A dying art

Yesterday we went to see a travelling circus, Cirque Normandie, which has pitched up on the grounds of our local garden centre in Thatcham for a few days. It has left me reflecting on the sad, slow death of a long and skilful tradition which feels increasingly anachronistic in our modern world.

A potted hisory

The concept of the circus as a showground dates back to the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, where crowds of over 20,000 would gather to watch horse races, staged battles, equestrian shows and chariot competitions, with exotic animals, jugglers and acrobats entertaining the audience between events.

For centuries afterwards, gypsies and wandering showmen travelled across Europe, keeping circus skills and trained animal performances alive. But it was a British man, Philip Astley, who is widely credited as establishing the first permanent travelling circus that toured Europe in the late 18th century, with the first performance in London reportedly taking place in January 1768.

As a form of entertainment, the circus became so popular that several English cities constructed purpose-built arenas such as the London Hippodrome, and in 1825 American Joshuah Purdy Brown became the first circus owner to use the now traditional large canvas tent for performances. Popularity spread in the US thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as P T Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who was the first to use both circus trains and the multiple-ringed circus, which allowed more than one attraction to feature at a time. More recently, a university was set up in Russia in 1919 as a centre of excellence for circus arts, leading to the formation of the Moscow State Circus. And today, the most famous exponent of the circus phenomenon is the Canadian group Cirque du Soleil, which draws on circus history from all over the world.

Over the last 40-50 years, however, circuses have struggled to maintain their status following the emergence of television and increased concern over animal rights. Some have merged in order to survive; many more have disappeared altogether. Many circuses these days have no animal acts, focussing instead on acts of acrobatics, juggling, escapology and clownery.

Cirque Normandie

I haven’t been to a ‘traditional’ circus since I was about six, when we used to go to a nearby travelling carnival during the summer holidays, so my memories are obviously quite vague. However, I did see the Millennium Experience show developed for London’s Millennium Dome (now the O2) in 2000. (Trivia fans: show creator Paul Cockle appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2005 and secured funding from Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis for The Generating Company, the circus touring and schooling concept he founded following the closure of the Dome.)

The Cirque Normandie show is built around a core of gymnasts, acrobats, clowns and an escapologist performing a variety of traditional acts, and it was good to see the artists making an obvious effort to interact with children before, during and after the performance. (Isaac, all two years and eight months of him, strolled confidently up to the clown greeting visitors outside the big top and breezily said “Bonjour!” to him, which I think took him somewhat aback.

No animals, of course. And no knife-throwing either (I guess the insurance for such acts is prohibitively expensive). Nonetheless Zac, although a couple of years too young to fully enjoy the show, sat mesmerised through the opening half, and was particularly taken when he was allowed to volunteer to participate in one of the clowns’ ‘acrobatic’ routines – to the extent that he then thought he could climb into the arena and join in whenever he wanted.

Being tired and very hot, he became somewhat restless during the second half, but he did seem to particularly enjoy any of the acts which involved any gymnastic skills – that’s the Angelina Ballerina in him coming out – and his eyes were out on stalks when he saw Mademoiselle Josephine and her hula hoop tricks. (I know exactly what he’s going to be doing obsessively for the next few days now …)

But it was a little sad to see the frighteningly good contortionist Max Beecher (‘Maxlastic’) repeatedly introduced as having starred on Britain’s Got Talent. It was a sad reflection on the impact that television has had on traditional performing arts. There was a time when circus performers were renowned just for themselves, but now even truly excellent performers like Max are reduced to mingling with the long line of the freaks and the talentless to share their talents with a wider audience.

Britain’s Got Talent is watched by millions (the 2009 final had over 17 million viewers). Yesterday’s performance – on a Sunday afternoon during the school holidays – was watched by about 50 people in a big top which could accommodate ten times the number. It’s amazing the performers can still scrape together a living; despite the development of additional revenue streams such as school visits and corporate events, it must be a real hand-to-mouth existence for these highly-skilled performers.

A dying art, indeed.