THE ORDINARY ACROBAT: Q&A with Duncan Wall

duncan wall

~Q&A by Stephanya

A couple of months ago, my co-worker Joe handed me a advance copy of a book about the circus called The Ordinary Acrobat and said, “This looks like something you’d be interested in.” I didn’t look at the book too closely before I said, “Thanks! You know, I had this friend back in Montana who got a Fulbright Scholarship to study the circus in Paris.” When I looked back down at the book, I realized the book was actually written by my very friend, Duncan Wall, the Fulbright Scholar. After my brain completed its own circus-worthy contortions over such an extraordinary synchronicity, I immediately emailed my old friend (whom I’d been sadly out of touch with for the past few years) so that his mind could be sufficiently blown as well.

If anyone is qualified to write a book about the history of the circus, it’s Duncan Wall, a fascinating performer in his own right whose passion for his craft is infectious.  I first met Duncan in my beloved hometown, beautiful Missoula, Montana. He was half of a performing duo called The Candidatos that had made their homebase in Missoula, the cultural hub of Montana. They created an extraordinary show called I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry, a macabre mix of vaudeville, slapstick, tumbling and high melodrama. I had never seen anything like it and fell in love with the show, seeing it several times during its run. For their next trick, The Candidatos staged the best production of of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that I had ever seen, set in a dark, dank, seemingly abandoned gymnasium on the University of Montana campus, perfectly suited to Beckett’s post-apocalyptic play. I also had the pleasure of witnessing Duncan do 100+ backflips in a row in the context of a dance performance. We became friends, bonding over our love of gypsy music, DeVotchka, the Tiger Lillies, foreign cinema and antiquarian oddities of all sorts. Fast forward several years and I have his wonderful book in my hands. Duncan graciously agreed to submit to a barrage of questions for your consideration.

BOOKPEOPLE: When we knew each other in Montana, the circus was vitally linked to my perception of who you were as a person.  It was surprising for me to learn in your book that the circus arts were not always a driving obsession in your life. Can you describe for those who have not yet read your book how you came to be fascinated with the circus and what inspired you to write Ordinary Acrobat?

DUNCAN WALL: What happened in my case was that I discovered a different type of circus, the “contemporary circus.” I was studying abroad in France during my junior year of college, and my program took us to a show. I’d never seen anything like it–this mix of theater, dance, and physicality, all cast in a dark atmosphere, very expressionistic, and called a “circus.” This piqued my curiosity, and I started attending other shows, and ended up going back to Paris after college to look into the movement more fully.

BP: You studied the circus as a Fulbright Scholar at the National School for the Circus Arts in Paris. Immersing yourself so fully in the circus must have been an incredible experience. What was your favorite discipline to learn? What were you surprised to learn about yourself as a person over the course of your studies?

DW: It was an amazing experience, especially in retrospect, since it’s more or less defined the trajectory of my life ever since. My favorite discipline to practice was probably the trapeze, which is as exhilarating as you might think. Though I only touch on it briefly in the book, my biggest lesson of the year was probably one of humility. For the year, I was surrounded by people who were more gifted than I was, and in an obvious physical way. I spent the year literally falling on my ass in front of them. I think this had a subtle change on how I approach problems since then.

BP: Researching the history of the circus is sure to introduce one to many colorful characters. For lack of a better term, who would you consider your personal circus “hero?”

DW: That’s a hard one. I’m not sure I have a specific historical hero. Paul Cinquevalli, a juggler from the late 19th century, has always intrigued me, but more for the purity of his vision than for his particular work: the way he talks about juggling and his obsession with juggling in interviews you can tell that he’s a person who took his work and the world seriously. Beyond that, it’s hard to say, because there are so few recordings of old juggling performers, and I think my tastes mostly favor the modern work.

BP: There seems to be a fairly sharp divide in the current circus world between nouveau cirque groups like Cirque du Soleil and the type of circus that most Americans are familiar with such as the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Would it be fair to say that this divide can be broken down to an argument over whether the modern circus is a vessel for art or for entertainment?

DW: Yes, that’s one distinction, though it’s not entirely accurate, since there were plenty of artists working in the traditional circus and plenty of entertainers working in the new form. More concretely, it comes down to codes. The old circus was defined by certain codes: certain acts, certain costumes, a certain way of presenting the show. The modern circus does away with that in favor of something more open. In this sense it’s no different from modern dance or poetry either. You don’t need to where tights and a tutu to be dancer. You don’t need rhyme and meter to be a poet.

BP: What do you predict the future holds for the circus arts? In other words, what sort of evolution do you think the circus will experience in coming years/decades due to advances in technology, changes in cultural preferences, etc?

DW: We’re really just seeing the beginning of the boom, at least here in America. America is adding dozens of new schools every year. We’re seeing the emergence of new circus companies and new circus festivals. One of the themes I try to address in the book is just how incredibly young the art is compared to other forms. For all practical purposes, the contemporary circus in Europe began in the seventies. That’s when circus education began in earnest and when new circus companies began performing innovative work. In the lifespan of an art and a cultural practice, forty years is nothing.

BP: What does the future hold for you? I could be wrong but I have the feeling that the circus is in your blood for good.

DW: Yeah, there’s actually an old circus expression. Once you have “sawdust in your shoes,” they say, it’s difficult to get it out. I’m sure I’ll always be connected to the circus in some way, though it’s hard to say what way exactly. Right now, I’m in the process of organizing something like a national circus network, Circus Now, a collection of artists and educators interested in connecting and collectively developing how circus is practiced and perceived in America. I also teach at the National Circus School of Montreal, and would love to keep teaching there and elsewhere. One of the primary reasons for the book has become one of the primary pleasures of my life: introducing people to the contemporary circus and watching them light up. It’ll be hard to leave that.

BP: Because this is for BookPeople’s blog, I have to ask, what are you reading at the moment? And since we always talked a lot about music when we were friends in Montana, what are you listening to?

DW: I’m reading The Education of Henry Adams, which, besides being richly written, is educational on so many levels. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jacques Brel lately. Actually just got the new Phoenix album, too. I’m pretty excited about that.

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Copies of The Ordinary Acrobat are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

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