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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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).
A cat climbs in circles around trainer Vladislav Olandar's neck. As we watched, we wondered if we could teach Ali that trick.
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:
There were also horses - ridden by equestrians from the Bouglione family:
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.
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.
The show's over for now: all of the artists come into the ring, accompanied by loud cheers and clapping, and balloons!