DEA BIRKETT Paris – where the show never closed
In the first of a series marking the 250th anniversary of the circus, Dea Birkett– the official Ringmaster of Circus250 – goes to Paris where circus is defying the gilets jaunes
The message went out worldwide last Saturday – Paris’ major cultural institutions were shutting down due to the gilets jaunes demonstrations.
The Eiffel Tower bolted its iron doors. The masterpieces in Louvre and Musee d’Orsay would be unadmired for the entire day, Notre Dame’s pews empty. With more demonstrations possible this coming weekend, is there any point jumping on the Eurostar to Gare du Nord?
Yes. In fact, Paris’s main cultural institutions have remained open throughout the four weeks of rioting and will continue to do so. They are the French capital’s Christmas circuses.
There are 15 winter circuses in Paris ranging from contemporary circus Cirque Eloize’s Saloon – a Wild West musical romp in a suburban arts centre (pictured, credit Jules Trupin) – to the traditional Tzigane Romany circus performed in a tiny tent around log fires by the Bois de Boulogne. These shows stay open because they sit outside the main cultural districts in the centre of town.
It’s the same in every city. In London circuses grew up 250 years ago on the South Bank, in opposition to and in competition with the Royal Opera House and Royal Academy of Arts on the north bank of the River Thames. Wherever you go, you’ll find the circus both metaphorically and literally on the edge. So while demonstrators gather in France’s famous monumental squares and august institutions shut shop, the circus, as always, go on
So why aren’t visitors directed towards them? There are plenty of quiet safe routes to a ringside across the city. Because although these winter circuses are an annual institution, and every Parisian will visit one over of the festive period, outsiders rarely trespass into their tents or alternative venues.
Since the 1930s Cirque d’Hiver has been enchanting families in its beautiful purpose-built 19thcentury circus building, the oldest in the world. Yet it isn’t listed in any guidebooks. Cirque Phenix, a 5,000-seat tent out by the Zoological Gardens, is currently showing the magnificent jaw-dropping Stars of the Peking Circus. It’s sold out every night. But only the Zoo features in “Things to see and do in Paris”. Top class circus remains the city’s best-kept secret.
In Paris, circuses are guaranteed audiences for their extravaganzas. Half of the tickets for Cirque Phenix, as well as many of the other shows across the city, are sold to businesses in advance. French workers are customarily treated to a Christmas outing by their employers and a trip to the circus is the top treat. When I was at Cirque Phenix, Sodexo and Renault employees made up the majority of the audience.
While Christmas circuses in Paris flourish, there’s just one big top in London – Zippos at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Belfast is doing better with two - Tumble Circus in Writers Square and Gandeys Greatest Snowman Circus in the city’s own Wonderland. It would be rare and wonderful if a British business treated the whole team to a night under the big top.
So if you want to spend a weekend seeing circus, jump on the Eurostar. Don’t let the riots put you off. The finest culture Paris offers will be open whatever.