Watching a circus performance is guaranteed to make you feel a mix of raw wonder and raw anxiety. Guest writer Tilly Lunken looks at the artform and the range of performances the Roundhouse has hosted for more than 40 years…
Circus is a promise to live close to the edge – the free fall of the acrobat; the sad mask of a mime; the tumbling joy of performance as it pushes the audience to collective wonder. It’s an art that relishes in existing both in the limelight and the shadows and since 1969 the Roundhouse has played host to many extraordinary performances.
The circus first came to the venue in 1969/70 with the Robert Brothers, a family circus that worked with animals. A mainstream success, the Robert Brothers was a family treat.
If anything more were needed…to demonstrate the theatre’s advantage over other mediums, it is the Robert Brothers Circus. – Hilary Spurling in The Spectator
The review details the incredulity of the acts in a delicious list of “feats hard to credit at the time, and even harder since” and singles out Sidney the boxing Kangaroo and Ivan Karl the strongman for particular credit.
The run however was marred by an acrobat falling during the season. A reminder that even in established circuses, it is real danger as well as spectacle that has an audience captivated.
From this beginning the Roundhouse hosted many companies from both avante garde and more traditional circus performances. In 1980 Circus Oz were hosted in their first London appearance and Pickle Family Circus featured in 1981.
Big shows included Jerome Savary’s Grand Magic Circus (et ses animaux tristes) that pioneered mixing circus with cabaret and other theatrical forms. This show that toured to the Roundhouse in 1972, was instrumental in influencing a wide range of theatre and circus practitioners as it explored performance as a form beyond the traditional boundaries.
Another performance that blew away critics and audiences alike in 1999 was De La Guarda that promised an experience better than sex, featured a demonic trapeze artist and critics in stunned raptures. It was a show that explored the darkness that circus can be and featured humans performing as animals.
You leave the Roundhouse for a while not able to return to normal existence… it never let the audience feel safe – Rachel Halliburton from The Independent
Today the Roundhouse continues to champion circus with CircusFest, a three-week festival that hosts artists from around the world. The program features world premiers of new work and is a diverse celebration of both circus itself and the role the Roundhouse has played in staging it across the past 50 years. In 2016 Finnish group Race Horse Company performed Super Sunday a show that mixed incredible skills with gritty humour. The festival also ran a program of skills workshops alongside the performances, facilitating community involvement.
Circus lets us find the thrill and the joy in the weird and the darkness. It shines a light on how alive we feel when we are not necessarily comfortable in our seats. As a cross-arts venue the Roundhouse has been instrumental in working with artists to present work that pushes not only the boundaries of what circus can be, but also what audiences can and will take.