A Gorgeous Landscape: Circus in Modern-Day Chile - StageLync
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A Gorgeous Landscape: Circus in Modern-Day Chile

As they tour the continent, the Esta Pasando project is taking us along for the ride to map out the diverse circus cultures of South America. In this article, Chilean circus scholar, writer, and photographer Maca Simonetti gives us the lay of the land in terms of Chile’s modern circus landscape, from history into the present—and how we can preserve it going forward.

It is like when you arrive at a gorgeous landscape. You stare. You are moved. You feel grateful. You might feel very small and ephemeral. You might feel very attuned to it. Then you might want to capture the sight and try to take a picture, or two, or many, and sadly realize there is no way to take this absoluteness home. Every frame is insufficient. Even if you try to take a panoramic video, there is always something missing. The smell, the breeze, the subtle dance of time whispering behind your neck. Therefore, you decide to compose a shot, to pick a view. You create your own version of the immeasurable. That version to which you can return, from time to time, to find all that was missing in the picture.

Maca Simonetta

This is how I feel when asked to write about circus in Chile: staring at a gorgeous landscape, so rich and diverse, touching and powerful, and impossible to contain within the frame of sight. Therefore, I try to compose this story humbly. I could not do anything else, even if I tried or wanted to.

The invitation, then, is for you to take the snapshots I can share and combine them in the way that makes sense to you, remembering there is also breeze and time behind them.

If we play the history game, we have all heard or read that we “know” modern circuses arrived on our South American continent around the 1800s, and that since the 1600s there have been tightrope walkers, aerialists, jesters, and jugglers moving around here. Long before that, of course, many local acrobats in various forms left enough traces behind for us to track them, even follow them. If we play the history game, then one might stand by the idea that, in the case of Chile, everything happened a little later. Maybe because we are a little bit cornered by the Andes and all the way across the Strait of Magellan. Maybe just because time is quite relative in perspective.

However, eventually, we were involuntary heirs of whatever was brought in by conquerors, adventurers, travellers, and pilgrims. Our inheritance: a profound family-structured circus culture that declares its origin around 200 years ago. The oldest and simplest groups organized in the form of travelling artists that would perform anywhere, from big-employer houses in the countryside to particular taverns, called chinganas, in the cities and towns, where they shared the social framework and timeline of various practices that constituted national folklore. Maybe this is one of the reasons that circus is closely related to Chilean popular culture and traditions. The other reason is that circus tents and shows began to be a part of our Independence Day celebration every September 18. To this day, the Chilean “circus month” is in September, and our “Circus National Day” (recognized formally as a holiday akin to Earth Day or World Circus Day) is the first Saturday of that month.

Image credit to Daniel Zapata

The 20th century arrived, and Big Tops began to travel through our particularly long, thin territory, at some point mostly being helped by the State Railway Company that made agreements to ease circuses’ roaming. At the beginning of the 1900s, when electricity was a privilege, circuses installed themselves beside the train stations, profiting from the light supply— and one of their attractions was to come and see the bulbs shining in a row. Depending on their size and resources, different circuses would take longer or shorter routes, with bigger or smaller troupes. The wealthiest ones would even travel abroad to neighboring countries, and international circuses also visited our territory. It was a glorious time. A novel-like time. Difficult and romantic. Endeavouring and happy. Just like in the movies… but this was a local movie, with a local, self-made live orchestral soundtrack, mixing the brasses and cueca.

At that time, we had what have been called by our so-called history gamers “circuses of first and second parts.” This means that the first part of these shows would be wholly a display of circus skills, and the second part would be a kind of theatre play, very much like a mummery, performed by the entire circus troupe. Even now a repertoire of these mummeries has been collected and is well-known (at least within Chile and Argentina). As the 20th century developed in its hostility and political complexity, these “second parts” became a space for satirical humour and decompression. These second parts were then followed or even replaced by “third parts,” where boxing matches and musical folklore performances encountered a roaming stage. Circuses carried with them the essence of modern life’s polarities and transmuted them to a non-normal dimension by the graces of humour, disobedience and laxity, properly ordered into a perfectly functional organization. The magic of circus had occurred. Lucky us.

Image credit to Matias Garin

As with many other promising and beautiful dimensions of life in our “third world country” at that time, the “circus golden season” was violently devastated by the military coup of 1973. That specific kind of circus—involving parts, and bands, and many Tonys (the Chilean version of the clown) calling street carnival or treat—unraveled like the brittle cloth of the old empty tents in the sun. Even so, nostalgia remained, which in the strange wheel of time is usually fertile ground for the most curious phenomena.

Circus survived anyway. Perpetual and yet transformed. It woke up from this nauseating lethargy a little dizzy, with blurred memories, a few blows, and ragged clothes. But it knew how to dress itself up in sequins to survive the entertainment age and get back on its feet, now with real “Big” tops imported from the “first world,” lots of lights, and TV characters.

The nineties were here. Full of their unmistakable dumbness. We were youngsters slipping on the leftovers of a rotten dream. Even so, nostalgia remained. Fertile soil for composting those leftovers. A wide spectrum of art forms unfolded out of resistance to accompany this complex process of searching and rebuilding a very blurred notion of “sense.” Between them, there was Circus.

Image credit to Cristian Garin

Due to a suspicious conjunction between rooted traditions and the so-called New Circus thing going on overseas, which was visited and brought in by (again) travellers and adventurers, something began. Surely it was catalysed by the underground need/drive to recover the Public Spaces— written with capital letters—which contain all possible meaning, physically and metaphysically speaking. A series of coincidences ended up with a group of young, rebellious, sensitive souls within the arts and social sciences meeting weekly in the same square to actualize an ancient ritual: the ritual of feeling part of something. It did not happen only to us, of course. Many new tribes were configured at that time, woven around music styles, dance, performance—whatever could bring all the humanities back together against the type of neoliberal individuality that permeated our new scenario. “Social movements,” some say. “Urban tribes,” say others. The label does not matter a lot right now. It might matter to some analysts, but it does not matter to real life. A different life. A life of differences. Far from the supposed one.

Something began then to roll over. Several decades have now passed, and a gorgeous landscape is now visible from the top of this reimagined Andes, not cornering us anymore, but giving us perspective and a platform to jump to the other side. Back and forth, the panoramic view now shows flourishing throughout the whole territory. From the extreme north to the extreme south, there are consolidated groups sustaining their conviction in their particular choice. Embracing a new way of living, managing, relating, organizing, creating, and subsisting.

Aerialist Daniela Castro on silk (credit to Maca Simonetti)

As has happened in other countries, too, nowadays there is a cohabitation of the “traditional circus”—also called “family circus”—with the “contemporary circus.”

On one hand, there are lots of Big Tops around the country, keeping alive this choreography of travels, caravans, loading in and loading out, spending seasons up north or down south in a coordinated occupation of the diminishing spaces that can support their infrastructure and are still secure and not that far from people. Especially in the summer, it is common to see circus tents surrounded by caravans near the most popular holiday places. Every September, around thirty Big Tops get to be installed in Santiago, making good use of (renting) the parking lots of the several malls that have reconfigured our city’s urbanism since the mid-90s.

On the other hand, the contemporary circus groups, companies, and spaces are very diverse, but with one thing in common (sadly): the constant struggle for survival. The composition of this diversity, if we could play at categorizing it, is made of companies/organizations, with or without a physical site, organized around practice, creation, teaching, community work, and the possible combinations of some or all of these dimensions.

Huberta & Masrondo (credit to Maca Simonetti)

In the middle are some groups of contemporary circus people that own tents and have managed to install them in fixed spaces (oftentimes through bailment) to, again, combine different circus-related activities. In some cases, these spaces have become “cultural centres” that also host other artistic activities.

As with any landscape, you can never see everything at once. Miles of details are invisible to some and radically present to others. There will be some life forms you won’t be able to name or even recall, but all of them are vital to the ecosystem. And what seems gorgeous to some to others might even feel jeopardizing.

Though it might appear possible to take a picture that would, in a way, function as a representation of the whole, the fact that all the elements are constantly changing, makes the picture unsharp. Everything is growing, which also means that some parts must die for the sake of others. This is the main condition of life as we know it: expansion and contraction, following one another in unpredictable ways.

The opportunities, then, appear infinite. Held there by the force or the continuum. Sustained by the mysteries of life and death. In a hyperconnected world, the silence of practice and creation are islands of opportunity. Not only for the circus sector’s development, but for the relationship of circus with common life and its infinite teachings about the importance of being present, in the present. Networking, traveling, and following social media for information and inspiration are big chances to broaden the limits. The challenge is to keep in balance building the honest, local circus self without getting too distracted, too adapted, too functional.

Gorgeous landscapes are in danger of extinction, so we must take good care of them.

Credit to Maca Simonetti
Images in this article shared by Maca Simonetti, with credits and rights to their respective photographers. Main image credit: Daniel Zapata
Maca Simonetti
Maca Simonetti is an anthropologist, photographer, and cultural manager linked to the performing arts through a lifetime of working, producing, directing and co-creating with companies, venues, festivals, and institutions, as well as doing research. She is a part of the CircoChile Association, a nonprofit giving life to several projects in the aim of enhancing circus arts, such as the Chilean Convention of Circus and Street Art and the Circo Teca platform Maca is tied to photography and the visual arts through personal creative projects and research that probe where the audiovisual, ethnographic and circus intersect, such as www.memoriasdetonys.clor and www.mujeresenelcirco.cl,
and where visuality intersects with the street and the city, such as the urban arts festival "La Puerta del Sur." She has worked with and been featured in numerous circus magazines and publications, most recently "A arte do circo na América do Sul: trajetórias, tradiçòes e inovaçòes na arena contemporánea" (SESC, 2023), and is nowadays honoured to be a teacher at El Circo del Mundo Chile and Coordinator of Cultural Management of the Directorate of Artistic Creation at Universidad de Chile.

Editor's Note: At StageLync, an international platform for the performing arts, we celebrate the diversity of our writers' backgrounds. We recognize and support their choice to use either American or British English in their articles, respecting their individual preferences and origins. This policy allows us to embrace a wide range of linguistic expressions, enriching our content and reflecting the global nature of our community.

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Maca Simonetti

Maca Simonetti is an anthropologist, photographer, and cultural manager linked to the performing arts through a lifetime of working, producing, directing and co-creating with companies, venues, festivals, and institutions, as well as doing research. She is a part of the CircoChile Association, a nonprofit giving life to several projects in the aim of enhancing circus arts, such as the Chilean Convention of Circus and Street Art and the Circo Teca platform Maca is tied to photography and the visual arts through personal creative projects and research that probe where the audiovisual, ethnographic and circus intersect, such as www.memoriasdetonys.clor and www.mujeresenelcirco.cl, and where visuality intersects with the street and the city, such as the urban arts festival "La Puerta del Sur." She has worked with and been featured in numerous circus magazines and publications, most recently "A arte do circo na América do Sul: trajetórias, tradiçòes e inovaçòes na arena contemporánea" (SESC, 2023), and is nowadays honoured to be a teacher at El Circo del Mundo Chile and Coordinator of Cultural Management of the Directorate of Artistic Creation at Universidad de Chile.