Madeline Hoak: Searching for the Ephemeral in Circus

An elephant ride at Circus World Museum, Baraboo, WI.

I rode an elephant the day before yesterday at the Circus World museum in Baraboo, WI. Tracey was one of three elephants in this year’s Big Top show, and was offering a walkabout after the performance. The middle aged pachyderm strolled me in a few small circles around a tree guided by her trainer of 30 years. The sparse hair on her neck was red and wiry, and her skin was solid, like fluid stone. I absolutely could not help but smile wide while I floated nine and a half feet off the ground on Tracey’s back.

There are things in life that jar our emotions without our permission: the effervescent joy of riding an elephant, the clenched feeling in my stomach as the hand balancer stacked the last chair on the tower or my widened eyes and hand that froze half way to the popcorn box caught, mesmerized by the speed of the juggler’s pins. Live art affects our bodies and then lives within us. It is evidence of these moments – the wide eyes, the suspended popcorn – that I’m hunting for, and it’s a needle in a haystack. 

I spent five full days at Illinios State University digging through circus archives: show programs, magazine articles, personal letters and circus newspaper articles for records of the sights, smells and sounds of circus. What does the art form feel like?, I kept asking. After a respite in the delightful city of Madison, WI, it was on to the Circus World museum in Baraboo, WI. I searched posters, photo collections and journalist notes for more evidence of the “spectacular,” of what “showmanship” meant to spectators or why an act was “spine-chilling.” 

A collection of show programs and circus media.

I’ve just arrived at the Ringling museum in Sarasota,  FL, where I’m greeted with huge scrapbooks of newspaper clippings documenting anything and everything that was printed about circus in the New York area. This museum also has the largest collection of circus posters in the world. These two artifacts, the media that set the spectator’s expectations and the reviews of the show bookend spectator experience. Somewhere in the middle is the ephemeral moment when the thrills, chills, awe and laughs of circus once mingled in the space between performer and spectator. The hunt continues!