Top Stories from the Features pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, September 24, 1993

A Circus Juggler Finds His Roots

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
VILLERS-SUR-MER, France -- When I was 18 I ran away from home and joined the circus. In addition to performing as a juggler, unicyclist and ventriloquist, I had to pound stakes to set up the tent and shovel elephant dung out of the ring. That and living out of a trailer broke my infatuation with the circus. I quit, and for many years I never attended one again.

Then I had children and vacationed in Normandy last summer and all along the coast circus posters beckoned us. In Villers-sur-Mer alone, there was a different circus each week we were there.

The circus where I worked, Puck's Canadian Traveling Circus, was modeled after the single-ring European tent circuses, where a small staff of performers and roustabouts go through the almost daily chore of setting up and knocking down the tent. But I had no idea how accurate was Puck's imitation, nor why it only lasted a few seasons, while European circuses thrive.

Now I know why, and I also know what future trips around Europe hold in store for my children. Because for little more than the cost of movie tickets, the circus is a great way to pass time when you've run out of other children's things to do.

Here's the typical routine when the circus comes to town:

After we saw the posters for the Cirque Müller, a day or two before the show opened a jeep arrived bellowing circus music and announcing: "See the African hippopotamus, the lion and the baboons."

At the market on the morning of the big day we ran into a camel while we were buying Camembert.

That walking billboard got my 2-year-old son, Paul, and me to go and spend the rest of the morning watching them set up the tent. Paul was riveted by the circus children jumping on the back of the hippo feeding in the open field, and he saw his first llamas, apes and lion.

When the box office opened for the 5:30 performance, we bought second-row seats for 110 francs (about $20), and entered the tent to join the other 1,500 eager spectators.

There were 15 acts, with only about six performers, mostly the Müller family. They were not spectacular but Paul adored their joyful personalities, the bright lights, and especially the balancing act on chairs. The only time he appeared mystified was during the juggling act. He looked from the juggler to the spectators several times, as if realizing just what his dad had been up to so often with the household cutlery.

After the show, I still itched for the smell of sawdust and returned early the next morning. There was no trace of the circus. In 24 hours it had come and gone and left only memories.

The next week we skipped the Cirque Europˇen that visited Villers, opting for the highly touted Cirque Bouglione in a town five minutes drive away.

Bouglione lived up to its reputation, with its superb jugglers - including two women who juggled tables with their feet and who had once performed at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival. But for Paul the magician's sleight of hand was too subtle. He again appeared mystified by the fascination people had for the ventriloquist, and the "Wild West Show" frightened him. So I was delighted to see that the smaller, cheaper and less professional Cirque Müller was just as good, if not better, for a 2-year old. (My three-month-old daughter Emily stayed home with mom.)

Only one thing bothered me. At both circuses the ringmaster stopped the show for a collection for the animals.

At Bouglione, Paul loved it because it took the form of a 10 franc lottery, where everyone was a winner, and Paul went into the ring to choose his prize of a balloon. But it left me questioning the honesty of the circus. I called the Bouglione family's Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, and was told there are 17 circuses in France called Bouglione. In addition to their own large family the name was sold as a franchise that anyone can buy.

Franck Marteyn, of the French National Association for the Development of the Circus Arts, or ANDAC, said of the animal collection: "It's not normal. And it's not an honest practice any way it's done."

Nevertheless, no one is obliged to give, and I returned from Normandy feeling that the small European circus is thriving.

There are 150 to 200 circuses in France, and virtually every other country in Europe has a rich circus tradition. Britain has its Gerry Cottle and Billy Smart; Italy its Togni family; Ireland its Fossett; and Norway its Arne Arnardo.

The French government has helped circuses since 1979, first through funds from the Ministry of Culture, then, since 1986, through ANDAC funding.

FRANCE also has more than 120 circus schools to train performers who are not from traditional circus families. "More and more performers are coming from the schools instead of from families," said Marteyn.

Another factor that helps the European circus is that towns are so close that traveling is quick and relatively cheap.

While tent circuses in the United States operate mainly in the summer, in Europe, they're open all year. The winter season, October through January, attracts spectators for the year-end festivities. At that time there are at least 10 circuses in Paris alone.

So if you've got children, and you're in Europe, you can't go wrong with that most traditional of entertainments, the circus. But if ever they want to run away to join one, I trust you'll explain that most of the fun goes to the spectators, not to the roustabouts.

Page: 11 Section: fe Edition: 2 Slug: cirque

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