The documentary World Circus follows 5 groups of circus performers in 2010 as they compete for the Golden Clown, a prestigious award handed to the most polished and inspiring circus acts at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival each year. It was the 34th year of the competition, which is considered the Academy Awards of the circus industry and the highest honor a circus performer can receive, which usually translates in to higher paying job offers for the recipients. The coverage began 2 months before the competition started in Monaco as the performers were in the midst of their work in various circuses around Europe and Canada while also trying to prep their acts for Monte Carlo.
Amid glimpses of the performers’ strenuous training regimes, directors and filmmakers Angela Snow and Ian Issitt take us on a tour of circus history via anecdotes from respected academics and professionals in the industry. Interspersed with their commentary are the solid facts and compelling visual ephemera of the early days of circus which helps the audience to understand how circus has evolved to what it is today. For example, Janet M. Davis, professor and author of The Circus Age, pointed out how the actual dimensions of the circus ring are correlated to the smallest circle a group of horses can run in because the first circus was created by a horse stuntman as a way to highlight his horse show. The rise of the Golden Age of circus in the late 1800’s is described in some detail. Tim Roberts, the director of Higher Education Courses at Circus Space in London shares the revelation that the entire reason circus is not as respected in the US as an art form as it is in Europe is tied to the advent of tent circuses developing as the main venue because of the great distances between cities, making US circus less of an institution. By contrast, Europe has many permanent structured circus buildings. Some of the other honored guests making appearances in the film are Caroline Simonds of Le Rire Medicin, Antonio Giarola of the Center for Circus Arts, along with Andrea Tongi, Paul Binder of the Big Apple Circus, Pascal Jacob of Paris World Circus, Urs Pilz, president of the Monte Carlo Festival and Carmen Ruest, Director of Creation at Cirque du Soleil.
Once the history is established, the film returns to the topic of Monte Carlo International Circus Festival which was founded by Prince Rainier III in 1974. He passed on his love of circus arts to his daughter Princess Stephanie, the festival’s current patron who is seen occasionally in the film.
One topic that pops up in the documentary is the difference between being born to a circus family rather than joining it after attending a professional circus school, a distinction that is noted by the prevalence of circus families at the festival. Another theme that is skimmed over lightly is the question of whether animals have a genuine place in circus. This is a timely topic, as issues with circus in the media in recent years have focused on traditional circuses unapologetic use of animals in some acts, presumably because animals have been a part of circus since its inception. Martin Lacey Junior, of the festival’s lion act is clear about his position, even explaining how he adopted several of his lions who would otherwise have been euthanized. “When they take animals away from the circus, it’s a variety show. It’s not a circus,” Martin said. In contrast, Cirque Du Soleil has declared since 2003 that it will not use animals in their show, stating that they prefer to give jobs to human beings and that animals belong in the jungle. In the film, Cirque’s director Carmen Ruest clearly disagrees with Martin’s assessment. “What Cirque Du Soleil brought is definitely a circus without animals.”
Eventually, the film moves on to the performers’ preparations and pre-performance jitters, showing how each troupe copes under the pressure, and culminating in an unbiased look at the various acts highlighted. We watch as Martin Lacey Jr. double and triple checks the safety of the cages and grapples with the band to provide music that is well-paced. The Russian bar troupe from Cirque du Soleil is led by Alexander Moiseev who helps his talented son Nikita and the other performers adjust to their new space while wearing their stunning white costumes and signature red noses. We follow the attempts of the straps act Troupe Yakubov (led by the senior Yakubov and featuring his two daughters and son-in-law) with an act based around the Kpechaki warriors of Kazakhstan as the team elbows for extra practice time. The marvelous clown routine by Rob Torres is put to the test as he is forced to condense his act to one scene. The sea lion act led by the Roland Duss, and featuring his wife Petra, is pleased to get a second chance at the Golden Clown (they won a Silver Clown in 1995 and again in 2010). Although there were 25 other acts competing during the festival, the film does not really convey that by showing much of the other performers’ presence except for a few quick shots of the procession. This is an unfortunate omission that may have contributed to the viewer’s sense of the enormity of the competition overall.
Finally, the featured performer’s acts are shown, with the prerequisite amount of tension backstage, and the viewer gets a sense of having travelled that journey with them. One enjoyable example is when Rob Torres, the American clown steps up to impress the crowds by failing at his cup juggling stunt, getting a minor injury and seeking solace in a kiss on his finger from a woman in the audience. Then as his feats continue along with his injuries, the demand for kisses becomes ludicrous enough to cause the woman to reject him, gaining big laughs from the crowd.
The film does a fabulous job of highlighting the main contenders for the Golden Clown and educating the viewer on the basics of circus history, but it leave us without a broad understanding of the current culture around the festival. I would have liked to see more about the mechanics of running the festival, including the tent and the crew that made it happen, the history of the festival itself and the significance of the location in Monaco, as well as a look at the judges and the reactions of the audience. This might have solidified the overall purpose of the film in its efforts to present viewers with an inside look at the festival and its history.
In the end the film delivers, as does the lion tamer William Lacey Junior who brings home the Golden Clown for the year, accomplishing what circus author Janet M. Davis described as the true purpose of the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, “to bring back the daring, skill and achievement of the circus star.”
The film is available for purchase at worldcircusculturemovie.com