Circus is serious business in France. When you realise that there’s the European Centre of Research in Circus Arts in Marseille (CREAC), a National Centre of Circus Arts in Châlons-en-Champagne (CNAC) and even a National School of Circus Arts (ENACR) just outside Paris you start to understand just how seriously this “art form” is taken here.
It starts young – circus arts are taught at school (both primary and secondary level) during sports periods – and it continues right up to tertiary education where you can study for a diploma. At the National Centre for Circus Arts there are programmes in show production, nomadic lifestyle and even putting up tents!
Paris has a permanent circus, one of the oldest in the world, housed in a glorious round building designed like a Big Top. The Cirque d’Hiver, run by the Bouglione family since 1934, has been entertaining delighted audiences for over 150 years and is part of the capital’s cultural scene. Further south, Monaco hosts an international circus festival every January with competitors coming from all around the world to take part in the prestigious event. JF loves it and takes the boys every year but while I gasp and marvel along with everyone else at the daring and often terrifying antics of the acrobats and laugh with the clowns I can’t bear the animal acts. I have been a couple of times though the year I discovered my cat allergy extended to big cats bringing on an asthma attack during a number with tigers was my last!
There are all sorts of circuses in France, ranging form the ordinary to the extraordinary. Archaos is an example of the extraordinary. It is billed as a contemporary circus, without animals (good!) and has crazy dangerous acts like juggling with chainsaws (mad!). Many years ago JF was friends with a clown from Archaos who came to our wedding and played the bagpipes as a surprise as we exited the church. He’s French, we were in France, we have absolutely no Scottish connections, it was -8°c with horrible icy conditions and bagpipes really were the last thing I expected. It was very funny (though nothing to do with his being a clown!) We’ve sort of lost touch though we hear about him from time to time.
This area has plenty of connections to the circus world. As well as the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo, every summer the nearby town of Valbonne plays host to one of France’s most famous travelling circuses, Cirque Arlette Gruss. This is no small affair, its Big Top alone is 83m long. As is common in the circus world it is a family business set up by the late Arlette Gruss who was a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur (sort of French equivalent to a Knighthood) and even had a rose named after her, the “Lovely Red”. Generations of the family are involved even as young as a 9 year old grand-daughter taking centre stage with her pony act a couple of years ago. The circus won the Grand Prix Nationale in 1992 and as a measure of how important and well-loved it is the Patrouille de France* flew over in 2010 to celebrate Gruss’s 25th anniversary.
The circus holds a kind of magic about it, one of the best things for me is seeing the faces of young and old alike light up with pleasure, awe, or even terror, when watching a show (not that the picture of my son to the left is anything to go by!) Despite not liking the wild animal acts there is something special about the circus even for me. It conjures up childhood and the almost mythical levels of delight felt when the circus came to town. If it fascinates you then you can learn more at the Villeneuve-Loubet Circus School only 10 minutes from Lou Messugo. This establishment runs courses throughout the year for all ages. If horses are your thing then there’s a more specialised place, Hap Ô Tempo Centre d’Arts Equestres du Cirque, where you can learn circus skills with horses also in Villeneuve-Loubet. For a pony club with a difference you can’t get much better than that!
And finally, back to how much France loves circus, one of the longest running and most popular television shows celebrates everything cabaret/acrobatics/magic – circus – every Saturday night on primetime. Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde (on channel France2) even hosts the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve usually capturing the biggest percentage of the viewing audience. My kids love it, never tire of it, but I guess you have to be brought up with it because I just don’t get it. Once in a while, OK. Every Saturday night, no thanks….!
*France’s equivalent of the Red Arrows (UK) / Blue Angels (USA)
*** UPDATE 2018 *** Times are changing and I can’t even imagine how I ever used to watch circus acts with wild animals, and know that I never will agaiin. When a travelling circus took over a car park in Roquefort last year I was shocked to see hippos lightly tethered next to the road. I mentioned this to a blogging friend who immediately got on the case and looked into the legalities of animals in circuses. Sadly it turns out surprisingly few countries in the world actually ban this barbarity. If you want to find out how you can help ban wild animals in circuses click here.
Photo of La Patrouille de France courtesy of www.cirque-gruss.com