[This article was published in CircusMagazine #49 – December 2016]
[Author: Filip Tielens – Translation: Craig Weston – Photography: Brecht Van Maele]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Circus Barones is one of the most flourishing circuses in Flanders. Director Richard Korittnig and his gang have been criss-crossing our country since 2002 with ever increasing success. That makes them an exception within the world of traditional circus. Their secret: Hard hard work, a program for the whole family and animals, according to Richard.
In October Circus Barones landed for a month in Antwerp, on a vast terrain next to De Singel. It was an impressive sight: the big top and the white lorries, shining in the autumn sun. On a Sunday morning Richard Korittnig looks out over the fairly large public gathering for the morning show. Many families with little children of course, even some with babies. Quite a few women wearing the hijab as well. No complaints about the hospitality at Circus Barones. The material is newer than new. The catering serves popcorn in sacks with the name of the circus printed on them. This company is clearly a strong brand.
Entertainment and Animals
“Come with us to Dreamland”, that’s how Richard begins the show, standing amongst the audience, in the tribune. The tempo of the show is immediately impressive, the acts quite varied. Circus Barones is notably hipper than most of its traditional colleagues. There’s a fluo-ring juggling number with flashy led-lights. The acts are performed on a contemporary soundtrack, with numbers like Gangnam Style, Rolling in the Deep and Danza Kuduro. “You have to mix traditional circus with modern show elements,” Richard tells us a few days after the show. “Circus must be art and entertainment.” At Barones it is clear that they strive for a ‘feel-good’ vibe, and that is infectious. The artists are really enjoying themselves, their smiles are not forced. The audience’s favourite is Patatje the clown, Richard’s son. He is the best actor of the troupe. With his handsome demeanour he even looks like a young Di Caprio.
And then there are of course the animals that Circus Barones is famous for. When the horses and ponies enter the piste, screams of delight fill the tent. A bit later a circle of lama’s move to the tune of Sex Bomb. Right before the intermission tamer Richard brings on an act with three camels. During the pause you can even take a photo with the camels. Years ago, Richard also had lions and tigers, until a ban on wild animals came into effect in 2007. Saying goodbye to his animals was one of the most difficult moments in Richard’s career. “I still miss my tigers terribly. But ok, that time will never come back. So I have to accept it.”
Richard Korittnig stems from a famous circus family that goes back to 1848. His father Rafael came to Flanders from Austria in 1998. First the family toured here as Circus Rafaëli, later they would change their name to Euro Flying Circus. That wasn’t much of a success. In 2000 the circus ground to a halt.
Richard, then a young man in his twenties, explains what went wrong. “We traveled in that period with our circus from one land to the next, but left a trail of money behind us. Added on to the financial problems were also the tensions between my father, my brother, and myself. Finally my father decided to stop and to sell everything. We received nothing. It was tough to see our circus story end like that, but I didn’t consider leaving the circus world for one second. I earned a bit of money working as a truck driver. In 2002 my wife and I took a leap of faith and started up our own company. So without the bankruptcy of the Euro Flying Circus, Circus Barones probably wouldn’t exist today.”
Hard hard work
As chic as the name Barones might sound, it was no reflection on the means that Richard actually had at his disposal in the beginning. Success only started to come after the first three or four years. “We had to build our circus up from of nothing. We worked ourselves to the bone for years. Luckily we are not a lazy family. Sixteen hour days are not the exception. If some people call us the best traditional circus in Flanders, then it’s a title we’ve earned.”
Richard gives the impression that he holds the reins firmly in hand, but is he also a strict boss? “When everyone works well, you’ll never hear me complain. Everyone just calls me Richard, I don’t need to hear any ‘Mister Director’. Everybody here is self-employed. So at any rate I am not a real ‘boss’.” It’s not only about work. “Sometimes we all go bowling together, or we light up the barbecue. Things are relaxed, but of course everyone has to pitch in when there’s work to be done.”
Circus Barones has managed to build up a faithful audience wherever they’ve played. “We don’t rest on our laurels or wait for the spectators to come to us, like I see with some of our circus colleagues. We stand each year for a full month in Antwerp. Then we have the time for a lot of promotion, as well as time for word of mouth to take effect.”
Presently Circus Barones only plays in Flanders. Two years ago they did a tour of the Netherlands, but for the moment the dreams of foreign success are on hold. “Why should we take a risk in other countries if we’ve built up such a good name here in Flanders? Nobody knows of Circus Barones in Germany or Holland or Spain. We would have to start all over again from square one.”
Traveling in other countries brings with it enormous costs and risks. Richard keeps a sharp eye on the finances. Not particularly surprising, coming from his turbulent history with the Euro Flying Circus. “Unlike my father, I feel less need to tour internationally,” he tells me. “My father was an unfettered circus man. ‘The world is ours,’ he would always say. He always wanted to take the circus to the land he thought would make us big. Unfortunately he never found that land…”
Children the boss?
I share with Richard my observation that many traditional circuses aim first and foremost for the children. Would focus on an adult audience help improve the quality, and the image of the traditional circus? “You have to ask yourself: why do people still go to the circus? To let their children feel the magic that they felt themselves when they were that young. At Circus Barones we want to make sure that the kids don’t get bored. Don’t get me wrong, in our program there are also acts for the adults. We are for all ages. But if the children are happy, then so are the parents, and the grandparents as well.”
Every year the program changes and Circus Barones hires other artists for the season. At the moment there are Ukrainian, Czech and Hungarian families along on tour. How does that actually happen, scouting for interesting artists? Does everyone just know everyone else in the circus world? “Of course we have a big network, but the idea that all the European circus people are part of one big family, is a myth. (laughs) These days we go in search of new artists via social media. There are specific Facebook groups where artists can present themselves, and where you can also put out a call for particular artists. And good agents who represent interesting artists remain absolutely necessary.”
The future of the circus
Richard has little affinity for the contemporary circus. “To my mind contemporary circus has nothing to do with the circus. Two people who shuffle circus techniques into an hour and a half of popping popcorn. That’s not circus… it’s theatre.” Richard believes that someone who comes from a circus school may be a good acrobat, but that doesn’t mean he understands the soul of the circus. “A caravan of lorries, tents and animals that roll into town, and bring a vacant lot or a grey parking lot to life: that is the essence of the circus. You have to suddenly get the feeling: something is going to happen here. Circus also has to happen in a round tent, not in a theatre where the artists play for one evening and leave again when that show is over.”
I offer up the fact that many classic circuses have had to close the books in recent years. For Richard that doesn’t mean that the interest for traditional circus has decreased. “There are indeed circuses that have had to stop, and there are some for whom things are not going well at the moment. But I think that has more to do with a lack of motivation, too little promotion, or laziness, than the fact that circus has lost its appeal. Otherwise we couldn’t have grown as we have at Barones these past fifteen years. The traditional circus will always survive, as long as children and their parents still find it fun. The circus is not an endangered species, even if it will surely continue to change.”
Circus Barones intends at any rate to continue for many years to come. Richard’s three children are ready to take over one day from their father. There’s only one thing that Richard fears. “The day that a general ban comes on animals in the circus, then we will certainly leave Belgium. Better that than to give up our animals. That would go straight to the heart of Barones.”