It is not very often these days that you get the chance to say “The circus has come to town!” so you can imagine my delight when I spotted the Big Top in our local park. This has never happened before, usually the circus arrives and is distinctly out of town, huddled at the roadside on the edge of the industrial estate. The trouble is that the edge of the industrial estate is now being built upon, new homes and apartments are squatting by the shipping containers and car dealerships instead.
The fair comes into town of course and the big rides and diesel generators turn the grass yellow and the children’s faces green. We are also home to several WWII skirmishes and Civil War re-enactments, sometimes both on the same day, Nazi versus Cavalier, with bazooka and black powder. Sometimes in summer there is a vast fake beach stretched out in front of the bandstand. There’s a carnival in October with fireworks. Never a circus.
I love a circus but I understand I might be alone in this. I don’t know what the appeal is, sparkles, danger, music? It’s theatre but of a more drifting and visual kind, a visceral rather than an intellectual experience. It is muscular, the spangly tights and leotards blind you to the sinews and blisters. There is the cathedral capacity of the Big Top.
As a child I was taken to Blackpool Circus (yes, in the 70s!) when it still had elephants and big cats. Nothing now appals me more than the idea of a lion in a circus. There is something intrinsically wrong about a large animal, an essentially wild creature, constrained and contained and considered entertainment. Back then there was still that sense of wrongness but it was allowed to feed into the fear of the wild. There would be an aerial act beforehand, meant to distract us with high-octane, high tempo skills. If you took your eyes from the acrobats in their spinning silver rocket and glanced down there were technicians erecting what looked, to my child eyes, like a slightly taller version of the fireguard we had at home. It ran in a spindly double layer around the ring and as the aerialistas took their bow, gates would slide open on the narrow wire tunnels. With a roar enter the lions.
Proximity. That’s the spark, the fear inside at being this close, too close, to a predator. The fear is twisted with the idea of beauty, a lion and indeed a tiger, are very beautiful. They were not happy, roaring and batting at the trainer, a man working too hard at performance because the lions, quite rightly, were not entertainers. They sat on classic circus plinths and eyed him up. A few leaps and bounds were all they would put up with, more than once giving the impression that rather than entertaining the audience, the lions were pursuing their trainer as he backed into the safety fencing armed only with a flimsy whip and a spindly golden chair.
In Wexford once, when the kids were very small, we encountered an Italian circus. There were, I’m sorry to report, giraffes and a rhinoceros, but the best act involved a girl spinning a hoop or two, or five, or seven and maybe nine and she did so with an effortless grace. The girl exuded a casual, almost mocking arrogance, easy to understand as you watched and she appeared capable of making the hoops defy the laws of both gravity and physics. All nine were spinning and whooping and rolling in different directions and some sort of snake charmer seemed to provide the music, the sinuous clarinet and the syncopated beat of a drum or two winding its way deep into your soul. Just when you thought it was finished she set the hoops alight and became a coil of heat and fire, the whole spectacle hypnotic.
Balance. Agility. Strength. Friesian horses, black as soot, heads carved in beauty, mythical as Gods. The rhythm of hooves, of the concentration of the power of haunch and flank coursing that roundel of space. Dare and Command.
Trapeze. I have no physical prowess and I am afraid to stand on a chair so I used to get a crick in my neck staring upwards at these daredevils. Power. Flight. Costumes prickled with crystals so that the lights turned trapeze artists into shooting stars. The cloud of french chalk, the curl of bicep.
This is not CGI. This is heart in your mouth. This is circus.