Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)


Faculty of Education and Arts

First Advisor

Dr Margaret Phillips

Second Advisor

Dr Cat Hope


This thesis is an investigation into modern circus from its beginnings in 1768 through to present day contemporary circus arts. Eight diverse bodies in modern and contemporary circus are explored. These eight bodies act as different lenses to focus enquiry into gaps or ruptures in the grand narratives of circus, to reveal previously missing voices and histories and to set in place new approaches to perceiving circus phenomena.

In The Political Body, the phenomenon of embodied protest is identified and explored in relation to contemporary circus works. The importance of the engaged spectator is identified in determining political, poetic and metaphorical meanings in contemporary circus acts, even when those meanings go beyond what the artist may have originally intended. This active act of deciphering by the spectator can add to the perception of depth and complexity in some contemporary circus arts, which is especially relevant in works that can be read as a hybrid of performance art and circus. In The Body of Space, the importance of space as a central and defining element in the development of circus is highlighted. Circus is pinpointed as a forerunner in the development of innovative performance spaces and in the resultant emergence of new and influential performance aesthetics.

In the section The Body of Zooësis the representations of two different animals in circus are traced. In the first chapter in this section The Body of the Horse - the horse is identified as being of pivotal importance to the development of modern circus. The horse’s history and its representation in circus are traced through from the beginnings of modern circus to the contemporary horse circuses now emerging in Quebec.

In The Wild Body, the history of the representation of wild cats in circus is

investigated in relation to a rising tide of popular support for the rights of animals. Circus’ responses to these shifts in public opinion are revealed in the emergence of new acts created to appease public concern, and in the emergence of new rhetoric designed to portray circuses as ‘cross-species families’ or ‘conservation arks.’ In The Extraordinary Body, after an initial exploration of the history of the exhibition of freaks in circus, the lack of differently abled performers in contemporary circus is interrogated. The phenomenon of ‘crip-face’ or ‘crip-drag’ in which the mannerisms of the disabled are adopted by able-bodied performers is investigated in contemporary circus performance and newly emerging circuses in England and Australia combining both disabled and able-bodied performers are identified.

In The Exceptional Body the gradually reducing parameters for the performing body in contemporary circus are identified and interrogated. In The Unmarked Body, a gap in the grand narrative of circus is identified and the history of African American circus in North America is developed. This history is traced from the beginnings of modern circus in North America through to the present day.

In The Resilient Body the origins of social circus are followed back two decades earlier than previous scholarship suggested. Father Jesus Silva in Spain would seem to be the originator of social circus when he started circus classes with orphaned and abandoned bodys in Spain, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in the 1950s. Two theories concerned with the successful treatment of trauma are brought together to create a new theoretical underpinning that provides some context and points of reference to further the critical discourse surrounding the idea of social intervention and the treatment of trama through social circus.

Following these diverse bodies into the insterstices between grand circus narratives has led to oblique readings into circus histories, rhetorics and practices. This thesis has revealed previously marginalized voices that are now brought into the historiography of circus. This thesis brings to the forefront crucial issues for future critical study in the emerging field of circus studies.