LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the circus!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Circus picture of the year?

Here’s the winning picture, by Dutch coach and choreographer Vincent Michels, in this year’s Federation Mondiale du Cirque’s photography contest for which the theme was World Circus Day.

The striking zebra-striped image was chosen from 115 entries from 19 countries. But could it have been better?

To my eyes, the matching costume and tablecloth effectively blends the imagery of traditional animal circuses with the look of more contemporary human-skills-based forms. Personally, though, I think the picture's impact could have been intensified by cropping it along the top of the table and down the right-hand table leg, or even along the innermost table legs to left and right. The bottom margin would also benefit from being cropped at the edge of the mat. The black rectangle above the table, the glimpse of background to the right and the strip of floor to the front add nothing, and provide a needless distraction. By focusing exclusively on the contortionist and the zebra-print tablecloth the stripy motif would be emphasised and the image would be more ambiguous - teasing us with the illusion that the contortionist was performing beneath or between some real zebras.

Having not seen the runners up, I'm not knocking the judges' decision. I'm just saying. But the photo will be used on the cover of the Federation's 2015 calendar, so there's still time for the picture to be cropped. Trust me, guys, you'll improve it if you do.

The contortionist is Li Ling, a student at the private acrobatics school Corpus 
Acrobatics and the shot was taken at the World Circus Day celebration hosted by De Leeuw Circus Events in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in April 2014.

My pick from last
year's runners up.
Click here for last year's winner.

Cirque du Soleil's Kooza preview plus Big Apple Circus on screen

My previous post on Mr Fips Wonder Circus highlighted the division between circus and cirque, the former term being associated with traditional, family-friendly big top shows and the latter with contemporary or progressive theatre-based productions.

It’s a fluid division, of course, and not a battle line. Showman Martin Burton presents Cirque Berserk alongside his traditional Zippos circus and argues that the important question isn’t whether circus is old or new but good or bad.

Katherine Kavanagh, who reviews a tremendous quantity and variety of circus shows on her blog The Circus Diaries rightly commented that shows with cirque in the title can be as accessible as those with circus, and vice versa.

Katherine also mentioned Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza, which comes to London in January. Soleil was largely responsible for the rise of the term cirque and its adoption by a proliferation of companies hoping to grab a little of Soleil’s thunder. So I’m pleased to report that Kooza not only asserts Soleil’s supremacy atop the tree of cirque but is a very accessible and circusy show.

It’s a pity Soleil won’t be pitching the big top - or Grand Chapiteau - of its American travels in Hyde Park, although the in-the-round setting of the Royal Albert Hall is perfect for circus, and circus buildings actually pre-date tents, recalling the atmosphere of Astley’s Amphitheatre in the early 19th century.

A pity, too, that (as far as I know) they won’t be bringing superstar juggler Anthony Gatto who seems to have done that most un-superstar-like thing and retired at the peak of his powers.

But Kooza has many thrills still to offer, including a three-person human pyramid on bicycles on a high-wire; a wheel of death and some charismatic solo trapeze from Darya Vintilova (in the States at least; I guess the cast may change).

On the ground, meanwhile, there’s a charming double act on a single unicycle that works both as ballet - the depiction of a romance between the characters - and gymnastics: the girl standing on the male unicyclist’s head.

Kooza - check your pockets before you leave.
The highlight is a clown pickpocket routine originated by Michael Halvarson. While Soleil is great at doing ‘big,’ it’s compelling to watch a ‘close-up’ act where we can see how the volunteer’s tie is removed with out him realising.

The routine is slickly scripted, with sly lines like “You’re a waste bin, my friend,” as some scrap paper is returned to the victim, and the punch-line: “Don’t forget your Viagra!”

The sketch ends with an exploding police wagon and disappearing trick that would fit perfectly into Mr Fips Wonder Circus.

So yes, cirque can be as accessible as circus.

The only trouble is, having watched all the best bits on YouTube, would I drive 100 miles each way to spend an evening in the Albert Hall?

(And you thought I'd seen it America, didn't you...?)

Big Apple on the Big Screen

Which brings me to New York’s Big Apple Circus. On November 8, the Apple will stream its show live to cinemas across America. US blogger Showbiz David is looking forward to seeing the show in California while his brother watches in Utah.

In a country as big as America the broadcast offers circus fans a fantastic opportunity to see a show that would normally cost them a tremendous amount in airfares and hotel accommodation. It would be wonderful if the Big Apple extended the favour to the rest of the world. Perhaps the organisers of UK circus festivals should consider augmenting their programmes of visiting acts with live cinema shows of circuses from around the world, letting us watch the gold acts of Monte Carlo, the elephants of Ringling or, indeed, Soleil in Las Vegas.

But can watching a circus in a cinema, or at home on a DVD or YouTube, be as good as sitting ringside? Or could it even be better?

The atmosphere of a big top, with grass under foot and popcorn in the air, has to be experienced first hand. But multiple camera angles and close-ups can offer a better view than the best seat in the house.

The Kooza pickpocket, for example, was enthralling for me because on screen in close-up I could see everything so clearly. Would I have been able to follow the routine as closely from a side seat ten rows back?

Darya Vintilova’s trapeze act was enhanced by the sudden close-ups of her face that let us see the exhilaration in her eyes.

Click here forreview
Circus acts are by their nature often too fast for the eye to fully catch, so might there be a place for the slow-motion action replay? I’ve seen many flying trapeze acts, for example, but watching from the ground has never matched the drama of the trapeze scenes in the (fictional) movie Trapeze, where we’re given a real sense of vertigo.

Finally, while experiencing a show in person may be more atmospheric, not all atmosphere is good atmosphere. Take the ‘atmosphere’ of a tall person sat directly in front of you, a noisy eater to your side and a coughing kid behind you, and the distraction of people fiddling about with their brightly lit phones. How about the queue for the loos and scramble for over-priced refreshments? Or the traffic jam at the car park?

Douglas McPherson
Frankly, he'd rather be at home...
One advantage of traditional circus is that the big top comes to your local town or village. You may not see the biggest or best acts, but you can park easily or go on foot and prices tend to be on the low side, whereas most cirque shows necessitate a trip to a bigger town or city with its attendant cost and bother.

At home, though, you get the best acts in the world without the crowds or hassle and, dare I say it, a volume control and fast forward button - things I often sorely wish for when I’m reviewing shows in person.

Cirque or circus, live or on screen. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other, more that they all have advantages and disadvantages, and they all have a role to play in making all our days circus days.

Read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Mr Fips Wonder Circus comes to Downham Market

Horses and sawdust
Mr Fips presents circus
as circus should be

According to Zippos ringmaster Norman Barratt, you're never too young, too old or too cool to go to the circus. That's the difference, I guess, between circus and cirque - where'd you probably have to be quite old and cool to appreciate the mix of gymnastics, dance, mime and abstract theatre.

Circus meanwhile was 'immersive theatre' before the term was trendy. In the big top you enter a magical world of sights, sounds, touch - the feel of grass beneath your feet - and even smells, from popcorn and hotdogs to horses.

Yes, horses. For me, I'm afraid, a night in the big top would no longer be worth a trip without a few animals to keep the circus atmosphere different from every other kind of entertainment. So I'm pleased to say Mr Fips Wonder Circus delivers Andalusian horses and Shetland ponies alongside the contortionist, high wire walker and that childhood crowd-pleaser... a clown car!

Mr Fips' clown car
No circus should leave home without one
According to ringmaster Jan Erik Brenner, also known as Mr Fips the Clown, “We’re trying to make circus more traditional. We want more colour and spectacle, the way it should be seen through a child’s eyes. It’s magical, a whole circus experience and very visually pleasing.

The Fips big top
“We’re trying to bring back the romanticised side of circus – a lot of shows have lost their individuality and we’re trying to bring that back.”

The show is in Denver/Downham Market, Norfolk until October 5. For details call 07719 877422.

"I love this book!"
- Reader review
What's life like for those who run away with the circus? From front row to backstage, read my journey through Britain's big tops - Circus Mania - "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form," - the Mail on Sunday.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Kathy Bates grows beard for American Horror Story: Freak Show

Here's Kathy Bates as you've never seen her before - as a bearded lady in the new series of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Her co-stars include a strong man, a lady with two heads and another with three breasts, in a series set in a carnival of the bizarre in 1952. The show debuts October 5.

But what's life like in a real life freak show? Read a full chapter on the Circus of Horrors and the history of freaks in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus! Click here to buy from Amazon.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Britain's biggest circus star!

Who's the BIGGEST star in the big top? How about Circus of Horrors giant Mariusz La Shad who stands a towering 7' 7". Catch him and the rest of the funky freaks on tour now!

Read a full chapter on the Circus of Horrors and the history of freaks in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus! Click here to buy from Amazon.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Giffords Circus HQ for sale

The lounge of circus boss Nell Gifford

Would you like to buy the home of a circus proprietor?

Folly Farm, the HQ of Giffords Circus is on the market for £1.5 million.

In my recent review of Gifford’s Circus - The First Ten Years (read it here) I described how Nell Gifford and husband Toti built their Gloucestershire home on the site of a derelict garden centre.

Today, their two bedroom house comes with an attached practise barn where they created their shows, and 11 acres of paddocks that are home to their circus horses.

“After 14 years we have finally outgrown our home at Folly Farm and are moving our entire HQ to just outside Stroud,” says Nell.

Giffords Circus practise barn
The property is on the market with Butler Sherborn estate agents.

Friday, 22 August 2014

White lions born on Circus Krone

Congratulations to mother Princess and father King Tonga on the birth of their four white lion cubs at Germany's Circus Krone.

Certified Circus Writer

Thursday, 21 August 2014

GIFFORDS CIRCUS - The First Ten Years Book Review

In October 1999, Nell Gifford was invited to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival the following May. She suggested that they book her circus and gave them a glowing description: "There will be showgirls and a dancing horse and a motorbike and a raucous atmosphere, lit by gaslight!"

The director booked the show. The problem was, Gifford didn’t have a show. Or wagons. Or costumes. Or artists. Or capital.

Building a circus from scratch in time for Hay-on-Wye took its toll on Nell and her landscape gardener husband, Toti. They ran up a £100,000 debt, had to move out of their rented cottage and slept on the floor of a pub where the landlord gave them free food.

Two engagements on the way to Hay did not improve their financial situation. They couldn’t give tickets away. Their vehicles fell apart on the roadside.

But they dragged their convoy, broke and broken, to the festival to find their three-day stand was sold out. The audience and critics loved them, and a new darling of the circus world was born.

The circus is full of wonderful stories - of magical moments plucked from disaster - and Gifford’s is one of them.

Her previous book, Josser, describes how she ran away with a circus to escape her pain after her mother was brain-damaged in a fall from a horse. Her apprenticeship mucking out horses and elephants on Santus Circus in the 90s was far from glamorous. It was, in her words, “a hard and negative world and a bad time for circus.” But she had seen the flipside of how circus could be presented and appreciated in America’s Circus Flora and Germany’s Roncalli, and she wanted to rebuild the dream world of the big top in her homeland.

Nell Gifford riding high
Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years, relates how she and Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own. Their work ethic is exhausting to read about. The side story of how they transformed a derelict garden centre into their home and winter base - a linked house and practise barn that symbolises how closely their lives and art are entwined - is a tale of hard work and determination in its own right. It’s even more amazing that they did it between trips to Moscow and Hungary in search of performers, and rehearsals in which nobody shared a language.

This beautifully illustrated book delves deeply into both the artistic and practical sides of running a circus.

Inspired by a chanced-upon drawing of a ballerina standing on horseback, Gifford sought out a ballerina and horse to create an act she describes as “A step forward to defining who we were.”
When a rare excursion from Gloucestershire to inner-city Hoxton Square was nearly thwarted in its final yards by a gate too narrow for their vintage wagons into the square, Toti pulled the gatepost from the concrete with his bare hands.

In a circus world fragmented into fifty shades of ‘new’ and ‘traditional,’ Giffords Circus, with its vintage look, tiny tent, horses, dogs and gentrified audience, occupies a niche of one. Gifford traces her artistic vision to memories of a bohemian middle class childhood, before her mother’s accident, where special occasions were always celebrated on a grand scale but everything had to be homemade. Endless food and endless guests. Dressing up. Handmade decorations. Singing. Games.

A visitor described their first show as “Edwardian children playing at circus,” and Gifford took it as a compliment.

Giffords’ style has been dubbed ‘heritage circus.’ But it’s not just circus they’re preserving - it’s a slice of middle England. A rural middle class mindset of country pubs, village greens, fetes, gymkhanas and do-it-yourself fun. “An English world where the pony is childhood.”

It’s no wonder Giffords Circus wowed the patrons of the Hay-on-Wye Festival - bohemian thinkers who would be out of place in the gritty working class environs of Peter Jolly’s Circus (Britain’s last with lions and tigers, and a picket line of animal rights protestors to match) and who probably wouldn’t be totally comfortable with the slick metropolitan aesthetic of Cirque du Soleil either.

It’s funny. When I was writing my own book, Circus Mania, I often found myself comparing audiences as much as shows: different circuses for different classes. On one hand, the appeal of the circus transcends class. But, in England at least, it doesn’t unite the classes. Perhaps in England, it never could. We like to pretend we’re a classless society, but the tribes of class are as rigidly separatist as ever, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a journey through our circus tents. Giffords Circus thrives in the shires where it’s audience shares the same childhood memory of what a circus should be.

Giffords Circus - The First Ten years by Nell Gifford (The History Press)

Giffords Circus barn - one careful owner
For Sale
If you'd like to buy the perfect house to run a circus from, Giffords Circus HQ, Folly Farm has gone on the market for £1.5m. Click here for more.