‘Youth, beauty... It all seems so meaningless now’ wails the crumbling, defeated Witch Queen Lamia, releasing her captives, who personify both, in the closing stages of the fantasy film Stardust. It’s soon apparent it’s a trick to ensnare them once more, but in essence she is right. Her pursuit of the twin insubstantial goals results in her ultimate downfall.
With this year’s Giffords Circus named Les Enfants du Paradis, uninitiated audience members could be forgiven for assuming the show reaches for aesthetics over athleticism. It’s immediately apparent however that strength and skill are at the heart of every performance, adding a sensuality of their own making thanks to elegant execution of significant expertise.
Invited to ‘marvel in the magic’ of the cirque d’etoile, performed by aerial hoop duo The Luna Girls, promptly proves the point. Their scant outfits are far from provocative, they expose the muscularity needed to carry off a risky display of poses making full use of gravity and momentum, including an extraordinary mirroring in the splits. The performers scatter stardust but it’s an augmentation and not a core ingredient.
The higher tempo acts, The Ethio-selam Troupe, on the double Chinese pole and later in a series of gymnastic tumbling moves through ever changing hoops to beat of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), alongside the dizzying roller-skating duo The Skating Medini, confined to a ring no wider than a goldfish pond and making full use of centrifugal forces, have the intoxicating effect of making it all look so easy.
As circus founder the late Nell Gifford attested however, there is a dedication and determination that underlines the very being of a circus cast member. ‘In circus if you want to learn something, you have to practice it every day,’ she advocated. ‘If you repeat it enough times you will get better at it. You’ll grow with it and you’ll start to embody your medium.’
But even in the most polished company, there’s always room for error. One of the (many) secrets to Giffords Circus’ success is to make the audience invest in the performers so that any mishap, or the fleeting chance of one, serves to only heighten the atmosphere and deliver a sense relief and emotional release when righted. You regularly find yourself unable to clap, your hands too busy covering your mouth in a gesture of shock.
The show takes you to the edge of enjoyment as you watch performers such as aerialist Alex Michael dancing with danger, suspended upside down and ‘walking’ across monkey bars in a manner that defies reason and logic especially in light of a rectified mistake. But we love the potential for crisis, we crave it, involuntarily exclaiming family-friendly profanities before they’re converted to sighs and gasps of delight.
The drama makes you feel sick as much as it makes you feel alive. Gentler moments, such as Sergi Buka’s charming shadow puppetry (aboard a circling tricycle – there’s always more than one skill at play), Tweedy the clown’s rigorous physical comedy and a vaudeville-style send up of I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables, punctuate the show at intervals allowing our collective blood pressure to regulate. It’s a necessary modulation for the audience to cope.
There’s something rather special about seeing the circus on a moving day. There’s an extra kinetic energy, even a slight frisson of tension, beyond the usual buzz. The cast continues to delight, but you’re aware there is change in the air. The troupe are about to embody their raison d’etre and take their talents elsewhere. Enjoy them while you can.
Oh we do. The show culminates in a spectacle from aerialist Antony Cesar, previously seen masked at teasing intervals throughout the show. Cesar works the straps in a manner akin to an Olympic gymnast but with a perfection of form reminiscent of Vincenzo de' Rossi’s marble sculpture of the Dying Adonis – except Cesar is unmauled, very much vital and moving at electrifying speed overhead. The word stimulating doesn’t quite capture it. It quickens the spirit.
After the show’s joyful finale, making full use of the circus band and beautiful vocals on, appropriately, J’aime la vie, it pays to linger awhile outside the big top to reset and reflect. But it doesn’t take long for the wagons to begin to roll. One minute the ‘Wigs, Make-up & Sequins’ truck is there, the next it’s gone. You wish them well, but you can’t wait for them to come back next year.