The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present

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The extraordinary story of a young man’s plunge into the unique and wonderful world of the circus—taking readers deep into circus history and its renaissance as a contemporary art form, and behind the (tented) walls of France’s most prestigious circus school.

When Duncan Wall visited his first nouveau cirque as a college student in Paris, everything about it—the monochromatic costumes, the acrobat singing Simon and Garfunkel, the juggler reciting Proust—was captivating. Soon he ...

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The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present

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Overview

The extraordinary story of a young man’s plunge into the unique and wonderful world of the circus—taking readers deep into circus history and its renaissance as a contemporary art form, and behind the (tented) walls of France’s most prestigious circus school.

When Duncan Wall visited his first nouveau cirque as a college student in Paris, everything about it—the monochromatic costumes, the acrobat singing Simon and Garfunkel, the juggler reciting Proust—was captivating. Soon he was waiting outside stage doors, eagerly chatting with the stars, and attending circuses two or three nights a week. So great was his enthusiasm that a year later he applied on a whim to the training program at the École Nationale des Arts du Cirque—and was, to his surprise, accepted.

Sometimes scary and often funny, The Ordinary Acrobat follows the (occasionally literal) collision of one American novice and a host of gifted international students in a rigorous regimen of tumbling, trapeze, juggling, and clowning. Along the way, Wall introduces readers to all the ambition, beauty, and thrills of the circus’s long history: from hardscrabble beginnings to Gilded Age treasures, and from twentieth-century artistic and economic struggles to its brilliant reemergence in the form of contemporary circus (most prominently through Cirque du Soleil). Readers meet figures past—the father of the circus, Philip Astley; the larger-than-life P. T. Barnum—and present, as Wall seeks lessons from innovative masters including juggler Jérôme Thomas and clown André Riot-Sarcey. As Wall learns, not everyone is destined to run away with the circus—but the institution fascinates just the same.

            Brimming with surprises, outsized personalities, and plenty of charm, The Ordinary Acrobat delivers all the excitement and pleasure of the circus ring itself.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Elizabeth McCracken
In his lovely new book…Duncan Wall finds useful spots from which to peer at the history of the circus: from the top of the trapeze platform, beneath a cascade of juggling balls and behind a red nose on his own face in the circus-mad Paris of 2003…The history in the book is effortless and compact, if necessarily less than comprehensive. He covers an astonishing amount in a 300-page book…There is plenty in The Ordinary Acrobat to set circusphile and circus-skeptic alike to dreaming.
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

In this enchanting memoir sprinkled with historical anecdotes, Wall pulls the reader into the world of the circus, past and present. An American, in 2003 he received a Fulbright grant to study the "new circus" in Paris and soon realized that this was a world far removed from the Ringling Brothers. The book follows Wall's schooling in the art and practice of contemporary European circus skills, along with his growing fascination with circus history. As he develops skills in juggling, tumbling, trapeze, and clowning, he inserts background on each form. Wall's conversations with other students, professionals, and circus historians delve into reasons for entering this still-separate life. One of the most striking notes revealed through these is the mystical aspect to the craft felt by circus artists. Until recently born into the life, increasingly circus performers are passionate converts, and Wall shows his respect for them by declining to take his final exam, not for lack of skill but of passion. Wall also offers an amusing, enlightening guide to Paris for circus aficionados, and his captivating journey of discovery may lead others to consider running away to join one. Agent: Jane Chelius, Jane Chelius Literary Agency.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From the Publisher
“Lovely…There is plenty in The Ordinary Acrobat to set circusphile and circus-skeptic alike to dreaming.”
The Washington Post

“An exquisite exposition…Proving himself even more adroit verbally than physically, Wall offers a revelatory love letter to the simultaneously ancient and contemporary art of acrobatics, the circus, and its denizens.”
Library Journal

“In this enchanting memoir sprinkled with historical anecdotes, Wall pulls the reader into the world of circus, past and present…his captivating journey of discovery may lead others to consider running away to join one.”
Publisher’s Weekly
 
“Wall is a charming guide… [his] appreciation of the circus is deepened by his understanding of its long and distinct history.”
The New Republic

“Blending cultural history with biography, memoir and travelogue, Wall’s carefully balanced book is, in itself, a successful tightrope traverse.”
 – Kirkus Reviews

“If ever you have the urge to run away and join the circus, you can save yourself the trip and still have the thrill of it all by reading The Ordinary Acrobat. Duncan Wall’s adventures as a novitiate in a Parisian circus school are wonderfully entertaining. A beautifully written account of life past and present under the big top.”
—Eric Lax, author of Woody Allen: A Biography
 
 “The Ordinary Acrobat is an incandescent odyssey—personally and historically—into the captivating transnational world of the circus. A fascinating, funny, effervescent story told with great affection.”
—Janet M. Davis, author of Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top

“Wall [does] an admirable job of pursuing the circus’s road-show mysteries and endlessly winding paths…it isn’t a conventional memoir, but the circus isn’t a conventional subject, either.”
NPR
 
“Wall is intoxicated and obsessed with the circus, and…it’s infectious.”
Biographile
 
 
“Lively and wide-ranging…Wall’s eye for anecdote, in both past and present, is sharp.”
The Seattle Times
 
“Meticulously researched, intensely reported and brightly written, The Ordinary Acrobat…[is] an entertaining, artistic several-hour act that leaves indelible impressions.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Library Journal
The old chestnut is as endearing and idealized as it is still accurate and representative: boy meets circus, boys falls in love with circus, boy runs away to join circus. Wall tells the story of an American exchange student's (his own) sojourn in Paris that segued into his Fulbright-funded stay at France's national circus school. Wall's account of his year of training at France's École Nationale des Arts du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois is an exquisite exposition not only of the physically exacting training disciplines of juggling, tumbling, and trapeze but also of circus history, lore, and some delightfully talented and idiosyncratic personalities who have imbued the circus with characteristic passion and commitment. Proving himself even more adroit verbally than physically, Wall offers a revelatory love letter to the simultaneously ancient and contemporary art of acrobatics, the circus, and its denizens. VERDICT Wall does the burgeoning circus memoir subgenre proud; this beautifully written text will be of use in performance collections of all libraries, regardless of size or scope.—Barry X. Miller, Austin P.L., TX
Kirkus Reviews
A Fulbright fellow immerses himself in the remarkable history of circuses. For generations, people have run away to the circus; in 2003, Wall followed suit. In his debut memoir, the author recounts the unique circumstances that led him down this unexpected path. After receiving a fellowship to study "contemporary circus," Wall enrolled in the National School for the Circus Arts in France, where he soon learned the stark differences between the American circus and the European model. Historically, European circuses were known for their intimate performances, while American circuses placed their focus elsewhere. "In the big American circuses," Wall writes, "all this familiarity and precision was gone, sacrificed for other pleasures: spectacle, pageantry, sensory stimulation…." Simply put: American circuses were more interested in turning a profit than a perfect backflip. Wall sought to train alongside the world's best circus performers. His immersion into the ranks of acrobats, jugglers and clowns provides a behind-the-scenes look into a world spectators know little about. While readers likely have some familiarity with the traditional circus performance, they will be surprised to learn the level of dedication required for performers to hone their skills. This proves particularly true in Europe, where performers are considered artists and masters of their craft. Upon his entrance into the National School, Wall was soon humbled to learn that he was no master. At the start of the semester, even a somersault proved too complex. "It was, after all, why I had come," he writes: "to get a glimpse of the incalculable amount of effort, embarrassment, and pain behind the seemingly effortless skills." Blending cultural history with biography, memoir and travelogue, Wall's carefully balanced book is, in itself, a successful tightrope traverse.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307271723
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/26/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Duncan Wall studied as a Fulbright scholar at France’s École Nationale des Arts du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois. He is on the board of directors for the American Youth Circus Organization and was the founder and co–artistic director of the Candidatos, an acclaimed clown-theater company recognized by The New York Times for its contribution to the flowering of contemporary clowning. He lives in Montreal, where he teaches circus history and criticism at the École Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s national circus school. 
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Read an Excerpt

I arrived in Paris with vague hopes of being thought of as a student rather than a scholar, a circus hopeful like the others in my program. If asked, I would of course tell the truth, but I honestly thought it wouldn’t come up. Although I wasn’t an acrobat, I was reasonably athletic—-I had excelled at sports as a kid and done some rock--climbing in college. And it was, after all, a “preparatory” program. It would take me less than a class to figure out how hopelessly naïve I was.
 
Arriving to class early, I spent a few minutes milling around with the other students, making small talk. There were only three of them: Maud, Fanny, and Boris. All were French, all about twenty or so. None were particularly impressive physically. Fanny might have stepped out of a Woodstock poster. Her hair was knotted into dreadlocks, and she wore a ragged wool sweater and a pair of cutoff sweatpants, both of which looked voluminous on her tiny frame. Only slightly taller and thinner, Maud flaunted a tongue ring and a panoply of ear piercings. Boris had broad shoulders and a chiseled jaw, but even he didn’t seem particularly athletic, more like a soldier than an acrobat. In my white Adidas T--shirt and black track pants, I was feeling confident.
 
After a few minutes, Luc, our paunchy acrobatics professor, arrived. He introduced himself and announced our goal for the day: we would begin with a “reference test,” a simulation of the school’s entrance exam, to gauge our progress over the year. But first, he said, we should take a few minutes to stretch before we got started.
 
Whereupon I hit my first snag. As I lay there on the ground, arms and legs pitched to the side, the hall lights sparking in my eyes, it occurred to me that I had no idea how an acrobat might stretch. My primary sport while growing up had been soccer, and soccer players don’t worry much about their arms or their necks.
 
As a temporary solution, I imagined a relief pitcher stretching in a bullpen. I waggled my arm like a dead fish. I pulled my biceps across my chest and gave my arm a good tug. When I had extinguished this line of possibility, I stole a glance over at my cohorts for inspiration. All three of them were gyrating vigorously on the ground, as if engaged in a group Pilates class.
 
Maud was bouncing her nose toward her knees. Boris had rolled over backward, as if trying to catch a whiff of his crotch, and was alternately popping his legs skyward, then lowering them and squeezing his thighs against his chest. Nearest to me, Fanny lay sprawled on her back, sweeping her legs confidently from side to side—-right over left, left over right. The cuff of her pants made a percussive swishing against the carpet. Swish, swish. Swish, swish.
 
I decided to give it a shot. Unfolding, as if to make a snow angel, I opened my arms and legs as wide as I could, gave a sigh to expel the air from my lungs, and twisted swiftly at the waist, so that my right leg swept across my left.
 
Immediately, a series of deeply unhealthy cracking sounds cascaded up my spine—-pop, pop, pop, pop, pop! I had never heard my body make such sounds before. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Fanny lift her head off the carpet. She eyed me, concerned. “Was that your body?”
 
I looked at her blankly and shrugged as if I didn’t know what she was talking about. She scrutinized me and then went back to sweeping her legs. I rolled over for some more arm stretches.
 
It was my first sense that I was out of my league. It would only get worse.
 
“All right, who wants to go first?”
 
Stretching complete, Luc had summoned us to the spring--loaded runway, where he lounged on a black cube, a clipboard on his knee. Our “reference test,” he had explained, would consist of a series of acrobatic movements, from basic to difficult. We would have three shots at each. Luc would score each movement: 0 was for not attempting, 5 for perfect. We would start with a basic somersault. “C’mon,” he coaxed again, “somebody has to start.” Maud emerged from our pack.
 
I had chatted a bit with her before class. She was dainty, with blond hair styled in a pixie cut, a button nose, and green eyes that sparked energetically. She seemed kind and a bit shy. Recounting her experience working as a mascot at Disneyland Paris, she had rolled her eyes, covered her mouth, and laughed an endearing, airy laugh.
 
But as Maud assumed her position at the head of the runway, there was a demonstrable shift in her demeanor. While Luc repeated the instructions—-three somersaults per pass—-she bounced on her toes and jiggled her arms like a sprinter prepping to settle into the blocks. Gone was tender Maud, the Disneyland Daisy. In her stead was someone darker and fiercer. Toeing the line, she gave a soldierly nod and exhaled sharply, almost snorting. Then she sprang.
 
It was a spring to behold. With her chin tucked, her toes pointed, and her whole frame taut, Maud arched through the air. Curling just before she hit the ground, she rolled and emerged on her feet, finishing with a little hop, her hands in the air. She paused only momentarily before pouncing again through a second somersault, then a third, each as flawless as the first, like a porpoise cutting waves.
 
I felt myself shudder. This wasn’t rumpus room; it was Romanian. In the course of her young life, Maud had probably performed hundreds if not thousands of somersaults. To calm myself, I looked to the other students. They seemed unimpressed. Boris had bent over for some toe touches. Fanny was unraveling a loose seam on her sweatpants.
 
“Next!” called Luc sluggishly
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 3, 2013

    I've had a lot of bad luck with memoirs - too many egotistical w

    I've had a lot of bad luck with memoirs - too many egotistical writers or too many side trips to the land of snarkiness. I can't remember why I picked up the book ( I think it was a positive review in Entertainment Weekly, but I was so glad I gave it a chance! Not only does the author touch upon the history of the circus, he shows us the training and dedication of the artists who make the modern circus so exciting. He joins a school so that he can experience first hand what it's like to tumble, juggle, and fly through the air. He does a good job of sharing his experiences and making the reader understand that the modern circus is not just spectacle, it's art. Duncan Wall's book is very engaging, amusing and thought provoking. I zoomed through the book in just a couple of days, and I don't doubt that I will read it again.  

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    I have only a moderate interest in the circus, but this young wr

    I have only a moderate interest in the circus, but this young writer's narrative of the circus artists he met and their dedication the the art form is very entertaining.  He weaves his own experience into a history of the art form.  Wall has crafted the memoir with clear, engaging writing, and it makes a very old form of entertainment into a very personal, lively and current event.  

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is an unexpected treat. An inside look at all of the m

    This book is an unexpected treat. An inside look at all of the many facets of circus art, including the artists' perspectives, cultural comparison, history of the traditional circus, and insights into the "new circus." Intelligent, engaging, and detailed... and simply fun to read!

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