The circus ring is the place where the audience is entertained and a fantasy world is created. The circus stimulates the senses. The show is a spectacle; music, light and odour help to create a wonderful atmosphere. Circus is an intense emotional experience: the audience is incited to laugh, to wonder and to shudder. In this world of extremes and contrasts nothing is ordinary.
For a very long time circuses and fairs were outstanding popular entertainment. People daydreamed about travelling circuses, the glamour suits of whiteface clowns and the frivolous outfits of female ceiling walkers. Tough lion tamers and eccentric contortionists appealed to the public’s imagination. A hundred years ago the cultural impact of circus was enormous. For many people the circus was the first introduction to exotic animals. It offered a window on the world and on other cultures.
Belgium has known quite a lot of important circus artists. Circus life could be passionate, colorful and very exciting, but also tragic and full of risks. Infinite physical and mental power are indispensable in order to perform the amazing acts that circus has to offer.
The most daring exercises ever seen!
Acrobatics constitute the basis of every circus skill. A clown falling through a chair, a rider jumping onto his horse, a juggler making a backflip while catching his clubs, they all carry out acrobatic exercises. Acrobatics constitute the first training for every prospective circus performer. At a very early age children from circus families are trained to become acrobats, whereas other young people fall in love with acrobatics during their training hours in a gymnastics club. Many talented Belgian acrobats ended up in a circus after having been scouted by some circus manager in a local gym.
An acrobatic act consists of a succession of various positions and movements, such as somersaults, backflips, cartwheels, handstands and bridges. When these basic exercises are combined with apparatus such as a seesaw or a trapeze they result in sensational stunts. To achieve that goal the acrobat practises the same movements time and again, thus showing infinite patience and stamina. Achieving perfection is his perpetual challenge. Strength, limberness and a strong sense of balance are the major characteristics for an acrobat. Moreover guts are essential!
Albert Van Royen (1904-1980) became famous as the contortionist Alberto or the Human Alligator, and as the strongman Trebla. His contortionist tricks especially stirred imagination. He was incredibly limber: he could lift anything with his shoulder blades and he could adopt a stair-shaped position. Alberto used to train on a small table in his caravan.
Because he knew that he would not be able to continue performing as a contortionist until his retirement, he devised a second act as strongman Trebla, assisted by his wife. This performance became very successful.
MERRY & PETER
Pierre Demeyer (1903-1986) and Marie Colpaert (1907-1968) were a couple. Together they performed as Merry & Peter in a popular tumbler’s act. Pierre played the part of the clumsy guy, whereas she was his housemaid. Peter was the paperhanger who wrecked every project. He stumbled, got stuck with his head between his rungs and made a mess with wallpaper and paste. Housemaid Merry tried to help, but she only made things worse. The climax was reached when Peter started balancing on top of his ladder: he ended up falling down, his bottom hitting poor Merry’s face. Merry & Peter were very popular in Belgium and abroad. Between 1930 and 1944, they travelled around Europe with their act. Together with their son Hector Demeyer (1925-2011), they even performed on the BBC under the stage name Merry Peter Comp.
Make them laugh! Make them laugh! Make them laugh!
The clown is one of the most popular characters of the circus. When he enters the ring, the audience joyfully laughs away the stress of preceding acts. Clowns are most entertaining because they hold up a mirror to the crowd. They caricature our innermost self and enlarge human manners to ridiculous proportions.
Although clowns often seem to have a clumsy and careless behaviour, their act is the result of intensive training. Possibly, of all circus artists a clown receives the most comprehensive schooling. Sheer comical talent is not enough: his body control also has to be perfect. Nevertheless, the most significant talent is to be found on another level: a good clown must have an excellent appreciation of his audience. Of all circus artists, clowns probably receive the most of the audience’s reaction.
Charles and Eugène, the Babusiau Brothers from Antwerp, were fine gymnasts. From 1900 onward, they performed in various circus rings with an innovative acrobatic act. They were one of the first duos standing on each other’s head. In addition, the exceedingly strong brothers lifted a dumb-bell of 70 kg. After ten years of acrobatic performances, the kid brother Eugène had become too heavy to act as a top man. He continued performing balance acts with other partners, but he also launched an impressive career as a clown. His first partner was the Spanish clown Manolo. Later on, he started a group of musical clowns in which he performed as the white clown Babusio.
His wife and children also took part in the comic acts. It was a strong and original performance with a small, exploding car. For many months Babusio had been fiddling with the engine. Finally, water spouted from the radiator hole on top of the bonnet. One of the clowns sat down on the hole, thus expecting to seal it up, but the water continued spouting through his head. This was the hilarious climax of the act. Babusio devised this trick which was later imitated by many other clowns.
Splendid Menagerie, Magnificent Cavalry!
The circus originated in animal shows. In London, the British equestrian Philip Astley (1742-1814), who is regarded as the father of the modern circus, built an amphitheatre with a circular ring, where in 1769 he started giving riding demonstrations. As he rode in a circle, horse and rider always remained within the range of vision of the public. Moreover, it was easier to keep upright on a horse riding in circles. Even today the circular ring, filled with sand and sawdust, is a major characteristic of the circus.
For a long time, horses were the only animals in the ring. It took a very long time before exotic animals such as elephants and lions were introduced. Many circuses owned a large zoo of their own, the so-called menagerie which travelled along with the performers and was opened to the public before or after the show. Some animals were transported in real cages, but most of the stables were simply made of canvas. For many people, visiting the menagerie was just as exciting as the performance in the circus, for it was the first time that they actually could see certain wild animals.
Jim Roose (1896-1968) was born in a family of showmen and circus performers. He performed as a boxer in his father’s tent. In the twenties and thirties he travelled around with various fun-fairs and dance palaces, but since he wanted to become a trainer of lions and bears, he gradually put together a menagerie. Roose was a very talented animal tamer and he became a genuine celebrity – he took the stage name Captain Jim Roose. In the ring, he wore the uniform of a legionnaire. During World War II, his bears and some of his lions were killed by the police, but he continued to work with three lions. In 1942 Jim Roose signed a contract as an animal tamer with Circus Libot and he also started working for Circus Semay. The climax of his lion’s act was ‘the death kiss’, in which the Captain kissed one of his lions full on the mouth. Although he was very competent and experienced, Jim Roose suffered several injuries inflicted by his animals. Now and then his assistants were exposed to danger. A tragic accident occurred in 1939 when Jim Roose and his menagerie performed on the fun-fair of Ghent. The dancer Aïcha, who was supposed to bring an act in the lion cage, was torn to pieces by a lioness.
When Mariette De Coninck (°1920) started working for Circus Demuynck, she had never sat on a horse before. But circus master Gustaaf Demuynck trained her to become a high school rider and very soon she turned out to be a very talented horse trainer. Her stage name was ‘Miss Leroy’, which is simply the French version of her family name. Time after time, her acts constituted the highlights of the circus programme. She was an expert in devising tricks and performed acts such as ‘The Horse and the Ballet Dancer’ and ‘Jumping over the set table’.
The Art of Juggling
All over the world and for a very long time, people have been practising the art of juggling. It is a physical skill involving the manipulation of objects, e.g. throwing and catching balls in the air. The knack is to use large amounts of objects and to handle them as fast and as often as possible. For a long time, juggling was very popular among travelling street artists who performed their tricks on fairs or in inns. Nowadays, jugglers can still be seen in street theatre festivals.
According to Philip Astley (1742-1814), the first ringmaster, juggling acts were very suitable as interludes between other performances. The jugglers he hired in his circus took turns with horse acts. In order to find a job, jugglers had to be fine artists and they had to devise an attractive act. For this reason, jugglers always tried to surpass themselves and their rivals. In order to reach a higher degree of perfection or to invent an extraordinary act, they needed to practise endlessly day after day. Certain jugglers specialized in heavy objects: they used cannonballs instead of rubber balls. On the other hand, up-tempo jugglers constantly tried to force the pace of their performance.
The couple Jan (°1903) and Jenny Van der Veken constituted the juggler’s duo The Veko’s. When he was a young boy, Jan couldn’t sit still for a moment. This fast and sharp little guy was constantly standing on his hands and doing acrobatic tricks. His family called him ‘terrible Jan’. Although he was scouted for his acrobatic talent, he particularly preferred juggling. Under the name ‘juggler John Vekos’ he very soon started performing on stage and in circuses. At first his wife Jenny was his assistant, but when she also proved to be a natural juggling talent, they started working as a duo, ‘The Veko’s’. They regularly worked together with another couple of jugglers, Corneel and Muguette Van Hummelen – called ‘The 4 Veko’s’. All in all, John Vekos performed on stage and in rings for 65 years.
Masters of secrecy and mystery
Performers of magic all master the art of the seemingly impossible. The audience watches, amazed, and wonders…: “How is this possible?”. We are astonished about the things we see or are supposed to see, and we forget that somebody is fooling us.
Magic tricks are the perfect art form for the street and the stage. It wasn’t until about 1880 that performers of magic were introduced in the circus ring. Many professionals prefer variety theatres over circuses for their performances. One of the reasons for this inclination is secrecy: a circus ring conceals less than a theatre stage. In the circus, the audience is seated around the artist in an almost perfect circle and watches him closely, seeing every move he makes. Therefore, circus shows called for specially adapted acts.
In order to succeed, the magician needs to have excellent manual skills. This is the first requirement. Additionally, he must be a master of diversion and he must be able to manipulate his audience. Very often, the magician barely needs one second to arouse the interest of the audience for something, and diverting it from what really happens.
Frans Immerechts (1911-1985), a conjurer from Louvain, performed in the variety circuit and in circuses at home and abroad. He was known as Fria Ned, ‘the genius from Bagdad’.
In Belgium he worked for the Minnaert, Tondeurs, Demuynck and Jhony circuses, and he accompanied Circus De Jonghe to Congo. Abroad he mainly worked in Spain and in Switzerland, in particular for the magnificent Circus Nock.
His performance as the ‘diabolic barman’ with ‘Magic Drinks’ and his dummy’s act ‘Crazy Heads’ became extremely popular.
His first wife Rose Vanvoorden assisted him, but unfortunately she died at a very early age: she was barely twenty-five. A few years later, Frans Immerechts married Colette Bertrand who became his assistant until the end of his career.
tekst — Marie Vandecaveye, Nele Van Uytsel, Els Veraverbeke