CircusStad Festival in Rotterdam


The world of circus has changed radically in the past few years. There are still giant spectacular shows with their huge tents and hundreds of people on the road like Knie in Switzerland and Roncali in Germany and various international pick-up shows trading under a variety of names but in England the big traditional circuses died out years ago, being replaced by small set-ups like the charming Giffords which is rapidly making a name for itself.

Whereas in the old days acts and their attendant skills, props and secrets were handed down generation to generation, nowadays the emergence of young independent performers, often graduates from the now ubiquitous circus schools, has turned the world of circus on its head – often literally.

This is demonstrated particularly well in the Netherlands where interest in circus and the existence of circus schools and clubs have nurtured hundreds of skilled young performers as well as heightened interest and awareness by the public. This has led to the establishment of several circus events and festivals around the country. A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to see a lot of the Circusmania festival in The Hague and currently the much bigger Circusstad is taking place in the centre of Rotterdam.

Based on and around the Schouwburgplein, overshadowed by towering glass and concrete skyscrapers, the Festival has pitched its tent – or to be more precise several tents, a bar, a café, as well as a large open performance area right in the middle. A few shows take place in the Schouwburg theatre itself and one or two in the Oude Luxor theatre just round the corner, but it is the colourful Plein that is the focal point.

Day One

The Festival got off to a flying (often literally) start at midday yesterday with a spectacular free performance by forty-odd teenager showing their skills along with a short teaser from Circolumbia who will present their full show at the weekend.

The first paying event we saw was at the amazing, and very circussy, Opticum. Not really a tent, being mainly made of wood, it provided a deceptively large performance space for the Dutch Tell Tales Acrobats and the premiere of their new show One of These Days. The half-hour show was largely in pursuit of a white ball which seemed to have a mystic quality. The balls multiplied and the juggling developed, some of it very clever. However, there was no joy and little humour in the show but there was a lot of confrontation between the two guys and a lot of aggression, most of it directed at one of the girls which I didn’t really like.

Next up was another small show, this time in a curtained-off corner of the Schouwburg theatre’s vast foyer. CIA Effector consists of dancer Martina Gunkel and circus artist Clara Cortés Soler and their act was based around a two meter tubular metal frame. Their show was quite surreal in many ways with random objects littering the stage and being handed to members of the audience to hold while the performers said whatever came into their heads but, it must be said, there were not many circus skills in evidence and again, there was an underlying aggression.

In the old days circus belligerence used to be limited to custard pies in the face or buckets of water down the trousers, but now it seems to have become rather more sinister.

The high-spot of the opening day, and I suspect of the whole Festival, took place in the larger of the two tents, the Chapiteau. For their first appearance in the Netherlands, the Australian Gravity & Other Myths troupe and their show A Simple Space summed-up precisely where old and new circus meet. Their act was essentially a traditional acrobatic/tumbling one but it was also totally modern and innovative with not a sequin, fishnet tights or glitter-ball in sight. The five guys and two girls demonstrated extraordinary feats of balance, strength and endurance and it was all done in good humour with lots of back-slapping bonhomie and always big smiles. The hour-long show consisted of gravity and anatomy defying feats the like of which I have never seen – but there was also a lot of humour like the guy solving Rubric’s Cube in less than a minute while doing a head-stand on a pole.

There were a lot of endurance tests too, like the whole ensemble holding their breath to see if they could outlast one of them doing a handstand. The two girls demonstrated unbelievable strength when they each lifted a large man selected from the audience and held him off the ground in their arms for what must have been at least three of four minutes.

You have certainly heard of strip poker, but strip skipping? Three of the guys started speed skipping and the first to stop in each round had to take off a piece of clothing. It finished up with the Full Monty, modesty being secured only by a pair of strategically cupped hands.

Gravity & Other Myths are probably the best of this type of act I have ever seen – and I have seen quite a few. Their skill, originality, endurance and good humour were truly amazing and their hour-long show is a must see.

We rounded off the day with a quick visit to the Circus Jungle for a juggling workshop.

All in all an excellent and exciting start to Circusstad onto which the sun shone. We shall look forward to further visits over the next few days.   Michael Hasted   3rd May 2018

FRIDAY, 4th May

Things were still buzzing around the Schouwburgplein as we made our way once again into the curtained-off area of the theatre foyer to see two recent graduates from Codarts, Liza van Brakel and Lisa Chudalla.

I liked Lisa a lot. Her two sets were basically traditional circus acts but they were presented, as is often the case with Circusstad, in an original form. To start with it was, like CIA Efector a couple of days before, a bit surreal. She seemed to be performing her act for the benefit of a stuffed fox which watched attentively from the sidelines, I kid you not.

Her first ten minute piece was with a cyrwheel, a giant metal ring in which she revolved and contorted, her skimpy flesh-coloured leotard revealing her extensive range of tattoos.  We were then treated to some excellent club juggling and floor acrobatics from Ms van Brakel. Again, a traditional act but done with a few new nice twists and turns – what she calls jugglebatics. Finally, it was Lisa again this time with an aerial silks act – except it wasn’t smooth silks she was twisting around herself, it was a five meter length of heavy duty metal chain. I’m sure it left as much of an impression on her as it did on the audience. A short but enjoyable show.

Also in the Schouwburg was Memo by Zinzi and her partner Evertjan performing in the Krijn Boon Studio.

Memo was about the fraught, often violent relationship between the two performers. There were feats of balancing that I have never seen before and one at least that would, had it gone wrong, have resulted in certain death when Zinzi was thrown high into a triple somersault and caught plummeting head first, a few centimetres from the floor. The balancing skills were breath-taking and truly astounding, the concept and execution of the performance as a whole, slightly less so.   Michael Hasted   4th May 2018

Saturday, 5th May

Our final visit to CircusStad was to see Circolumbia at the Schouwburg. En route we spent some time watching some fourth year Codarts circus students going through their paces, presenting some work in progress in the outdoor arena.

Circolumbia are clearly a popular act, demonstrated by the near-capacity audience in the theatre’s main auditorium. The thirteen-strong company presented a series of traditional circus acts but in a totally modern way with a lot of hip-hopping and a female vocalist. There was a lot of very slick ensemble dancing which had the audience whooping and cheering – street cred circus you might even call it.

All the acts were excellent but for me the outstanding one was the aerial ropes involving a guy, two girls and three ropes. The whole show benefitted from some really good music and brilliant and often dramatic lighting.

Now, I am not the world’s greatest fan of rap, hip-hop or whatever, but that is by-the-by. This was a visually strong, confident and professional presentation.

Which, to finish off my review of Circusstad, brings me to something that has been bothering me – the general lack of professionalism and visual awareness from most of the smaller acts I have seen. It doesn’t matter how clever you are how or how long you have trained, you can’t just walk on stage wearing your street clothes, often crumpled and ill-fitting ones at that, do a few tricks and walk off. There is a lot, lot, more to being a professional performer than showing off your tricks. You have to be aware of visual presentation and deliver your act in a professional way. It is insulting to an audience not to “put on a show” when they have paid to see one, it  looks as though you can’t be bothered, or worst still, that you don’t have the imagination or ability to do so.

Of the smaller acts the only one I saw that made any effort or had any awareness of visual presentation was Lisa Chudalla.

It’s alright for students to be taught circus skills but they must also be made aware that they are entering show-business – no matter how un-cool that my sound. I am not advocating sequins, fish-net tights, ostrich feathers plumes and glitter-balls, but an audience deserves respect. You should be putting on shows for them, not for your own and your friend’s enjoyment – that is a definition of amateur. A paying audience has the right to expect “a show”, a spectacle, not someone slouching on stage wearing a T-shirt, old jeans and dirty trainers and making no effort to make the act look good.

Circolumbia, Gravity and Other Myths, Cirk la Putyka etc., demonstrate how it could and should be done and that’s what all those entering the potentially wonderful world of circus should be aspiring to.   Michael Hasted   6th May 2018