Like many a performer, Jan Damm has been climbing the walls during the pandemic, but he did it literally. After live performances dried up, he started creating at-home skits for the Bindlestiff Open Stage Variety Show in his German clown persona as Hans Liebedich, and in one of them he demonstrated his acrobatic skills by ascending to the ceiling in his hallway.
Damm is a clown, an acrobat and a juggler. His wife Ariele Ebacher is a tightwire dancer. They are professional circus artists, who have worked gigs separately and together throughout the country and around the world: tent shows, TV, Vermont’s Cirkus Smirkus, Chicago’s Midnight Circus, Lincoln Center’s Big Apple Circus. They consider themselves luckier than most. Damm has kept relatively busy as a clown over the past year, including in a new clown act with their four-year-old son Timo, but these are mostly non-paying gigs; his income has largely come from coaching and fabricating props.
“As a true folk art form, circus has largely survived on its commercial appeal, not elite patronage or institutional backing,” Damm says. “This has given the circus resilience during lean times when arts funding was scarce. However when the public is prohibited from attending, this strength becomes a real challenge.”
“Like other performance arts, circus companies have faced a near-total loss of revenue when live performance shut down,” Ebacher says. But “other major performing industries have significant local and national institutions to represent their interests to the government and the public.”
That is why the couple belongs to the American Circus Alliance, which formed at the beginning of the pandemic last year to discuss issues facing their industry.
Damm and Ebacher are among the professional circus artists and organizations who have signed the Alliance’s open letter being sent today to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “in solidarity with our fellow American Arts Workers.”
As part of the Be An Arts Hero’s campaign, Arts Workers Unite: 100 Days of Art and Activism, the Alliance letter calls for
• the establishment of a Secretary of Arts and Culture in the federal Cabinet
• $43.95 billion in relief for the Arts and Culture sector, per the DAWN act (Defend Arts Workers Now), as part of the proposed infrastructure package
• “recognition that the arts in America are vital not only to the mental and emotional well-being of our citizens, but to the economy and future of the country.”
According to the letter, “a recent survey of 178 US circus professionals (representing 45 companies and 133 individuals) reported an economic loss of 24.6 million dollars in the last year, on average a loss of 77% of their annual income. 69% of those surveyed report that these financial losses and related career setbacks jeopardize their ability to continue professional activity.”
The circus, Damm says, may be stigmatized as a “low” art form — “the term circus itself is often used a pejorative term for a crass or chaotic display” — “but many premier circus companies I’ve worked for are beloved local institutions. Many Americans already recognize the role circus plays in bringing the performing arts to the masses.”