap between skyscrapers, dangle from helicopters, cause earthquakes with their bare hands and even fly. In short, ours is a world in which the spectacular has become the mundane.

It is remarkable that despite all this, a humble live performance art such as the circus has retained the capability to leave us awestruck. The circus is far from passé – in fact, in Finland as in the rest of the world, it is growing in popularity.

Circus in Finland

THE CIRCUS first arrived in Finland with Frenchman Jean Lustré’s equestrian group, which performed in Turku in the summer of 1802. Over the following decades Finland became the standard passage for foreign circus troupes travelling between Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. The first Finnish circus is thought to be the one put together by the Ducander brothers in Helsinki in 1896. Circus performers usually toured with funfairs, but long distances, harsh winters and the high entertainment tax made it difficult to run a profitable circus in Finland.

When Carl-Gustaf Jernström founded Sirkus Finlandia in 1976, it marked a new era for Finnish circus. During its 30 years of existence, the troupe has become a company of international stature. In addition to Sirkus Finlandia, nowadays there are also a few smaller circus troupes that travel and perform around the country.

The circus has also become a popular hobby for many children and youngsters, which has yielded new generations of performers and spectators. The first youth circuses were founded in the 1970s, and today there are over 2,100 students practising in 35 youth circuses around Finland. Professional training became possible in 1995 when Turku University of Applied Sciences established a degree in circus studies. Since 2000 it has also been possible to get an upper secondary education in circus in Lahti.

New Circus arrived in Finland in the 1990s, and today there are about ten professional troupes dedicated to the art. The best known internationally are Maksim Komaro’s Circo Aereo and Association WHS. Circo – Centre for New Circus, a Helsinki-based production community for contemporary circus, was founded in 2002.

The Arts Council of Finland distributes grants and other funding for circus activities. In addition, municipalities, provinces and private trusts give financial support to the art of circus.

Source: Finnish Circus Information Centre 


According to information officer Lotta Vaulo from the Finnish Circus Information Centre, Finland’s national circus Sirkus Finlandia has seen a rise in attendance in recent years. This is the traditional touring tent-circus most people associate with the word. But even more prominent is the rise of the so-called New Circus – something more profound, yet somehow more accessible to the modern audience than the furred friends and moustachioed freaks of old.

New Circus weaves the spectacle and athleticism of the circus into a more complex patchwork of drama, mystery and thematic narrative. It makes use of creative lighting, live music and carefully designed costuming in order to structure what can be a spectacular, intoxicatingly eerie piece of performance art.

“Audiences are finding new experiences beyond the spectacle and entertainment aspects of traditional circus in some of the more artistic productions,” says Vaulo. The scene in Finland is quite small, but it’s growing. And the country’s top groups are highly international, touring around Europe and the world.

“I think the appeal of the circus today is in the combination of highly refined aesthetics and artistic vision, and the level of skill and technical prowess exhibited by the performers,” Vaulo speculates. “It’s at once something that seems very dangerous, flirting with death even, but looks absolutely beautiful and enchanting.”

Since Roman times

The existence of circus can be tracked throughout the ages, beginning in Ancient Rome, when the masses were entertained in a large circular arena by equestrian races, staged battles, trained animals and acrobatic performers and jugglers. Eventually the spectacle morphed into the “old school” notion of the circus with which we are so familiar.

This circus of the “Big Top”, which is what most people customarily associate with “circus”, was thought to have appeared around the late 1700s, with equestrian extraordinaire Philip Astley’s Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts fusing spectacular trick-riding with the other live performances. His circus also featured clowns, jugglers and acrobats.

In fact, jugglers and performing acrobats have been around for at least 2,500 years. Acrobatics formed part of the traditional celebrations of the village harvest since the Western Han Dynasty in China and are featured in the Minoan art of the western world dating back to 2000BC. At the fall of the Roman Empire and during the middle ages juggling was viewed as a somewhat tawdry pursuit, associated with base morals and even witchcraft.

Spectacle becomes art

An interesting change took place around the 1970s and early 80s. Around this time progressive troupes such as San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus (founded in 1975), Circus Oz in Australia (1977) and the now world renowned Cirque du Soleil (1984) evidenced a development from the Big Top tradition into a more poetic approach.

The more artistic movement seems to have started in France and spread over the rest of Europe. There are no quick answers as to why, but there were certainly many other movements in the performing arts at that time. A new aesthetic was emerging in dance and theatre, which sought to give new meaning and context to the body and sought for a different way to tell new stories to the world. The circus began to increasingly take on elements from dance and theatre and vice versa.

The radicalisation of the arts of the time had its impact also on the circus world as the old tradition came under scrutiny. This period marked the evolution of the circus experience into New Circus.

Circus families once constituted the core of the circus world, but now troupes were formed around art collectives instead of kinship. The new kind of circus schools also took students from outside the old circus families.

Shows were no longer based on a chain of individual performances but had an overarching theme as new importance was given to narration. Animals – which were once a very important part of the show – were left out, and the even the circular arena was sometimes replaced by a theatre stage. Also the role of the performer changed: previously demonstrating a special skill, now entertainers became more interpreters or even artists. As New Circus came to be accepted as a form of performance art on par with dance and theatre, the term “contemporary circus” was coined.

A clown’s life

If you have ever seen a Cirque du Soleil performance, you might understand why there is a word for the extreme and abnormal fear of clowns – coulrophobia. An audience member at one of this French-Canadian group’s performances should be prepared to find that some kind of bizarrely attired, beady eyed, masked character has taken up the empty seat beside him and proceeded to precisely, terrifyingly and accurately mimic his every movement. There is no adequate way of describing the heart-stopping spookiness and exhilarating horror of having this happen to you.

Clowning in new circus is not just comedy, but an art form which preys on the emotions and perceptions of the audience. It makes use of everything from slapstick humour to mime, acrobatics and storytelling. Good clownery can both stir the soul and tickle the ribcage.

Since 2002, modern-day clown Jenni Kallo has been working with Circo Aereo, a contemporary circus troupe based in Finland and France who perform all around the world. She just got back from southern France, where she was working on Circo Aereo’s show Trippo, a performance in which she has performed almost 200 times.

The show has toured Finland, Norway, France and Spain from the little villages to big theatre festivals and everything in between. “I usually have to move once every month but every year and month is different!” she says. But how does a modern circus performer’s life line up with all the romantic notions we laypeople have in our minds?

“We usually play in theatres, so travelling in caravans with a tent is not part of my life – although I would love to try it one day! Usually we stay in hotels and I get angry at the cleaning ladies who don’t understand that you DON’T want your room to be cleaned! When you are spending lots of time on the road you want to make it feel more like home, so the first thing that I do when I get to the hotel is mess up my room.”

But even if the poetic image of the mysterious, junk-filled caravans of old have been replaced with the reality – sterile hotel rooms and hours at airport security (possibly explaining why you have a bag full of large knives) – at the end of the day there is one aspect of the job that hasn’t changed.

“The work of a clown is the same wherever you are!” Kallo says. “It doesn’t matter for whom you are playing or where. If you succeed in making people laugh you have done a good day’s work!”

Circo Aereo


Sarah Hudson