The biennial Dutch festival of international circus arts has had a rebrand this year, from the tongue twisting Circo Circolo to the plainer Festival Circolo. I am pleased to report, however, that the programme and atmosphere of the 10-day event retain their high quality, remaining for from plain.
In the woodland Velder Estate in Northern Brabant, a cluster of big tops tents have sprung up like mushrooms in concentric rings. Braziers send woodsmoke into the air to mingle with the scent of autumn leaves and dewy grass. A central outdoor ring for children’s workshops and circus play is complimented by a set of fairground swing-boats with their very own barker. Another voice calls from outside a tiny caravan, glammed up for performance, and small tents for solo shows sidle next to the canopied catering creations of Bombascha Sideshow Circus, and the large restaurant tent with clear panels open to the skies and circus crowds. Beyond these are the full-sized performance tents, pitched by the visiting troupes or inhabited by companies who usually tour to existing venues.
In addition to the international work the festival brings in (including this year the phenomenal mass acrobatics of Cie XY from France, the political circus-dance-theatre of the American Ricochet Project, and the 6th generation Circus Ronaldo from Belgium), local talent is also given a strong platform. Youth circuses are invited to perform alongside professionals, emerging companies are offered commissions, and second year students from ACaPA (one of the two Dutch circus schools, based half an hour from the festival site) are a regular feature of the festival programme with a site specific performance taking place among the trees behind the bright lights and coloured canvas.
This year, the piece was directed by Paul van de Waterlaat, who produced an ensemble exploration into the technique behind the Sanddorn Balance created by Maedir Eugster (Rigolo), building to a serenely powerful reconstruction of the forest around us. It’s fascinating to see how one of the newest acts to the circus canon can be deconstructed and given new performance contexts by the students, fitting alongside other images that reveal the presence of gravity through their own specialised skills.
Alongside the performance programme, sits Circolo eXtra, a strand of the festival that brings together the circus industry and members of the public through talks and activities. A photography exhibition of Vera Claessen‘s portraits of circus artists lines the drive towards the main festival site, with a book of the work available for sale at the main ticket desk. Two of the performances offer post-show talks (shame it wasn’t more of them), and a day long symposium on ‘The State of the Circus’ was held, during which an agenda for the Dutch circus sector was laid out in #circusnl2025. The national organisation of youth circuses, Circomundo, also held their annual seminar during the festival.
In 2016, the region of the festival is also celebrating the life of famous local son, painter Heironymous Bosch, who died 500 years ago. Festival Circolo initiated a year long programme of related activity and commissions in Festival Jeroen Bosch, and most of the work created can be seen on site this fortnight. Although I don’t see any of the commissioned pieces in the small tents, which offer half hour street-style shows for €4 each, I do see some amusing tramp-clown antics from Danish artist Aslak Garntner, featuring a Chinese pole and a pet shoe, and a fabulous slack-line performance from Melanie Hagedorn of Germany. Remaining on her line for the entire show – impressively facing outwards to us for most of the tine – she takes us through a day in the life of her charmingly anxious character, from waking to sleep again, through breakfast, dressing, travel to work and a stint as a ballerina. Her balance movements become communications with us: ‘wait’, ‘don’t look’ (as she changes out of her pajamas), a wave. Her own frustrations and pleasures in the act of balancing translate into character traits, and I’m delighted to have stumbled across her show.
I also visit the Nieuw Lef caravan of Clountje Pep (Peppy The Clown), labelled as the Funny Freak Show. The title has more of a double meaning in it than I imagined, as we squeezed 20 people into the little wheeled box, decorated in pink velour and floral wall paper, to witness the captive clown, performing tricks for our entertainment in a chained collar. The dryness of the humour and the absurdity of the situation work well in the visual skits, although most of the Dutch introduction is lost on me.
This model of a circus festival that allows visitors to experience a choice of shows – and a festive atmosphere – in a single day, or across a weekend (or even over several recurring visits), is something that’s desperately lacking from the UK circus scene, and if I ever win the lottery I’ll be spending it on a similar field of tents. Until then, I’ll keep coming back here every couple of years to get my fix. My favourite circus festival by a mile.