The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a two-week-long celebration of the circus arts. The program runs from June 29-July 4 and July 5-9 and features performances, workshops, and presentations that explore the cultural legacy of the circus and the contemporary practice of the circus arts. The big story in the circus world this year has been the shuttering of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May, which brought to an end a touring tradition that extended all the way back to 1872. Despite the passing of this veritable institution of American entertainment, the festival shows that the circus arts are alive and well in the United States. The festival includes a wide array of circus groups, ranging from youth circuses such as Circus Smirkus and the Sailor Circus to socially-conscious circus organizations like Circus Harmony and the inspiring Clowns Without Borders. The presence of performance ensembles like the Happenstance Theater and Wise Fool suggest some new directions in circus arts, and the overall program is a testament to the remarkable durability and vitality of the circus in the United States. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus has been its almost endless capacity for reinvention and understanding its long and varied history suggests that there is a promising future for this unique brand of entertainment.
As an advisory scholar to the Folklife Festival, I will be exploring the cultural heritage of the American circus with a mixed group of performers, academics, and enthusiasts on the National Mall during the second week of the festival (July 5-9). We will be located in the “Circus Stories” pavilion next to the Big Top and there will be presentations and discussions from 12-5pm each day, weather permitting. For all of the details about the this year’s Folklife Festival, see their website here!