I wrote the following article in December 1994 in the International Herald Tribune, and decided to put it up on the blog after a recent re-visit to the Cirque d’Hiver to see the latest show, and finding that the tradition had not changed one iota. The Cirque d’Hiver remains a must-see for any circus lovers, and all others….
PARIS – Before circuses became synonymous with tents, the first shows in the 18th century were usually held in buildings designed for them – theater-in-the-round, you might say. Indoor shows remained popular through the next century and many cities in Europe, and in Russia, still have circus buildings. None can top the grandeur of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris.
For nearly a week each January a tradition is revived at the Cirque d’Hiver, when it hosts the international circus festival for young, up-and-coming performers – the combined Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain and Festival Mondial du Cirque de l’Avenir.
I went to the most recent show with my young son as much to discover the building – it was the setting for Edmond de Goncourt’s novel “Les Frères Zemganno” – as to see the performances.
We arrived early for the Sunday matinee, and spent half an hour outside admiring the circular building, which looks similar to a tent, but with a bronze statue of an amazon on the roof and two bronze warriors on horses over the entrance. Completed in eight months in 1852, by the same man who redesigned the Place de la Concorde, Jacques Hittorff, it was christened the Cirque Napoléon for Emperor Napoléon III. It became the Cirque d’Hiver, or Winter Circus, in 1870.
Its life as a circus was never simple. It was used periodically as a concert hall for classical music, and in 1908 was one of the first cinemas in France. It moved in and out of presenting circuses until it was taken over by the Bouglione brothers, Alexandre, Joseph, Sampion and Firmin, 60 years ago. They used it for their circus, and it became known to an international audience in the Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis film “Trapeze” in 1956. Then, after many years of trying to preserve the indoor circus, the Bouglione family changed tactics in the early 1980s, and these days they rent out the hall for everything from fashion shows to pop concerts.
Now the true experience of the Cirque d’Hiver comes only during the circus festival. The organizer, Isabelle Mauclair, said that she and her husband, Dominique, created the festival in 1977 to “showcase the young who are beginning their careers, to show that in France we have circus artists of quality.”
“But the next year, every country in the world wanted to participate,” she went on. “And so it has become the big market for great circus careers.”
The Cirque d’Hiver was chosen as the site because, as Mauclair put it, the building is “a treasure chest for these artists. Their acts take on a different dimension and they all want to come. And because it’s in Paris.”
When I entered the auditorium, with its red velvet chairs, I could immediately understand its attraction for a young circus artist: It is beautiful, and looks inside, as outside, like a circus tent. But none of the seats are obstructed by pillars: There are no pillars. The ceiling seems to reach up higher than any opera, and in the center of this universe that seats 1,650 spectators is the single circus ring. There is a band on a stage practically among the spectators. The French social register, the Bottin Mondain, says that of all the Paris theaters and operas, this room is “at once the most beautiful…the most comfortable, the most agreeable, and the best ventilated.”
From the opening of the show, I knew we had arrived at the best of the circus arts as well.
My only worry was that the finesse of the acts might be too subtle for my son, not yet 3 years old. There were fewer children in the audience than in the tented shows we had seen. But he sat, as usual, hypnotized throughout the three-hour show, which included clowns from the Moscow Bolshoi Circus, Chinese glass balancers, Mongolian contortionists, Hungarian jugglers, and French and Canadian trapeze artists.
FOR both of us the best act was the Russian Kurbanov Troupe’s, which consisted of three children and three men in leather driving motorcycles. It was a modernization of an act created by the famous Risley family acrobats in the 19th century. They parked the motorcycles on their kickstands and the men lay on them and juggled the children with their feet.
It was a fairly representative act for the festival, which Mauclair says is appreciated by the artists because the organizers “have always tried to show the new things in the circus arts.”
“The circus evolves like the theater,” she said, “and we have always wanted to show, for example, how lots of artists now use opera music to create more profound emotions, or how sometimes celebrated directors take part in the creation of an act. Whenever we can move toward modernity we do, while at the same time maintaining the essential traditional technique.”
Although I had had no trouble getting tickets only a few days before the show, the audience was filled with circus aficionados, show-biz and other personalities, and with many of the artists who had performed in the past.
“Those who have taken part in the festival travel the world and speak of it as their festival, and they come back just to watch it,” said Mauclair. “It has become a very, very big family.”
Thinking about how I would have loved to have had the chance to perform there as a teenager, when I worked in a circus, I could only envy them. And when my son informed me after the show that he wanted to do that too, I realized it was indeed a family affair.