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Circus Is All-Round Entertainment

On Film or on Sawdust, Thrill-Seekers Love Circus Spectacle

Tradional Circus Spectacle - Usien
Today’s sophisticated all-age audiences are still thrilled by animal-free Big Tops. Film of circus, film about circus or live circus – there is no show on earth like it.

Troupes like Cirque du Soleil bring to the circus genre, a standard of live performance skills that is second to none. Whether in a tent, a theatre, an arena or on film, circus spectacle is unique, enjoying a rich history and a bright future as people demand and enjoy more spectacle, more thrills, more integrated performing arts.

Definition of Spectacle

One definition of spectacle is an event or situation, memorable for the appearance it creates. “Stop making a spectacle of yourself”, is still a well-used and understood exhortation. It inspired most comic moments on stage, in literature and on film. Equally, the natural world can supply serious spectacular beauty in abundance.

Circus is best performed in a circular arena, stemming from the Roman gladiatorial places seating thousands of watchers of chariot races, battles and physical skills. The clowning part grew out of the Italian comedy, the Commedia dell’Arte, but the trapeze, contortion,dance, juggling, tumbling and stunt skills married to it, arise from impressing crowds that is at the heart of showbusiness in all its guises.

Sometimes, static objects are spectacular, neither scary nor comic – as Edison’s Eiffel Tower was or Lumiere’s film of a train arriving at a station in the 1890s. By the time we reach the late Twentieth Century, the demand for film, performance and theme park ride spectacle is driving technological advances.

The Greatest Show On Earth

Circus is spectacular – the greatest show on earth, roar of the crowd, smell of the greasepaint. Even in Circus of Horrors, Psycho Circus or Zombie Circus, people suffering stress, bizarre and cruel twists of life drive the movies to satisfy thrill-seeking in an audience..

For The Circus (1928), Charlie Chaplin practised for weeks to walk the tightrope, to be fugitive from the law, stumbling across a carnival and becoming the main act. It’s a Chaplin spectacle – he produced, edited, directed, wrote music for and starred in it, but it links a spectacular setting easily identified by audiences of film and circus to a human situation: romance and comedy.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) won Best Picture award because the circus itself is like a character in the story. There’s smooth blending of real circus with actors. Other films share elements of circus spectacle with reality of life: Marx Brothers at the Circus (1938), Trapeze (1956) and Circus World (1964).

Ben Hur (1959) is praised as an achievement in cinematic history. Nothing was computer generated, no effects, no simulation, only thousands of real extras. The acting is worthy of a master-class. The chariot race is pure adrenalin-rushing spectacle that still thrills today.

Circus excitement is echoed in the Roman Empire crisis of Spartacus (1960) and Gladiator (2000), where the arena of the death-circus is an exhilarating spectacle. The arena-gladiatorial contest is exploited in The Phantom Menace (1999) where the pod race is both fun and a crowd-pleasing spectacle.

Only Surviving Purpose-Built Total Circus

The only purpose-built, total circus surviving in Great Britain is the Hippodrome at Great Yarmouth, built in 1903. It has a unique water feature in which synchronised swimmers stage spectacular finales. Only three others operate in the world: Moscow, Blackpool and the newest show at Las Vegas.

Other large venues such as the Albert Hall, large regional theatres and civic buildings around the world host travelling circus today. Some circuses still pitch their Big Tops in public parks and gardens, bringing the history and culture, the glamour and the sheer hard work of one of the most effective live theatre spectacles anybody can experience.

First published on Suite 101, 21st March 2010.

Photo: Traditional Circus Spectacle – Usien

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