Has Circus Lost its Heart?

Feature in Issue 12-3 | Autumn 2000

Despite the growing trend for circuses outside of the traditional Big-Top arena, Stewart McGill argues that there’s still a lot to be said for traditional touring companies like Zippos and Cottle & Austen.

Michael Coveney reviewing the acclaimed Cirque Éloize from Montreal at their London premiere recently identified a particular absence from the world of (so-called) contemporary circus. It was the smell of sawdust, the unique atmosphere of the Big-Top. In essence, Coveney lamented the loss of a circus heart.

The debate between contemporary and traditional circus continues as new players arrive on the scene determined (once more) to reinvent the form, whilst in many cases refusing to accept its history – an ongoing evolution that embraces all-comers and enables the form to evolve.

Personally I think the day of the contemporary stage circus is coming to an end, as there are so few venues that suit its specific requirements.

Despite often heard cries of despair concerning circus in the UK, this summer I must admit to having felt a surge of optimism, however. Cirque Éloize, Circus Oz and Cirque du Soleil all arrived on British shores; Circus Space announced a new, large-scale touring project; Mamaloucos promise a potentially thrilling touring show for 2001; and there have been major UK tours from the more traditionally-based circus companies. I certainly would not cry that ‘circus is dead’.

Gerry Cottle, along with his long-time associate Brian Austen heads the European Entertainment Corporation, arguably this country’s foremost operation producing circus without subsidy. The three touring shows – Chinese State Circus, Moscow State Circus and Cottle and Austen’s Electric Circus – cover the British Isles, with substantial outfits presented in superb Big-Top’s with very high production values and customer care. Cottle’s other project, Circus Of Horrors, has just launched a number one theatre tour directed by the enfant terrible of circus, Pierrot Bidon, late of Archaos. It seems that Cottle is in the perfect position to view the landscape of circus and offer advice on how it can push forward.

‘I think circus must learn from history,’ he observes. ‘Pierrot started with a small tent, a tiny show to learn the craft – rather like Nell Stroud’s emerging Gifford’s Circus. Look at Roncalli and the like, all were created as manageable outfits. To start a circus you need to blend experience with the skills required to manage the show. It is not enough to produce vast amounts of paper, mission statements etc. It is about commitment to long hours, enormous workloads and learning the skills.

Cottle ensures that each of his circus productions has both a clear identity and provides value for audiences. ‘The Chinese State Circus has a dynamic young troupe and the Moscow State Circus is a very big and, powerful force,’ he tells me. ‘Whilst Cottle & Austen’s Electric Circus is young and pretty traditional, Brian Austen felt that it needed a flying act to give it that “wow” factor and this really works. Of all our shows this year this is the one that seems to hook the largest audiences. Yes, it is hard work and I am a great supporter of new talent and initiatives, but you can’t just sit and wait for sponsorship. I do tend to feel that many of the new circus outfits want big money whereas there is a need to get on and do it. I am full of admiration for Nell Stroud. With Gifford’s Circus she has identified an audience and created a show with absolute commitment. I hope it will survive into a second season.’

Gerry Cottle’s circuses draw audiences from across the social spectrum and, whilst not claiming to be arthouses of the form, they demonstrate the excitement and sheer joy of the Big-Top atmosphere that Coveney so misses in stage circus.

Another leading company in the more traditional camp is Zippos Circus, which has evolved from a tiny non-animal show available for fetes and galas into one of the UK’s largest tenting shows with a feel for the theatrical but its heart in the sawdust ring. David Hibling is Creative Director and runs ZACA, Zippos Academy of Circus Arts. Hibling echoes Coveney’s reservations about stage circus: ‘Every time I arrive at our show I get a kick from the smell of sawdust and grass. My problem with contemporary circus right now is that in many cases traditional images have been removed but not replaced with something else.’

‘I think with Zippos we are successful in three key areas. Firstly, Martin Burton aka Zippo is unique in his total commitment to his product and daily seeks new ways to promote and better his circus. Secondly, we retain a huge administrative base, blending traditional methods of promoting circus with new developments. Marketing is vital and I believe some of the newer companies fail to understand how to market their work. And thirdly, Zippos draws on a wealth of background. We are hungry, do not rest on our laurels and, without subsidy, use our own efforts to get audiences.’

David Hibling shares with Gerry Cottle the view that British circus has an image problem that our European neighbours don’t share. ‘In France Cirque Plume can happily co-exist with the animal circuses,’ he points out. ‘There is no snub from new circus to traditional circus, with directors working in both side by side. Circus is an umbrella. One of the things I tell students at ZACA each year is that circus is global, worldwide and remains what your grandfather or great-grandfather would recognise as circus. I want the two expressions of circus to co-exist and I believe they can. At Zippos right now I think we are moving closer to being a model of perfection. Certainly we can’t really get much bigger as we can only just fit on our regular grounds. Yet daily we strive to improve all areas. Recently our focus has been on the foyer, making it more welcoming with the band playing, clowns, jugglers and magic. We endeavour to improve our lighting and move towards the idea of a conceived circus with a multi-talented core company.

Circus is richer than ever before with a variety of expressions currently being explored. Both Cottle and Hibling urge action, commitment and energy with the need to absorb the history and culture of circus. The landscape is full of individuality. I regret, however, that whilst I can visit a circus anywhere else in the world knowing pretty much where to find it, in this country there remains a veil of secrecy that keeps the touring circus masked from many potential visitors. When Billy Smart’s Circus arrived in Battersea Park during August few people knew it was there. And yet, one can book today for a performance by Cirque du Soleil in Manchester in March 2001.

Perhaps it is time to advocate a new policy of openness in circus and to celebrate diversity, individuality and the many manifestations of the form. Personally, I hope to see Pierrot Bidon direct the Moscow State Circus. Now there’s a thought for 2002.

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Issue 12-3
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