Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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FEBRUARY 5, 2012 10:11AM

GNS - Let's go to the circus!

Rate: 26 Flag

 cirque dhiver affiche

This season's poster for the Cirque d'Hiver 


I can’t say how long it had been since I'd last gone to the circus.  I'd been to the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey one several times as a kid, and hold dear memories of big cats and a motorcycle roaring round a metal globe, tiger-headed flashlights, and even getting to ride an elephant before the show, rocking gently back and forth as though on a boat.   A few months ago, as we cut through the Parc de Bercy on our way to the movies, we came upon a sort of fairy-vision:  a small, old-fashioned-looking circus tent, lit up warmly from the inside.  We could hear music and laughter and the boasting of the ringmaster.  I wanted to stop and go inside, but we didn’t have tickets, and the show had already started.  And so, we’d continued on in the dark night, leaving that bright spot behind.  But that vision, combined with some recent reads like Water for Elephants and Spangle by Gary Jennings, got me longing to see one again. 

This past Friday, I suddently thought, why not?  It was surprisingly easy to make a last-minute online reservation for the Cirque – not du Soleil (which has recently installed itself in the nearby Bois de Bologne) – but the Cirque d’Hiver, a traditional circus that’s been in Paris for 160 years.

cirque 1 

The Cirque d’Hiver is located near the République Metro stop today. At the time when the distinctive building, designed by architect Hittorf, was constructed, there was no Metro:  Christened the “Cirque Napoléon”, in honor of Napoleon III, who’d recently come into power, its first show was in 1852.  Some legendary acts have performed here, including Jules Léotard (who popularized the eponymous outfit), a daring 19th century acrobat who pioneered the trapeze act.  Over the decades, the Cirque has changed ownership – and its name – a few times.  Since 1934, it’s been run by the Bougliones, a circus family originally from Italy.

As I’d hoped, the experience was fun and enchanting – and there were quite a few surprises.

The biggest was that, like many things, the circus in France is a bit different from the circus in America.  Take the clowns.  Good news for those of you who are afraid of them: French clowns don’t look like Bozo, but in some cases like commedia dell’arte characters (I can’t imagine how much the iconic White Clown's costumes must cost),

alberto caroli

Alberto Caroli, the Cirque d'Hiver's White Clown (image source


and in others, like goofy guys with funny hair (but little or no makeup and no wigs, etc.) – or even just funny men not made up in any way.  All of them were very well-dressed; no hobo-esque trappings here.    

The Cirque d’Hiver’s most famous clown, Fumagalli (who you can see on the poster at the beginning of this post), generally acts childish, or like a befuddled old man.  Strangely, though he’s the most unusual looking, the White Clown is the straight man, with a strong, manly-sounding voice.  In Spangle, author Gary Jennings mentions one of his characters being unnerved by watching such a clown perform, and I could understand.  Still, the sketches at the Cirque d'Hiver were genuinely amusing enough to make you feel at ease.  I was surprised, too, that unlike the American clowns I’ve seen, these had a nationality: Fumagalli’s name, accent, and cultural references were distinctly Italian, and several times he and his companions had the audience join them in a boisterous verse of an Italian song.  I asked the boyfriend if this was an homage to the commedia dell’arte, which originated in Italy, but he thinks it might simply be because the Bougliones, like many of France's famous circus families, want to pay tribute to their Italian heritage.

cdh 11

Fumagalli and the White Clown perform a sketch 


Another surprising thing about my French circus experience was discovering that, though very much geared towards families and children, the circus here also has some “adult” elements to it.  The boyfriend compared the experience to cabarets like the Lido. There were scantily-clad dancers whose choreography looked like something out of a PG-rated stripper routine.   The clowns also used naughty language at times.  

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The dancers frequently performed numbers between acts.  Here, they’re in their most traditional and modest garb: dresses and hats that seem to evoke different eras in French history.  The boyfriend was happy to look at them, and I was happy they at least weren’t completely topless.  Small progress in the snail's-pace evolution of feminism in France….

There was also no issue with near-nudity (especially, of course, for women).  While most female performers wore beautiful, fairy-like dresses, or old-fashioned-looking dolmens, the two in the Trio Laruss – which was one of the most impressive acts – wore g-strings as they impossibly contorted their bodies and climbed onto each other to make beautiful and interesting shapes. 

 cdh 10


Another big difference (no pun intended) between the Cirque d’Hiver and the American circuses I’ve been to, was the size.  The seats in the Cirque d’Hiver’s mid- to high rows are so close together that even my short legs were cramped.  The boyfriend (whose knees would have been up to his nose if he hadn’t lucked out and gotten an aisle seat) remarked that, like many 19th century interiors, this one was built on a very human scale.  Though the ceiling was high, and hung with magnificent 19th century chandeliers,

cdh 4 

the ring itself was so small that, when we arrived, we realized why there couldn’t be any elephants.  One thing I also found was, unless you had a seat near one of the doorways, it was a struggle to leave, since there was no room to pass in front of anyone. If you’d like to see a show here, but, like me, you have stomach issues, or any other problem that might make you need to leave a place quickly, I’d recommend calling or emailing the Cirque d’Hiver directly, to see about getting seats next to an exit.

cdh 2 

The first act was the lion (or, in this case, tiger) tamer.  After that, the cage panels were taken down, and the other acts were only separated from the audience by a low ledge. 

The advantage to the size, though, was that smaller animal acts could easily be seen.  Among them were a group of trained domestic cats (one of the highlights of the day for me), and a very impressive dove act (which unfortunately was very hard to photograph). 

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A cat climbs in circles around trainer Vladislav Olandar's neck.  As we watched, we wondered if we could teach Ali that trick. 


cdh 6 

Two cats climb to platforms at the top of a long pole balanced on Olandar's forehead....That's a trick we probably won't try to teach Ali.... 


The youngest generation of the Bouglione family also came out and did a short act with goats and pigs:

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There were also horses - ridden by equestrians from the Bouglione family:

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Horses and beautiful costumes (I want an outfit like theirs!) for the girliest of us; cleavage for those unimpressed by these other things.  

As for the big cats,  I noticed that, whereas when I was a kid, I’d just loved watching them, now I also felt nervous for the tamer in that metal cage. The ringmaster (who the boyfriend told me in any French circus is always called “Monsieur Loyal”) explained that the tigers were young, about two years old.  They seemed a little undisciplined at times.

I also realized that watching a trapeze act with no net is awfully nerve-wracking. 

Sitting in such small quarters meant that, no matter how much or little you paid for your tickets (prices range from around 27 euros to around 58) just about everyone in the Cirque d’Hiver’s audience was in relatively close contact with the performers. When we tried to return to our seats after the intermission, we were blocked by two thick cords, and had to climb over them. The cords were holding up an elastic net for the second trapeze act – whose performers flew directly over our heads at times.

 cdh 8

Our view of the Neves' trapeze act (which artfully integrated their trampoline-like net). 


Our first visit to the circus as adults was magical.  Just like the circuses I saw as a kid, I think this show at the Cirque d'Hiver is a memory I’ll cherish for a long time to come.   

cdh 12 

The show's over for now: all of the artists come into the ring, accompanied by loud cheers and clapping, and balloons! 

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Oh, how wonderful! Such a magical place, the intimacy, and yes, it was like a storybook opening - great post, thanks!
This is so neat! I love all these amazing pictures as well as the whole idea of a circus that's been around for 160 years. On a self-absorbed note, I enjoy when my fleeting impressions are confirmed by someone with more extensive experience. By which I mean to say: when we were in Paris, my son was six, and I just wouldn't turn on the television because nudity and explicit sex scenes seemed impossible to avoid (he doesn't speak French, so the naughty words weren't an issue). But anyway, the domestic cats performing tricks is possibly the coolest surprise element for me, being a cat-admirer. :)

Thanks so much for sharing this and giving me yet another item to put on my list of things to look up if I get to Paris again!
This was just fantastique coming from a woman who dreamed of flying the high trapeze even if I am scared of heights.
Tres fabulous! (That is about the extent of my French -- admittedly lame). Thanks for sharing, I loved this!
Wow! So beautiful. Your photos share the differences between an American circus and French circus in beautiful color. I love reading about your adventures in Paris, a place I plan on visiting someday.
My kids and grand-kids are at a Circe show tonight. Thanks so much for the pictures and post
i am gratified to see a circus done right. I went to barnum/bailey a few yrs ago and found it to be a travesty of predictability, right down to the obnoxious clowns for whom I nursed murderous intent. They do not scare me, they annoy me.

These white clowns kinda freak me out,in a good way.

Cleavage and long nude legs are not at all unwelcome in a public spectacle. Pigs goats and cats too!

Elephants? I object to them being in circuses, cuz I oddly identify with them.

A tie to our ancient past. Rome, Greece, etc. Bread and circuses for the masses!

I wish monkeys and gorillas were part of circuses. They would have to have excellent accomodations, of course, when not performing. I say: put the damn clowns in cages and rent the animals 4 star hotel rooms.
How fun! I really enjoyed noticing the differences between the circus here (which I haven't been to in ages) and the French say slow rise of feminism, I keep wondering if it is not the delightful lack of Puritan background. I'd love to be 'free' enough to celebrate my body more...although I doubt I'll ever sit on someone's neck wearing a g-string. That's a little too close!! (my Puritan background speaking??) : )
You are totally hooked on Paris.

For good reason.

I was just reading this:
Rw - I think you're absolutely right: for a wonderful, golden time (ca. the mid-19th century to the 1920's), most Parisian architecture was indeed intended to be at once beautiful and functional. I'm so glad so much of it remains in the city today!

The Songbird - Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you used this.

Sally - Most things on French TV are probably okay for a kid to watch, especially since they probably wouldn't be up very late. But anytime they can show boobs, they will, even in commercials - though that's become a lot more rare recently. I have no huge problem with that per se, but the issue for me is that it's so unbalanced: plenty of female nudity and near-nudity, but not a lot for the males. For that reason, I feel like women are objectified, and what makes me uncomfortable is what a kid will take from that. And I'm glad you enjoyed the thought of the trained cats - of all the amazing acts, I was most excited about that, too!

Linda - I remember reading about your circus dreams - and I'm glad you enjoyed this!

Nick - Thanks! It really was a cool day.

Firechick - Merci! Yes, it was a lot of fun!

lschmoopie - Thanks for reading this and I hope you get to come to Paris one day!

Anya - Thanks for reading, and I hope your kids and grandchildren have a good time!

James - I like your thinking, animal-wise, and nudity wise I have no problem either - as long as it's equal amounts men and women!

Just Thinking - I also often associate nudity with freedom. But what I don't like, as I wrote above, is when only one group is nude - and for no necessary reason - and another in the same context isn't. As is usually the case in just about all forms of French entertainment, the men are fully dressed, and the women are as scantily clad as possible. For me, that turns nudity from freedom to objectification - and I especially hate when this is done in family-oriented entertainment; what does that show young boys and girls? Plus, wearing a g-string when climbing all over another person - even putting your (likely sweaty) backside in their face for an extended period of time - just seems impractical and kind of unpleasant for the person holding you.

Nick - Thanks for the link. That subject's been making the rounds lately. While I admire French parents, I don't think they're nearly as perfect as they're portrayed to be: nor do their kids grow up perfect and "anxiety free" as the article claims: in fact, the French are very close-lipped about psychological issues but they are one of the highest consumers of anti-anxiety medication in the world. Though, okay, their kids do eat vegetables more willingly than I've seen US kids do. But that's about it. I hate how this subject makes other nationalities question how they are as parents. Don't believe the hype! :-)
Sophia says white, cone head clown is scary. I say great article. The circus is enchanting in any language. As for the acrobats' attire, a little near-nudity never hurt anyone. What amazes me is the sheer athleticism on display at the circus. Those babes could kick a ball player's butt six ways to Sunday.
What a wonderful post. I love circuses, and when my daughter was small her father would always send us tickets to the Barnum and Bailey circus whenever it came to town. It became an annual event that we thoroughly enjoyed. But my daughter has progressively developed an inexplicable fear of clowns over they years, so when I suggested we take a Baptist evangelical clown cruise a couple of years ago, she would have nothing to do with it. How she could miss such an experience baffles me, but sadly, we missed the boat. At any rate, next time I get to Paris, I'm not missing the Cirque d'Hiver!
Wow That was the real thing. Thank you Thank you for the glimpse into another world.
Spectacular images. Nothing like the magic of the circus. R
Thanks for sharing this trip to the circus with us. Where any bear acts? R
Who cares how they get all that gold paint off!
A French circus. It's strange and beautiful. Thanks for taking me along.
BSB – I hope the White Clown didn’t freak Sophia out too much! It’s good to get feedback from someone who doesn’t like clowns, though. I’ve never been afraid of them, myself, but then, I’m afraid of so many other things, it’s probably just a question of not having room for another fear…. And you’re absolutely right about how athletic these performers are. I was especially astonished by the strength, flexibility, and balance shown by the Trio Laruss.

Chocolate Covered Kitchen – Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed this. A “Baptist evangelical clown cruise” – I’ve never heard of such a thing, and wouldn’t have expected such a combination! I can understand your daughter not wanting to go, though: being afraid of clowns in everyday life is one thing, but being afraid of them and stuck on a boat with nowhere to run, is quite another.

zanelle – I’m glad you enjoyed it! I was so happy that going to the circus as an adult is indeed still magical and otherworldly. I wasn’t sure if I’d be jaded.

Rita – Thanks for reading, and right on!

Trudge – There weren’t any bear acts, which now that you mention it, is kind of surprising. I guess the tigers were enough of a handful in the ferocious animal department?

J.P. Hart – I was wondering about how they get it off, actually, because at the end of the show, when the performers all came out, the Trio were un-made-up (and dressed) – it was hard to recognize them. They were an amazing act!

Miguela – Thanks for reading, and my pleasure!
Wow I was just thinking about doing the Turkish Circus thats in town. They even invited me to tour with them but the circus was so small that I really was hoping for something you found here. Looks fun and I am sure it was a blast. Thanks for sharing. Cheers!
Today I learned that the Léotard is named for a 19th century acrobat. Cool. And now I'm thinking the next OSWF story might take place in an old-school circus. Hmm . . .
Gorgeous!! The French Circus is so beautiful. Great post...
I really want to go to Paris and have you be my tour guide.
This is so enchanting, Alysa, and I love the building. I'm so glad you took the time to share this with us.
This makes me jealous; nothing here comes close to this rich beauty rolled into a circus.

" Plus, wearing a g-string when climbing all over another person - even putting your (likely sweaty) backside in their face for an extended period of time - just seems impractical and kind of unpleasant for the person holding you."

I like how scholarly you respond here !
I'd quit the circus before I'd happily have a naked sweaty g-stringed rear in my face, even if I were in love with its owner! : )
...and yes, I agree with you that it's not the same sense of freedom or equality when it's only the women who are naked...and the guy's in a suit.
this would be a 'given' in a realistic universe..
full frontal for both sexes..if the urge or
the demand develops..

desolation row:


"the beaty parlor fulla sailors
the circus is in town...

here comes the Blind Commsioner
they got him in a trance!
one hand tied to the
tightrope walker
other in his pants.."

sounds like a commissioner.

circus is a microcosm. french circus more agreeable
to enlightened tastes...still..why not treat animals
with respect and wonder...
put them up in mighty suites..

they are why the people there:
the long lean halfnudity is not the real thing...

the taming of animal nature is the thing..

elephants being driven by good gorillas...

tigers meeting housecats...

all that & more.
the circus is in town......................