With animals steadily disappearing from circuses around the world, some traditional big top fans may see Circus Roncalli's latest attraction as another surrender to animal rights activists. But as we celebrate 250 years of the first modern circus - created by horseman Philip Astley - it's important to remember that the circus tradition is a tradition of innovation.
Astley wasn't the first trick horse-rider of his day - there were many like him, newly returned from the wars, who found a new use for their equestrian skills. Astley's innovation was to put horse stunts in a circle, as opposed to on a long straight, which gave his displays a more theatrical setting. He then added a series of other acts, from tumblers to strongmen and clowns, that made up the variety show format of circus as we know it.
The strength of that format has always been its ability to include new, different and never-before-seen acts designed to keep the crowds coming back each season.
Over the past 250 years, circus promoters have been tireless in finding new spectacles: the flying trapeze, wild animals, freaks of nature, acts from different cultures around the world, be it American cowboy knife-throwing and lassoing or oriental plate-spinning and martial arts.
From hippos that sweat blood to the chainsaws and motorbikes of Archaos, circus has always traded on the new.
And so it is with Germany's Roncalli. Established in 1976, the company was among the first to update circus by linking acts with themes and storylines, which paved the way for the mega-success of Cirque du Soleil. For 2018, they now bring us holographic horses, elephants and giant fish.
Is it a surrender to the animal rights movement or, as I prefer to see it, the latest step in the big top's ever forward-marching quest to give audiences something brand new to go "Wow, I've never seen anything like that before!"
The answer, for me, lies in those shots of jam-packed seats. Sure, it's possible to miss the real animals, but for all the sense of tradition that sometimes surrounds it, the circus has never thrived by looking back - it's lifeblood has always been the new.
When I set out to write Circus Mania, I didn't want to write a history book. Yes, there is history in it, because there are glimpses of tradition everywhere you look in the big top, and it's hard to look at any new act without seeing the ghosts of performers from fifty, a hundred or 250 years ago. My real concern, though, was to explore the lives of circus performers as they are lived today. As such I found myself backstage in a world of constant innovation as predominantly young people strove to create new acts and new styles of show that moved the old traditions forward. The Mail on Sunday called Circus Mania "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." But is it really vanishing? Some of the older styles are, yes, just as the past is always receding into the distance. But, just as a snake leaves its old skin behind, the ever evolving circus itself keeps coming up fresh and new.
Take a glimpse into the ever-changing world of the big top by clicking here to order the new and revised second edition of Circus Mania from Amazon.