Coloured fanciful and utterly distorted, the window onto the world, trumpeted the circus of former glory: Let me show you the fantastical, long-necked "cameleopard"[i] of yore; behold “300 dancing girls in entrancing revels"[ii]. The promise of “the marvels of many nations,"[iii] straight to your door, open up, and say yes!
The circus of old had what today with knowledge and awareness it cannot. We now know the cruel price the animal performers[iv] and freak show amusements paid. But the circus today, why, it can still entertain, with contortionists, musicians, and sword swallowers who give the impression that there is no place else they’d rather be than beneath the big top, whip in hand, whipping the audience into a lather (or is that submission?). All the sounds, colours, and smells to sate the senses and evoke childhood thrills brought on by orchestrated spills. The Greatest Show on Earth: with all the aerial tricks and none of sorrow. To tease: plenty of navels on display[v].
With scant costumes, for both male and female performers, for reasons of allure (and practicality too), the audience, then as today, gets what it wants. Had Thomas Mann been seated alongside me in the Spiegeltent tent the other night, I could easily imagine chancing over my shoulder to read, scrawled upon the back of a cardboard coaster, the lines: "[hung] head-down from a trapeze.... She was an inapproachable Amazon of the realm of space beneath the canvas, high above the crowd, whose lust for her was transformed into awe." The thoughts expressed within the unfinished pages of Mann’s 1909 tale, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man as true then as of aerialist Evelyne Allard as an incarnation of Venus swinging from her hoop.
Roll up, roll up, and watch these muscles flex. With white feathers on his shoulders and a little of Dr. John the Night Tripper beneath his hat, Ringmaster Elyas Kahn has brought his ensemble to town. On the banks of the Yarra River, direct from the U.K., Limbo is here, as part of Melbourne Festival. Unpacked from the chest, the death-defying, hand-balancing, internally-sprung tomfoolery of Danik Abishev; the Chinese pole and beat-boxing smooth stop-and-start controlled hijinks of Mikael Bres; the out-of-this-world fire-breathing, sword-swallowing, gum-chewing sass of Heather Holliday; the magnificent ‘mind-bending’ contortions of the tattooed Tigris (with forearms not unlike Popeye’s, and something of a measured roar); and the heavenly aerial acrobatics of Allard. With Mick Stuart on 'polymba', drums and bass, and Eamon McNelis (of The Band Who Knew Too Much and Flap! fame) on trumpet and sousaphone, bringing a little of the New Orleans brass band sound, the objective is clear: if you’ve a pulse, you will be entertained.
Limbo draws not only on circus stock roots, but also on the titillation of cabaret. With my waist un-synched, I may not quite have been transported back to Le Chat Noir in Montmartre in the late 1880s or Le Lido on the Champs-Élysées in the 1940s, but on a balmy spring eve, it came close, this melange, very close. In the blue smoky haze and dim lighting we all became a little of our own inner Toulouse-Lautrec or Marlene Dietrich.
While it may feature many tantalizing ‘how do they do that?’ back bends to accompanying musical creak-crack score, Limbo, in this case, borrows its name from the free-rule positioning between heaven and hell. Operating on an alternate plane, it is from here that the theatrical play occurs, with its symbolic flames from Lucifer’s domain below and its floaty white feathers falling from the pearly wings of angels above. In a state of limbo, anything is possible: which way will you go?
Flouting rules always holds appeal, especially in the world of cabaret and the burlesque, where it never fails to seduce with its offer of escapism without the consequences. Hailing from the South of France, Bres, in Breton-stripes and red neck kerchief, charmingly plays up his literature and art major credentials as the romantic artist-in-a-garret only later, sans top and atop the sway pole, revelling in shaking his sweat upon the agog audience below. With one swoop, Bres descended upon the crowd and successfully retrieved a woman’s purse from her lap, eliciting excited squeals. Picking pockets by sway pole, making Fagin proud, never has someone so appeared to enjoy being ‘robbed’ as on the night I attended. Holliday, too, as the embodiment of all things Coney Island, pleasured in spraying the peep show crowds as she released her fiery Dragon’s breath. With fire blanket and safety gloves on, the wide-eyed Spiegeltent usher, with a near unbroken focus during her act, added to the sense of sideshow danger I craved. My face hot, my eyebrows singed, or so it felt. To my nostrils: the smell of fuel.
Inverted, with legs in the air, Abishev, who joined the circus at four-years-of-age, single-handedly appeared to hop with relative ease from one hand-balancing post to the next. In a display of extreme composure and focus, topped with a bowler hat, I could not see the beginning of the motion that propelled him so. How is the supporting arm not bent? How can the body balance upside down, not in a vertical line, but with legs askew? Through training, trust, and dedication, the impossible off-centre balance had been achieved, and all dressed up with a few cheekily calculated wobbles to test the nerves of the most seasoned punter. Indeed, perhaps Allard, whose mid-air hoop routine seemed to draw less of a collective gasp from the audience, needs to include a few ‘whoops! almost!’ moments. Unlike the world of ballet, where effort is often hidden to the delight of the crowd, in this arena, the thrills come from perceived corrected teeters; think: Marilyn Monroe’s high-heeled totter.
This sense of playful risk culminated in Abishev, Bres, and Holliday's sequence atop the sway poles. As the pace increased, so did the sense that they might collide in spectacular fashion. Echoing jack-in-the-boxes of the underworld, the three swung back and forth, meeting in the middle, but crash they never did. Abishev was especially masterful at dipping his head to the side and back like a gull, and Bres called upon the brakes he employed earlier with his Chinese pole routine to hover mid-flight.
Purgatory never looked so good as when the flames licked the (free-standing) ladder up which Abishev scaled. Runaway to the circus, if you’ve no fear of heights! Josephine Baker, she would have been proud and Ernest Hemingway’s sentiments sill ring true: "The circus is the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a happy dream."
[i] The "cameleopard" turned out to be a giraffe, as the mysteries of the world moved from the 'discovered' realm of explorers to the big top’s window on the world.
[ii] Ringling Brothers advertisement from 1913, in an essay by Dominique Jando, 'Wonders of the World Await You', The Circus 1870s–1950s, ed. by Noel Daniel, (Germany: Taschen), p. 111
[iii] The world map depicted on W. W. Cole’s 1881 circus courier sent a clear message to its readers: The circus will bring them "the marvels of many nations".
[iv] Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert's 2015 documentary, Tyke: Elephant Outlaw, should be compulsory viewing.
[v] In 1943, the two-piece costume of aerialist Ethel Jennier of the Russell Bros. circus "anywhere but the circus or in musical productions.... would have been considered inappropriate." Jano’s essay, 'Venuses of the Age: The Female Performer Emancipated', The Circus 1870s–1950s, p. 167
Childhood thrills brought on by orchestrated spills