A pop star wins a Grammy award, the best films take the Oscars, top restaurants stack up Michelin stars, but how do you reward circus of the highest quality? Until recently the only answer was by buying a ticket and applauding raucously at the end of the show. Don’t worry, that form of recognition will never disappear. But recently another option has emerged, as Europe has inaugurated the Big Top Label. The Big Top what? Time for an analysis.
A circus artist who hopes to be recognised has many options these days. Circus festivals can be found today in countless European cities, each with their own collection of prizes to be handed out at the conclusion of the festival. The most famous festivals include Cirque de Demain in Paris, the Idols Festival in Moscow and the Festival Internacional del Circ Elefant d’Or in Girona, Spain. But there is one circus festival which stands head and shoulders above the rest: in the world of traditional circus, a prize at the International Circusfestival of Monte Carlo is the very highest recognition one can receive. Comparable with the American Academy which awards the annual Oscars, the Grimaldi family of the Principality of Monaco distributes a number of gold, silver and bronze clowns to the artists participating in their annual festival, held at the end of January.
Circus programmers love to let you know (ad nauseum) that the acts they are presenting have been crowned with an ‘Oscar of the Circus’, in order to emphasise the exceptional quality of the act to their ‘honourable audience’.
The circus world has had labels of quality for circus artists for years. But what about the circuses themselves? How can you be sure that the circus that’s come to town will offer you value for your money? There has never been a Michelin star system for circus, until now. It’s an initiative of the Hungarian European Parliament member MEP István Ujhelyi (Socialist faction). After two years of preparation the Big Top Label (BTL) was born. The intention of the BTL is simple: to guarantee quality and credibility in the traditional circus sector by making a distinction between the good students and the poorer ones in the European class. By applying a thorough checklist of some twenty points of evaluation (see insert) a circus inspector (for the time being the chief of staff of MEP Ujhelyi) – can quantify the quality of a traditional circus. The BTL-Committee, an international jury of seven men with affinity for the sector, pore over the inspector’s report. If the evaluation turns out to be positive, the Big Top Label is given to the circus in question.
In 2018 the circus inspector set off on his very first round of inspection. He visited Circus Krone (Germany), Circus Arlette Grüss (France) and the Blackpool Tower Circus (UK). The BTL-project probably wanted to start out on a positive note, as the three selected circuses already had a high status in the circus world – and it was no surprise that all three were awarded with the label. The circuses keep the label for two years, at which point a new evaluation is made, to assess if eventual progress has been made in the areas needing improvement and if the overall quality of the circus can still be guaranteed.
In November 2018 the laureates received their labels from the hand of the European commissioner for culture, the Hungarian Tibor Navracsics (member of the right-wing nationalist party Fideszparij of Victor Orban). During the award ceremony he lauded the BTL initiative and the art of circus in general – “because circus is a good illustration of the dual nature of culture and cultural activities. On the one hand there is the intrinsic and artistic value of culture, and on the other the economic value. Circus contributes to creativity, innovation and social inclusion. It is a perfect example of the combination of tradition with innovation and technology, appealing to young and old alike. The art of circus forms a bridge between generations.”
All three of the decorated circus directors praised the initiative in turn, and pointed to the rotten apples who are destroying the circus world. “Some circuses have no respect for the manner in which a professional company is run, and have no interest in respecting or protecting the circus. This label of quality protects the circus, and it also protects the public, who can now be sure that the circus has been closely inspected by the authorities,” according to Martin Lacey, director of the prize winning Circus Krone.
Does the circus sector really need this new circus prize, or is the BTL-committee just a group of circus insiders handing out prizes to their friends? The committee strongly objects to that criticism. “First and foremost, it is important to emphasise that the initiative came from the European parliament, and that the inspections are carried out by a completely independent staff worker-so there’s no question of favouritism. The role of the BTL-committee is chiefly an advisory one,” explain BTL-committee members Christian Nolens and Arie Oudenes. “With the BTL system we want to give the (traditional) circus sector more credibility and a better image by establishing standards of quality. This kind of initiative can only survive and be effective if it takes place on a European level.”
A second awards ceremony took place a few months ago, on October 2, 2019, at the European Parliament in Brussels. The evening’s ceremony was rather similar to the first. This time the celebrity on hand was not a European commissioner, but a princess: none other than Princess Stéphanie of Monaco who handed out the awards, this time to Sirkus Finlandia (Finland), Magyar Nemzeti Cirkusz (Hungary) and Circus Knie (Switzerland). Once again three big circuses.
A number of Belgian circus directors were also present at the ceremony, but they were rather unimpressed by the entire concept. One director left the hall before the end of the ceremony, another made clear that he wasn’t interested, since “it looks like this is only something for the big boys.” The argument that the BTL-Label is a guarantee of quality, also when it comes to receiving a permit in towns and municipalities, was met with indifference. “I apply for permits to play in the tiniest of farm villages. Do you believe for one minute that the person responsible for the permit in that kind of town is even aware that that BTL-label exists, or that it would have any bearing on whether or not he gives me the permit?” grins a Belgian circus director.
Is the indifference justified? The biggest circuses in Europe have in the meantime been awarded the label, there are few organisations of that magnitude left, Will the BTL project now draw to a close, barely a year after its inception? Or will the smaller family circuses start to be considered in a system which up until now seems only to exist for the big fish?
The members of the BTL-committee admit that up until now the system has been designed for the big circuses, but emphasise that the intention to consider smaller circuses for the BTL evaluation is definitely there. Those behind the initiative realise that it would be impossible to apply the same criteria used to judge the European giants when it comes to judging a small Belgian family circus. “We are looking now at he possibilities of working with different categories, rankings or point systems, in order to fairly evaluate the smaller circuses. At the same time we are looking into the possibility of enlarging our entire framework to include circus schools and contemporary circus – but we’re still a long way from that point.”
Zsuzsanna Mata, director of the Fédération Mondiale du Cirque was closely involved with the start-up of the BTL-project, and she is optimistic. “Smaller circuses will certainly be taken into account for the label. In the end it’s all about the quality you offer. If a smaller circus with fewer means can present a good show of top quality, then they should be awarded the BTL label.”
The power of the BTL initiative certainly lies in its European framework. Similar initiatives on a national scale seldom went anywhere, due to conflicts of interest and a lack of independence. When local circus directors get together on their own initiative, what starts out as a positive brainstorming session can easily turn into a round-table of incriminations about something like a permit request or a broken contract. The initiative of MEP Ujhelyi surpasses that level of local negotiation and bickering, giving an international sector an international quality framework. The coming years will require a lot of effort to expand the BTL-concept, to maintain the structure and succeed in communicating its achievements and goals to the sector. Only then will a comparison with the Michelin star system become a valid one. The Wieners, Pipo’s and Baronessen of this country don’t yet fit in the framework of the BTL, though it looks to be only a matter of time before the smaller circuses will be able to compete for the recognition, and the honour of slapping a Big Top Label on their tent.
The circus inspector and the BTL-committee see a standard checklist as the most effective means to achieve an objective quality assessment of a particular circus. After ticking off a number of administrative prerequisites, the process moves on to a qualitative evaluation. The evaluation focusses both on the structural framework of the organisation and the quality of the show itself. In each category a score from 1 to 5 is given. To receive the label, a circus has to have an average score of 4 or higher.
– VAT number or equivalent
– permanent address and/or winter residence
– no history of contract breach, unpaid salaries, etc.
– if applicable: licence which complies with national law, permanent winter site with sufficient number of stalls.
– Impression of the exterior (vehicles, box office, entrance, gate-work etc.)
– Condition and comfort of the seating (individual seating, benches etc.)
– Availability and state of sanitary facilities for public and personnel
– Outfit, attitude and friendliness of box office personnel, ushers and technicians
– Value for money (measured against average ticket price, adults and children)
– Advertisement, information and public relations (inclusive online ticketing etc.)
– If applicable: state of transport vehicles, stalls and paddocks, accessibility to the stalls and public training sessions
Quality of the show
– General impression of the show (public appreciation)
– Acrobatic acts (for example festival winners, special tricks, etc.)
– Clowns and/or comedy
– Decor design, costumes and props
– Light and Sound system and effects
– If applicable: Kindness to animals and entertaining presentation, healthy and well cared for animals
This article was published in Dutch in Circusmagazine #62 – March 2020 // Author: Alexander Wijsen // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information