Odka aim

Odka taking aim.  Pictures: Piet Hein-Out

Cirque Berserk

The New Alexandra Theatre


It’s 250 years since a Newcastle-under-Lyme cavalry officer, Phillip Astley, set up a ring in Lambeth in which to perform horse riding tricks – the date 4 April, 1768. The day the modern circus was born.

His ring was 42ft in diameter – the same size used in circuses ever since – except Cirque Berserk don’t use a ring, this is circus designed not for big tops but a stage, but in every other respect this carries the torch for 250 years of tradition.

It is full of acts of daring do, great skill and danger –  with not a safety net or line in sight except for one remarkably high flight from a see saw spring board which saw a member of the Tropican Troupe from Cuba catapulted high into the flies to land on a chair on a tall pole held in a pouch by another troupe members.

Minor flights of a mere 20 feet high or so just had an extra catcher and a mat just in case anything went wrong, which I suspect rarely happens, the troop are so slick and well-practised.

There is Odka from Mongolia, who makes her entrance in a bottle a third her size and then demonstrates the human body is more flexible than you ever imagined. She ends firing a bow and arrow with her feet bent back over her head. Try that at home only if you have shares in Deep Heat and like hospital catering.

Also from Mongolia is Zula who builds a delicately balanced tower of chairs with him on top.

Jose and Gaby from Columbia, she petite and agile, he powerful and surprising nimble. His lifting of Gaby from lying prone with arms outstretched to standing with her above his head was a remarkable display of strength.

foot juggle

Germaine from France  rapidly juggling a cross of fire

Danger is the name of the game with Bolas Argentinas with whirling bolas, the heavy round weights on the end of cords used by gauchos to capture animals. Here the troupe of two women and a man first beat out complex rhythms on drums, then with a bolas in each hand, whirling ever faster and faster, beating out rhythms on the floor.

Get that wrong and you and a couple of fast moving steel balls are on for an unscheduled meeting.

From Britain comes Jackie, a strap artist, which means she hangs above the stage on straps – the clue being in the name - sometimes dropping to hang by just her feet or, as a finale, spinning faster and faster from a strap around her neck.

Also in the air is another Brit, Laci Fossett-- the Fossetts being Britain’s oldest circus family - with an aerial pole act which shows arm and upper body strength an Olympic rings champion would struggle to match.  

Czech knife thrower Toni manages to miss his assistant with knives and axes by, to be honest a relatively safe margin, but the speed of throw makes up for that, accuracy and speed not always the best of bedfellows, but there is no mistaking the increase in risk when the spread-eagled assistant is spinning on a wheel with knives flying around her.

Germaine, from France, is a foot juggler, a circus staple, but she is reputedly one of the best around with strength, speed and skill and it is easy to believe it. She is faultless.

The Moustache Brothers from Brazil provide the comedy – simple clowning which perhaps needed children in the audience to be fully appreciated, but they ended with a quick fire demonstration of acrobatics.

Acrobatics being the stock in trade of the Timbuktu Tumblers who hail from Kenya – the other side of Africa from Mali’s ancient city. Apart from some stunning acrobatics they also give us limbo dancing with a finale of limboing beneath a blazing pole balancing on two wine bottles.

The most spectacular act has to be the Lucius Team from Brazil. Their act involves a steel mesh globe and to end the first act two motorcyclists riding inside the globe in every direction, including upside down, finishing with a brave assistant standing in the middle with bikes whizzing around her.

For the finale of act 2 make that four bikes, and just for fun turn the lights out and just have blue LEDs on the bikes whirling around. Get that wrong and your no claims will be up the Swannee. Incidentally, several people have died in various troupes with the Globe of Death act and petty well any error with four bikes travelling at up to 60 mph is going to result in broken bones

There is no ring master but at times we have bizarre parades that would not look out of place in Grand Opera, such as Pagliacci or in Franco Fellini’s La Strada; a man in a horses head, or a huge cart with a female bowman and a queen, make up which has a slightly sinister air, or is it just a hint of danger and decadence, costumes which have a hint of decadence, like the dancers who could have arrived from the Moulin Rouge.

The result is a mix of the traditional with the modern to celebrate a quarter millennium of an art form a Staffordshire horseman brought to the world – yet with the satisfying feel of an old fashioned circus travelling from village to village in rural France, Italy or Spain, bringing happiness, excitement and wonder wherever they land. A great family show. Directed by Julius Green and created and produced by Martin Burton of Zippo’s Circus, Cirque Berserk runs to 18-03-18.

Roger Clarke


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