[This article was published in CircusMagazine #47 – June 2016]
[Author: Lien Vanbossele – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
If you’re in search of classic circus with big trailers and an extensive menagerie, you would be best these days to head across the border. To France for example, where Cirque Arlette Gruss is packing its tent to the seams, performance after performance. As a child, art scholar and circus fanatic Lien Vanbossele had already seen this circus in action. A quarter of a century later she traveled to Lille to treat herself to a portion of pure nostalgia.
Perhaps it’s inflated youth sentiment, but I often think back to the traditional circuses I went to as a little girl. The horses of Circus Krone, the number with Lucky and his elephant in the Wiener Circus, they’re still with me. I have a photograph with Oleg Popov in the Great Russian Circus, and with a tiger cub in my arms at the Circus Darix Togni. I was absolutely crazy about the quiff of Roncalli’s Fumagalli. Yes, even secretly in love with Solo, the white clown from Circus Ronaldo.
I inherited my love for the circus from my father. He got the bug from his father. And it probably came from the generations before him. My father and I went everywhere together. I must have been about seven. As soon as we heard there would be a circus coming to our parts, the excitement took hold. A few days before the first show we would invariably be making the same detour, just to catch a glimpse of the old caravans and the tent being put up. Or in the afternoon, when life in the caravans would be starting up, we would linger to watch the wild animals in their cages. For minutes on end, in the hope of making some kind of connection with those powerful animals. That’s when my fascination for the cat family started. In the circus there were still panthers, leopards and jaguars. Today that kind of circus is as rare as the animals themselves. There are a lot of misconceptions about panthers and leopards. It’s actually the same animal, the name depends on whether they come originally from Asia or Africa. A jaguar, on the contrary, is another animal, originating in America, with a heavier build than the panther.
Life around the tent is so rich. It’s like watching a road movie with the feeling of us-against-the-world. A feeling I still share with my father. Today, twenty-five years down the line, it’s me that takes him to the circus. It’s completely different than it used to be. My studies have something to do with that. As art scholar you develop another, rather artistic and critical perspective. Where once we just tarried in the wonderful atmosphere of that big tent, we now find ourselves going to theatres and festivals. One is not superior to the other; the experiences are just entirely different.
Peace in the Cage
Circus Arlette Gruss has traveled the world over since 1985 and is known for its dressage of panthers. Next to that, the introduction of a live orchestra in that period was considered the height of innovation. With the motto ‘Avec nous, faites la différence!’, ( With us, make the difference! ) during all those years they presented us circus as the circus was meant to be. The audience numbers today confirm it. Though the traditional circuses are having a hard go of it these days, this particular example hasn’t seemed to suffer in the least.
It’s a beautiful day with a clear blue sky and a glowing springtime sun as we arrive in Lille. The circus is built up in a gigantic field on the edge of town. We spot the white-red big top from quite a distance, sparkling in the light reflecting off of its surface. Left and right, people are streaming in from all directions. The view is memorable. Arlette Gruss is undoubtably the high point of the day. The only thing missing is some slow-motion and a dreamy soundscape from Sufjan Stevens to convince us we are in a film. Admittedly, I’m a romantic soul. My expectations are high.
The tent is filled with spectators of every sort. Hawkers of program books and kitschy souvenirs battle for the attention. There’s also candy floss, the pink kind, irresistible to pretty little girls. Nothing’s changed: I was just like that as a kid, happy with whatever was shiny and sweet. In anticipation of the crowning event. That the show itself is just as shiny and painfully sweet is something you only realize later in life.
Cost and effort have not been spared, everything is meticulously as it should be. But there is not an ounce of new-ness left. A slick young dandy with a Stromae-look takes on the role of the ringmaster. His lack of years doesn’t do much to help his credibility. The live music takes you up in the flow of things. The program includes a broad range of animal acts: elephants, zebras, horses… Even the more exotic circus animals like the seals and the muskrats have their own numbers and are assured of their place in the hearts of the audience. Also on offer, a sexy hand-to-hand duo, impressive arial acrobatics and a juggling strong-woman who later also manages to toss a guy up into the air with seeming ease. A death-defying motorcycle stunt brings things to a climax. A true cliffhanger that convinces the audience to all come back next time for more.
I’m particularily impressed by the lions and tigers. Not so much by the act itself, which is more than professional, but especially by the splendor and elegance of the animals themselves. One lion surpasses all the others. He is markedly larger and has lighter fur, quite different than all the other wild cats. His head is especially beautiful, I am constantly drawn to him. With his collossal body he seems to bring peace to the cage. If only that cage could be traded in for the Serengeti. The tamer balances on the fine line between safety and danger. Tamers consciously tease their animals, you know that as a spectator, but at the moment it happens I am still never quite sure. One tiger takes several swipes at the tamer. No blood is drawn, there’s a general sigh of relief, and the entr’acte with the clowns can begin. In circus the danger is real. Real danger is sensational.
I go to each new performance in search of the magic of circus. Without that magic a show is no more than ordinary entertainment. But when the magic is there, it can lift your heart. I’m not under any illusions and I know that the magic is as well being fed with a scrapbook of images from my youth, rising to the surface once again. Memories spiced up with bits that I’ve picked up along the way. One of those bits is the way that HBO managed to visually bring a traveling circus to life in the series Carnivàle. Subconsciously, that series is always with me, because I am seduced by the style. It offers a distorted view of reality. It influences my real experience. A pair of vintage glasses which in my case give everything a retro-look.
As a child you experience the magic in a spontaneous way. You look up to the clowns and the “pretty ladies” in their revealing costumes. The simple fact that they are big and you are small provides you with an unforgettable impression. As you grow older your body starts to proportionally take on the size and contours of the bodies in the circus ring. And your perspective changes as well, because that clown is now optically on the same level that you are. And therein lies a fundamental difference: as an adult you look at things differently than as a child. You are a different person in life and limb.
Circus Arlette Gruss succeeds in bringing us “Le Cirque” with a sure-fired formula that has worked for them for decades. Traditional circus is alive and well in France. It gives the people what they want: bread and … . For an instant I felt like a little girl again. But not in the way I was hoping for. With the exception of a few brief moments I mostly felt like I was being talked down to. The classic circus makes little or no distinction between adults and children. The big ones are addressed in the same tone as the little ones; that is often a point of pride in the publicity. Once you’ve realized that, your vintage glasses fall off and the magic disappears.
My experience in Lille can’t hold a candle to all the beautiful moments from the past, but that’s all right. My father and I will always be huge fans of the circus, and nothing is going to change that. I think of the children who will look back in 25 years to this one Sunday at the Circus Arlette Gruss in Lille. Maybe they will also know by then that a panther and a leopard are the same animal, but that the jaguar is not.
Seen on March 13, 2016 in Lille, France.