LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cirque du Soleil Kooza preview - Royal Albert Hall, January 7 to February 8

There often seem to be battle lines drawn between contemporary and traditional circus, but as Zippo's Martin Burton put it, the choice shouldn't be between old circus and new circus, just good circus and bad circus.

Cirque du Soleil was largely responsible for the rise of the term cirque and its adoption by a proliferation of companies hoping to grab a little of Soleil’s thunder - and thus was at the forefront of the division between contemporary theatre-based cirque and traditional big top-set circus styles - and audiences, which are often as different as the shows. So I’m pleased to report that Cirque du Soleil's show Kooza, which comes to London's Royal Albert Hall from January 7 to February 8 not only asserts Soleil’s supremacy atop the tree of cirque but is a very accessible and circusy show.

It’s a pity Soleil won’t be pitching the big top - or Grand Chapiteau - of its American travels in Hyde Park, although the in-the-round setting of the Royal Albert Hall is perfect for circus, and circus buildings actually pre-date tents, recalling the atmosphere of Astley’s Amphitheatre in the early 19th century.

A pity, too, that (as far as I know) they won’t be bringing superstar juggler Anthony Gatto who seems to have done that most un-superstar-like thing and retired at the peak of his powers.

But Kooza has many thrills still to offer, including a three-person human pyramid on bicycles on a high-wire; a wheel of death and some charismatic solo trapeze from Darya Vintilova (in the States at least; I guess the cast may change).

On the ground, meanwhile, there’s a charming double act on a single unicycle that works both as ballet - the depiction of a romance between the characters - and gymnastics: the girl standing on the male unicyclist’s head.

Kooza - check your pockets before you leave.
The highlight is a clown pickpocket routine originated by Michael Halvarson. While Soleil is great at doing ‘big,’ it’s compelling to watch a ‘close-up’ act where we can see how the volunteer’s tie is removed with out him realising.

The routine is slickly scripted, with sly lines like “You’re a waste bin, my friend,” as some scrap paper is returned to the victim, and the punch-line: “Don’t forget your Viagra!”

The sketch ends with an exploding police wagon and disappearing trick that would fit perfectly into any big top show.

So yes, cirque can be as accessible as circus.

The only trouble is, having watched all the best bits on YouTube, would I drive 100 miles each way to spend an evening in the Albert Hall?

(And you thought I'd seen it America, didn't you...?)

Big Apple on the Big Screen

Which brings me to New York’s Big Apple Circus. On November 8, the Apple streamed its show live to cinemas across America. US blogger Showbiz David found himself watching it in a near deserted cinema in California, as did his brother in Utah.

In a country as big as America the broadcast offered circus fans a fantastic opportunity to see a show that would normally cost them a tremendous amount in airfares and hotel accommodation - so it's hard to know why so few turned up at the movie houses. Maybe it just wasn't promoted enough and nobody knew about it.

It would be wonderful if the Big Apple extended the favour to the rest of the world. Perhaps the organisers of UK circus festivals should consider augmenting their programmes of visiting acts with live cinema shows of circuses from around the world, letting us watch the gold acts of Monte Carlo, the elephants of Ringling or, indeed, Soleil in Las Vegas.

But can watching a circus in a cinema, or at home on a DVD or YouTube, be as good as sitting ringside? Or could it even be better?

The atmosphere of a big top, with grass under foot and popcorn in the air, has to be experienced first hand. But multiple camera angles and close-ups can offer a better view than the best seat in the house.

The Kooza pickpocket, for example, was enthralling for me because on screen in close-up I could see everything so clearly. Would I have been able to follow the routine as closely from a side seat ten rows back?

Darya Vintilova’s trapeze act was enhanced by the sudden close-ups of her face that let us see the exhilaration in her eyes.

Click here forreview
Circus acts are by their nature often too fast for the eye to fully catch, so might there be a place for the slow-motion action replay? I’ve seen many flying trapeze acts, for example, but watching from the ground has never matched the drama of the trapeze scenes in the (fictional) movie Trapeze, where we’re given a real sense of vertigo.

Finally, while experiencing a show in person may be more atmospheric, not all atmosphere is good atmosphere. Take the ‘atmosphere’ of a tall person sat directly in front of you, a noisy eater to your side and a coughing kid behind you, and the distraction of people fiddling about with their brightly lit phones. How about the queue for the loos and scramble for over-priced refreshments? Or the traffic jam at the car park?

Douglas McPherson
Frankly, he'd rather be at home...
One advantage of traditional circus is that the big top comes to your local town or village. You may not see the biggest or best acts, but you can park easily or go on foot and prices tend to be on the low side, whereas most cirque shows necessitate a trip to a bigger town or city with its attendant cost and bother.

At home, though, you get the best acts in the world without the crowds or hassle and, dare I say it, a volume control and fast forward button - things I often sorely wish for when I’m reviewing shows in person.

Cirque or circus, live or on screen. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other, more that they all have advantages and disadvantages, and they all have a role to play in making all our days circus days.

To read about my visits to some of the wide variety of circus and cirque shows in Britain today - and to hear the stories of the performers and showmen I met backstage, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.


  1. Can't agree with your more on Kooza, surely one of Cirque's best shows. Anthony Gatto, one of the most anonymously great circus artists who ever lived, retired to do, I think construction work. A pity you missed a miracle in motion!

    About Big Apple Circus in the nation's movie houses last November, which I intend to explore more soon, I'm really of a mind that somehow circus art may never grab or engage us on film as much as it does in the flesh.

  2. I'm just reading Paul Bouissac's excellent book 'Semiotics At The Circus', which makes a fascinating case as to why circus particularly will never translate to film!

    (I just saw Kooza at the Albert Hall too, and the line-up has changed, so no excuse not to go now! ;)