Chainsaw juggling, human cannonballs and Coco the Clown! The astounding 250-year story of circus

When was the first trapeze performance? Who launched ‘the greatest show on Earth’? And which showman was celebrated in song by the Beatles? Here’s a history of circus in 25 moments

1. Roll up for the riding school

In 1768, Philip Astley, a former cavalry officer, opens an equestrian school in London, close to the site that is now Waterloo station, giving riding lessons in the morning and performing trick riding stunts in the afternoon. Performances take place in a circular ring but it’s not called a circus. Within two years, acrobats and clowning are part of the mix.

2. Tightropes and tumbling

The first structure to be called a circus was the Royal Circus, built in 1782 by Astley’s protege and rival, Charles Hughes, close to what is now St George’s Circus in south London. Feats on show included horsemanship, tightrope walking, trampoline and tumbling acts. A decade later, Hughes took circus to the court of Catherine the Great in Russia, and one of his pupils, the Scotsman John Bill Ricketts, opened the US’s first circus in 1793, with President George Washington as one of the early attendees.

Pablo Fanque performing at Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1847.
Pablo Fanque performing at Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1847. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

3. The tent goes up

Joshua Purdy Brown erects the first circus tent in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1825. It was a year before the first circular tent – which, together with the sawdust ring, became so associated with travelling circuses in Europe and America. The tent was one of the most important features in allowing circus to develop, reach new audiences and perform in all weathers. Prior to that, it was performed outside or in roofless canvas structures. In 1840, Thomas Cooke brought the circus tent to the UK.

4. The fantastic Fanque

Pablo Fanque, born William Derby in 1810, was the first black circus proprietor, touring the north of England in the mid-19th century. He performed equestrian stunts for Queen Victoria and hundreds turned out for his funeral in 1871. He was immortalised in John Lennon’s 1967 song for the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, entitled Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.

5. Swinging with Jules

Jules Léotard gives the first public performance of an aerial trapeze act in 1859, which he developed by hanging swings above his father’s swimming pool in Toulouse. The water broke his frequent falls during training. During public performances, he had to make do with mattresses or no protection at all – as when he flew above the heads of diners at the Alhambra in London on Whit Monday in 1861 – because the safety net was not invented until 1871. Léotard also gave his name to the one-piece costume, and inspired the music-hall ditty The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

A carte-de-visite portrait of Jules Léotard
A carte-de-visite portrait of Jules Léotard. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images

6. Cannonball!Fourteen-year-old Rossa Matilda Richter, who performed under the stage name Zazel, was the first recorded person to be launched out of a spring-style cannon. It launched her 20ft before she landed in a net in a performance at the Royal Aquarium in 1877. American showman PT Barnum had travelled to London to see the performance – and he booked Richter and her act. She continued to perform it for another 14 years, until her career was ended when she was shot from a cannon in New Mexico, the net failed and she broke her back.

Rosa Maria Richter, billed as Zazel, at the Royal Aquarium, London, 1877.
Rosa Maria Richter, billed as Zazel, at the Royal Aquarium, London, 1877. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

7. Greatest Show on Earth

PT Barnum, the man who is supposed to have declared “every crowd has a silver lining”, had already found success with a sideshow in New York when, in 1881, he formed a partnership with James Anthony Bailey to found Barnum and Bailey Circus, otherwise known as “the Greatest Show on Earth”. The Ringling Brothers soon began their rival touring circus, eventually buying out Barnum and Bailey in 1907. In the UK, Bertram Mills and Billy Smart were major players in the touring circus business.

8. All in the air

Juggling dates back to ancient Rome, where it was performed alongside chariot races and staged battle entertainments. Born into a circus family in 1896, the juggler Enrico Rastelli was an early-20th-century circus superstar, commanding impressive fees for manipulating objects. Over the last 20 years, juggling has developed not just technically but also aesthetically, with companies such as Gandini Juggling and Compagnie Jérôme Thomas creating shows that play with form and emotion. The Gandinis’ Pina Bausch-inspired 2010 show Smashed was a game-changer.

9. Coco the Clown is born

Love them or hate them, clowns – descendants of the jester figure, dating back to ancient times – are an integral part of the circus experience. Clowns entertained audiences at Philip Astley’s equestrian shows and are a feature of most traditional circuses, though less prevalent in contemporary circus. In the UK, the most notable were Coco the Clown, who was born Nicolai Poliakoff in 1900 in Latvia, and was a staple with the Bertram Mills Circus, and Charlie Cairoli, who performed at Blackpool Tower Circus every summer from 1939 to 1979.

Coco the Clown with his son, Michael.
Coco the Clown with his son, Michael. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

10. Railroad revolution

The advent of railways in the 1830s had a huge influence on circus: now companies could travel widely with ease. PT Barnum had a train to transport 1,000 staff, 30 elephants and a big top. The Ringling Brothers, meanwhile, had their own specially designed 60-car trains. Without the railways, circus would never have become such a popular entertainment in the US. One of the worst rail disasters there took place in 1918 in Indiana, when a locomotive ploughed into a circus train, killing more than 80 people from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the country’s second-largest troupe at its height.

11. Soviet and Chinese circus boom

State-sponsored circus was developed in the USSR and China. (Chinese acrobatic tradition dates back more than 2,000 years.) Lenin nationalised all circus in 1919 and set up state circus schools, and the Chinese industry received a boost in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China set up circus schools across the nation. The Chinese government believed performances could bring in much-needed foreign currency. Chinese performers now perform internationally in western shows such as Cirque du Soleil, and troupes from China tour regularly across the world.

A 1929 Russian circus poster.
A 1929 Russian circus poster. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

12. Theatre looks to the big top

Theatre may have often looked down its nose at circus, but it has happily borrowed from it. In Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, the actors employed plate-spinning, acrobatics and sat on trapezes. Adrian Noble’s 1983 Comedy of Errors was set in a circus ring with the Dromios as red-nosed clowns, and Vesturport’s 2003 version of Romeo and Juliet at the Young Vic had the lovers’ death scene played out on aerial silks. Emma Rice’s work, with its swinging metaphors, has often borrowed from circus.

13. Political tricks

Ra-Ra Zoo were 1980s pioneers of new experimental British circus, and their influence has spread out into contemporary circus in the UK. Operating on a structure of equal pay, and using agitprop and satire to make political circus, notable shows included Juggling With a Social Conscience, Domestic Bliss and the all-female clown show, Angels and Amazons.

James Thierrée and Kaori Ito in Au Revoir Parapluie at Sadler’s Wells, London.
James Thierrée and Kaori Ito in Au Revoir Parapluie at Sadler’s Wells, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

14. Dalí brought to life

The 1982 London visit by Le Cirque Imaginaire was an eye-opener for British circus. Like watching a Salvador Dalí painting brought to life, this collaboration between Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, Victoria, reinvented circus and its possibilities. It also featured their children, James and Aurelia, who have produced some of the most mesmerisingly strange circus of the last 20 years.

15. Soleil not sawdust

Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil was founded in Montreal in 1984 by street performers Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix. Its distinctive brand of dazzling, high-quality acts wrapped up in a theatrical framework has banished the idea of circus as a lowbrow spectacle played out in a sawdust ring, and pushed it into the realm of slick entertainment. The company’s annual revenues are estimated to exceed $800m (£575m).

Dazzle offensive … Cirque du Soleil on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
Dazzle offensive … Cirque du Soleil on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

16. Motorbikes and chainsaws

Danger has always been a feature of circus, but Pierrot Bidon upped the ante in 1986 with contemporary French circus Archaos. Instead of horses there were motorbikes; juggling took on a new jeopardy when it was done with chainsaws; and performers flung themselves from forklift trucks in anarchic and often fiery displays. Like Circus Oz in Australia, Archaos was one of the animal-free outfits that gave circus a rock’n’roll vibe.

17. Join the circus

Cardiff-based NoFit State Circus, founded in 1986, combine the idea of the travelling circus with contemporary aesthetics and the tools of theatre including design, video and narrative. The company collaborate with the local community and live, work and travel together like old-style troupes. They also use contemporary techniques to stage shows, including 2012’s immersive promenade show, Bianco, in which the action happened all around the audience.

Bianco by NoFitState Circus at the Edinburgh festival in 2013.
Bianco by NoFitState Circus at the Edinburgh festival in 2013. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

18. Wizards of Oz

Australian company Circa began as Rock n Roll Circus in 1987, very much in the mould of Circus Oz, but changed its name and its style in 2004, under the direction of theatre director and circus enthusiast Yaron Lifschitz. Since then it has been at the forefront of contemporary circus, creating a pared-back aesthetic in which the trick itself becomes a metaphor.

19. De La Guarda flies high

De La Guarda’s 1997 visit to the London international festival of theatre was a revelation. Here were circus skills being used to create a club-like experience, in which the audience was herded into a space with a paper ceiling across which humans flew and chased each other, before breaking through the paper and snatching audience members into the sky.

Les 7 Doigts de la Main in Traces at the Peacock theatre, London.
Les 7 Doigts de la Main in Traces at the Peacock theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

20. Doomsday acrobatics

Les 7 Doigts de la Main is a Canadian troupe founded in 2002 by performers who had worked with Cirque du Soleil and wanted to create contemporary circus with more intimacy. Their 2006 show, Traces, was a game-changer: a piece in which the five young performers – lost in a doomsday scenario – not only displayed their stunning acrobatic skills but also their personalities and relationship. They’ve inspired others, including rising outfit Barely Methodical Troupe, the National Centre for Circus Arts graduates whose first show, Bromance, was very much from the same mould.

21. Angels over Eros

Piccadilly Circus Circus was one of the final events in the London 2012 festival. Brilliant and influential circus producers Crying Out Loud curated a witty pop-up event that turned the area into a real circus featuring 247 international performers across 12 spaces. It culminated in Les Studios de Cirque’s piece Place de Anges, in which Piccadilly Circus was invaded by flying angels who dropped 1.5 tonnes of feathers over Eros. You could glimpse feathers still floating days later.

Watch a scene from Les Studios de Cirque’s Place de Anges on YouTube

22. Risky business

Death-defying stunts are often a marketing tag line in the industry – although not always. Ringling Circus changed the name of the Wheel of Death to the Space Wheel to make it more family friendly. Circus acts have remarkably few accidents, because risk is well managed, yet numerous stunts have gone wrong – there are at least 30 recorded deaths from the human cannonball alone. In 2013, Cirque du Soleil performer Sarah Guyard-Guillot died after a 15-metre fall during a performance of the troupe’s Las Vegas show, KÀ – the first death in the company’s 30-year history.

23. Festival fever

The Edinburgh fringe has become a major platform for international circus and for emerging UK talent, through the efforts of producers Crying Out Loud and Underbelly, who in 2015 launched the Circus Hub. The biennial CircusFest at London’s Roundhouse and Bristol’s Circus City are major UK festivals, and events such as the London international mime festival and the London international festival of theatre have been influential in showcasing circus.

Vicki Amedume’s aerial dance company Upswing.
Vicki Amedume’s aerial dance company Upswing. Photograph: Victoria Amedume/GuardianWitness

24. The animal ban

In 2017 Scotland banned the use of wild animals in performance. England is likely to follow suit after a public consultation found 94.5% of the public supported the ban. (Many English local authorities already refuse to license circuses featuring wild animals.) It was not always so, with trained animals starting to appear on the bill from 1810 onwards in England. In the early part of the 20th century, there were likely to be more animal acts than humans in the ring. The US Ringling Brothers Circus gave its last performance in 2017 after 146 years on the road, claiming there had been a sharp drop in ticket sales after the company stopped using elephants.

25. Women’s upswing

In the 19th and 20th centuries, some of the most celebrated circus performers were women, including high-wire walker Maria Spelterina who in 1876 became the first woman to walk across the Niagara Falls on a rope, and Katie Sandwina (AKA Lady Hercules), who juggled cannonballs. Despite female-led companies such as Mimbre and Upswing, women have been underrepresented in British circus. But the lineup at CircusFest at London’s Roundhouse in April 2017 indicates the start of a shift in the UK.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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