Until this week, I had only been to the circus twice. Once, actually, if we don’t include a 2004 performance by Circus Oz at the Royal Festival Hall. The only other occasion was in some muddy field in Cwmbran, and was a thoroughly depressing experience. Oh, I’m sure I probably marvelled at the animals and the trapeze artists and the clowns, but what stayed with me long after the show was the sight of a miserable-looking tiger, his chin resting dolefully on crossed paws, in a cage outside the big top. The sky was grey and it was raining. Even at the age of 8 or 9 I knew that was no place for a tiger.
Since then, circus animals have gone out of vogue, and have all but disappeared, leaving behind a slightly different kind of circus; one self-consciously old fashioned, but also artistically ambitious. Companies such as Canada’s Cirque du Soleil (est. 1984) have become global brands, with branches in Vegas and Disneyworld, and countless others have followed in their wake.
I must admit, I’ve been a little slow in coming to the No Fit State party. Though consisting of performers from around the world, the company has been Cardiff-based since 2006, and was founded all the way back in 1986, yet I hadn’t heard of them until they moved into a deconsecrated church a few streets from my home a year or two back. Suddenly it seemed as if everyone I knew had heard of them, and not only that but had signed up to the company’s circus skills classes.
Like many other new circus companies, No Fit State specialise in themed, narrative-driven shows – though, to be brutally honest, I’m never entirely convinced a narrative is necessary. If Bianco is about something other than people in peak physical condition doing amazing things with ropes, I honestly couldn’t tell you what that “something” is.
Where No Fit State differ from the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Circus Oz, however, is in the staging of their shows. Like a traditional circus, they operate out of a big top (nicknamed the Silver Spaceship), but unlike a traditional circus, there are no seats. Once inside the tent, you are more or less free to wander around, to experience the show from different angles. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in the front row, sometimes the back row. And no attempt is made to hide the mechanics of the circus from the audience – the athletically squirrel-like crew members clamber up and down the rigging in full view, and are often almost as compelling as the trapeze artists themselves.
The show begins with much of the rigging concealed behind translucent sheets, the performers visible only as shadows. Over the live band’s almost klezmer-like intro music they holler and whoop. As a newcomer to this kind of circus, there was the distinct worry in these opening minutes that what was about to follow would be much more fun for the artists than the audience… Thankfully, that worry was unfounded. Within minutes I found myself thinking, “I AM EXPERIENCING A CHILD-LIKE SENSE OF WONDER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MANY, MANY YEARS.”
Whether it was Hugo Oliveira’s insanely dextrous juggling, or Elena Burani’s genuinely breath-taking trapeze work, there was constantly something happening that defied belief. You have to remind yourself – in an age when, thanks to CGI, movie characters can do just about anything – that this is really happening, that these people are actually doing this for real, in front of your very eyes, without the assistance of Industrial Light and Magic.
Reassuringly, the children in the audience seemed equally impressed, though they were considerably outnumbered by adults. This does make me wonder who, ultimately, modern circuses are for. One would hope they are still conceived with a family audience in mind, because it strikes me that we are desperately in need of family entertainments that aren’t screen-based, that today’s children are growing accustomed to the idea that the only things worth experiencing are experienced via a TV or tablet. The first thing I did, on stepping out of the big top, was send a text message to a friend with children, recommending the show; but I did so with the caveat that her son, now almost 11 years old, might have reached an age of peak cynicism, when the sight of someone almost literally flying might inspire nothing so much as a shrug and a “So what?”
Still, for this 36-year-old, Bianco was the stuff of wide eyes and a permanently dropped jaw. I was going to wrap this post up by telling you that those of you in Cardiff have one more night (June 7th) to catch it, but I’m both afraid and pleased to say it’s sold out.
Bianco goes on tour from June 14th, and will be appearing in Limerick, Rennes, Edinburgh and Utrecht between then and the end of September.