In his memoir “The Ordinary Acrobat,” Duncan Wall gives readers a crash course in the history of the circus, explaining its origins and major shifts, and delineating the difference between the Barnum & Bailey brand of big top showmanship and the sophisticated brand of artistry that Wall learned to practice in Paris. Along the way, he tells his story of finding a calling, studying an art form, refining a craft, and growing up.
Early on, Wall lets us know that his book belongs to a subgenre of which we might not be aware: the memoir of the circus-joiner. But because his book is so much about training at École Nationale des Arts du Cirque, France’s most prestigious circus school, it belongs just as much to a class of books about passing through academia. Except in this case, his new friends aren’t discussing dusty books, but somersaulting over (maybe equally dusty) mats.
Wall is intoxicated and obsessed with the circus, and the book’s tone is charged with the energy of a convert. This could be annoying, but it’s not. It’s infectious, in part because Wall focuses so much on humbling learning experiences. On the first day of school, he thinks that his skill as an athlete in other areas should translate easily to his new milieu. He falls on his face, discovering otherwise.
In one passage that should be familiar to anyone who remembers discovering a new life pursuit, a new way of organizing one’s life, Wall recounts what things were like when he started to juggle. “I wanted to juggle everything,” he writes. Dishes, pans, pens, books — he wants to toss everything he sees up into the air. “In the grocery store, I was a mess.” Daniel Schulz, a fellow juggler, would later tell him that he’d discovered “a new measure of the world … the jugglability of things.”