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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE GREAT MOSCOW CIRCUS (article first published : 2006-04-6)

The last time I went to a circus was years ago, when I took my then young children along out of a sense of duty. My mercifully vague memory is that it was an experience none of us much enjoyed, but it bore little relation to what is on offer when the Great Moscow Circus comes to town. For a start, there are no performing animals – sad elephants and big cats going through the motions of performance sit very uncomfortably with modern sensibility. The only animals to be seen are dogs – a troupe of performing poodles and some very beautiful huskies, all of which seem to be having a ball. And, judging by the oohs and ahs and sounds of “Ach, shame” on opening night, the audience took to them wholeheartedly.

There is also no sawdust. The big top, ring and seating are modern and high tech – or at least relatively so. This is still circus after all, and although the tent claims to be airconditioned, on a hot Durban night you could be forgiven for doubting it. However, the whole performance is a showcase of extraordinary physical ability, the human body being put through its paces, and maybe the audience sweats out of sympathy.

Early in the first half and at the end of the show are acts that made me want to cover my eyes and be elsewhere. Lazlo and Olga Simet on the high wire – very high and with no safety net – are billed as ‘heart-stopping’. I could hardly bear to watch as Lazlo walked his tightrope on stilts, or sat on a chair with Olga standing on his shoulders, all on a thin wire, far up above the ring. Thinking about it afterwards, I wondered why we watch things like that. Is it sheer admiration at unbelievable skill, or is there something darker in all of us? One false step could only lead to disaster, and yet everyone watches, transfixed.

The final act, The Globe of Death, sees an openwork metal globe in the centre of the ring – and motorcyclists whirling around inside it. First one, and then another. It already seems crowded inside the globe, but there are more to come. Again, a false move would have a horrible outcome.

Other acts are perhaps less dangerous, but just as skilled. Aerial flyers, performing to Tchaikovsky’s First piano concerto in a stunningly beautiful display, jugglers, Russian Swings with the performers dressed in the black leather of a James Bond fantasy, flying trapeze, trampolines, acrobats, ringmaster and clowns – all the traditions of the circus. A new departure is a team of six drummers, with their Precision Percussion.

The Great Moscow Circus is produced by Michael Edgley, one of Australia’s best known entertainment entrepreneurs, who has been involved with Moscow Circus tours since the 1960s. Now, the Circus has a waiting list of five or six years, and it was only a cancellation on their European schedule that meant Edgley could bring them back to South Africa this year – they were only due to be here again in 2010. And it seems likely that they will once again prove to be a big draw.

Circus in one form or another has been around for more than two millennia, and even in this age of small screen illusion where anything is seemingly possible, the raw appeal of the genuinely live act where any rough edges just go to prove that this is truly real is still strong. I went, drawing on earlier circus memories, half-expecting to be bored. I certainly was not. – Margaret von Klemperer




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