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The Greatest Shows on Earth:

A History of the Circus

by Linda Simon

(London Times)

IN 1942, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus staged a ballet in New York's Madison Square ­Garden. Igor Stravinsky wrote the music, George Balanchine did the choreography and it was danced by 50 ­ballerinas and 50 elephants, all wearing pink tutus. This striking innovation attracted some criticism, but it was true to the ­infinitely adaptable nature of circus that, as Linda Simon’s engrossing book bears out, was the most comprehensive popular art form ever invented.

When it began is a bit foggy. Simon thinks contortionists were the first circus performers, and they go back to prehistory. A 1200BC Egyptian wall-painting shows a dancing girl arching backwards to form a hoop. In ancient Rome, acrobats and ­jugglers provided light entertainment in between the chariot races and wild-beast shows, and were popular, it seems, with the young. Circus scenes appear on children's tombs. The annual fairs in medieval Europe had tightrope walkers and performing dogs and monkeys, but the modern circus did not really emerge until the late 18th century, at first in London and Paris, reaching America in 1793.

Initially the only acts were feats of daring horsemanship, and the tone was rather upper-class. But the circus's genius for diversification soon prevailed. Clowns and rope-dancers were added. So were women riders, who proved as daring as the men, balancing on tiptoe on horseback as they sped round the ring, and turning ­somersaults. Close-fitting pink silk body suits, giving the appearance of nakedness, added to their appeal.

The circus mirrored the dynamic growth and ruthless competition that epitomised the 19th century. Barnum & Bailey’s ­circus, the creation of the American impresario Phineas Barnum, accommodated 11,000 spectators and his big top had not just one ring but two, then three, each with different acts going on simultaneously. It travelled from city to city by special trains, like a small town on the move, and the pre-show parade through the streets had 12 golden chariots, 100 animal cages and a revolving Temple of Juno. It stretched for three miles. 'The greatest show on earth' was educational as well as awesome, with an orchestra, a polytechnic institute, a museum and a hall of classical statuary. When it came to London in 1889, it dazzled audiences, and climaxed with a historical extravaganza, Nero and the Destruction of Rome, which depicted Christianity emerging triumphant from the ruins of paganism.

Like the circus itself, each individual act rapidly grew more competitive and more avid for originality. The trapeze was invented in 1859 by Jules Leotard, flying through the air between high bars dangling from the roof of the Cirque Napoleon in Paris. It seemed superhuman at the time, but more death-defying refinements were soon introduced. A second aerialist, hanging upside down, would catch the first, who would turn a double or triple somersault on the way across. Women aerialists drew gasps by their risk-taking - such as the wondrous Lillian Leitzel, who performed without a safety net and fell to her death in Copenhagen in 1931. Juggling acts reached levels of almost unbelievable complexity. In the 1920s Enrico Rastelli could juggle seven balls, spin another ball on a stick held in his mouth and twirl three rings on one leg while with the other leg he balanced on a board mounted on a rolling cylinder.

The modern wild animal act, created by the American Isaac  A Van Amburgh, showed the same rage for innovation. He had become famous for prising open a lion’s jaws and putting his head in its mouth, and London audiences in 1831 were astonished to see him striding fearlessly among ­leopards, tigers and lions as they snarled and grovelled. The Duke of Wellington was a fan and commissioned Edwin Landseer to paint Van Amburgh, clad in a toga and gesturing imperiously at two lions and a tiger, to illustrate man’s biblical dominion over the beasts of the field. But these simple pleasures soon waned. Within a few decades the lions at Forepaugh's Circus were riding bicycles and firing pistols.

In this sphere, as in other circus acts, women were men’s equals. Mabel Stark from Tennessee claimed she had a mystical, erotic bond with tigers; in her act she appeared alone surrounded by 21 of them, getting them to embrace her. She raised the cubs at home, sharing her bed with them and ­taking them for drives in the car.

In the circus'’s enterprise culture, physical abnormality could be turned to account. Sufferers from hypertrichosis (excessive hairiness) were exhibited as the Missing Link or, in one case, the Human Skye Terrier. Conjoined twins known as Millie-Christine, daughters of a North Carolina farmer, travelled the world in ­various freak shows and met Queen ­Victoria, who 'talked tenderly' to them. Proud to be a 'living curiosity', they earned enough to buy their father's farm and donate to charity.

The circus inspired modernist painters by its daring, and by contesting the distinction between high and low art. Picasso and Braque spent evenings drinking with clowns at the Medrano circus in Montmartre, Roualt portrayed clowns as Christ ­figures, Degas painted Miss La La, the 'Black Venus', suspended from the rafters of the Cirque Fernando by a leather bit clamped between her teeth. Cezanne, Renoir, ­Bonnard, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec were all drawn to the idea of the circus as a community of free spirits. Alexander ­Calder, the originator of the mobile, made his own miniature circus out of wire figures and gave performances for friends, including Miro, Mondrian and Cocteau.

Now, suddenly, our sensibilities have changed. We regard training wild ­animals to perform as cruel and unnatural. The idea of displaying humans as freaks sickens us. Even clowns seem to us sinister or grotesque rather than funny. So the ­traditional circus has vanished, leaving us to our chill rectitude. It takes a book such as Simon's, vividly written and richly illustrated, to give us some inkling of what Emily Dickinson felt when she wrote: 'Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A Circus passed the house - still I feel the red in my mind.'

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