Circus was born in Britain 250 years ago. On an abandoned patch of marshland near London’s Waterloo, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley laid out a 42-foot ring with a piece of rope and filled it with astounding physical acts – jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strongmen, bareback riders. It was 1768, a time of revolutions. But the real revolution Astley created was a whole new art form. This spectacle was the world’s very first circus.
The anniversary of this British-born popular art form will be marked in the new year by a countrywide celebration; not only contemporary and traditional circuses but museums, theatres, orchestras, archives, opera, filmmakers and designers are joining in. In Norwich, the Lord Mayor’s show will be transformed into a circus parade. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, Philip Astley’s birthplace, contemporary circus company NoFitState are pitching their big top, the New Vic theatre has commissioned a new play Astley’s Astounding Adventures, and the local shopping centre has been renamed Philip Astley Walk.
Circus in Britain today is still recognisably the stuff of children’s storybooks. There are tumblers, acrobats, contortionists, trapezes and clowns. There are camp boys in tights, girls in sequinned outfits, and fishnets are still stretched over powerful thighs. The thrill is still physical, and the possibility of a fall ever-present. But circus has evolved into new forms of expression, in the same radical spirit that Astley founded the very first performance. It’s been reworked and reinvented by fabulous contemporary companies, such as the female-led, London-based Upswing and Mimbre.
Many contemporary companies are setting off on the road again, moving out from the theatres and parks where contemporary circus was nurtured back in to big tops for their celebratory “Circus250” shows. For many, circus isn’t only an art form, it’s a lifestyle. Even contemporary circuses, such as Cardiff-based NoFitState, tour with a tent and live in trailers. The 40-strong company are as familiar with a lack of running water and dodgy power as the corde lisse and pole acts. Circus is also family, whether contemporary or traditional. It’s common to find couples and siblings working together in both.
In 1768, with Astley recently returned from the wars, the cavalryman discovered that with a circus ring exactly 42 foot in diameter, the centrifugal forces allowed a rider best to stand upon the horse’s back. He performed an equestrian show with his wife Patti, who rode around smothered in a swarm of bees. Now, every circus anywhere in the world is 42 foot across – including the new ring for NoFitState’s Lexicon, their 250th anniversary show. Traditional circuses are also evolving. Zippos’ Cirque Berserk is now played in theatres as much as in tents. Two-hundred-and-fifty years after the first circus, the links between new and traditional are being retied.