Friday 27 February 2009

The Big Top and the Belle Epoque

Walking around Pigalle in the Parisian twilight I'm reminded of a quotation from Walt Whitman; "The past - the dark unfathomed retrospect! The past! the infinite greatness of the past!". The present here is a neon seediness, but the past, oh how glamourous we imagine it to have been! The image we retain, the colour, the sounds, the laughter is pure belle époque, but even this was a term created in retrospect. It was only the horrors of the First World War that could make consumption and syphilis seem beautiful.

I am curious therefore when I see an advert for 'Diana Moreno, le cirque de la belle époque'. What exactly is a belle époque circus? We know that the circus was an extremely popular diversion in Paris in the 19th century, with traces remaining notably in the paintings of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat. It was a form of entertainment that had grown out of equestrian events, with different acts added only when it became clear that new audiences did not appreciate how difficult it was to dress horses. The equestrian element had though made the circus an event that was popular with the nobility, and the belle époque circus was still a show that attracted spectators from a wide range of backgrounds.

Perhaps the most famous of all the circuses of this era was the Fernando (later named Médrano). This permenant structure was situated on the corner of the Boulevard de Rochechouart and the Rue des Martyrs, and it was here that many of the painters sketched and found their inspiration. It was also a place that Picasso liked to frequent, with one contemporary saying "je n'ai jamais vu Picasso rire d'aussi bon coeur qu'à Médrano, il s'y amusait comme un enfant" (I've never seen Picasso laugh so heartily than at Médrano, he enjoyed himself like a child). The structure survived for 99 years, from 1874 to 1973. It was only in the last 10 years of its existence that it was owned by the Bouglione family, and yet it is this name that the developers gave to the block of apartments that replaced the circus. The past is infinite, but memories are short.

The Medrano circus before and today

The paintings of the period give a good idea of what took place in the circuses of the time. Degas portrayed Mademoiselle La La being suspended above the audience with only her teeth clenching onto the rope. Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec showed horses, clowns and acrobats, whilst Renoir pictured child performers. Is this what I should expect to see at the Diana Moreno circus?

A Toulouse-Lautrec sketch

If the truth be told, I've never been a fan of the circus. I suppose I was born at the wrong time, during a period when it was in decline. By the time it was given a renaissance by the new circus, the animal free spectacles of Archaos and the Cirque du Soleil I was too old. As this was a belle époque circus though, I knew I'd be seeing animals and I wasn't too comfortable with that. The website highlights the family aspect of the troupe, explaining that "même les animaux sont considérés comme des membres de la famille" (even the animals are considered to be members of the family), but I doubt that they truly get to sit at the same table to eat.

Tickets for the show are cheap on the internet, so I set out one Saturday afternoon to attempt the experience. The first thing to note is how far the circus tent is from the heart of the city, its rightful place in the 19th century. Here I leave the Metro then walk for fifteen minutes past warehouses, football pitches and over the motorway before finally spying the top of the tent behind corrugated fencing. Inside though, the decoration is cosy, 'handmade' according to the website, and welcoming. The tent is filled with the scent of animals, and dry ice announces the imminent start of the show.

For 10 Euros, I am impressed by the length of the spectacle, which stretches over nearly two hours. The children around me are also thrilled by the sights and sounds, the clowns, the acrobats and especially the animals. The show starts with eight tigers and continues with horses, llamas, yaks, doves, goats and dogs. It does all seem quaint and old-fashioned, but I am disturbed most by an obstacle course set up for a troupe of panicking ducks who are chased around the ring with sticks.

The show does entertain, but I see little of the glamour of the belle epoque. There is a certain amateurish quality to the show, which introduces a little nervous edginess. Could one of the horses jump over the small barrier and could the trapezeist slip from her rope? It is clear nevertheless that these are hard-working, talented people - the clown is also an acrobat and set shifter, whilst the female ringmaster is also a trapeze artist. There are no more than 100 spectators in attendance and to survive the family troupe have to be multi-functional. Even the grandparents seem to have been roped in to sell tickets and sweep up, whilst a girl who can be no older than six gives a five minute performance. It is difficult to imagine Degas being moved to paint this scene or Picasso laughing like a child at the show, but then in retrospect, we imagine everything to have been greater in the past.


Starman said...

I think we have been jaded by so many technically enhanced entertainments. We no longer possess the child-like wonder of those of the nineteenth century. I went to a circus when I was a child. I liked the acrobats and the trapeze artists, but I was left cold by the animals. I lived in the country, so animals were no big thing to me and I found no amusement in them walking around in circles, with or without someone on their back. I suppose a city dweller might have felt differently.

Adam said...

I think our 19th century ancestors also liked to see nature, which was still something feared by them, to be tamed. Today, we'd much rather see animals in their natural environments.

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