Current Affairs

Circus for the soul

Nearly 250 years since the birth of the modern circus, new and innovative shows are reclaiming the arena and pulling in the crowds with genre-bending acts

The UK’s pre-eminent porcelain-plate spinner, AndrewVan Buren, jokes that he was born in a circus trunk, as his father and mother, illusionists Fred and Greta, travelled the globe to star at variety shows. Despite this transient upbringing, watching his parents toil to perfect their legendary vanishing-motorbike- and-rider trick, the young Van Buren never doubted that he would continue the family heritage.

“As a child, I would lie awake at night listening to the gentle, melodic hum of the circus generator, only for it to be pierced by the occasional roar of an animal hidden by the dark,” recalls the ponytailed Van Buren, now in his 40s. “All along I knew that I wanted to be a performer. To keep it going in the family was a badge of honour. It’s probably true when they say we have sawdust in our blood.” Van Buren is one of a lucky few to have achieved worldwide fame and relative fortune through his craft. His showcase slots on The Generation Game, Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and Blue Peter have helped, but he insists that the on-stage acclaim is the real reward.

“We perform for a living, yes for the money, but feeding it all is that audience reaction,” he says. “The euphoria of being clapped and cheered can last for hours, and feels like the buzz of a drug. The better you get, the longer you want it to last… When you put the costume on, you become a different person, an alter-ego. At times the men are like superheroes, the ladies birds of paradise, flying through the air and achieving the seemingly impossible.”

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It is just under 250 years since the birth of the modern circus, when Philip Astley, a cabinetmaker’s son from Newcastle-Under-Lyme – where the Van Burens now reside – opened up a show of horseback tricks at Halfpenny Hatch on the Southbank between Blackfriars and Westminster bridges. The circular arena with a diameter of 42 feet was optimal, as it gave him enough centrifugal force to balance standing on the back of a galloping horse.

At times the men are like superheroes, the ladies birds of paradise, flying through the air and achieving the seemingly impossible

That circular arena would go on to become the universal standard, and the word ‘circus’, which derives from the Latin for a circular line, became synonymous with spectacular shows combining horses, gymnasts, clowns and musicians — all acts added by Astley to entertain his growing crowds. Astley expanded his shows across London, and then to France, where he was invited to perform before Louis XV in Versailles in 1772.

Over the years, the form took on its own conventions. In the late 1880s it peaked, and by the end of the 20th century it had shrunk to the fringes of mainstream culture. However, the genre has been enjoying a renaissance as new, innovative shows break the traditional settings and structures of circus and play to packed-out houses.


Stephen Makin, head of creative producing at Udderbelly Productions, a company that has helped to bring the circus back to London through groundbreaking shows on the Southbank, says that circus is on the cusp of a new golden age that could surpass its 19th-century heyday. “When I was growing up the circus was very rigid: there was the big top, clowns, animals, and that was about it,” he says. “It was trickpause- clap-repeat entertainment and didn’t push any other buttons than the sugar button, the one that purely entertains. It made you gasp, but didn’t speak to other parts of the mind or the soul.”

circus 3Makin has booked Australian acrobat troupe Circa for the Udderbelly Festival, which runs on the Southbank – close to where Astley performed at Halfpenny Hatch all those years ago – from April until August. Their show is the antithesis of the traditional circus, combining it with dance and theatre.

“Nothing is on stage unless it has to be there, everything is absolutely necessary,” Makin says. “The artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, told me that he makes shows to describe a feeling that there aren’twords for. That’s the real magic of it: it taps into something else in the psyche.”

Makin believes that within the next 10 to 15 years, the circus will return to being a staple of the UK entertainment business, and that the troupes and acts currently cutting their teeth will grow up to rival circus’ international superpower, Canada’s Cirque du Soleil.

“We are dealing with our first generation of contemporary circus artists,” he says. “At the moment they are appearing in shows but in due course they will make the shows; that’s when the equivalent of Andrew Lloyd Webber for the circus world will emerge, and the public’s imagination will be captured.” The revival may be underway, but it has not reached everyone yet. Chris Bull, a Bristol-based tightrope walker — or funambulist — who performs under the stage name ‘Bullzini’, went travelling in his late teens, armed with four juggling balls and little else. After becoming immersed in the circus community and its subcultures — one of his good Spanish friends can juggle with his feet — he returned to the UK more than a decade later as one of only around 10 professional funambulists. Despite his rare skill he is often down to his last £100.

“I scrape though,” the 38-year-old admits, “but the real payoff is certainly the adoration of the crowd when I perform. It does take dedication and a hell of a lot of hours of repetition beforehand – four hours practice on the rope a day, on top of yoga and mediation – and the show may only
last a couple of minutes.”

Bull says he and his fellow performers can sense a significant increase in interest in their art, and the circus in general, in terms of appreciation and also participation. He and his wife Phoebe Baker, who were married on a tightrope 30 feet above the ground, are hosting the UK’s first funambulist convention, No Strings, in June.


Even though he hails from the old school, Andrew Van Buren is delighted with the revival of the circus in Britain.

“I’m over the moon with where it is going,” he says. “Now there are so many varieties of shows – art, opera, theatre, ballet – it is hard to pigeonhole them anymore, they mix them all together. It
really is the best entertainment for the family, because it appeals to all age groups, there is nothing to offend anybody.”

The universality of the circus, which still contains little spoken content, means that it has spread across the world. Van Buren says that it is important to remember that it all started on the Southbank with Philip Astley — whom he calls “the Shakespeare of circus”. Van Buren is leading The Philip Astley Project which, in 2018, will produce a series of events to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his Halfpenny Hatch performance. Discussions are underway with local politicians about commissioning a statue which will be positioned in a prominent place in the Staffordshire market town.

He has also made it his mission to locate and mark his idol’s final resting place. Astley died in 1814 after suffering from gout while performing in Paris. He is buried in the French capital’s famous Neo-Gothic cemetery, in an unmarked grave – one last vanishing trick by the so-called father of the modern circus.

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