Tab Tries: Running Away With The Circus

Sick of Michaelmas already? The Tab suggests that you run away with the circus. LOTTIE UNWIN and PHOEBE LUCKHURST tried.

Acrobat Big Top Circus Clown Juggler lion Lottie Unwin Phoebe Luckhurst

Click to enlarge…

While we, really, only spent a hungover morning on the inside of Chipperfield’s big top, Craig and Barney who showed us around actually did run away with the circus.  It came to their home towns – Inverness and Kendal respectively – and they left with it.  Today, they assured us, it’s still possible and lots still do it.  Barney insisted that despite the credit crunch they were still thriving, “In fact, we often do better in poorer areas, because people will really save their money in order to do something fun, like the circus, when the opportunity rolls around.”

On the one hand, circuses remain family-run: most performers have been born into circus families and they still live a transient life shuttling from one venue to the next in caravans.  On the other they have certainly changed. Circus children are educated by internet for five hours every day, and submit homework by email; some performers are recruited through agencies (further invalidating the initial fear that we were going to be drafted into a human pyramid); and there are only three UK circuses that still keep animals. “Councils just wouldn’t let you stay on the land,” Craig points out. Perhaps symbolic of this progressive attitude is the revoking of – what I discovered was – one of the circus’ most sacrosanct rules. In years past, only performers were allowed to step into the ‘stage’ area of the big top; now the same rights of access do not apply. We could stroll into the middle and back out again.

Chipperfield’s circus, for example, has around 15 performers, the youngest a boy of nine, and tours exclusively in the UK, although the company includes performers from as far away as Mongolia.  It might seem glamorous, but it’s still hard work.  The circus ‘season’ runs for 9-10 months, from early February to the end of November, although performers may find themselves contracted for Christmas shows too.

Angelo, Chipperfield’s clown, is Portuguese, and has been performing with circuses since he was five years old. He speaks five languages: Portuguese, English, French, Spanish and Italian, and he understands Flemish and German too, although dislikes their “harsh” tones and so when he finds himself in Belgium or Germany he often plays mute, symptomatic of the droll sense of humour at odds to his prosthetic nose, garish face paint and slapstick act. If he weren’t in the circus, he’d be, “a truck driver, because then I could travel with the circus, even if I was not in the circus”. It is the nomadic lifestyle that he most relishes: “I would get bored if I had to live in one place”. He thinks Cambridge is beautiful – despite finding himself taking a walk around the town centre on Sunday evening – and hopes to take his children, who also perform, out for a meal before they leave.

Alina performed her act for us – involving acrobatics on a precariously dangling metal cube – and explained another circus custom that had never even occurred: the difficulties of maintaining the exclusivity of an act. She has copyrighted hers, because “if everyone was doing it then it wouldn’t be interesting any more, would it? The circus must change to make sure it is interesting to people so that they will come and see it.” Others also protect their own creative property.  Running away before you’ve done your research might not be such a good idea after all.

Alina wants to have children soon – she met her boyfriend in the circus – and expects that they will also be in the circus, “although I will not make them!” Most of the performers to whom we spoke reflected this new spirit of freedom, perhaps another symptom of the circus’ revolution, for while they all expected their children to be in the circus, all of them were at pains to point out that they would not be forced. Angelo pointed out, “they are educated better [than we were]. If they want to be doctors or work in a bank or be a lawyer, then I will let them.”

Vladislav, 17, from Moscow, is a gymnast, and one of the youngest performers we encountered; he doesn’t long for the parallel reality in which he attended school regularly like other children and stayed put in one location. He has actually attended school peripatetically, but generally he is educated over the internet like the other children, and also says he is not short of friends: “the girls love the circus!” His father, Albert, also works with the circus; does he worry about his son? “It is dangerous, so of course I worry, but every time he performs he gets better. So I worry less.”  We weren’t convinced.

All the performers were very open and evidently loved their jobs and the lives they entailed.  The only negative I could exact from them is how they are sometimes perceived by others. “Lots of people, when I tell them I work in a circus, say, ‘oh, so you’re a gypsy then?’” Alina admits; Vladislav confirms this prejudice. He says it doesn’t bother him particularly – “If that is their prejudice then they can have it” – but I detected a note of persecution that they were stigmatised with this particular label. Barney, from a slightly exterior management point of view, observed that in some circuses – “though not this one, everyone’s lovely here!” – there is an hierarchy, a class system that is constructed usually by the older circus families who place themselves above the newer performers, so any new recruit should pick their bandwagon carefully.  He has also seen terrible injuries; an acrobat who died after falling from the top of a human pyramid in a show; a man’s head mauled by a tiger; broken bones. The circus is dangerous. But Barney makes the point that if you thought that about everything, “you’d never do anything, would you?”

We weren’t abducted by the circus and we weren’t so enamoured that we planned to sack off Part II and begin a life squatting in Angelo’s mobile caravan. However, we were fascinated by the traditions and progressions of a 21st century circus company; by the intelligence and reflection of its multilingual performers; by the politics but also by the sheer, genuine pleasure of the company; despite being archly cynical and broadly suspicious of anyone who claims satisfaction, we believed them when they said they wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Chipperfield’s Circus is at Midsummer Common until Sunday 31st October. Adult tickets range from £12-20. Tuesday – Saturday: 2.30pm and 7pm. Sunday: 12.30pm and 3.30pm.