Gone are the days of the three ring travelling circus in Britain but, last weekend, we caught up on three strands of the contemporary circus world under Zippos’ canvas.

Ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE at Zippo's Circus IMAGE: Piet-Hein Out

Ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE at Zippos Circus IMAGE: Piet-Hein Out

Zippos Circus have been touring this summer with a full length show titled Unchained.  Perhaps I shouldn’t dwell too much on the name, as it has no apparent relevance to the structure or content of the production but, with that in mind, for what other reason must it have been chosen?  The circus can easily be associated with a sense of freedom, from the acrobats flying through the air, to the nomadic lifestyle (handily glossing over the hard work and training needed to achieve these ends). More than that though, to be “unchained” signifies an oppressor – one who originally forged the bonds – and a sense of rebellion.

The traditional tenting outfit of Zippos, with its classically structured show, stands strong in the face of current media fashions that damn everything but the “contemporary” circus (to bastardise E.E.Cummings).  In the truest sense of the word, however, “contemporary” simply means current, and the 30-plus tenting circus companies working in Britain this year are testament to the form’s relevance in today’s performing arts world.  In naming their show Unchained, perhaps Zippos are freeing themselves from the tired notions that classical circus is passé, and flying ahead with positivity, grace and – of course – humour.

Hosted by ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE, who was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame three years ago at the age of 75, and featuring the world famous Rastelli Clowns, this is a show that takes its heritage seriously.  At the same time, the smart navy and red that colour the inside of the tent, the smiling ushers in bright branded t-shirts, and the pop music stemming from an Apple Mac and sound technician in the once-familiar band spot above the ring curtains, all appeal to a 21st century crowd.

IMAGE: Piet-Hein Out

IMAGE: Piet-Hein Out

Clown Emilion Delbosq is also upbeat and modern with his cheeky geeky demeanour, maintaining the energy and giving us something to focus on during rigging changes between acts.  The show opens with a “March of Lights” to get the audience gee’d up, then the hip-swaying Tropicana Troupe literally launch into a teeterboard act that culminates in a triple somersault into a chair perch attached to one member’s waist. A well synchronised aerial silks act follows from Stefanie Usher and Odko Amarbayar, before Salavatore Sambito performs a dynamic 80s-inspired cloud swing routine with no safety lunge – which, in this day and age, is more the exception than the rule.

Equestrienne Summer Roberts appears with Apaloosa Viento, who performs some high stepping slalom dressage to the sounds of Spanish guitars, and Barrett brings out his signature budgerigars – who are far more endearing than I ever imagined budgies could be – with a perfect patter from an older era.  Its feels as much a privilege to watch Barrett work as it would be to see Bruce Forsyth do his “last of a generation” thing live, so I can forgive him when a couple of remarks don’t quite match up to current standards of political correctness.

The Rastelli musical clowns are up next with a cleverly thought out routine of interruptions that develop through various surprising instruments into their classic exploding piano; then the first half ends with a stunning display from the aptly named Hercules, who is a showman as much as a strongman, injecting a witty charm to his silent acts of prowess.

postersDuring the interval, I wander over to a second big top, which usually tours the Academy Of Circus Arts vocational training programme, launched by Zippos director Martin Burton in 1993 and now run as an independent charity supported by the circus.  Today, however, the tent is being used as the venue to launch Steven B Richley‘s new book of circus posters from Bertram Mills’ travelling company of the last century.  Far from being simply a commercial enterprise, Zippos also have a history of community support, both in the circus fraternity and beyond.  For an art that has been widely neglected by academia, digitisation and publication of collections such as this is essential to preserving a historical record for future generations.

In the second part of the show, we see a juggling based entrée from the Rastellis, then a contortion act from Odko complete with a Marinelli bend, supported off the ground only by a bar clenched between her teeth with buttocks resting upon her head.  Emilion gets the audience involved with his precious rock band in an act with a disconcerting edge, and Summer returns with three Arab horses in a dainty liberty act.  Earlier in the season the act has been presented with six horses, so I wonder if three are on a rest break.  The stables and grazing area are open to public sight, with information about the horses and their care upon the fences and, for anyone interested in how the animals are looked after and trained, the circus runs free Open House events most Fridays of their tour.

The finalé of the show is the return of the Tropicana Troupe for an aerial casting act in which members of the troupe are flung between a square of four Korean Cradles.  This exuberant and pacy closing spectacle is the first act to require a safety net over the Zippos ring in almost 15 years.

Taiyo Kishi

Taiyo Kishi

My Zippos weekend isn’t over yet though.  I return on Sunday evening for the Academy of Circus Arts (or ACA) graduation showcase.  Full-time students perform alongside their trainers – and younger artistes from the circus community who have been honing their skills on a summer school – in a 90 minute display presented in the main big top by Norman Barrett.  The aesthetic isn’t as polished as in the main event, but some of the acts are equally strong (in fact, both Stephanie and Odko are were previous graduates of the programme).

Standouts of this year’s show are Hanna Rose for her energy, engagement and charisma in a well styled swinging trapeze act, and the superb Taiyo Kishi, who uses his whole body in the manipulation and choreography of his slick ball juggling act, harnessing a great variety of patterns and fascinating rhythms, some fancy footwork and a few tricking moves.  Definitely “one to watch”.

All proof, if proof be needed, that contemporary circus is wider than that label usually suggests; perhaps the chains we need to break are the ones that segregate different varieties of circus entertainment?  As Norman Barrett remarks in his parting statement: “You’re never too old, never too young, and never too cool to go to the circus.”

Unchained. Presented by Zippos Circus. Forthcoming dates in Twickenham, Barkingside, Wembley and Hampstead Heath, see website for further details http://www.zipposcircus.co.uk/community.html