The Cir­cus is com­ing to town

With cir­cus shak­ing off its tawdry im­age, this year’s Cir­cus250 fes­ti­val should con­tinue the seachange in per­cep­tion. Why not take your seat ring­side?

The Field - - Contents -

Et­tie Neil-gal­lacher on Cir­cus250

writ­ten BY et­tie Neil-gal­lacher

We have over­looked and un­der­val­ued and

un­der­funded our rich cir­cus


Cir­cus has an im­age prob­lem. For decades, the tawdry at­trac­tions of the big top, with its tigers, tightropes and trapezes, seemed to wane. It re­mains the poor re­la­tion of the per­form­ing arts, per­haps be­cause the train­ing can be ar­bi­trary, the life­style no­madic and, af­ter all, when did you ever hear of any­one run­ning away to join the bal­let?

How­ever, it seems to have evolved into some­thing more so­phis­ti­cated, more re­spect­ful of its heritage. For many loy­al­ists, cir­cus re­tained its brassy al­lure through­out this tran­si­tion and their de­vo­tion is pay­ing off. So pre­pare to dust off your se­quined, feath­ered, high-legged one-piece and cart­wheel down to the orig­i­nal pop-up at­trac­tion at the end of your road. At­ten­dance ap­pears to be on the in­crease for both tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary cir­cuses and this year sees Cir­cus250, a year-long, na­tion­wide fes­ti­val com­mem­o­rat­ing Philip Ast­ley, the fa­ther of the mod­ern cir­cus, and cel­e­brat­ing all things cir­cus-re­lated. In ad­di­tion to events across the coun­try, six Cities of Cir­cus have been se­lected: New­cas­tle-under-lyme; Nor­wich/great Yar­mouth; Bris­tol; Black­pool; Belfast; and Lon­don. “These places have a rich cir­cus heritage but are still do­ing re­ally in­ter­est­ing work to­day,” ex­plains Cir­cus250 founder Dea Bir­kett.

in­flu­en­tial art form

Aca­demic and some­time cir­cus per­former Bir­kett felt the 250th an­niver­sary of Ast­ley’s first cir­cus in 1768 should cul­ti­vate a seachange in per­cep­tion. “It’s a great Bri­tish art form, which has in­flu­enced our arts and heritage, and of which we can be im­mensely proud.” Bir­kett even wants to see it as part of the na­tional cur­ricu­lum. “Chil­dren should be able to do cir­cus for PE. We should en­cour­age all our chil­dren to be proud of it.”

Nell Gif­ford, whose epony­mous cir­cus tours the Cotswolds and is a fix­ture on many a mid­dle-class cal­en­dar, thinks we have “over­looked and un­der­val­ued and un­der­funded our rich cir­cus heritage” and would like to see “a re­newed re­spect for this par­tic­u­larly and pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish in­ven­tion” emerge from Cir­cus250.

Work­ing with 200 part­ners, Cir­cus250 also has 12 “Cir­cus Cham­pi­ons” – celebri­ties whose work has been in­formed by cir­cus. These in­clude: pop artist Sir Peter Blake; ac­tor Gabriel Byrne; musician, vicar and Ra­dio 4 stal­wart Rev­erend Richard Coles; and Baldrick him­self, Sir Tony Robin­son.

An­other is chil­dren’s au­thor, Fel­low of All Souls’ and tightrope walker Kather­ine Run­dell, who learned cir­cus skills as a child. She hopes “the pro­gramme will pull peo­ple’s at­ten­tion back to cir­cus and show that it has both a vivid and im­por­tant his­tory as the art form of the dis­pos­sessed, and a po­ten­tially po­lit­i­cal present – as well as be­ing just joy­ful to watch. It’s an in­jec­tion of colour into the ev­ery­day.” Run­dell thinks cir­cus of­fers “the plea­sure of see­ing peo­ple do some­thing which is beau­ti­ful and ex­hil­a­rat­ing and takes years and years to per­fect – it’s an art form that bends its own rules and can be sexy, sub­ver­sive, bold”. Run­dell is more ex­cited by what’s go­ing on in con­tem­po­rary cir­cus, since she “love[s] peo­ple who do new things with old ways – tra­di­tional cir­cus is won­der­ful in its way but it doesn’t bite at [her] heart in the way that peo­ple be­ing in­ven­tive, po­lit­i­cal, witty with the cir­cus do”.

This con­tem­po­rary of­fer­ing seems to have been par­tially born out of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the tra­di­tional. While of­fer­ing up the dis­abled and de­formed as “freaks” and en­ter­tain­ment has long passed, the use of wild an­i­mals was

slower to die out. Al­le­ga­tions of cru­elty in the 1980s and ’90s didn’t help the pub­lic per­cep­tion of cir­cus. Con­tem­po­rary cir­cus ex­changed tents and tour­ing for the­atres and nar­ra­tive. While many of the tra­di­tional cir­cuses were dom­i­nated by the same fam­i­lies, con­tem­po­rary cir­cus opened up the in­dus­try.

Nofit State, for ex­am­ple, was born out of desire to stick it to Nor­man Teb­bit, whose per­sonal anec­dote about his own fa­ther’s quest for em­ploy­ment will be for­ever mis­rep­re­sented as a re­join­der to the un­em­ployed to get on their bikes. Artis­tic di­rec­tor and co­founder Tom Rack ex­plains how in “a po­lit­i­cally charged time” when there was “a clam­p­down on al­ter­na­tive so­ci­ety, cir­cus was a way of re­act­ing against that”. Hav­ing per­formed at New­cas­tle-under-lyme’s New Vic The­atre ear­lier this year, Rack con­cedes that, “we’ve mel­lowed and de­vel­oped as a cir­cus and pro­duc­tion com­pany, tak­ing cir­cus artistry to a dif­fer­ent level”. In an acute at­tack of meta, how­ever, Rack doesn’t think the au­di­ence needs to un­der­stand the nar­ra­tive thread of cur­rent show Lex­i­con in or­der to en­joy it.

But the dis­tinc­tion be­tween tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary seems to be less acute to­day – per­haps cir­cuses have re­alised they need to cham­pion each other to flour­ish. Bir­kett be­lieves the an­niver­sary has helped. “There are tra­di­tional cir­cuses per­form­ing in the­atres and con­tem­po­rary ones in tents. The fo­cus of this an­niver­sary has done this. We want to get the two threads to mash to­gether - they at­tract dif­fer­ent au­di­ences but it gets them in­ter­ested.”

An ex­am­ple is the work of Peter Jay and fam­ily in Great Yar­mouth. For­merly a singer who toured with the Bea­tles and Rolling Stones, he bought the lo­cal Hip­po­drome. “It’s a mod­ern show with mod­ern light­ing and mod­ern sound, with a strong nar­ra­tive – but it’s not con­tem­po­rary in a way that will go over peo­ple’s heads. We’re a bridge be­tween the tra­di­tional and the con­tem­po­rary.”

It is op­er­at­ing at near ca­pac­ity and its USP is its wa­ter spec­tac­u­lars: the floor re­moves to re­veal a large pool that forms part of the four an­nual shows. “Cir­cus has be­come cool again – like Bri­tish hol­i­day towns, it’s retro cool­ness done in a mod­ern way,” he sug­gests. “It’s just get­ting peo­ple there the first time – they al­ways come back.”

An­other seem­ingly tra­di­tional cir­cus that has had its show en­hanced through mod­ern pro­duc­tion meth­ods is Zip­pos Cir­cus. This also has a the­atre-based off­shoot, Cirque Berserk!, that is sim­i­larly suc­cess­ful. Its cur­rent show, Legacy, is a cel­e­bra­tion of Ast­ley and 250 years of cir­cus. Ex­tolling the found­ing fa­ther as a great show­man (“bet­ter than Bar­num ever was”), Martin Bur­ton, founder and di­rec­tor, is as con­cerned with sourc­ing tal­ent from all over the world to fi­nesse for fu­ture shows. He finds the “im­mense dis­ci­pline” of Chi­nese and Rus­sian cir­cus al­most

It’s an art form that bends its own rules and can be sexy, sub­ver­sive, bold

ex­ces­sive (“it ceases to be en­ter­tain­ment and be­comes sport”), but has found “in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm” in Kenya and also in Cuba, where they have Rus­sian teach­ers who in­stil great tech­nique, “but they’re Caribbean – you can’t take the sun­shine out of them”.

The all-fe­male Mim­bre re­ceived train­ing in Cuba, hav­ing met at Hox­ton’s Na­tional Cen­tre for Cir­cus Art. Their work uses tra­di­tion­ally taught cir­cus skills to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive. Lina Jo­hans­son says “cir­cus has al­ways been about ex­plo­ration and push­ing bound­aries” and that their show, which mixes mu­sic and move­ment, is “un­der­pinned by tra­di­tional phi­los­o­phy of the in­ven­tive and ex­plo­rative na­ture of cir­cus”.

So per­haps what unites these strands is both a pas­sion for cir­cus and an un­der­stand­ing of the rigours of the train­ing – and the life­style. Bur­ton, in fact, thinks that dis­tinc­tions be­tween the tra­di­tional and the con­tem­po­rary are re­duc­tive. “The great thing about the cir­cus is no­body cares about who you are or where you come from – they only care about what you do in the ring. If it’s good, you’re ac­cepted.”

But be­fore you reach for those jug­gling balls, be warned. Those who run away to the cir­cus rarely sur­vive, ac­cord­ing to Bur­ton. “Very few peo­ple who run away to join the cir­cus last more than a cou­ple of weeks be­cause you have to sub­mit to the rigours of a tough and de­mand­ing life­style. It’s dif­fi­cult to get a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment and im­pos­si­ble to open a bank ac­count. So­ci­ety doesn’t re­ally like cir­cus on that level.” Per­haps Cir­cus250 will change all that. Philip Ast­ley must have been a fright­en­ing vision on the bat­tle­field. When the aver­age

Bri­tish male was 5ft 6in, he was over

6ft and built like a tank; com­bin­ing this physique with a sten­to­rian voice, the fa­ther of mod­ern cir­cus was cer­tainly im­pos­ing. Born in the coach­ing town of New­castle­un­der-lyme in 1742 to the black sheep of an oth­er­wise re­spectable fam­ily, Ast­ley had a tur­bu­lent re­la­tion­ship with his cab­i­net­maker fa­ther. He joined the 15th Light Dra­goons where he ex­celled and be­came an out­stand­ing eques­trian. In­deed, he would write a book on horse hus­bandry and there is a tale that dur­ing a storm at sea he dived into the rag­ing wa­ters to save a horse that had been washed over­board. Upon leav­ing the Army, he founded a rid­ing school in Lam­beth in 1768, which in­cluded trick rid­ing dis­plays. But it was Ast­ley’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit that set him apart. While others rode in straight lines, he rode in a cir­cle, us­ing the cen­trifu­gal force to his ad­van­tage. He found that a 42ft ring was the ideal and this is still used to­day. He was the first to com­bine rid­ing with ac­ro­bats, clowns and other per­form­ers

to pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment in­be­tween eques­trian dis­plays (which in­cluded him rid­ing multiple horses and his wife, Patty, rid­ing with a swarm of bees as a muff). As ring­mas­ter, he wore his mil­i­tary uni­form, the colours of which are sported by his suc­ces­sors. Mind­ful that in-the-round would en­sure the great­est num­ber of peo­ple could watch, and draw­ing on the wood­work­ing skills learned from his fa­ther, he cre­ated cov­ered sta­dium seat­ing around the patch of land he owned, in­cor­po­rat­ing

scenery, stage and orches­tra pit.

Such was the success of Ast­ley’s shows that he took a pot­ted ver­sion on tour across Europe. His pop­u­lar­ity saw him men­tioned by Dick­ens, Thack­eray and Austen, and cul­ti­vate royal con­nec­tions. There’s a pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal story about his calm­ing King Ge­orge III’S horses af­ter they got spooked on Lam­beth Bridge, spark­ing a friend­ship be­tween the pair. The pa­tron­age of Marie An­toinette is well doc­u­mented and was suf­fi­cient for him to build an am­phithe­atre in Paris. On his re­turn to France af­ter a visit home he found

Napoleon us­ing it as a bar­racks – and de­manded rent. He died and was buried in Paris in 1814, but his grave has since been

reused and there is no mon­u­ment. Un­til now, that is. An­drew Van Buren, a ma­gi­cian, il­lu­sion­ist and plate-spin­ner of some re­pute, has cam­paigned for decades

for greater recog­ni­tion of Ast­ley. Van Buren and his fa­ther had a life-sized statue com­mis­sioned for the 250th an­niver­sary of Ast­ley’s birth in 1992. “No­body wanted to know,” he laments. Not to be de­terred, his be­lief in the im­por­tance of his mis­sion has cul­mi­nated in the Philip Ast­ley Project, which raises aware­ness of this lo­cal hero,

and the un­veil­ing of the statue, which stands in New­cas­tle-under-lyme Col­lege’s

Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre.

Van Buren is con­vinced of the po­ten­tial

for his home­town. “Ast­ley is cir­cus’s Shake­speare. Think about what Shake­speare did for Strat­ford-upon-avon. That’s what Ast­ley can do for New­cas­tle-under-lyme.”

Very few peo­ple who run away to join the cir­cus last more than a cou­ple of weeks

Top: the Tim­buktu Tum­blers per­form­ing for Cirque Berserk! – an off­shoot of Zip­pos Cir­cus – at Lon­don’s Pea­cock The­atre in 2016. Above: Sarah Fos­sett pic­tured at Ire­land’s Fos­sett’s Cir­cus, 2017

Above: Som­mer Courtney of Ire­land’s Courtney Broth­ers Cir­cus, with Duke and BaronInset: con­tor­tion­ist Odka from Mon­go­lia per­form­ing with Cirque Berserk!

Alexan­der Dok­torov and Ju­lia Tsurikova met while tour­ing with the Moscow State Cir­cus

Top: Ast­ley’s Royal Am­phithe­atre, by Thomas Row­land­son. Above: Philip Ast­ley

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