The Festival Internacional del Circ Elephant d’Or Girona (International Circus Festival of the Gold Elephant) celebrated its 9th edition from January 13th -18th with multiple performances occurring on each day to the delight of the population of Girona, Spain. Over six days the 24 participating acts completed in either the Red or Blue shows before coming together on the final night for a gala award ceremony known as the Gold show. This festival, with its focus on traditional circus arts, is poised to become the premiere circus festival in Europe offering diverse performances from around the world and an equally diverse jury, drawing circus industry professionals to its unique market. I asked myself as I prepared to enter their big top for the first time, is the heritage circus industry willing and ready to grow such an event?
This festival started nine years ago as a passion project for festival organizer Genis Matabosch, who is also the president of the Circus Arts Foundation, founder of Circusland, director and ringmaster of the festival, and jury member to numerous international circus festivals, as well as owner of one of the largest collections of circus documentation and artifacts in the world. Matabosch holds an International Diploma of Heritage Management and Conservation from the National Institute of Heritage in Paris as well as a degree in Art History from the University of Girona. Joan Mompart, the assistant director, ticketing manager, producer of the festival as well as vice president of the Circus Arts Foundation, runs things behind the scenes, keeping artists, audience and press alike feeling at home and prepared. Their combined background in circus makes them well-suited for every aspect of putting on this festival, from traveling the world to hand-select performers, to focusing on bringing new non-European talent to their region, to organizing the international market place and choosing a diverse international jury.
What began nine years ago in Figueres has grown to become an international event for the traditional circus community that includes a world market for impressarios, vendors and performers alike. The move to a larger city, Girona, in 2018 proved to be a valuable way to grow the accompanying Circus World Market. They have used the festival and other circus endeavors as a platform to develop and establish a center for circus arts called the Circus Arts Foundation. The time, effort and passion that these two individuals have put forth was, for me, the defining feature of this festival which takes the stage at a crucial time in traditional circus, a time when animal acts have been outlawed in many European countries and smaller big top circuses are folding up their tents. The Festival has been animal-free since 2018. Can it help bolster the industry by providing the space and time for talents to shine and for the public to renew its love for all things circus?
Meet the Players
A unique feature of the Gold Elephant Festival is the organization of its multiple juries. The official jury is comprised of 10 members, as well as an additional Critics Jury and an Image Jury with each comprised of 3 members, and they offer a host of specialty awards beyond the standard golds, silvers and bronzes. Mompart described Metabosch’s quest for balance among the juries, “One important thing that he looks for is that they represent different continents, not all the juries from the same continent.” The jury does have a member each from North and South America as well as a handful from Europe, but even with the organizers efforts to create a diverse and unbiased jury with representation from every continent, the prevalence of representation from Russian(and former Soviet countries) is undeniable. Recognizing that it is a challenging prospect to avoid, as much of traditional circus originates from these regions, my hopes are that as the circus industry evolves around the world, the organizers of this festival can help to set the pace for other festivals in having true diversity in jury as well as act representation.
With that said, the combined jury members represent many years of circus industry experience, with a number of the members coming from traditional European and Asian circus families, such as Rolf Knie from the famous Knie Circus in Switzerland, Tatiana Zapashny representing the famous Zapashny family of the Zapashny Brothers circus, Maxim Nikulin from Circus Nikulin and the Moscow State circus.
I had the opportunity to sit down with jury member Philippe Agogue, Senior Casting and International Development Advisor for Cirque Du Soleil. Agogue has an extended history in traditional artistic gymnastics, first as an athlete and competitor and then later as a coach and talent scout. Speaking about the importance of the Festival, Agogue said “I am always excited with Girona because they present something new. It’s not really new (contemporary) but it is renewed from the past (an interesting angle on traditional).”
I asked Agogue about his methods as a seasoned jury member and he explained, “I’m always spending time paying attention to what’s happening behind my back. How the child reacts to the clown…how the audience reacts to the act.”
Blue Show/Red Show/Gold Show–The Artists
Even though performers are not paid for their acts, this festival remains invaluable for emerging artists, as all other expenses are paid by the organizers. They come from around the world to compete, this year representing 14 different nations. Although it is only the 3rd time the festival has been hosted in Girona, the impact the festival has had on the city of Girona has already proved to be invaluable. Mompart explained, “With the Festival there is a very important economic impact. The last study that the government of the city released, they said that we created directly 1.4 million euros (for the economy), every year, through hotels, taxis, and restaurants. Another very important thing that we do is we bring shows that nobody else would bring to Girona.”
The Festival shows began with the ringmaster, Genis Matabosch himself and the grand parade showcasing the participants waving the flags of their home country. Under the big top (a spectacular single ring holding roughly 2,400 spectators) the aerial acts and ground performers made a point to utilize the majority of the height and space available to make the most of this impressive performance space while the Orchestra Paris Circus, directed by Pierre Pichaud, played music for the people. On this evening, Wesley Williams set the world record for the world’s tallest rideable unicycle (truly making use of the space) and went on to win the Golden Elephant.
Another notable act was the Anhui Acrobatic Troupe(China) comprised of young male acrobats performing a traditional hoop diving routine. Where this troupe stood out was with the addition of a principal head balancing artist. This man had clearly devoted his life and body to the art, with a very noticeable growth and indentation on the top of his bald head visually proving to you his commitment. I believe this devotion to his discipline alone won him the Silver. Admittedly, the final trick, balancing a cluster of uncountable and heavy benches on his head was clearly impressive, but the progression of adding more and more benches throughout the act was very predictable and the accompanying troupe added little but flourish and distraction.
Jump N’ Roll’s Teeterboard (Russia) had dramatic lighting and costuming. The act was able to find an acceptable balance of stage presence, acrobatic chops and fluidity, although their strongest skill, a triple back landing back on the board, was not boundary-pushing and there were multiple trick missteps during the performance. They were awarded a Silver.
On the Red Show night, a crowd favorite who brought home the silver, was Andrey Lyamin (Aerial Pole – Ukraine) at least in part because of his particularly notable physique. Lyamin’s act was very strong, artistically and technique-wise and could have been a contender for the Gold.
Luis Gerardo Cuevas was a solo juggling artist from Mexico. Although he did not win any of the official awards, it’s my belief he should be mentioned. With Francis Brunn style enthusiasm, he showed an impressive range of juggling skills. From hats to clubs, to ping pongs and rings, his diverse range of skills in each discipline dominated. Although drops plagued his act, this young performer represented himself independently all the way from Mexico.
On the final evening during the Gold show, all of the award-winning acts performed their numbers again, affording the audience a chance to see record-breaking, boundary-pushing and challenging circus routines from around the world.
One of the most unique elements of the Festival, The Circus World Market, was a cross between a traditional circus midway and a modern industry-specific trade show. Set in a large, open, indoor, climate-controlled event space entirely lined with red carpet, it felt modern. The booths were home to circus vendors, juggling retailers, toy manufacturers, photographers, agents, and even other festivals. Also present were a bookstore selling circus-related books and programs, a booth promoting the Foundations upcoming Circusland project, tables for performer autographs, and tables for public ballot casting as well as lots of seating. The general public, staff, performers and industry professionals wandered throughout this area, and everyone seemed to know someone else. This unique feature to the Festival is one that will hopefully expand its reach and role in coming years to accommodate the European circus industry. In fact, this is their goal. When I asked the organizers how they want to see the festival grow, they explained that if anything they would like to put more attention into the Circus World Market as they view it as a unique feature in the circus industry.
Genis Matabosch and Joan Mompart’s dream for expansion doesn’t stop at the Circus World Market. They aim to make a permanent fixture called Circusland in Besalú , set in an old clergy house linked to one of the churches in the medieval town about 30 minutes northwest of Girona. The Circus Arts Foundation is the governing body of the Golden Elephant Festival and the Gran Circ de Nadal de Girona (an annual holiday circus show also presented in Girona) as well as Circusland. Additionally, the Foundation represents a circus advocacy organization. It serves to promote, conserve and support circus arts and circus-related initiatives as well as to recover, preserve and study world circus heritage which includes memorabilia, collections and documentation.
Circusland will be a circus museum to hold the collections as well as headquarters to the Circus Arts Foundation. Currently, Circusland is in the works with an undisclosed projected opening date. Mompart says that the facilities have been purchased but more has to be done to fulfill its final goal.
After yet another successful festival year, the organizers say they are eager to continue to grow the festivals attendance. Next year proves to be an exciting opportunity to celebrate the 10 year anniversary, and they say they are already receiving requests to participate in the Circus World Market. I am excited to see where and how this festival will grow in the upcoming years, more particularly, how these endeavors grow under the leadership of these passionate individuals I had the privilege of meeting.
Click on any image to open official photo gallery by Bertrand Guay:
Main image is by Bertrand Guay.Photos courtesy of The International Circus Festival of the Gold Elephant.