6-24 September, Hastings Showground
It is fitting that with the festival season nearly upon us the circus is in town. (The temptation to veer into a political metaphor here is acute I assure you). The Big Top stands front and centre at the Showgrounds in Hastings. Last week there was one similar at the Domain in Havelock then at Marine Parade in Napier. There’s nothing like a Big Top to bring the punters. Competing circuses – Zirka and Weber Bros – have been doing the rounds as the do every other year. Each time they bring brighter, bigger, better enticements. Tonight we’re queuing for “Adrenaline”. We’ve been promised motorbikes, a human cannonball, candyfloss.
Circus is like a gateway drug for audiences. It’s on these rickety bleaches that the crowd succumbs to “The Show” and becomes The Audience. An audience can’t just sit there, like they’re watching the telly. An audience has to gasp, squeal, ooo-and-ahh, shout, clap, pound their feet and belly-laugh like they mean it. Watching the little kids, you can see how it’s done. Peaking on coke and floss, these kids are edgy with excitement. When the clown shouts “We Will We Will” these kids take it as a wero and chant back “Rock You!” Their dads are right their with them. Six of them end up in the ring with the clown, playing teeny tiny bells on command.
Weber Bros has many of the elements of a traditional circus – although all animals are long gone – but with a kind of retro cool modern aesthetic. Like the future we imagined when we were all 12. Fluoro paint and lazers, spandex and studded denim. The kid next to me marvels when the white light makes her shoelaces glow. “Welcome to the future” I tell her. There’s the clown and the aerial acrobats, the cannon ball, the “Globe of Doom” where two motorbikes ride 360 degrees inside a metal ball. The big finale is motorbikes zooming up a ramp, sailing high above the ring, landing with a clatter in the darkness of the far side. My favourite act is the very simple but extremely well crafted Quick Change Dance. I’ve seen this on TV but I am literally out of my seat seeing it in the flesh (so to speak). The glue that holds the whole thing together is the classic clown and the tiny ring master wearing a lace doily and sporting a huge voice. (At the intermission I see her from a distance in her trailer wrapped in a red dressing gown. A little boy runs past, “Mum, I’m going to the toilet,” he shouts at her. “All right love,” she calls back. Ahh the gypsy life of carnie folk).
Weber Bros is a family run circus. Harry Weber is the man in charge and he comes from a long line of circus people. He and his wife have 7 children many of whom perform in the show. I googled to fact check later but even during the show that romantic air of a family on the road together is evident. There’s the burlies and the girlies, the stunt-men and the concession stand attendants, the swarthy brothers who are ushers at intermission and acrobats in the second half, and the lady who takes the tickets who really is the Mother of them all.
It’s a kind of performance art that has a rich history still very alive in the show we see today. Many festival acts take inspiration from circus or use the motifs, set-ups and rhythms as source material. Having circus as a genre so fresh in my mind seems a good way to set off into the busy few weeks ahead. I hope the enthusiasm of the circus crowd is echoed at the festivals. It takes a good audience to make a great show. (And it takes a ton of candy floss to make a good audience!)
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