As Real as You Can Get

15th June 2018

Two hundred and fifty years ago a man drew a circle – diameter 42 feet – at Glover’s Halfpenny Hatch, a little patch of land between Blackfriars and Westminster bridges. Here he performed horse-riding tricks and stunts to the crowd. In doing so, Philip Astley birthed the modern circus. Francesca Baker celebrates a form of entertainment that continues to beguile and influence us all today…

A Few years on from the drawing of that circle, Astley, a riding school owner, hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to fill in the pauses between acts. Eventually the ring was surrounded by seats, and Astley’s ‘Royal Amphitheatre’ became famous, even featuring in novels by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. It’s a form of entertainment that has morphed and changed but remains a colourful and entertaining part of the modern world.

At any time throughout the year fairgrounds and fields across the country play host to travelling circuses. The bright Big Top and tents that are scattered across the fields in the day transform into a vibrant adventure once the performance begins, with clowns, tumbling performers, brave acrobats and deft magicians all taking their place in the ring. Behind the fantasy world is a busy industry and intriguing lifestyle with a long history.

Circus was founded in Britain and remains embedded in our society, even though we might not realise it. ‘There’s not an area of our culture that isn’t influenced and touched by circus. It’s part of who we are,’ says Dea Birkett, who runs – or is the ‘ringmaster’ of – Circus250, the umbrella organisation for anniversary events taking place this year. Dea, a writer, journalist, broadcaster and former circus performer, is passionate about the role that circus plays in contemporary life, and offers plenty of examples of how it features. We see it in pictures in our storybooks. It pops up on fields near our homes. Great artists such as Sir Peter Blake, who designed the Circus 250 logo, and designers like Zandra Rhodes are all influenced by circus. Even Take That and Kylie based shows on circus themes.

The circus has been part of Andrew Van Buren’s life from a young age. He grew up in Newcastle-under-Lyme, like Astley, who was born there in 1742. His parents ran an illusion show, and he is a plate spinner, illusionist and performer. In 1992 Van Buren and his father put on a special show to celebrate Philip Astley’s 250th birthday, and commissioned and self-funded the building of a portable life-sized statue of Philip Astley. In 2015 he and his wife set up the Philip Astley Project, running events and educational workshops. Clearly passionate about the circus’ history, he also celebrates its evolution. “Many modern day acts are based on the early versions, but it is all constantly evolving,” he says. “When Philip Astley started this modern day circus it was him plus horses demonstrating equestrianism. [It was] later that he brought in the other performers, like the acrobats, wire walkers, clowns. Now the wild animal element is being faded out, and shows are predominantly domesticated animals or all human. In a lot of cases the horses are replaced by motorbikes.”

Whilst Astley is credited with founding the modern circus, the actual tricks and art forms existed long before he gathered them together. There’s evidence of acrobatic performances in Ancient China, animal tricks in the Ancient Greek and Roman empire, magic and illusion as entertainment in medieval Britain and horse stunts in the Tudor period. What Astley did was bring them all together into that 42 foot ring (which is still the standard size of a circus ring today).

Zana Cousins-Greenwood runs a horse stunt team and training centre on the Gaddesden Estate, just north of Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, and is organising her own 250th anniversary celebrations this summer. She and her team still perform tricks in the ring, Roman Riding – standing on the backs of two or more horses – and military showmanship with swords, just like Astley did. “It hasn’t changed much at all,” she says. “Of course, now we all develop new acts and stunts but personally I like to remember the important work of people like Philip Astley in our modern displays. The audiences still like the drama of a fast horse act and the connection between horse and rider, and the trust between the two to be able to display daring feats of bravery and incredible skill.”

Circus thrives on innovation, and this constant development means that there is huge diversity in the style of show available. Slick and highly polished performances take place in theatres, themes such as horror or punk are found in bars, and the good old family show continues to tour. It’s a performance with many levels. You can watch for the story. You can see the artistry. You can marvel at the mechanics. You always get something.

Katherine Kavanagh runs The Circus Diaries, a platform to increase the visibility of circus and its shows. As a performer and theatre-maker, she thinks that circus should be considered as theatre. For her the real draw is the opportunity it offers to escape the everyday. “Circus is important because it offers freedom and fantasy, as it always has, and a place where it is ok to be outside society’s norms,” she explains. “Perhaps more importantly now, in our increasingly digital world, it offers a vision of how human bodies can be used, and a vast array of participatory opportunities that studies have proven to help with social, physical and mental well-being for all ages. We have these brilliant capacities, and circus can give everyone something personal to aspire to.” Dea Birkett agrees. “It lets you express yourself in new ways, without the need for words. In a digital age, it strips us bare back to emotion and senses. It’s as real as you can get.”

The team behind Circus250 are working hard to have circus recognised as an art form, and a democratic one at that. It’s family entertainment in the best possible way – dynamic, fun, inclusive and full of variety. As Andrew van Buren explains, “Circus breaks language barriers, putting all nationalities and beliefs working in the same ring together. But it’s also the same for the audience sitting next to each other. To this day it’s a form of entertainment that appeals to all no matter of religion, race, or class. It is for all.”

And if you’re visiting the circus this summer, what should you do? According to Andrew, show your appreciation. “If you are enjoying a performance, then let the performer know. Yes, it’s a job that we do, but when we are on stage or in the ring, it’s not about the money, it’s about the warmth and love that an audience gives us. There is no feeling like doing a great performance and the audience appreciating it. The applause and cheers fuel the performer. They have spent a lifetime devoting themselves to those few minutes of performance, so let them know you appreciate it… the more the audience gives, the more the performer can.’

Circus is a very sensual experience. You watch the show, listen to the music, taste the candy floss and get swept up in the emotions. Dea Birkett believes it is truly magical. “It appears, creates a world of wonders, then disappears as if it’s never been there. When I was a circus performer, I remember how we used to fill in the holes made by the giant tent pegs before we left the grounds. When you look at where the circus once was, it’s as if it was a dream. You can’t imagine it was there. I think this dreamlike quality is what makes it continue – dreams, unlike reality, don’t die.”

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