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Since President George Washington attended John Bill Ricketts’ circus in Philadelphia in 1793, circus arts have intrigued generations of audiences throughout the United States. For many Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the circus brought glimpses of a wider world through dazzling sights, sounds, and stunts. Now with new grassroots initiatives and innovations, the country is seeing a revival of interest and creativity in circus arts.
Circus arts have evolved over time to reflect changing social tastes and values, technological innovations, and performance styles. Immigrants from all over the world continue to contribute their creativity and skills, foods, languages, rituals, and other customs that enrich the circus arts. Across the country, emerging youth and social circuses and schools provide new opportunities for artistic expression.
Marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will bring the rich history, mystique and diversity of circus arts to life on the National Mall. But visitors will see more than just a performance—we’ll take you behind the scenes to learn from generations of American circus families and contemporary visionaries who are keeping the circus arts alive and engaging.
Meet artists and coaches, costume designers, makeup artists, musicians, lighting and sound technicians, prop and tent designers, riggers, poster artists, wagon builders, cooks, and many others whose collective creative work brings the circus to life. Along with new students and celebrated masters, experience the many dimensions of circus arts through performances, demonstrations, and workshops under a big top tent and other colorful venues.
Aerialists and acrobats will demonstrate their gravity-defying disciplines, combining strength and skill with grace and daring. Equilibrists and object manipulators will share their tricks that date from ancient times. Clowns will demonstrate mesmerizing transformations, tapping into the human heart and spirit.
The 2017 Folklife Festival program will provide many opportunities for experiential exploration of the life and work of circus people in America today. Join us in Washington, D.C., June 29 through July 4 and July 6 through 9 on the National Mall between Seventh and Twelfth streets, adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle.
World Circus Day on April 16 encourages collaboration and cooperation for the future of circus, an ideal opportunity to announce our upcoming program.
The National Endowment for the Arts interviews Folklife Festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley about the significance of circus.