CIRQUE MANIA #17 at Korzo Theater in The Hague

When I was a kid growing up in England there were three big circuses touring the country and an annual visit to the big top was, for me, a special occasion. I loved circus and I even saw Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey at Madison Square Gardens in New York. But the big touring circuses became too cumbersome and, with the antipathy towards animal acts, went into a bit of a recession. There were still a few big shows around, Knie in Switzerland being pre-eminent in Europe. Circuses, both proprietors and performers were family businesses, a closed shop, a world apart where acts were handed down through generations and clowns were a fraternity with their own world-wide association. But things change.

A new sort of circus was emerging, smaller, more intimate affairs. In fact, a clown friend of mine in England has just established a new small circus which will be touring for the first time this summer. Street performers became ubiquitous wherever tourist gathered and circus schools were established everywhere. One of the best and most significant in this part of the world being Codarts in Rotterdam and it was thirteen of their second year students who presented tonight’s show.

This was quite a big, polished performance, with excellent lighting and effects and some fine live music, of which I would like to have seen much more. The stage was dominated by dozens of large white sacks containing, I imagine, beans. They were the set, the scenery and the props and the show evolved around them. But . . .

A production of this type, “the show”, should be a framework in which to present acts, not an end in itself. Gifford’s Circus in the UK, which I know well, annually presents shows which are very highly themed with scenery, music, costumes and all the performers and musicians conforming to it. That theme adds to the fun and embellishes the acts.

Sadly this was not the case with this production where “the show” dominated and everything seemed to revolve around the white sacks. I was left disappointed and frustrated that some of the performers did not get the opportunity to fully demonstrate their obvious talents. This was particularly evident with the guy who obviously wanted to juggle with three shiny silver clubs. He had to wear one of sacks on his head which meant he spent more time crawling round the floor groping for his dropped clubs rather than juggling with them. Finally he was bombarded with sacks, one of which floored him before a club was even tossed in the air. The subsequent, and totally superfluous and gratuitous dying and funeral sequence took up an inordinate amount of time and completely upstaged a young guy trying to do his trapeze act on the other side of the stage.

Another example of wasted opportunity was the guy, separate from the main group dressed as a fireman complete with helmet. A fireman, you may well ask, what had that to do with anything?  With his clipboard and whistle he was there as a sort of stage manager or health and safety inspector but occasional got the chance to demonstrate his obviously amazing juggling skills. But they were never fully exploited or demonstrated and were merely a throwaway interlude before the sacks started flying again.

Of the few performers who did manage to perform their whole act the guy balancing on a meter diameter white ball and the two girls twisting and turning on ropes were outstanding. Another, and the nearest thing to the presentation of a traditional circus act, was the guy on the Cyr Wheel who had established a sort of character and identity as a flashy gangster/gigolo  type. All the others, apart from the fireman, were in rather drab boring and unimaginative costumes. I’m quite aware that things have to be “modern” and I’m not advocating a return to fishnet tights, sequined leotards and ostrich feather head-dresses, not even for the girls, but you can’t just turn up in what are virtually street clothes and hope nobody notices.

There were obviously a lot of talented youngsters on view, many of whom may go on to bigger and better things but I think the emphasis of their training and performances  should be on the core values, perfecting and demonstrating their skills and acts. And although the acts should be presented professionally and with style and finesse, the stress must be on the application of the skills themselves. People want a good big bite of cake, not just a lick of the icing.

Although, in its own way well done, for me this show was, as I said, disappointing and frustrating. I had come hoping to see circus skills, not an over produced show which treated them almost as incidental.   Michael Hasted    22nd March 2024