Such are the cultural riches in London that there’s scarcely time to discover everything that’s on, never mind see and review it all. So choices inevitably have to be made and mine tend to fall on the side of theatre – the likes of dance, opera and circus falling by the wayside. But it is something of a vicious circle. My rationale is that I don’t feel I have the expertise, the language, to speak about those other art forms with the same confidence that I express my opinions about theatre; but since I don’t go, I’m not building up that knowledge base, that necessary experience.
So when a serendipitous set of invites fell my way, I thought I’d spend a Sunday starting to rectify that a little, as far as circus is concerned. And the thing that properly caught my attention here was that both involved defiantly non-traditional approaches to the art-form, we’re a long way from The Greatest Showman here. First up was documentary film Even When I Fall by Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon, part of the Roundhouse’s CircusFest and a thoroughly sobering look at the circumstances that led to the founding of Circus Kathmandu, Nepal’s first and only circus.
The film opens with the eye-opening statistics about the level of human trafficking from Nepal to India, predominantly women and children and predominantly finding themselves forced into working in circuses. And as we follow the story of two survivors, Sheetal and Saraswoti, we see how they’ve been able to utilise the skills forced upon them to create their own circus, and recruit and support other survivors. It’s an extraordinary testament to the endurability of the human spirit, none more so than when the young women return to Nepal and the families from whom they were snatched, layers of unimaginably complex guilt presented without judgement.
No less fascinating though somewhat less harrowing, Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams traces a true-life story of two Ethiopian brothers who were also responsible for founding the first circus in their country. That came from their own burning desire to become jugglers and translated here by Cal McCrystal, now forms an early highlight of the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank. It is a joyous hour, rooted in a celebratory national pride and an infectious glee in performing that you can’t but have your heart filled by.
The acrobatics and juggling that make up much of the routine are truly awe-inspiring, finding moments of real grace in among the exertions, and the Chinese pole work is excellent. And there’s some jaw-dropping sequences of contortion that are scarcely believable, pushing physical endurance surely beyond what is reasonable for my innocent eyes to watch. (Slight sidebar – it is interesting to note how the gender dynamics split within the company, a clear dividing line about who does what…) But in expanding what we in the UK traditionally perceive as circus, in reminding us of the power of artistic expression, both Even When I Fall and Circus Abyssinia – Ethiopian Dreams show just how much the big top can stand for.