Building a modern circus

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Building a modern circus

The author is a cultural news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.



Canadian circus troupe Cirque du Soleil is a big hit. “Kooza,” which is being performed at the Bit Top Theater at Jamsil Stadium in southern Seoul, made 10 billion won ($8.8 million) in ticket presales. By the end of the year, it is likely to make 20 billion won in ticket sales.

Kooza was a thrill to watch. Acrobats rode bicycles on a tightrope 7.6 meters in the air and jumped rope on a 730kg (1609 lbs) wheel rotating like a pinwheel. 2500 people filled the seats and enjoyed the tension at every risky moment.

After the spectacular Cirque du Soleil show, I was reminded of the Dongchun Circus. Korea’s only circus troupe has regular performances at a tent on the Daebudo beach in Ansan, Gyeonggi. Five days after watching Kooza performance, I went to see Dongchun.

The basic techniques of the two performances were surprisingly similar. Tightrope walking, aerial tricks, body contortions and acrobatic moves were all major parts of the performances. Both shows featured people riding bicycles on a tightrope and others jumping rope on a wheel. Park Se-hwan, head of the Dongchun Circus, said that acrobatic tricks and techniques are similar for all circus troupes.

But the atmosphere of the two performances were very different. Less than half of the 400-seat Dongchun Circus tent was filled. Unlike Cirque du Soleil, which featured clowns and interactive portions to involve the audience in between nine circus feats, Dongchun showcased 18 acts like a school talent show.

It is meaningless to even try to compare the stage, costumes, lighting and music. Even if they presented the same level of acrobatics, the tension and dynamics were incomparable.

The two circus troupes also have drastically different revenues. Since its foundation in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has attracted more than 190 million people in 450 cities worldwide. Its annual revenue is 850 million dollars. Established in 1925, Dongchun Circus made 990 million won in 2017, 1,000 times less.

In all countries, the circus industry has declined since the 1950s, coinciding with the advent of television. However, Cirque du Soleil integrated modern elements of ballet, theater and musicals to traditional acrobatics to revive the declining industry into a high-end performance. Quebec, where Cirque du Soleil was founded, made major financial contributions to the circus.

Watching Cirque du Soleil, which is considered the most successful model in the cultural and art businesses, the reality of Dongchun Circus having to rely on nostalgia felt bitter. We need to seek ways to develop high-value cultural contents for audiences in the 21st century.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 14, Page 30
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