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

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  259 ratings  ·  60 reviews
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
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published February 26th 2013 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2013)
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Jacob Appel
Dec 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Duncan Wall's "The Ordinary Acrobat" does for the circus what Melville's Moby-Dick does for whales. Both a fascinating personal narrative of the author's year-long foray into training at France's Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque, and simultaneously a comprehensive introduction to circus history (covering each discipline from juggling to clowning to trapeze individually), "The Ordinary Acrobat" is that rare niche volume that fully conveys the magic and charm of an idiosyncratic passion to a ...more
Shana Kennedy
May 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I have no way of being objective about this book. Duncan is writing about the realm nearest and dearest to my heart - circus artistry and education, and the connections and disparities between the European and American versions of these things. His life experience echoes mine in uncanny ways, and I found my own opinions and passions somewhere in every chapter.

With all that said, I believe Duncan has done an admirable job in bringing together the memoir of his own unusual journey, the richness of
Mar 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
I requested this book from the library back in October - no clue that it wasn't coming out until March, I had done a keyword search for circus and it came up. The premise of the book - the author discovers new circus in France and on a whim enrolls in France's École Nationale des Arts du Cirque - really intrigued me, as I stumbled into circus late in life and with no acrobatic or dance training at all. The blurb on the back cover is about Wall's first (well, not exactly, but close) trapeze ...more
This book should have decided early on what it should have been. This should have been either a memoir about the author's introduction to circus life and culture. But it also wanted to be a book about circus history which is not the same as circus culture which is really where this book lost me.

I am typically very intrigued about history but sadly the history aspects really distracted from what the book introduced itself as first, a memoir. Like there were moments where he was working a
Emily Casella
GUYS I FINALLY FINISHED A BOOK THIS YEAR! CAN YOU BELIEVE. But if I can only finish one book in 2018, I'm glad it is this one. It was everything I wanted to know about circuses, but also through a person going to College for Circus with his cohort. And obviously I felt all the connectedness to Duncan Wall's Journey and also understanding art and its impact on people and history. Its a great book. Recommend to anyone who loves circus and is totally confused about the history and how America ...more
Lauren Stringer
Jan 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: research, 2015-books
For anyone interested in a very reader friendly history of the circus, this is the book for you!
Feb 27, 2013 rated it liked it
"Juggling is a language-- dramatic, poetic, humorous, theatrical. It participates in the mysteries of gravity and the cosmos." pg. 94

"A clown is a poet in space," André interrupted. "Do you know who said that?"
"I don't."
"That was your compatriot, Henry Miller. A clown is une bête de la scène. He doesn't know the rules, so he makes them up as he goes. Every moment is an adventure, a new life-- the present instant! Always the present! Like an animal." pg. 209

"Acrobats tend to be pretty easygoing,
Aug 08, 2012 added it
This book is three books: a memoir about attending an elite circus school in France, an absorbing international history of the circus, and a breathless report on the underground circus scene.

I enjoyed the first two components far more than I would have expected—turns out the history of the circus is kind of a history of international culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But throughout the third part, the so-called exposé, I was incredulous. Duncan Wall, don't be telling me
Matthew Dixon
Mar 04, 2013 rated it it was ok
Another one of these contrived "I spent a year doing X" books, this one involving attending a circus school. The passages involving his training at the school were amusing enough but the balance of the book (and there was a whole lot of it) involving the history of the circus was way too much information for me.
Frances Whited
Jul 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I checked this book out of the library because I enjoy memoir. What I really enjoyed about this book, however, was the circus history. Highly readable, entertaining, and interesting.
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography
I really enjoyed parts of this book, it really isn't a biography but a book on circus history. I enjoyed the author's experience learning juggling and acrobatics at the circus school and the history of juggling and acrobatics was also fun. The part about the clowns was waaay to long for me, that said the author is a great writer and an obvious lover of the circus.
May 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Occasionally wandering in narrative, this is a pretty great romp through circus history/present. Wall takes up learning a lot of different circus arts and it's fascinating (as someone who has done circus - aerial silks) to see it through the eyes of someone just starting. Really enjoyed this book.
May 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is a gift to lovers of the circus, or circophiles, of which I am most certainly one. Author Duncan Wall got a Fullbright fellowship to study at France's National School for the Circus Arts and wrote about his experiences, the history of circus, and the (improving) state of contemporary circus. If you love circus, read this book. And if not, go see some contemporary circus pronto.

History - practitioners of circus arts predate the Christian Era, and were part of the games of Rome. After
Jul 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Wall, on a year abroad, sees a French new circus, becomes enraptured with circus, applies for and receives a Fulbright to study circus at France’s national school for circus. I really loved this book.

That said, would I have liked mention of the major (to me and its time) movie Les Enfants du Paradis/ Children of Paradise? Yes. Lecoq, as a teacher of clowns, was mentioned often, but Etienne Decroux, a teacher of mimes, was not.

I did not know that circus started worldwide nearly two hundred
Jul 09, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: good-to-know
This was not the book that I expected from the title, the Kindle free sample, the back cover, or my library's classification of this book as a "biography". I thought I was going to read about a guy becoming an acrobat, but instead this book is about the history of the circus up to the modern day, with a particular focus on France. Even though the author spent a year in a circus school, he details only a few classes that he took (acrobatics and trapeze) briefly at the beginning of the book. At ...more
I keep waffling between whether I should give this three or four stars, but I'm going with three, though I suppose it should be 3.5 stars.

This book is interesting, there's no question about it. I enjoyed reading about Wall's experience at circus school, though ultimately I was a bit disappointed that he took the whole observer-not-student stance with his time at circus school because he seems to really love circus. I do have to wonder if he simply didn't have enough confidence in himself, and
Feb 11, 2017 rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book. I like circus history, and I'm in higher education, so the idea of a Fulbright scholar writing about their experience was interesting.

I read a few chapters and was not terribly interested, but kept reading in case there was more to learn or the story became more complex. It didn't for me. The most interesting part of the book was the part about juggling: the history, the obsession, and the author's experience with juggling professionals.

I felt the book
Margaret Sankey
Apr 16, 2013 rated it liked it
I don't hate circuses specifically--it's the crowds, animal cruelty and clowns I can't stand. So I was interested in this account by a seemingly reasonable student who became entranced with the circus sufficiently to get a Fullbright to attend the French National Circus School to study the revival of circuses as a modern form. His own experiences attempting to learn skills (juggling, tumbling, trapeze) the French classify in their supported Beaux Arts are given context by a history of the ...more
Apr 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Traditional vs. modern circuses

I can remember wanting to run away and join a circus when I was young - and author Duncan Wall was able to go write about circus life. Almost as good. Plus he got to join in circus activities. Even better.

"The Ordinary Acrobat" is Wall's memoir of circus life in France with his entry as a Fullbright Scholar into the National School, their state-subsidized circus school. The book is also about the worldwide history of circuses - traditional and modern - and the
I only made it 40 percent of the way through before my 3-week library loan ended. I'm a fast reader, and it wasn't that long of a book. The problem was that while the book was somewhat interesting, the author irritated me and the book just wasn't fascinating enough to keep me from stopping to read other books or do anything else. It was easy to put down and not compelling to make time to read.

I still don't understand the snobbery about Cirque du Soleil being "entertainment" while the modern
Author Duncan Wall got a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the 4 year Circus school in Paris. He spent his time learning about the school and studying about the history of the circus. While the history was interesting as was the fact that France has a National Circus School, the fate of modern circuses seems pretty clear. People are more interested in circus models such as Cirque du Soleil rather than ones with animals. The author observed what was going on with the school and the different ...more
Aug 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating book. The author became intrigued by the circus as a college student on a visit to Paris. He was able to secure a Fulbright fellowship to return for an in-depth study. His way of going about this was to enroll in a preparatory school for the prestigious national French circus school. In addition to a great deal of research on the history and personalities of the circus, he chronicles his experiences with juggling, flying, and clowning on his way to becoming an “ordinary ...more
Mar 10, 2013 rated it liked it
3 1/2 stars really. An interesting history of the circus and circus arts and the evolution of modern circus. His role in the circus school in Paris is unclear for much of the book - his aim in attending, to be an observer (with a view to writing an 'experience' book) or is he looking to really learn the skills? In the end it is clearer but would have benefited from more of a postscript on his subsequent career which is mentioned briefly in the notes at the end. All the same, worth a read if ...more
Janet Carroll
Jun 07, 2015 rated it liked it
This book was mostly entertaining but ran of of steam toward the end. He does a credible job of contrasting traditional versus nouveau circus genre while elaborating on the individual skills and how they are presented to the public though he is given over to hyperbole (i.e., greatest juggler on the planet). The history he gives of the circus is interesting and entertaining. A book book, maybe not the greatest, but certainly good.
Jul 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
I already loved circus stuff, and this book made me love it even more. I love the academic stuff, and finding out that circus studies is an actual thing made me so excited. I also loved learning all the history about it, and learning about the different ways countries approach supporting the arts, and the difference that makes in culture, and artistic progression. This book was right up my alley.
The Advocate
"Complete with eight pages of color photographs, the book offers a window into a mysterious, romantic world that is at once entirely exclusive and remarkably universal. Readers will be filled with an immense respect for the circus as an art form as well as an overwhelming desire to run off to circus school."
Read more here.
T. Strange
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: review
I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. I got it from the library for research, intending to just skim through and read the relevant bits, but I found it so enjoyable that I read the whole thing.

I think it's the perfect blend of circus history and personal experience. A few parts were a bit slow, but overall a very enjoyable read.
Jul 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I'm learning trapeze. This book grabbed me right away - memoir of his years at the federal circus school in France mixed with circus history are captivating. I loved the chapters on clowning, juggling, acrobatics and of course aerial. Funny and at times slightly dry. I loved it and will definitely reread.
Mar 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, memoir
The book weaves the author's year-long experience studying circus arts at France's national school with that of circus history. While a niche book, I found it an interesting read, especially the recounting of his own attempts at tumbling, juggling etc. I found the circus history chapters a bit too detailed for my taste.
Carol Harrison
Mar 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating and enjoyable book about the history of the circus, with the foreground of the author enrolled in the first year of the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque in Paris. I hadn't deliberately tried to find a book on this topic--it just happened to be there--but it was like opening what you thought was a closet door and finding yourself in the middle of a whole new world.
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