Nunca imaginé que pudiera existir un circo así.
Thus was the reaction of Joan Brossa, the Catalan visual poet, on seeing Circ Raluy: I never imagined there could be a circus like this. Brossa was no stranger to the theater arts, but the Circ Raluy made a deep impression.
Last week I shared pictures I took from my visit to Circ Raluy in February. I was lucky enough to attend the opening day of their run in my hometown, Tarragona.
Circ Raluy is not your usual circus
Wait, wait: what IS the usual circus? Circus involves a big top (often, but not always), performers carrying out acts of daring and skill, clowns that make you laugh, music and (sometimes, but increasingly less) trained animals also performing acts of skill.
Circ Raluy has most of those things. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned having gone to three circuses in the last year: no circus can be defined by the sum of its components.
So what’s special about Circ Raluy?
It recognizes a lineage, a tradition of beauty, craft, and showmanship
Most “traditional” circuses do this implicitly, in their costumes, in the choice of recognizable acts, in the music, in the venue.
But Circ Raluy takes it further. The Raluy family collects caravans and carriages, which they not only restore painstakingly and faithfully, but they use them to live in, traveling slowly from city to city.
They are also a museum, a traveling circus museum. Their big top has velvet seats, carved wooden balustrades, and is painted in the style of a hundred years ago.
Like circuses of the past, they are an expeditionary circus, having traveled to four continents. In 2010 they completed a tour in La Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
They’ve won multiple awards, including the National Circus Prize in 1996, the Catalunya Prize in 1999, the Max Prize of 1999 (equivalent to the Tonys in the US), and the Creu de Sant Jordi (2006).
It’s a family circus
Of course, this is not unique.
The genes to perform in the circus have not been identified. Expression of such genes might include superior flexibility, strength, coordination, determination, desire to entertain. But top notch athletes or dancers have these traits as well.
Other expressions might include a certain restlessness, a desire to see the world, an inability to settle down, detachment from the accumulation of things that root one down in one place.
Circus performers don’t just come from circus families. They are born into any country, social class, or profession you can imagine. But given the months on the road, the necessary hours of training, family dynasties hardly come as a surprise.
Circ Raluy is run by Carles Raluy. He and his brothers, their spouses, children, and grandchildren perform in the circus. Their father Lluis started the tradition. He traveled the world in, among other things, the first-ever two-person human cannonball act.
Not just for children, nor anonymous technical mastery
One form of circus emphasizes clowns performing slapstick gags and broad humor. Circ Raluy offers clown acts aimed at the younger set. And the kids love them. Of course, the flamenco piece with an elastic guitar had most adults laughing till they cried.
Another form of circus is an elaborate choreography of anonymous performers carrying out apparently-impossible feats. These “modern” circuses cultivate a polished esthetic. Circ Raluy has jaw-dropping acts as well, like when Akhmed Surkhatilov squeezes into a small box that is then put underwater- for several minutes. In his laser show Jean-Christophe de Beauchamp plays with beams of light and fog as if painting in the air.
The mystique of the circus
In circuses, people come from the furthest corners of the world and others are related by blood. New shows are crafted every year and performers are skilled in multiple disciplines (like Emily and Niedzela Swider Raluy who ride impossibly tall unicycles and walk on the tightwire). New technologies are incorporated while old traditions are acknowledged.
The style of Circ Raluy has not only inspired poets, but photographers and film-makers. It’s the setting of George Michael’s music video for Let her down easy and that of El Simi accepta by Le Croupier, each highlighting different aspects of the beauty of the circus.
Yes, there’s something special about Circ Raluy
They embody all the things that make a circus a circus. But it’s not just that.
Everyone- performers, ushers, musicians, vendors of tickets and popcorn- looks like they’re having fun. That they love their work, they love their lives.
That they love their circus.
At the end of the day, this love for what they’re doing, be it larger than life or the day-to-day, is something everyone in the audience wants to take home with them.
Thank you, Circ Raluy.
I want to die on the trapeze.
La Mara has left us. María Papadopoulos Vaquero, the Spanish aerialist who electrified the circus world for four decades with her trapeze act, passed away on December 14 due to complications following back surgery. The opening line of a poem her brother Enrique dedicated to her is quoted above.
Born in the early thirties, she was recruited by Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey circus in 1951. As she said to the newspaper El País:
Goddesses shouldn’t age and on the trapeze I was a goddess.
Born inside a dressing room
Though her father came from a circus family of Greek and Romanian origin, her parents initially tried to keep her away from the circus. But it was to no avail. Since her first act at the age of five, Mara was drawn to performing at great height.
The eldest of eight siblings, she was their matriarch, with the closeness that is so common among Spanish families of that generation. Her wirewalker brother Tonito, also a recipient of Spain’s National Circus Prize, accompanied her to the US when she moved there.
Heel catches on a swinging trapeze
© Elliot Fenander, in the Collection of Shelburne Museum
Mara’s solo act was novel for the time as it took place on a swinging trapeze. She developed several unique moves. In one, her calves slid along the trapeze until catching herself by the heels. The other involved balancing from the back of her neck. She always performed without a net or any other safety device.
When asked about fear, she didn’t mince words.
Fear costs nothing. Each of us chooses the dose we want to take.
Readily acknowledging the danger of working at height, Mara noted the parallel to the quandary of a bullfighter: you triumph or you die.
Every night, she dreamt of slipping
Mara’s first serious fall in 1948 resulted in a broken hip. In Tacoma WA in 1953, she fell fourteen meters to the concrete floor of the ring, suffering fractures in her right leg, left arm, and three lumbar vertebrae. Two pins were inserted in her ankle. After seven surgeries, the doctors believed that with hard work and luck, she might walk again.
In March 1955 Mara performed in front of 18,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden
Although Mara and her siblings owned various circuses over the years, her greatest successes were on the trapeze. She received many awards, including the International Circus Oscar in 1966, the Press Award in the III Montecarlo Festival in 1976, the National Circus Award of Spain in 1992, and the Gold Medal for Merit in Fine Arts in 2007. She performed for Sinatra and Hemingway and was perhaps the most internationally renown trapeze artist of Spain.
Watch her yourself
This six-minute video took my breath away. I dare you to remain indifferent. Sure, the flamboyant headdress, the swan-bedecked chariot, the makeup, the music may seem quaint to the Cirque du Soleil generation, but Mara’s courage and skill, strength and precision, are timeless.
Mara was a star, in a time and a place where women weren’t encouraged to stand out. Her triumphs were hard won- with exemplary grace.
Mara has left us, but in our memory she will continue to fly, to a standing ovation.