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?
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