Halfway between the Oscars and the Olympics, the world’s greatest circus festival is also perhaps the largest existing one-ring circus space: 5000 gazes staring around the perfect, 250 years old arena, in a permanent structure combining the glory of old-time circus buildings and the magic of the big top. Every existing form of circus is celebrated here at its best: the two selection shows presents about 200 performers; plus, any kind of animal (also a quiet group of buffalos this year), while respecting the strictest ethical principles.
For the aficionado or professional, the calm Riviera weather creates around the big top a spontaneous fair, and the most crowded circus hub possible on the planet. Agents, performers, students, writers, circus owners from the smallest family show to the powerful Asian moghul are in attendance.
We started to visit the Festival thirty years ago: the circus world and arts knew major changes and revolutions, always registered by this event, and keeping untouched its glamorous and truly festive atmosphere.
By the mid 1970s, Monte-Carlo Festival was one of the key driving forces of the planetary renewal of circus. The Festival founder, His Highness Prince Rainier III (1923-2005), perfectly combined the diplomatic power of a Chief of State with the devouring passion of a sincere and innocent circus fan. His deep, lifelong knowledge of the circus world, forged his sharp vision into a long term project. He attracted to the Festival international politicians, movie stars and the jet set, even the world media.
By emphasizing their natural spirit, he also developed a sense of natural mise en scéne that would not be an exaggeration to include in the codes of contemporary circus.
In a few years, the circus reputation rose to the ranks of a legitimate art form deserving to be respected and protected. Before the end of the Iron Curtain, this was the only place where you could see in the same show the brightest stars of Ringling bros. and the legends from Russia, China and later Korea. The true basis for a global circus circuit was grounded here. And the international TV specials were a key factor to spreading the often unknown standards of this form of art to dozens of countries.
The Festival President today is Princess Stephanie, fully inheriting her father’s sincere circus passion; the artistic director being Mr. Urs Pilz, a Swiss gentleman who is well-versed in circus diplomacy and around-the-planet scouting complexities.
This year’s revelation was British cat trainer Martin Lacey Jr.. Already a legend in his genre, he seemed here to open the door to new ethics and aesthetics in the field of animal presentation–by bypassing the codes of ego and domination, favoring a feeling of equity between man and the dozens of lions and tigers that he always breeds at home. By emphasizing their natural spirit, he also developed a sense of naturalmise en scénethat would not be an exaggeration to include in the codes of contemporary circus.
He shared the Golden Clownex aequowith the impressive Russian collective Royal Circus led by Gia Eradze: this choreographer and troupe leader’s vision is a celebration of the glamorous side of circus at the extreme of luxury, bringing a nostalgic imperialism into the world and evoking somehow Liberace and Ziegfield: but brilliantly able to keep his feet in XXIth Century. The result is a charming contemplation of the perfection in circus, from the elaborate costumes and dances to the technical excellence of the presentations of his 50 plus artists demonstrating Russian swing, cossack riding, quick-change, and various aerials and ground displays.
Another ambitious Russian coreographer was the veteran Alexandre Grimailo, presenting an elaborate aerial ensemble (Troupe Filinov) inspired not less than from Dante’s Inferno, on a sensational medley of rock classics. It won the Silver Clown award. The same prize went to the China Acrobatic Troupe for two acrobatic displays with new and extravagant apparatus; and to the Just Two Men Duo with aerial hand balancing on straps.
Among the other impressive competing acts, there was the remarkable Gartner family with their acrobatics on elephants and the bouncing juggler Alan Sulc. Different styles of clowns were presented: from the innovative Equivokee, to the classic one-man comedy of Cesar Dias. From Ukraine, more forms of circus innovation: the neoclassic quartet of acrobat Prilepin, inspired by the Beatles in costumes and music, and the street style club passing of 3J Jugglers–with Alan Sulc. Equally compelling was the only American act, a romantic trapeze duo Owl and Pussycat.
In times of emphasis on “contemporary” circus, it is interesting to remark how the heaven of classic, once aesthetically dominated by the geographic cultural difference, is now the paradise of choreographers and conceptors. As in the past century, innovation seem to be the key: and as solid as the basic, unchanged codes of the art are, they are not bypassed but respected and glorified.
All photos courtesy of Monte Carlo International Circus Festival