It has been about twenty years since I last went to a circus, and my clearest memories of a circus are even older than that, so I should have been a bit more prepared to view one through adult eyes.
We attended a matinée performance of Circus Royale in a small country town so instead of a bustling evening carnival atmosphere I found the whole thing a little depressing. The sideshow vendors (both of them) were clearly experiencing another mundane day at the office. The afternoon sunshine pierced through the tawdry veneer of glitz and glamour revealing the tatty condition of a working circus.
But perhaps I am being too harsh. While outside the bigtop was certainly depressing, inside was another story. The bigtop was both much larger and more comfortable than I imagined. And away from the harsh, judgemental glare of sunshine the whole atmosphere became slightly more enchanting.
As is bound to be the way with these things, the show started slowly. And I don’t know if it is my age, but a lot of the performers looked a lot younger than they perhaps ought to have.
The first few acts were easily the weakest of the entire show, with the four ponies particularly distressing. Now, I am not a horse person, nor a qualified animal handler, but one of the ponies looked incredibly depressed. This opinion stems almost entirely from reading anthropomorphised body language, and an expert in horses might be able to dismiss the low-held head, but in an entertainment setting, looking depressed is what counts.
There were a number of other animal acts. The acts involving larger animals (cows, camels, ponies) were more of a parade around the ring than anything else. The only truly enjoyable acts were the ones with the dogs, though mostly that was due to the humour of the trainer. All the animals—aside from the one that needed a prescription for pony prozac—looked as though they were treated and fed well. I did also hear that one of the cows was taken to the local vet and was removed from the show to rest.
The show did lack a trapeze or high-wire act, though there were a few acts that did take place up high. And while these acts were solid, it would have been nice to see a proper trapeze act. (The link on the website lists such acts as I am talking about, but they were not in the performance I attended.)
The two most impressive acts in the circus are the much touted “Man in the Bottle” and the “Wheel of Death.” One of the acts is accurately named, the other overstating the case slightly. I found both of the acts utterly engrossing and impressive.
In these days where any number of incredible things are readily available, the unusual skills of circus performers do not seem as impressive as they once might have. When Cirque du Soleil produce television specials, when impressive human feats are shared over the internet, and when movies make the incredible look probable, the impact of the circus cannot help but suffer by comparison. But from these weaknesses the circus can draw its strengths. Whereas those competing experiences are mediated through a screen the circus has an intimate immediacy. Those other experiences are streamed constantly directly into our homes, either at the click of a button or unbidden; the circus is an event. It involves anticipation, readying, travelling. And that is what makes the circus so exciting—the fact that it comes to town so rarely.