What makes a great circus moment? Sometimes it's a big stunt. Sometimes it's something funny and quirky. Planet Circus OMG! has both, and so does the Duo Stefaneli (pictured above).
I first saw the Duo Stefaneli when I was writing my book, Circus Mania. They were appearing in the Great British Circus in the year that it presented the last elephants to appear in a British big top. In an animal-heavy programme that included the tigers of Martin Lacey Sr, they formed the main acrobatic act, performing daring hangs from a trapeze bar beneath a hovering flying saucer.
In the book, I wrote: "It's hard to imagine a more thrilling form of entertainment than Stefan and Neli deliver."
So it was good to see them back with their flying saucer at Planet Circus this year.
The act seemed higher in the truly towering Planet Circus big top and much better lit, too, with lasers flickering around their alien-themed act.
For me, though, the true highlight of the show was their other act, a quick change routine in which the couple repeatedly changed outfits while momentarily concealed in a raised fabric tube.
Circus acts go in and out of fashion, and quick change seemed to be the flavour of the season on the circus scene in 2023. There were similar acts at Big Kid Circus and Santus Circus this year. The one at Santus was particularly well thought out, being staged as a couple choosing their outfits for a night out.
But the Duo Stefaneli gave it a special charm, thanks to infectious electro-Latin dance music and the couple's natural charisma.
The climax saw Stefan tip an umbrella full of golden glitter over Neli's head. She twirled once in the sparkling downpour and was changed into a new dress before our eyes - a truly amazing illusion!
If I were them, I would do more of that sort of comedy magic. Not only is it safer than dangling by an ankle and wrist from a flying saucer, but I would say it is a much more engaging, entertaining and memorable act.
Another of the show's most engaging moments was Lukinha the Clown using a balloon 'bow' to fire an invisible arrow at a balloon held above the head of a volunteer from the audience. With everyone watching Lukinha, only the keenest eyed spectator would have noticed German Wheel performer Krisztian lurking in the shadows off stage and reaching out with a pin on the end of a long pole to burst the target balloon at the right moment!
Speaking of little things that make a big impact, Jenny Glowacki performed an energetic cloud swing routine to a Celtic rock soundtrack. Cloud swing is another of those in fashion acts that every circus seemed to have this year, and it's a stirring act in its own right. What set Jenny's apart, was her spontaneous shouts of "Whoo!" conveying her unbridled exuberance at swinging through the air. She looked and sounded as excited as a kid on a park swing - and that level of energy was infectious.
The wild look on her face when she finally descended to the ground was a picture.
An element of personality and engagement with the audience is often missing from circus acts. We may marvel at the feats performed, but we seldom come away remembering the performer as a person. It's why circus has very few star names, individuals who would draw an audience in their own right. Throughout history there has been no more than a handful, and they tend to be clowns, such as Charlie Cairoli, or the present day's Danny Adams, who has been the main draw in the pantomime at the Newcastle Theatre Royal for the past ten years.
Performers like Jenny Glowacki and the Duo Stefanali bring a little bit more personality to their routines than most, and I wish more performers would.
A performer who combined the big with the quirky was juggler Iran. Juggling hoops and clubs is one thing, but watching a man hurling three heavy car tyres high into the air is truly the sort of unusual sight that you go to a circus to see.
Not content with that, he then lay down while a monster truck with blaring horns and headlights was driven over his chest. Now that is circus!
The truck was a star in its own right. When I first saw the Duo Stefaneli at the Great British Circus, you could have your photo taken with an elephant during the interval. At Planet Circus, interval photos were with the big red truck.
Top of the bill was a Globe of Death - an act that I feel has been in fashion a few seasons too long. The first time I ever saw one, it was impressive. But every circus seems to drag one out at the end of the night these days. Even with five illuminated bikes buzzing around inside the spherical cage, like a bunch of angry trapped wasps, as we had here, I find it a bit done to death, and even tiresome.
Luckily, the huge height of the Planet Circus tent allows them to go further with a finale of motorbikes racing into the tent, hitting a ramp and flying over the globe, before landing somewhere beyond the ring doors. It's a truly heart-stopping stunt to witness at an indoor show and one that I think is only being done elsewhere at Circus Extreme (read my review here) as few circuses have a tall enough tent to accommodate it.
The flying bikes justify the OMG! in the title, although I would prefer them to just have the stunt bikes and not the globe riders. Maybe they could do other things in the show, like jumping through a fiery hoop or leaping over the monster truck. Or maybe a line of them running over Iran.
The bits I will remember, though, are the Duo Stefaneli's quick change routine, Lukinha's balloon bow and arrow and Jenny Glowacki's "Whoo!"s on the cloud swing.
Planet Circus OMG! will be presenting its Christmas Spectacular at the Lincolnshire Showground, 12 December to 2 January. For more info click here.