DEA BIRKETT Fear and risk – still part of the circus

In the next on her series marking the 250th anniversary of the circus, Dea Birkett – the official Ringmaster of Circus250 – sees that life under the Big Top is as perilous as ever

Circus’s root is risk. When Patty and Philip Astley drew out the first ring on London’s Southbank in 1768, Patty’s act was to ride around smothered in a swarm of bees. Her trick, as their commercial enterprise, often failed. Circus has been taking physical and financial risks ever since.

In an increasingly personally safe and risk-free world, circus reminds us of a basic instinct we now seldom have the opportunity to feel – empathetic primal fear. The best of circus knows this and places it at the heart of the performance. It is these brief but astounding moments that the audience often remembers. It is these that make us gasp.

Much circus now struggles to include this frisson. Safety lunges, nets and mats are now thankfully standard. And it’s a long time since a circus performer in Britain put their head inside a lion’s jaw. Alexander Lacey, a lion tamer who works across Europe and America, has forearms covered in the scars of big cats’ claws. He’s the last of a kind. Today a circus performer is more likely to be dancing with a life-sized puppet of a circus animal than placing themselves in a cage with a real one.

When the Circus250 Caravan appeared at Chapelfield Festival in Norwich, it was surrounded by elephants much as it would have been when lived in by a traditional circus performer over 30 years ago. Except this time, the elephants were puppets 

For the Norwich Circus250 celebrations, Tin House made six life-sized elephant puppets to recreate a parade through the city’s streets. At Circus 1903, currently playing at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank, the makers of Warhorse have created a bull and a baby elephant for the show. Humans can properly replace animals too - Stickleback Plasticus are two street performers with a fabulous, if far from terrifying, walkabout - she’s the lion tamer, he’s the lion.

Of course, even with proper safety precautions, many circus acts require performers to take incredible physical risks, some to astounding extremes. Chair balancer Ellis Grover, to open the Out There Festival in Great Yarmouth last year, balanced on two chairs teetering on the edge of a church spire hundreds of feet above the streets below. Chris Bullzini’s wonderful high wire walks, at The Piece Hall in Halifax or Alexandra Palace in London, don’t only mimic but re-enact both the style and the danger of his 19th century antecedents. Pictured here by Piet Hein is the Zippo's Circus Wheel of Death.

But risk in the circus doesn’t have to be life endangering. Britain’s best clown Tweedy deliberately tumbles and falls from his slack rope, messing everything up in his one-man shows.

Knowing the instinctive appeal of risk, circus often fakes it. There’s the high wire walker who deliberately falls to hang by his hands on the wire, the blindfolded Wheel of Death performer who stumbles at the very highest point. That’s because risk in circus isn’t only about physical risk, but risk of failure.

At the Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth, Britain’s oldest circus building, although billed as “the world’s best juggler” Roberto Carlos didn’t just try to juggle eight clubs once or twice or thrice, but eight times at the Summer Spectacular show I watched. He never succeeded. But in the finale, it was Carlos who received the loudest applause. Ask the audience afterwards for their favourite act, and they’d have said the Mexican juggler. Failure, combined with showmanship, can be fabulous. It’s surely worth the risk.

So why is much circus now so frightened of failing? Contemporary circus can struggle with incorporating jeopardy, defined as “the danger of loss or failure”. Many contemporary acts are more akin to contemporary dance - beautiful but safe. Cirque du Soleil, whose Totem opens on January 12 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, has literally cleaned up circus, removing not only the sawdust but any flaw in the display. On the opening night, I expect every act in Totemwill be perfect 

Perhaps the risks circus now faces, as it enters its 251styear, are artistic. How does it become even more artistically adventurous while still making the audience gasp? Risk in live performance is rare and wonderful. Let’s keep it alive.


For all circus events happening throughout UK and Ireland in January 2019 go to

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