Circus has been growing here for over 10 years, and this year there is not just one but two dedicated circus hubs: the Underbelly’s Meadows station with domes The Lafayette and The Beauty; and the Big Sexy Circus City at Fountainbridge. Gone are the days when a lone trapeze artist would cause a stir at the Spiegeltent. Now the Fringe is attracting world-class acts who play with, evolve and challenge the form to create startling and imaginative shows.
If ever there was a contender for the new La Clique, it’s Barbu. Burlesque has been on the wane for years, and nothing has quite yet filled the gap of its sexy, breathy glamour. Until now. The look is striptease-lumberjack, the music Québécois traditional tunes with electro beats. These bearded men toss each other into balances like Soviet hammer throwers, roller skate at breakneck speed and pole dance with surprising grace. One of them hurls a beer keg in loops around his head; another, dressed in corset and military boots, juggles silk scarves. And if you’re the type that believes no circus is complete without animals—as one lady in the queue for Les Inouis (below) lamented to me—then Barbu's magic hamster won't disppoint. It’s a riot of an evening with a rugged hanging-out-at-the-sauna atmosphere, and deliriously fabulous music.
One of this year’s recurring threads in circus is film noir. The performers Circa dress in tailcoats and spats, and The Elephant in the Room comes over all Cluedo on us. Meanwhile over at the Big Sexy Circus City Hitch! is inspired by the works of Alfred Hitchcock. As with Elephant, it’s an awesome concept. Some of Hitchcock’s best-loved movies contain breathtaking stunts; others have circus themes in their titles (Vertigo, Rope); and 1930s Murder! even has its climax on a trapeze at a big top. I’ll be honest, perhaps the Hitchcock dork in me had hopes that were too high for this. I was expecting something akin to a performance from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, weaving together plots and stunts into circus tricks. This does happen a couple of times, with a Vertigo-inspired slackline act and a Chinese pole routine by a woman covered in birds. But each skit is in isolation, and although the shower scene from Psycho is schlockily original, with a neat twist, some scenes have only the most tenuous relation to their subject. With the exception of Anna Sandreuter who stands out for her skills and comic timing, the acrobatics don’t hold up against the other circuses around town. Which is a shame because the company are so loveable and engaging; if this show pitched up with no competition you’d have a great night out.
Away from film homages, companies are also framing serious themes with circus skills. B-Orders, from the Palestinian Circus Company uses physical feats to share images of life under occupation, and dazzling duet Smoke and Mirrors at Assembly Checkpoint—really one of this year’s must-see circus shows—explores the need for kindness in world obsessed with work. At Underbelly’s Beauty, Belgian troupe T1J, of the stunning L’Enfant Qui, have created a stark, brooding look at the plights of migrants. Les Inouis—‘the unheard’—takes place in vignettes of melancholy dreams and garish nightmares. You can see the relationship between this piece and the style of L’Enfant Qui: the storytelling isn’t always crystal clear but the images touch you in a part of the brain that connects with the gut. A man washes up ashore and a wolf in a Cyr wheel circles, elegant but menacing. Later a woman gives birth on a slackline, her tremors reaching right along the rope. She stands, clutching the baby, teetering back and forth, and it captures brutally the terror and peril of being alone in a hostile environment, just trying to keep a child alive. It’s a circus piece that keeps growing inside you after it has finished; a performance by a company with huge empathy and unusual ways of visualising complex feelings.
For something more traditional—in the cirque nouveau sense rather than the red-cheeked ringmaster one—Wings of My Heart is at the larger big top in the Big Sexy Circus City. You’d be forgiven for running from its pink and purple posters, but despite a tangible new age ambiance, this circus has some of the most original, arresting showpieces this Fringe. There’s a fantastic atmosphere down at the Circus City, with open-air workshops and a well-stocked bar, and on the afternoon I went, before the show opened a man slowly climbed a high wire into the clouds.
The opening of Wings is spectacular, so much so it seems a shame to spoil it – but expect both water and fire in an elemental dance with mythic grace. The show relies heavily on its design, but then, there’s a circus brain behind that too: directorial duo Maedir Rigolo and Lena Roth, who have the kind of transportative imagination you want from the medium, create skirts that whisper in the air, a giant Newton’s cradle, and a mechanical bird-frame. At two and a half hours, it's long, but the finale is extraordinary. Most ringside climaxes build applause on applause on applause; here you can hear the breath of the performer from 30 feet away. As her skills soar, so does the tension, and it leaves you with that old circus feeling that you’ve seen some human superpower at work.