Baarn, Netherlands, 26th October 2013
Dutch tenting company Circus Renaissance have cleverly acknowledged the old-fashioned image many people have of classical touring circus, and proudly proclaim themselves a nostalgic visit to the circus tradition. This is not just lip-service to a dated programme however.
The company have created a beautiful vintage environment that beckons enticingly, even from a distance, with elegant arches of bare bulbs and numbered wooden wagons. Inside the midnight blue entrance tent, red-shaded lamps illuminate romantic concession carts and faded floral fabrics, whilst retired costumes hang around the walls.
Passing through into the big top, a crystal chandelier and red-velvet curtains enhance the atmosphere of faded glamour and timeless class, and soft, sexless rag-doll clowns with oversized buttons and white-face makeup usher us gently to our seats. Only half the raked seats are erected around the ring, but the crowd fills them to give the intimate feeling circuses thrive off. The four king poles are rigged with rows of coloured stage lights, and a tight wire waits in the centre of the red-matted ring. No-one is pushing merchandise upon the entering audience, and we are free to admire the old street organ that sits, complete with toy monkeys, on a raised stage in front of the curtained artist entrance.
Ring master and circus director Alberto Althoff, in top hat and striped pantaloons, looks perfectly placed within this vintage environment, and keeps dissolving into jovial laughter as he welcomes us to tonight’s performance.
An iconic striped unitard leaves us in little doubt as to the nature of strong-man Yousef’s act, as he impresses us with his kettle bell swinging and anvil balancing – and the heavy thud as he returns the metal objects to the ground puts paid to any cynical doubts as to their authenticity.
Harmonic singing from the ensemble adds to the evocative music of a small clown band of accordion, drums and trumpet, and a Medieval themed courtier and wench duo of Sharon and Harald Vassallo mount the tight wire. After a few simple passes, Sharon mounts a novel wheel device which leaves me wanting to see more, and Harald proceeds to jump through hoops. Twinkling props lend magic and glamour to the tricks and, as the line is slackened off, the appearance of a unicycle elicits ‘whoa’s and open mouthed admiration from the small boy next to me.
The first simple and sweet entrance of clown Mr Dalmatin (Sergey Prostetsov) is warmly appreciated, as is his gentle involvement of the crowd; like all great clown acts, the scene appears to end happily for the audience and sadly for Dalmatin – and then a magnificent surprise interruption sets the tone for every future appearance of the black-and-white spotted fool with his wonderful clown-in-training. Over the course of the evening, the pair are the highlight of the show, never failing to elevate the mood and provide hilarity with their witty bits and novel interludes; I look forward to seeing more from the two and perhaps, with his new partner, Dalmatin could go on to improve upon his 2005 success at the Monte Carlo Festival
A spectacular change in dynamic sees 6 bactrian camels fill the small ring, with a liberty act that looks at times as though it threatens to overwhelm the small figure of Althoff in the centre, but in fact shows the proud beasts working together with the human trainer on their own terms.
The Vassallo duo return as spangled 1920s gangsters with a sequence of ladder balancing tricks – including an unusual zigzag creation – ending with mafia gunfire that, although neatly top-and-tailing the act, was not thematically followed through within the performance of their technical tricks.
When the Dalmatin pair return to present their ponies, poodles, and namesake dalmations in a highly trained whirl of black and white fur, we are enthralled by an expert balance of wonder and humour. The animals comfortably perform a wide variety of tricks together with good natured concentration, including an amazing back-flipping poodle; the matching outfits from Mr Dalmatin and son are another nod to the high quality attention to detail put into this show. The final act of the first half leaves the audience feeling good, and also offers the chance of a souvenir photo with the spotted dogs during the interval.
The second half begins with a brief musical clown intro, and then Althoff announces (as I understand from my basic Dutch) 12 yr old Sonja Prostetsova in her first circus act. Whilst I’m not sure of the wisdom of presenting a pole-dance routine in a flimsy pink crop-top and frilled knickers to glamorous sexy pop at that age, I applaud the circus for sharing this part of a family training-ground tradition in their nostalgia-based show.
After an entertaining introduction, the novelty of Althoff’s ambling cows – in their gentle parody of a liberty horse act – wears a bit thin before their pleasing close-up exit around the ringside blocks; and a slow, tango inspired foot-balancing act from the Vassallos and their ladders seems out of keeping with the vintage set-up.
We’re always happy to see the return of Mr Dalmatin and his tiny partner, and a football throwing interlude injects some much needed energy into the second half, reinvigorating the crowd.
‘Bird of Paradise’, Dzerassa Kanukova, appears as a heavenly beauty accompanied by a pure white dove and, if her perfect earthbound grace doesn’t fully transcend to the aerial silks, she still presents some strong and powerful shapes, and the dramatic lighting adds interest. I can’t help but wonder, however, how much more her doves could have added had they joined her in the air, rather than returning to the stage only for the final exit.
A musical clown entrée from the latest revival of the great Rastelli family tradition (Oreste Jr and Vittorio, who reintroduced their act as a duo in 2011, six years after the death of their father Alfredo) clearly entertains the young children in the stands with its ridiculous slapstick, but the gags and shrieking hoots of laughter seem disingenuous. The famous exploding piano works well, but is marred by the fact that the ‘bullet’ costume is worn back-to-front; however, the true musical moments, such as the double trumpet playing and a fabulous Louis Armstrong impression, give the audience something real to appreciate.
A well paced hand-to-hand from Duo Polonia – Andrzey and Tomasz – gives an intense finale to the programme, with sci-fi music blaring, and muscles visibly straining on the platform stage. The acrobats marry a smooth flow and a clear concept in a tightly choreographed sequence that generates a hearty applause for the curtain call.
The pace and quality of the second act was not as consistent as the first, but gave us a good build in the last few acts. The presence throughout of the beautifully costumed stagehand clowns – picking up poop, holding the curtain and passing props – gives a sense of continuity that almost allows us to forget moments when an act’s style and direction isn’t fully in keeping with the nostalgic vibe; and the genuine warmth that emanates from the performers and crew makes this a circus to revisit.
And keep an eye out for Mr Dalmatin if you get the opportunity!