The circuses I went to when I was a child had fat-footed clowns, ringleaders in top hats and tails, exotic animals, sequinned acrobats. Some of these sawdust-and-canvas circuses – Smart’s, Zippo’s, Fossett’s – continue to tour, but they are increasingly scarce. Costs are high and audiences are getting smaller. Animals have disappeared from the ring as their exoticism has become familiar and their welfare a matter of concern. Stunts by domestic animals – the modern counterparts of the ‘learned pigs’ of Barnum and Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ which entertained 19th-century audiences by playing patriotic tunes on xylophones – have limited appeal. More than 200 councils have banned circuses featuring animals from their parks. But circus is moving away from the big top. Circus schools offer vocational courses and circus acts entertain at street and music festivals, motor shows and corporate events. The New Millennium Experience Company, which has more than a hundred members, will give daily performances in the Dome throughout next year.
Even the world’s most famous circuses, such as the Moscow Circus and the Chinese State Circus, are in danger of losing their audiences, and are slickly packaged and marketed to compete with television and film. The French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil, based in Montreal, offers a grand ‘themed’ spectacle of dance, circus, music and gymnastics. The fact that Cirque du Soleil gets a tenth of its revenue from merchandise has led Pierre Billot-Boudon, founder of the French avant-garde troupe Archaos, to compare it to McDonald’s; but the formula is copied everywhere.
Five years ago, I tore out an article about circus schools in London. A few months later, another article, accompanied by a picture of a bald man feeding a scorpion into his mouth, gave the telephone number for Circus Space in Hoxton. I called, and after a few tentative questions, booked an introductory session. The exhilaration of that afternoon of juggling, acrobalance, flying and static trapeze persuaded me to book any class that was available. I was set on the flying trapeze, but was advised to start with static.
I have stuck with static, even though it is often considered merely preparatory to flying or swinging trapeze. In static, the bar remains as still as possible while the artist performs tricks on, under, above and around it. All you need to have to learn trapeze is a sense of balance; the rest is discipline and practice. One class a week soon became two and I added classes in corde lisse (vertical rope), swinging trapeze and clowning. A friend and I formed a doubles trapeze partnership – two people, one trapeze – called ‘Apocalipstix’, and still spend many afternoons in various contortions on the bar. We are slowly accumulating the materials necessary for finding an agent and marketing our act – costumes, photographs, postcards, video footage.
I have also been developing my solo trapeze act. The first half-hour of a class is spent doing conditioning exercises, from pull-ups and leg lifts to hocks, roll-ups and ‘skinning the cat’ (which starts in a pike below the bar, and involves dropping the feet towards the ground until the shoulders are at the point of dislocation, before pulling up again to pike). For the past few months I have spent every Tuesday and Friday evening in the static studio, a lunge belt around my waist, buttocks clenched, body hooked upside-down with feet flexed over the bar, poised to attempt the ‘one-toe’ (actually one-foot) hang. To make the idea – and the act – of hanging from one foot less strange, it helps to think of your feet as operating the pedals in a car, to imagine that you are lifting one foot off the clutch as the other presses down on the accelerator. For too long, as I drew the free leg down into an arabesque, I would fall off, spinning through 180 degrees to land on bloodless feet on the crash-mat. Now I can hang on, if only for a few seconds.
Last summer I made my debut solo performance in a cabaret at Circus Space. Cabarets give seasoned performers the chance to experiment with new material, and novices their first taste of an audience. My initial preparation was to note down moves for a routine on small squares of coloured origami paper which I jumbled up, stapled into my diary, slipped into pockets and rearranged to give me new ideas. These scribblings read like an inventory of bric-à-brac (crucifix, candle stand, meathook, coffin, coathanger, mill wheel); or phantasmagorical figures in a mariner’s dream (angel-on-the-ropes, siren, moonfish, mermaid); or a select menagerie (eagle, gazelle, swallow). With a few balances (back, knees, front, bum, waist) and a handful of transitional moves (one-shoulder dislocation, double-leg skinner, Amazon pirouette) scattered in, I had an act, though I still had to decide about music, costume, closing sequence and my ‘persona’. I found an ivory-coloured Afro wig in a costume shop, and decided to be a blowsy operatic creature of the mid-19th century, to complement my hasty choice of Bellini’s ‘Come per me sereno’ as musical accompaniment. I have a box at home filled with the various articles bought and then discarded in the week before the cabaret: ten metres of white net; one shocking-pink satin corset, boned and laced; ten tiny pink roses fashioned from silk ribbon; a pair of white cotton knickers with frilled edging; a length of fussy cream lace; three metres of blue sequins.
I did use two decorative butterflies, whose wings were made of feathers, dyed pink and spotted brown, and whose spongy bodies were fixed to long metal spikes like hatpins. I speared one through the seam of a blue vest, and knotted the other into the tangle of synthetic curls that tickled my forehead. This fuzzy halo was held in place with hairpins and daubs of a putrid-smelling glue which bled dark rivulets down my powdered white cheeks and smeared the beauty spot pencilled above my Cupid’s-bow. I applied a similar glue to my palms.
On the night of the cabaret, as I sat in the dressing room at Circus Space unscrewing the lid of the glue, Danny burst in, exuberant at the applause following his performance. His features were blurred beneath a film of sweat and his yellow T-shirt was flecked with saliva that had dripped from the inside of the large yellow balloon he inflates over his head at the climax of his act. One shoulder, then the other, is shrugged into the balloon until all of his body but his legs is inside. The dressing room was overheated with the crush of bodies. Danny eyed my wig and said I would boil alive as soon as I got downstairs. Then we heard the bad news about the quartet on the flying rig. Debilitated by the heat, each of the four had toppled to the mat at some point during their performance. They kept going, until one fell so badly on her return to the platform that an ambulance had to be called and the interval was extended.
I opened the delayed second half of the cabaret. I enjoyed myself until, performing a front balance, I noticed several inches of cleavage escaping from my vest. There was no way to adjust my underwear, so I just hoped that an exposure of bosom would fit with the operatic theme. As I twisted upside down into the rope to begin my descent my costume ambushed me again, the vest riding up to expose soft skin, the rope coiling itself around my bared hips in an intimate embrace, the combination causing a sudden halt, as when skis hit mud. I juddered towards the floor. The best balm for the burn caused by the rope – one of the crueller of the minor injuries sustained in circus – is urine. It was autumn before the scar across my left flank faded from an angry red through pink to white.
Some pain and discomfort is inevitable in a circus career. One evening, not long after the cabaret, a student writing a thesis on circus injuries handed me a questionnaire asking for personal details of physical problems. I had seen a physiotherapist, an osteopath, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist for treatment of severe back pain and had been told that I had spinal hyperextension and slight scoliosis, though it wasn’t clear whether trapeze was the cause of the problem or merely an aggravating factor. The girl standing next to me filled in her questionnaire with careful consideration, documenting every burn, scab, scar and bruise she had ever suffered. I now think of bruises as a useful indication of whether or not I’ve executed a move correctly. The grazed skin at the tip of my spine marks the place where the body comes into contact with the trapeze in a neck hang. This move is difficult to perfect, but a definite crowd-pleaser. It involves suspending the entire body beneath the trapeze by extending the neck over the bar, and risks straining the muscles of the neck (the trapezius and erector spinae) and osteo-arthritic degeneration in the spinal vertebrae. ‘E pulvere lux et vis,’ says the sign above the main entrance to Circus Space, which is on the site of the old Shoreditch power station. A slight reshuffling produces ‘E vi et luce pulvis’, a phrase altogether better suited to the effects of trapeze.