Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Circuses

With a tribute to Bertram Mills

Few things are more connected to Christmas than a visit to the circus.
When I was a child, I had a great chance. In the 70s, Christmas circuses in Italy used to have the highest possible standard in the world. Stepping into one of those huge decorated big top, best if covered by recent snow, was for me a weird sensation. It felt as to step inside a christmas tree, or have a strange walk into a full life nativity diorama. The mysterious unfolding of the acts was a no minor pleasure of unwrapping toys and gift. And what gifts I was treated to, when at the circus!
I didn’t knew to be admiring legendary names: from the contorsions of Archie and Diana Bennett “directly from Las Vegas”, to the legendary Rastelli clowns; from Bulgarian teeterboard pioneers as Boitchanovi or Silagis, to cycling champions as Bertini, King Charles or New Dollys; the horse pyramids of the Caroli or Casartelli families; aerials from Miss Mara to the Flying Palacios, to the triple of Raul Jimenez…Elvin Bale…the Munoz on the wire; the risley icons Rios brothers; the lions of Darix Togni or the bears of Ursula Bottcher; the 25 elephants of Circo Americano; the lavish coreographies of Arturo Castilla or Liana Orfei, the water or ice circus pantomimes...
I can mention just few of the many I was used to see year by year, and all at few blocks from home.
But destiny, birth and age didn’t gave me the chance to know the best of all christmas circuses in history. I speak ofthe London Olympia circus created by Bertram Mills between 1919 and 1964. Only pictures and fading memories of few survivors are today remaining to describe this immense hall transformed for few week in the home of the best circus heroes of XX century. I think that for a child in London, this should have been better than a visit to Willy Wonka’s factory.
Beside the main circus hall, Mills used to build into the Olympia a menagerie, then the “fun fair” with his rides, a complete sideshow (mostly with Ringling attractions from overseas) including sometimes a lilliput village. An army of the greatest British clowns, the last heirs of classic pantomime, animated the shows. The trapeze net was all the time above your heads, remembering all the time the thrill of the circus. Sometimes Merle Evans was called as the band leader.You was sure to see the best animal acts in the world, and Willy Schumann was the equestrian director.
And the Queen, of course, came every year, and greeted each one of the performers backstage, from the unycicle juggler to the last of Ubangi savages.
As a tribute, we offer here a couple of images remembering this Mills era. One is from the imagination of famous painter Dame Laura Knight, that used to visit the Olympia show: this is a partial view of her huge painting “Charivari” (1928).
The other is a photo of the reality. Taken in the mid-30s, it depicts one of the incredible Schumann horse living carousels.
What about Christmas circuses today? The bests are actually in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, in temporary big tops or halls. And Big Apple at Lincoln Center in New York, of course. But if you wish to feel the real magic of a Christmas circus, the destinations are the two oldest circus buildings in the world: the Carr√® Royal Theatre in Amsterdam, with the Knie family, and the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, with the new generation of Bouglione dinasty. Wherhever you are, I guarantee that they both are worth the trip.

And Happy Holidays, of course.

1 comment:

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