Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

New Circus

David Adams muses on the plethora of new circus at WMC

It’s the epitome of contemporary performance venues, it houses the Welsh national Opera, it claims to be the ultimate in state-of-the-art technology – so why has the Wales Millennium Centre had three shows in its first year that hark back to the most primitive forms of entertainment ?

I’m talking about the circus. The opening show at the WMC was a Canadian circus, Last week was a French circus. Coming soon is an Australian circus.

And it’s not just in Cardiff Bay. The Circus of Horrors is coming to both Newport Riverfront and Cardiff’s New Theatre and our own NoFit State Circus has just completed a triumphant international tour that won them three awards and rave reviews.

It’s circus - but not as we might know it. No horses (which is, as we’ll see, how it started). No red-coated ringmaster. No intrepid lion-tamer. No elephants. No clowns.

No clowns ? What is circus if you don’t have clowns ?

Well, it’s New Circus. Circus for the twenty-first century, politically correct, new technology, circus mostly for theatre spaces rather than Big Tops (although NoFit State takes its own Big Top with it).

If you were at the WMC last week you would have seen the stunning La Veillee des Abysses performed by James Thierree’s Compagnie du Hanneton, which does at least have a kind of circus ring in the centre of the stage but in all other respects is an uncategorisable mix of theatre, dance, mime, music, comedy – and circus techniques.

The show is pure magic, and I guess that’s at the heart of circus, old or new. Magic performed with consummate skills that can take your breath away.

That idea of spectacle gives circus its roots in the oldest performances known to humankind – rituals and dances.. and magic. Roman saturnalia, the tumblers and jongleurs of the middle ages, the carnivals that mocked seriousness in renaissance Europe that all developed the idea of populist subversion.

The word circus may have originally designated a Roman venue for exhibitions of chariot-racing and gladiatorial athletic contests and some historians say that the familiar circus in Europe and the States started with equestrian shows in the nineteenth century - but in reality it’s the shamans, the trapeze artists emulating ecstatic flight, the symbol of the tightrope walker crossing between two worlds, embedded in archetypal consciousness, that make us relate to this ancient entertainment.

Perhaps Charles Dibdin was the first in more modern times to coin the term with his Royal Circus of horsemanship in 1782, and maybe Mr and Mrs Woolton were the first to mix other acts with horses, and Philip Astley, “the master of the circus”, can be credited with introducing in 1770 the sawdust ring and the clown and, later, seating around the circus ring, tumbling, rope-dancing and juggling. Barnum and Bailey, Billy Smart, Dick Chipperfield, Bertram Mills and Jerry Cottle all helped establish the circus as a family favourite.

In America it grew thanks to an English cousin of George Washington, John Bill Ricketts, and now circus is seen as the embodiment of their values: “With an independent and capitalist approach to business, the circus represents what is good and right with American spirit even today,” gushes one circus historian.

But circus suddenly became, in Britain at least, passee. While on the Continent, in Russia and China the familiar show of trick cyclists, performing seals, white-faced clowns and aerial acrobats still thrill and amuse audiences of all ages, concerns developed here.

These centred round animal welfare and also health and safety – but take away the idea of danger from many circus acts and it isn’t the same.

So circus changed. New Circus was invented – and it took many forms. You may remember the street circus companies, usually from France, that enlivened and (literally) set Cardiff city streets afire a few years back, mainly inspired by the ground-breaking Archaos group with their punk-inspired threatening clowns, motorbikes, chainsaws and pyrotechnics, much to the consternation of police and officialdom, as part of the city’s festival of street theatre.

It was there that a group of locally-based manic tumblers and comedians were a hit and went on to form NoFit State Circus – now one of the major international New Circus outfits who rapidly moved from simple circus fun to staging the classic Dr Faustus and on to its current massive hit ImMortal2, receiving rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe and just ending its tour triumphantly at London’s South Bank.

So what happened ?

Apart from wanting to get away from the exploitation of animals, many of this new generation of performers wanted to make circus more theatrical and use circus techniques to create something that was removed from the clichés of the Big Top (NoFit State Circus is an exception). New Circus took root in Britain, in France, in Australia and in French Canada – Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil, formed in the early 1980s, is still probably the best known in the world and has spawned many offspring.

It was a two-way development. The two major directors in Wales at present, Michael Bogdanov and Terry Hands, interesting have flirted with circus techniques: before New Circus arrived, Bogdanov experiment with circus forms in his Gawain and the Green Knight and Bartholomew Fair while Terry Hands at the RSC had Antnony Sher perform on stilts in Tamburlaine the Great.

But New Circus remains something apart from theatre with tricks. La Veillee des Abysses has its clowning, though more influenced by silent movies than commedia dell’arte, and its tumbling, but there’s a lot more – including a theme.

“It’s about our dreams of impossible things, about people who can’t quite make it but they’re still doing it,” says Thierree (Charlies Chaplin’s French grandson who trained in Britain), “I want the audience to believe in their own dreams.”

He insists, of course, that the show shouldn’t need explanation, and NoFit State Circus is similarly reluctant to talk too much about ImMortal2, despite the fact that it has quite a complex narrative from the show’s director, Firenza Guidi, without which the show can seem like a fascinating but meaningless assemblage of images and routines. In a way, the story and the theme is there if you want to find it but it seems to work for most people simply as imagination and spectacle.

At the other end of the spectrum is Circus of Horrors, which plays Newport’s Riverfront on November 10 (and Cardiff next February) as The Nightmare Returns, a new show but basically the same mix of freak-show, heavy metal and goth-style grotesque characters. With an Archaos founder behind the company, it owes a lot to French flirting with danger but also to American-flavoured novelty acts featuring various parts of the anatomy and an irreverent lack of political correctness. Subtle it ain’t .

It certainly is a far cry not only from Philip Astley but also from the other new attraction at the WMC, Circus Oz, one of the longest-established New Circus companies, based on political idealism and still committed to ideas of social justice – especially raising money for refugees and asylum-seekers. Cirque du Soleil were to pursuer a similar agenda of political and cultural aims with exciting entertainment on the other side of the world.

“We believe in tolerance, diversity and human kindness,” says Circus Oz – but insist that they are also committed to offering “a good time to all”.

Set up in the heady days of Australian idealism and theatrical innovation in the 1970s, Circus Oz manages to combine a political agenda with a sense of humour – on stage they never take themselves seriously, although their skills have been highly honed.

The company perhaps offers the best example of this phenomenon called New Circus. Though after a quarter of a century, “new” is hardly the most appropriate word. And if you’re used to performing seals this “circus” is going to be something else !

*Circus Oz is at the Wales Millennium Centre 9-12 November.

author:David Adams

original source: The Western Mail
28 October 2005


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