A circus performer develops and performs original acts showcasing great skill, humour and emotive depth for the general public. They may perform any one or a combination of the many circus skills such as juggling, aerial, acrobatic or balancing work.
The word Circus comes from ancient Rome and describes an arena where mock battles, gladiatorial competitions, races and acrobatic displays took place. Performances of skill and dexterity were also popular in ancient China. Indeed, most civilisations have entertained strands of acrobatic performance. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the popularity of the western circus continued to grow with the inclusion of dangerous stunts, animals and freak shows. However, modern, or contemporary circus is noticeably free of these crude and dated elements, opting instead to fuse mime, dance and music with high calibre artistic performances. The continuing popularity of circus is underlined by the fact that the billionaire founder of the prolific Cirque De Soleil is one of the richest men in Canada.
Circus performers may specialise or combine any of the skills below. The following list is not exhaustive.
- Acrobatic tumbling
- Aerials (cord lisse, rope, Chinese pole, static trapeze)
- Acro balance
- Object manipulation
- Tight or slack-rope walking
- Flying trapeze
Circus performers are often self-employed. Only the very best will get the chance to perform in a big name circus on a set wage. Performers may be paid per show or for a run of consecutive shows. Some circus performers take their act to the street where they take money directly from the public. A circus performer’s earnings depend on the quality of the show, its length and his or her degree of fame.
- A relatively unknown circus performer may receive upwards of £50 for a 5 minute performance.
- A circus performer with a good reputation and unique show may earn upwards of £200 for a 10 minute show.
- A circus performer at the top of his profession working for Cirque de Soleil earns upwards of £500 per day. Solo performers earn in excess of £100,000 per year.
A circus performer will undertake some of the following in a normal working day:
- Keeping existing skills and act polished
- Working on new abilities
- Maintenance of strength and flexibility
- Devising new performance choreography
- Working with directors and other performers
- Going to auditions and liaising with agents
- Performing in front of a live audience
The success of a circus performer will depend entirely on ability as proved in performance and audition. Qualifications are completely irrelevant; nevertheless the courses that lead to them grant a great deal of learning and practice time plus invaluable exposure to a wide variety of performers and skills.
Some circus performers learn at adult classes in their free time. There are also several circus degree courses in the UK. You can study full or part-time courses at any of the following institutions:
A circus performer is a unique job and the following characteristics should be developed:
- Dedication to your goals
- Perseverance in the face of difficulty
- Patience to build skills gradually
- Physical fitness
- Manual dexterity
- An inquiring mind to discover new media of expression
Circus performers work on a stage of some sort, be it a theatre, cruise ship, special event or small performance space in a bar or restaurant. The hours are generally evenings and weekends, often late at night. However, performance constitutes only a small fraction of a circus performer’s working life. The bulk of the work is done behind the scenes, and consists of hours of daily practice in an environment equipped with the tools of their trade, be that complicated aerial rigging and crash mats or juggling balls alone.
The profession overall is evenly split between the genders, with both men and women specialising in different areas. Traditionally more women than men specialise in trapeze and other aerial apparatus, while there are more men jugglers. As these arts and the understanding of them continue to grow, the gender split will continue to balance out.
Any experience in performance will be helpful in learning how to prepare for and deal with public exposure. Important constituents of successful performance are stage presence, timing and self-control and these are skills developed by performing. However, constant and dedicated skills’ practice improves self confidence which in turn feeds into performance skills.
Auditions make for excellent performance practice. Enter each audition as if it were the most important performance of your life and you are likely to meet with greater success while always developing your performance ability.
Major circuses, live shows, cruise ships and amusement parks hire circus performers. You can search for work in specialist publications like The Stage.
Circus performers may go on to be teachers or directors, working with other circus performers to help them improve. Generally speaking, throughout their career circus performers will develop new skills thereby opening up their chances of employment. Constant personal development is one of the prerequisites for the job.
Many professionals from other disciplines find their way into circus. Dancers, gymnasts, actors and high divers are notable examples. In this case existing skills are adapted to that particular circus environment.
Also known as…
What’s it really like?
Hugo Maciel da Silva Oliveira, aged 30, is a circus and theatre performer living and working in London.
How long have you been working with circus?
I actually started about 14 years ago when, through a friend, I discovered juggling. By the age of 20 I was giving my first performances which I loved doing and then I wanted to take it to a more professional level.
I therefore started to take small courses: evening courses to start with and then at a professional level when I studied at Circomedia in Bristol, followed by a post-graduate course in LISPA (the London International School of Performing Arts). Here I developed my performance skills through playing with the understandings of the motors of life: the observation of colours, architecture, elements, then applying those into dramatic use through characterisation, masks, set design etc.
What did you do before this job?
I did a lot of other jobs. I left school when I was 16 and worked as a plumber. Then I learnt how to build pool tables, a very specific type of joinery, and there I gained a deeper understanding of construction. Since then I have always loved building things. I built the interiors of the factory where I live and work now with 7 other people. I also built my own set for two different shows.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
I wake up early and start practising. My day begins with an awakening of the body which is my working tool. I warm up my face, my hands, feet etc in order to have an articulated voice which is my body, because I speak with my body, and not my voice.
What I do next depends on whether it’s a practical day or a composition day. If it’s just a practical day I may start to practise juggling, acrobatics, aerial work on ropes and skills and movement. In order to perform these comfortably there’s a lot of repetition involved, and this constitutes the majority of my time. Frequently I may still be practising after midnight.
If it’s a day that I’m working on composition, (and composition can have many different forms too), then I focus on a dramatic journey – form, rhythm and space, which for me are the main keys to any performance.
On the occasion of a performance there is a whole process involved which is preparing the show, and making sure that props, costumes and sets are ready to go. Before anything happens on stage there is a certain state which I consider important for a good performance, such as being relaxed and enjoying what you are performing. I believe the public will reflect what you experience in each moment of your performance.
What do you like about the job?
I like the process of creation and understanding the laws or rules of the disciplines with which I work. Sometimes I like the repetition of the juggling or acrobatics because it allows me to achieve an inner state of serenity. I also like to pull emotions, laughs and enjoyment from the public which is for them the performance. I see it like a present; you offer a present to the audience.
What do you dislike about the job?
It can be very tiring and very frustrating. It is not a reliable source of work or a steady job so there are periods of work and periods without.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a circus performer?
Are you sure about it? If you are, then go for it.
What job do you think you might do after this role in terms of career progression?
My next step in my career is to articulate more my own language in the performance world and continue to develop shows with my own vision.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
You need a lot of self-motivation because it’s all down to you; your tool is yourself.