“Culture is what makes the social into society.”
Jonathan Rowson

Putting aside the possibility of conceptual work, expressions of performing art exist within the social—they need an audience. A meaningful relationship with this audience, however, is not automatic, and where there is dissatisfaction within the circus field it often arises from a sense that the art—as distinct from the practices of social and youth circus—does not have a clear idea of its own civic purpose, nor of its potential resources and power in this domain.

If culture is what we share in language, belief and behaviour, then art can both affirm these collective values and mobilise them in order to change and disrupt from within. It reminds us of the universal, but it can also act to bring about a higher awareness of the richness and difficulty of other lives, to forge a closer understanding of complexity and ambivalence, and to challenge the legitimacy of values we consider absolute.

Given its historical and contemporary framing as a means of ‘alternative living’, as well as the success of social circus in empowering individuals, circus would seem to be ideally placed to both affirm and object. And yet within the field there is persistently the feeling that the art is not engaging fully with either task—that, with only a few exceptions, we have not seen the fulfilment of the expectation that circus, as a physical form with roots in ensemble practice, has much to say about the social.

The questions, though, are intrinsic. What does a community have to say to a society? How can a circus performance be a political statement? How does the small act upon the large? Looking both inwards and outwards in this way, we might also ask how we can distinguish between a sector that is international and one that is truly diverse.

As we consider the theme of Society it could be important to ask whether circus’ more common, perhaps now quite eroded, touchstones—risk, trust, cooperation, and so on—need a larger context to regain their power, given that these same virtues are at play in pop culture as cheap and flattering narrative effects. A key qualifier might be to identify where inspiration meets action, and a key injunction might be to see an orientation towards society, more than an economic imperative, as the relationship that delivers meaning to the work itself.

Contained within this theme then is the question of how circus operates within society as a sector and profession—including its economic relationship to the public and the state, and how the ambition to challenge the dominant beliefs of a society can be reconciled with financial dependence on its major institutions. In fact, what is the total problem of money?

Widespread disinvestment in culture has triggered discussions in the arts around sustainability and advocacy—conversations that contemporary circus can draw on as it works out its own future. Approaching this subject it can be difficult to avoid doomsaying and complaints—which are understandable but seldom productive—and engaging fully will perhaps call for a larger vision, a longer-term perspective, that explores new models and ideas from both practical and aspirational grounds.

Particularly it might mean developing a response to emerging structural shifts in the relationship between citizen and state, driven by global mobility, declining resources, and the proliferation of person-to-person networks and economies. If one possible answer to a fragmented society is to nurture a greater sense of shared responsibility and willingness to initiate cooperative action at the community level, then once again this is a paradigm which circus, given its form and history, should have a good grip on.