Cardiff City Football Club, Cardiff; 30th April 2016, 5pm
A pristine white tent in the carpark of the football stadium marks the temporary pitch of Continental Circus Berlin in Cardiff. A spacious foyer tent is edged with stands selling burgers, candyfloss, flashy toys or popcorn but, passing through the canvas tunnel, the airy lightness gives way to vivid reds inside the main big top. Green tinged lights and neon lit stairs around the ring doors, topped with hooped arches, suggest a Weimar-era Berlin, while a much more modern giant cuddly snake takes pride of place in the centre of the ring among the other soft raffle prizes on offer.
There are live musicians up on the central band stage above the doors, and the accompaniment throughout the show blends live renditions of recognisable tunes with pre-recorded and electronic tracks. The acts too bounce back and forth between cyber-circus stylings of UV radiance and classical sequinned spandex. Within the selection of numbers, innovation and tradition have been bundled hodgepodge together into a show that has many strong and exciting moments, but feels rather impersonal with no distinct character of its own.
Ushers are smart in black suits and red ties, and the slow entrance of the troupe into the ring has gravitas even before the strains of Les Miserables are recognised in the musical arrangement. Even clown Angelo Chaves holds his dignity, with just a small stumble to indicate his role.
The company begin a rhythmic clapping while displaying tasters of their skills, and then the stage flashes into darkness as the Wolf Family juggle glowing neon discs. The Family are Marcel, Roman and Helena Wolf, and another woman who I cannot find any allusion to online. The four have a dynamic choreography, keeping their bodies moving as well as the twelve clubs that they pass between them. While the women have more decorative twirls and fewer technical tricks than their male counterparts, they hold their own in a well balanced act that includes comedy as Marcel catches a barrage of paper plates to a jaunty pirate shanty.
This maritime theme is returned to in the second half of the programme when the Wolf Family reappear for a ladder balance routine, having shed their sparkling formal wear for full pirate gear. This time the ladies are assistants to the men’s good natured competition of bravismo as they take turns to mount their various ladders to briefly juggle rings, clubs, a spinning flag and finally fire.
Portuguese Angelo has a similar look to Mexican clown Chico Rico, with a floppy tartan golfer’s hat, flesh coloured nose-tip and lip, but this is a slightly more serious fellow, schooling us to be the best rhythmic clappers ever. Later on, he works with 16 year old son Kevin in a skit on Robin Hood and William Tell, then again in their main entree as chefs trying to keep all their plates spinning. Manipulations and slapstick with plate and egg set up a great punchline when Angelo finally tries to break the shell and, though he spurts streams of tears from eyes, he is quickly pacified. The teenager doesn’t yet have the physical control and pacing that his father uses to communicate so succinctly, but provides a good contrast in energy.
Anke de Boer with Continental Circus Berlin IMAGE: Steve Mitchell
Anke de Boer emerges in silhouette to plumes of smoke to perform on the aerial hoop. She is skilled in graceful salute choreography, presenting each move she makes for our appreciation, and offers an aerial routine that moves smoothly from one smiling pose to another, most impressive when hanging from one ankle loop while bracing her other foot on the hoop rotating around above the ring. She ends on a neckspin, then the ring is reset for Desiree (Chaves)’ hand balance act.
There is no announcer for the different artists (although the Circus Berlin Orchestra are given a mention over the microphone), and no programme or web credits. I’m intrigued to discover during my forensic search that the same show seems to have begun its season under the banner of Netherlands National Circus, to which it looks like it will return at the end of May.
Desiree Chaves with Continental Circus Berlin
Glittering hand balance canes top an elegant podium that has an Egyptian air with its mirror ball and inverted pyramid among the supporting metalwork. In a black and bling outfit to match, Desiree sweeps her hair as knowingly as she sweeps her legs, connecting proudly and strongly with the audience in between her back-bending balance moves. A floating golden apple is brought in and heavy metal guitar ups the ante as she prepares her foot archery, drawing the bow in handstand position, then lowering into position to aim, popping the balloon with her second arrow.
Helena Wolf with Continental Circus Berlin
Helena Wolf returns in a hotpink mini-dress for a sharply stepped hula hoop routine. The transitions in and out of spins for different hoops are not as slick as her spinning motion, but the act becomes more than perfunctory when she places her high heel into an ankle loop and is hoisted to the roof of the tent while twirling three hoops.
Angelo finds a stray bit of litter at the ring fence, and attempts to balance it on the end of broom while next act set, then makes us groan when he reveals that it was a trick all along. The perspex cone that has been set in the centre of the ring turns out to be an unusual juggling prop, and the lights set again to UV for Duo Supka.
Nathalie Supka with Continental Circus Berlin IMAGE: Steve Mitchell
Mesmerising and mind-bending patterns of red dots against a mystical blue materialise as Nathalie Supka rolls an increasing number of balls around the inside of her inverted perspex cone housing, granting us a cheeky smile as she pops them over top, until she gets seven going, and is released. Zdenek Supka is then revealed with a triangular structure that allows for toss and bounce juggling inside it’s confines, and he builds speed until the balls blur in my vision.
It’s frustrating that all the acts are now repetitively ending with an abrupt cut out of music and lights, but this time the band launches back in with a clown theme, and lights reveal Angelo tossing popcorn with members of the audience. He makes his way around the seats with a different, warmly cheeky, gag for every stand.
A new piece of equipment is rigged for two girls billed as The Magyar Troupe when I ask, and referred to elsewhere online as Carousel Girls. The revolving telegraph-style pole fitted with a resting platform, ankle loops, and various pieces of hardware takes a lot of set up, but the wiggle of fringed hips and intrigue as to what the pair will do keep us glued as they use different bits of kit to connect to each other and dangle above the crowds. Photos from previous stands attest that the act has been performed with a double pole and four acrobats, and the full complement would perhaps offer a greater spectacle.
Luis Lugo of Duo Lugo with Continental Circus Berlin
After the interval, the highlight of today’s show is announced with the Star Wars theme and a tiny row of three projection screens. The visuals these screens present to introduce Duo Lugo don’t do justice to the laser lighting magic that follows. Luis Lugo manipulates beams of light in a suit made of LEDs. De Boer appears on the aerial straps as a luminous creature. Immersive Tron lighting fills the big top and we are transported to an exhilarating sensory club. The second half of the show has much more energy and excitement going for it than the first.
Geoffrey Berhault with Continental Circus Berlin
The clowns perform their William Tell bit (are they missing a trick by not tying it as a thread to the earlier foot archery? It seems either too close or not close enough with the connection ignored), then the double tightwire is set for Geoffrey Berhault’s wire dancing. Cyber-fiddle accompaniment matches the speed and intricacy of his footwork. In a haze of red and black, Berhault is a gripping performer, jumping forwards and backwards over the higher of the crossed wires, balancing on it with one hand, and performing a perfectly controlled back somersault.
Angelo Chaves with Continental Circus Berlin IMAGE: Steve Mitchell
Next is Felicia Foder, who we previously saw on the Carousel. In a floaty blue chiffon dress she performs a lyrical number on aerial straps with a lot of spinning, but it’s difficult to watch because the lights rigged on the opposite kingpole shine directly in my eyes as she hangs in front of them, and I’m still blinded and blinking as the clowns return for their Chef entree.
After the pirate act of Wolf Family, the show is brought to a close with the hand-to-hand of Duo Golden Stones (Attila Fabian and Dominik Turo). Attempted solemnity of classical statuary is combined with the shiny blue satin trousers of the Abba era, and a trumpet solo taken from the Queen hit Radio Gaga.
Duo Golden Stones with Continental Circus Berlin
They exhibit great strength in their slow movement from pose to pose, but it’s not clear whether the act is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek or not.
We’re all roused to clapping again for the final parade of flags, then released into the carpark as audience are already beginning to queue for what will be the third show of the day. It feels a little like being part of a carefully packaged and smartly wrapped assembly line for the big top circus experience, where all passion is kept carefully hidden away. Circus is much better with its humanity on show.