Contemporary circus, or nouveau cirque (as it was originally known in French-speaking countries), is a genre of performing art developed in the later 20th century in which a story or a theme is conveyed through traditional circus skills. Animals are rarely used in this type of circus, and traditional circus skills are blended with a more character-driven approach. Compared with the traditional circuses of the past, the contemporary approach tends to focus more attention on the overall aesthetic impact, on character and story development, and on the use of lighting design, original music, and costume design to convey thematic or narrative content.
Although the literal English translation of nouveau cirque is "new circus", the term contemporary circus is generally preferred.
The nouveau cirque movement originated in the late 1960s in France, Australia, the West Coast of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Early examples of nouveau cirque companies include: Royal Lichtenstein Circus, founded in San Jose, CA in 1970; Circus Oz, forged in Australia in 1977 from SoapBox Circus and New Circus, both founded in the early 1970s; the Pickle Family Circus, founded in San Francisco in 1975; Ra-Ra Zoo in 1984 in London; Nofit State Circus in 1984 from Wales; Cirque du Soleil, founded in Quebec in 1984; Cirque Plume and Archaos from France in 1984 and 1986 respectively.
More recent examples include: Cirque Éloize, founded in Quebec (1993); Arizona's Flam Chen (1994); New York's Bindlestiff Family Cirkus (1995); Sweden's Cirkus Cirkör (1995); Teatro ZinZanni, founded in Seattle (1998); the West African Circus Baobab (late 1990s); Montreal's Les 7 doigts de la main (2002); San Francisco's Vau De Vire Society;  Wanderlust Circus from Portland, OR;  and American cirque noir companies Lucent Dossier Experience, PURE Cirkus (2004), and the Red Light Variety Show of Boise, Idaho (2008).
The genre includes other circus troupes such as the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus (founded in 1987 by Rob Mermin), Le Cirque Imaginaire (later renamed Le Cirque Invisible, both founded and directed by Victoria Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin), the Tiger Lillies, and Dislocate, while The Jim Rose Circus is an interesting take on the circus sideshow. In Northern England, Skewed Circus combines punk, rap, dance music, comedy, and stunts to deliver "pop-circus" entertainment to young urban audiences.
It could be argued that the blending of traditional circus arts with contemporary aesthetic sensibilities and theatrical techniques has revitalized the general public's interest in and appetite for the circus. Certainly the most conspicuous success story has been that of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus company whose estimated annual revenue now exceeds US$810 million, and whose nouveau cirque shows have been seen by nearly 90 million spectators in over 200 cities on five continents.
Contemporary circus combines traditional circus skills and theatrical techniques to convey a story or theme. Such acts include acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, acting, music and aerial silk. For aesthetic or economic reasons, contemporary circus productions may be staged in theaters rather than in large outdoor tents. Music used in the production is often composed exclusively for that production, and aesthetic influences are drawn as much from contemporary culture as from circus history. Animal acts appear less frequently in contemporary circus than in traditional circus.
Below is a table comparing several aspects of traditional and contemporary circus performances.
|Traditional circus||Contemporary circus|
|Typically performed by||Circus families||Conservatory-trained artists|
|Typical staging format||Tiered seating around an oval or circular arena called a ring, under a large tent called the big top||Auditorium seating in front of proscenium stage, although some companies perform in the round and/or under a tent|
|Typical production format||Series of spectacle-oriented acts presided over by a ringmaster, who has a role similar to a master of ceremonies||Series of theatrical, character-driven acts tied together by a central narrative or theme|
|Typical music||Uptempo marches, waltzes, etc. Music's purpose is to raise the energy level and create a sense of spectacle.||A variety of genres and moods. Music also assists in dramatizing the show's themes, characters, and/or narrative.|
"Extreme circus" is a high-energy, street-inspired genre of contemporary circus whose aesthetic is more free-form and improvisational; its music may encompass hip hop, virtuosic percussion and beat-boxing.
Several circus schools have helped and continue to help expand the number of contemporary circus companies. Among them are: the National Circus School (Ecole Nationale de Cirque, Montreal), the New England Center for Circus Arts (Brattleboro, USA), Westchester Circus Arts Center (Tarrytown, NY), the Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (Brussels), the National Institute of Circus Arts (Melbourne, Australia), the Centre National des Arts du Cirque (Châlons-en-Champagne), the Lido (Toulouse), the New York Circus Arts Academy, Amazing Grace CIRCUS! School of Circus Arts (Nyack, NY), Circomedia (Bristol, UK), The Circus Space (London), Cirkus Cirkör (Stockholm, Sweden), the Circus Center (San Francisco), Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (Philadelphia), Sky Candy (Austin, USA), The Flying Fruit Fly Circus (Wodonga, Australia), and ACAPA (Academy for Circus and Performance Art) (Tilburg, Netherlands).
Collegiate endeavors 
There are a few collegiate circus groups in the United States that are helping spread contemporary circus arts. These collegiate circus groups differ from circus schools because they are programs within degree awarding academic institutions. Gamma Phi Circus, located at Illinois State University, is the oldest collegiate circus in the country. It is a program that was founded in 1929 and is part of the College of Applied Science and Technology at ISU. Florida State University Flying High Circus is a collegiate circus that was founded in 1947 as an extracurricular activity club. To be a member of this circus, members must be students who are registered and seeking degrees from FSU.
There are also student interest clubs at some colleges and universities in the United States that offer students the chance to train recreationally in contemporary circus arts. For example, Cirque NouveaU: An Aerial Arts Club at Northwestern University is a conditional club sport that offers ground skill workouts in partner balancing and tumbling to undergraduates.
- Circus Baobab
- "The 7 Fingers". Les7doigtsdelamain.com. Retrieved 2012-07-25.
- Vau De Vire Society
- Wanderlust Circus
- PURE Cirkus
- Skewed Circus
- Collins, Glenn (April 28, 2009). "Run Away to the Circus? No need. It's Staying Here". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-09-30.
- "About Cirque du Soleil". Cirque du Soleil. Retrieved 2009-09-30.
- Sydney Morning Herald - Act that turns the circus on its head
- Cirkus Cirkör
- Sherri Hospedales (14 October 2008), Circus arts hit Philly, The Temple News, retrieved 2010-10-12
- The Flying Fruit Fly Circus
- "History and Heritage Gamma Phi Circus". Gamma Phi Circus. Retrieved 2011-04-19.
- "The FSU Flying High Circus". The FSU Flying High Circus. Retrieved 2011-04-19.
- Chang, Annie "Student Group Looks to Get off the Ground", The Daily Northwestern, November 22, 2010, accessed April 19, 2011.