In the Czech Republic, contemporary circus is often perceived and labelled as theatre (motion, experimental, or alternative).
The term ‘contemporary circus’ appeared in France in the late 1980s, the official name of the art discipline only started to be used at the beginning of the new millennium. Whereas in Western and Southern Europe, and in Scandinavia, circus is perceived as a liberal arts activity and may concern both contemporary and traditional circus, this division is decisive for the Czech Republic.
Czech contemporary circus pioneers
Czech contemporary circus has been shaped in the theatre environment, among actors, dancers, puppeteers, mimes, directors and dramaturgs. The environment also influences aesthetics of Czech contemporary circus and the way we think about contemporary circus on Czech stages.
One of the pioneers of Czech contemporary circus was Continuo Theatre managed by director Pavel Šťourač at the turn of the new millennium. The company has performed in various site-specific projects and it had its own sets designed for several productions; the company designed the circus tent called La Stodola for the production of Fragments Fair – La Foire aux Eclats (2002). The tent was also used for the performance of Life in Feathers (2003) with the performances on a vertical rope, aerial silks or a trapeze. The pioneering performance of Czech contemporary circus, in which the precise technique of aerial acrobatics worked as a means of communication between artistes and the audience, was Annual Rings (2004). Jan Vedral, the dramaturge, participated in it this time. The cooperation of directing and dramaturgy is typical for Czech theatre environment, thus this type of theatre cooperation appears in contemporary circus as well. The topic of the Annual Rings performance was the old age. The plot began with a basic situation, in which two people, a man and a woman, met in a senior house. The theatremakers used the methods of puppet theatre and shadow puppetry, non-verbal theatre, aerial acrobatics and artistic cycling as the main means of expression. The hybrid work with various means and the tendency towards poeticness have been typical features for Czech contemporary circus.
Brothers Forman’s Theatre has included circus aesthetics in some of their projects from the very beginning. Circus has played the role of a topic and principle, which is possible to form and transform in a theatre way. Circus and its many forms can be traced in the production of La Baraque – Bouda (1997). The theatremakers never had the ambition to rank the production among the contemporary circus works, but they were rather inspired by circus as a topic. The topic of circus permeated the production of La Baraque through the topic of living in a circus as well as a visual hyperbole and metaphor in the set design. The Brothers Forman’s Theatre was invited by the French company Volière Dromesko to join the production as it was earlier considered to rank among the contemporary circus companies and was one of the contemporary circus pioneers in France.
The development of new circus
As the interest in knowledge of circus disciplines is growing in the Czech Republic, the circus education centers focused on contemporary circus techniques started to be established. The pioneer center is Cirqueon – The Centre for Contemporary Circus, which was founded in 2008 and has become the umbrella organization for contemporary circus in the Czech Republic. It supports and develops contemporary circus through creative and educational projects, and it also provides information about current events in the field of contemporary circus. It has its own training center, in which the center opens two-semester courses of acrobatic and juggling disciplines led by professional instructors. The center also has a research and educational department with the library and a video collection, which focuses on circus arts. KD Mlejn in Prague is yet another important contemporary circus center (the charitable trust since July 2006, it continues in the tradition of Klub Mlejn founded in 1988, which was an important theatre, folk and rock venue in the Czech Republic) as well as Cirkus LeGrando in Brno (2005) and Umcirkum in Ostrava (2014).
Czech contemporary circus companies
The majority of Czech contemporary circus companies, which are still in operation, began to form after 2009. It seems that this year was favorable for the arrival of the new performative form, which permeated the Czech artistic environment through foreign guest productions.
One of the most distinctive Czech contemporary circus companies is Cirk La Putyka, which has been operating in the Czech Republic since 2009 when it staged its first performance La Putyka. The performance made a breakthrough in the international context (aided by a successful guest performance at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2011). Cirk La Putyka is the biggest and currently the most desired Czech company professionally engaged in contemporary circus. The repertoire currently includes 13 productions, out of which 11 are regularly staged in its venue Jatka78 as well as on Czech and foreign tours. Jatka78 is an open space for Czech and foreign companies adapted for residential projects and performances, workshops, conferences, discussions, lectures, exhibitions and happenings. Generally, thanks to La Putyka, it is perceived as a contemporary circus venue.
As far as the number of artistes are concerned, Losers Cirque Company is almost equal to Cirk La Putyka. The winners of the first CzechoSlovakia’s Got a Talent, the acrobatic duo DaeMen – Petr Horníček and Zdeněk Moravec – approached other performers, dancers and acrobats and they founded Losers Cirque Company under the United Arts art agency. The company started with their activities in 2014 with the premiere of Losers. Other projects by this company clearly refer to its poetics based on precise mastering of pair acrobatics and gymnastics combined with contemporary and street dance. It is created in association with theatre directors and dance choreographers.
As far as the number of members and projects is concerned, the companies rank among the smaller, yet the older ones concerning the length of operation in contemporary circus, compared with Losers Cirque Company. Circus Mlejn is more progressive from the artistic point of view. The company has been dealing with authorial production, in which it seeks various opportunities for scenic expression. It looks for inspiration in visual arts, physical theatre and non-artistic motion activities. The leading personality is the founder of the company Eliška Brtnická, who is also engaged in artistic research as she is the PhD student at the Non-verbal Theatre Department of the Music Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU).
Since 2009, the juggler duo Adam Jarchovský and Václav Jelínek has been performing in the Czech Republic. They have closely cooperated with the civic association of Artists 4 Children since the very beginning and they regularly traveled to see children in socially excluded areas all around the world. In 2010, Bratři v tricku met Kristýna Vlčková, the ropewalker, juggler and a graduate of the French circus school École de Cirque de Bordeaux. Together they created the successful production of Riverside (2013) directed by theatre director Veronika Poldauf Riedlbauchová as well as The Funeral (2016) and Hunting (2018).
Other Czech contemporary circus companies are Cirkus TeTy (2011), Compagnie des pieds perchés (2009), Cirque Garuda (2007), Cink Cink Cirk (2012), Circus Sacra (2000), Squadra Sua (2003) and others.
Contemporary circus festivals
In the Czech Republic, contemporary circus has strengthened its position of an independent genre thanks to the festivals as well. In the 1990s, these were street theatre festivals, which were the place where the foreign influences of contemporary circus met. Nowadays, we can find specific events from the dramaturgic and programming points of view with contemporary circus productions only, thus they significantly participate in raising the public awareness and drawing attention to the genre.
The biggest and oldest contemporary circus festival in the Czech Republic is Letní Letná, whose dramaturgy is trying to encompass small and big forms of contemporary circus and provides space for contemporary productions as well as productions staged for longer time by renowned companies. The aim of the event is to bring companies, which have not performed in the Czech Republic or companies, whose production changes and develops in time.
In the past ten years, contemporary circus has become popular with the general public as well as theatre critics, journalists and theatre managers. Other festivals representing Czech and foreign productions of the genre have been organized recently. The famous showcases in Prague are Cirkopolis (2014), or Fun Fatale (2012). One of the renowned showcases outside Prague is Cirk-UFF (2011) in Trutnov.
In the Czech Republic, there has been no professional educational training school so far (high school, college, university), whose graduates would be certified professionals in circus arts (in artistic arts). Those, who are interested in getting education in the art of circus, have to travel abroad to foreign circus schools. There are many promising artistes studying at Codarts (University of the Arts) in Rotterdam or at AMOC (Akademie for modern cirkus) in Copenhagen. The majority of contemporary Czech contemporary circus artistes have come from the group of actors and dancers.
There are about 60 artistes – contemporary circus professionals. It is a minor genre speaking of the number of companies and individuals, yet it is popular regarding popularity with the viewers.