‘New’ hippodrama, or ‘old’ circus?: legacy and innovation in contemporary equestrian performance

Kim Baston


The hippodrama existed as a popular spectacle during the nineteenth century, an entertainment marrying the equestrian acts that were staples of the early modern circus with a grander narrative purpose. As such it was denigrated by the guardians of ‘legitimate drama,’ such as Leigh Hunt, as an example of the triumph of the taste of the masses over the claims of the intellect. Within circus, equestrian performances waned in importance during the twentieth century, ceding prominence to wild animal and spectacular aerial acts. While animal performance within circus has also declined, there has been a recent resurgence of equestrian companies. In the contemporary equestrian spectacle the relationship of horse with human is radically re-defined, based on an ‘equal’ or ‘reciprocal’ sharing of the theatrical space, emphasising non-human animal agency and de-emphasising suggestions of coercion. Yet these spectacles retain strong traces of the traditional divisions of equestrian acts within the circus, from the formal movements of Haute École to ‘liberty’ acts. This article investigates the shifting narratives surrounding -the contemporary equestrian spectacle.

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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303