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Cirque Berserk!: The global circus family thrilling Edinburgh crowds

Four Hands Two Wheels performing at Cirque Berserk!. Photo: Piet-Hein Out Four Hands Two Wheels performing at Cirque Berserk!. Photo: Piet-Hein Out
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Cirque Berserk! began with a mission to bring big-top circus to theatre spaces across the UK. Now the company is bringing a troupe of artists from around the world to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the fringe. Nick Awde finds out more

One of the many unofficial records consistently trumpeted by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is being the world’s biggest showcase for international work. Although not always highlighted as such, a large proportion of that international work comes not from overseas but from practitioners based in the UK, who represent a key driver of the festival. And one place to catch a range of that talent on a single stage is the circus.

Boasting impeccable homegrown international credentials is Cirque Berserk!, founded by Zippos Circus’ Martin Burton, which takes on a full August run at this year’s fringe, complete with two large video screens – a first for the company.

Burton started developing Cirque Berserk! five years ago using West End production designers to fit tenting circus into the theatre circuit. “We use the strapline ‘real circus made for theatre’ because we take people that work in traditional circus rings and teach them that there’s different discipline to apply on a proscenium-arch stage.”

Burton played in Edinburgh with Zippos Circus in 1993, but he didn’t return until 2018, this time with Berserk. “We came back only after I had seen for myself that Edinburgh had now solved the problem of unregulated flyposting throughout the city and people abusing each other’s print.

Acrobat Paulo dos Santos performing at Cirque Berserk!. Photo: Piet-Hein Out
Acrobat Paulo dos Santos performing at Cirque Berserk!. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

“One of the successes of my tenting circus career has been my ability to put posters where nobody else can put them. But in 1993, Edinburgh was completely uncontrolled. We were putting up posters and people were flyering over the top of them with their own posters and we actually had to ‘fight’ a campaign to stop people from obscuring our own print.

“The circus did well, but I couldn’t be doing with a situation where things like the publicity that I needed to sell tickets were unregulated and out of order. So we didn’t go back.”

Now happy with the way Edinburgh’s postering is regulated, Burton took over the cavernous EICC with Cirque Berserk! in 2018 as part of the Pleasance programme – a productive partnership, with Berserk back at the same venue this year.

“It’s a 1,300-seat theatre, but it has a curtain across the middle. And we thought: ‘If we put the curtain across, it becomes a 700-seat theatre and we’ll probably sell 600 seats. And 600 people in a 700-seat theatre will look fine. Let’s go for it’.”

As it happened, there was only one day in the entire run when Berserk had the curtain across – for all the other days there were audiences of more than 1,000. “We opened to the biggest advance sales that the Pleasance had ever had on the fringe and we closed to the biggest total amount of ticket sales that the Pleasance had ever had.”

The show has come back with a number of major new acts not seen before, an inbuilt mechanism that allows circuses to keep the bill fresh for each new tour with the international circuit on hand to provide a steady supply of new and innovative acts when required. In fact, it was international circuses in their entirety in recent decades that proved a catalyst in bringing new audiences to circus.

Five Edinburgh stages for circus

Alfonso Baron and Luciano Rosso in Un Poyo Rojo
Alfonso Baron and Luciano Rosso in Un Poyo Rojo

1. Circus Hub – Since 2015, Underbelly‘s groundbreaking circus village has put international companies in the spotlight, from Australia’s all-female troupe Yuck Circus and Kombini, theatrical clowning from Canada’s Les Foutoukours.

2. Circo e Dintorni – The Kenyan acrobats of this Italian company take over Assembly‘s Music Hall with The Black Blues Brothers, a comedy tribute to the cult film and its soundtrack.

3. Circumference – The UK company’s new show is Staged, a trio of performers on an aerial platform with wires threatening their balance with each twist and turn. Also at Zoo, you can catch the return of Argentina’s award-winning Un Poyo Rojo (pictured above), in town for just six nights.

4. Ockham’s Razor – After Tipping Point in 2016, the Bristol-based troupe is back at the fringe with This Time, a new aerial show at St Stephen’s Theatre featuring performers aged 13–60.

5. Spare Tyre – A theatre show inspired by circus, Nights at the Circus by London’s Spare Tyre is created by learning disabled and non-disabled artists, set in a circus after the lights have been turned off.

And special mention… The Lady Boys of Bangkok – Obviously not a circus, the Lady Boys revue at Theatre Big Top, Fountainbridge is a tenting Edinburgh perennial that more than matches Zippos for touring stamina (and flyposting).

Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows: ‘We programme the shows we think people need to see’

Cirque du Soleil was the obvious groundbreaker in revitalising the public’s interest, but also shaking up the industry’s game. “It led the way in what the possibilities were if you spent a little bit of money on production in circus, and that did of course filter through the whole industry, including traditional circus,” says Burton.

“But it wasn’t only Soleil. When the Moscow State Circus first came to Britain years earlier, Lord Snowdon did the photography and leaflets appeared in every post office in the country regardless of whether or not it was a town the Moscow State was visiting.

“The rest of the traditional circus fraternity got very upset, although they quickly realised that people who picked up a leaflet for the Moscow State Circus with exciting images actually made the circus look thrilling and worth visiting. So when the Moscow State wasn’t there, they went to some other smaller traditional circus instead.”

There is a natural propensity for the traditional circus to be something of a closed shop and to worry about outside influences. “But the outside influences generally benefit all forms of circus, traditional and contemporary. And that leads me to say that there is actually no such thing as traditional circus or contemporary circus, there is circus,” says Burton.

You’ll encounter that placeless – indeed, classless – idea of circus within any troupe, wherever it’s based, and it’s rare to find a line-up that doesn’t include acts drawn from across the globe.

Burton himself regularly travels around the world looking at circus acts and bringing them back to the UK: “We do have a very wide gamut of nationalities. But the international side of it is not important, what’s important is the diversity.

“One of the things that attracted me to the circus more than 40 years ago was that I found it to be a place where people were treated with respect regardless of gender, nationality, race or religion. Within the circus community, all that people are concerned about is what you do in the ring. If what you do in the ring is great, you will have everybody else’s respect.”

With that diversity comes strength from inclusion too, says Brazilian acrobat Paulo dos Santos. Hailing from São Paulo, Dos Santos is a dwarf who is an acrobat/aerialist and works in comic acts – he’s also a world-level capoeira expert. He has worked with Cirque du Soleil and was also assistant ringmaster at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey in the USA. Within hours of that company folding in 2017, Burton had already offered him a contract.

“I’m an acrobat and comic together, and at Berserk I’m mixing all the acts. My first job was working in circus but when I was younger, at school, I started to do capoeira – it’s like acrobatics and martial arts together.

“Because I am a little person – I am 3ft 6in – people started to joke about my size. But the circus has given me the power to show everybody that it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how you do it, doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short, you can stop the bullying, stop the people who are doing this, because you can show everybody you can do anything.”

Circus in the UK has much to learn from other countries

Brazil, says Dos Santos, is difficult to work in because, despite the wealth of talent, there are simply not enough circuses. “We need to come to the USA – the first country I worked in – or Europe for this job. The opportunity for me to work in the UK is because Cirque Berserk! is an all-international troupe: people are working here together from Argentina, Brazil, Kenya, Mongolia, Hungary and the UK of course.”

He is able to support his family back in Brazil, but he also points to the importance of circus being his family too. “That’s the big thing. We all help each other, we make the extra effort all over the world.”

Fellow Brazilians Alan Pagnota and Rafael Ferreira are from Rio de Janeiro and form the acrobat duo Four Hands and Two Wheels. The fact that Ferreira is disabled and in a wheelchair is seamlessly woven on stage into a world-class act as they perform a whirlwind of hand-to-hand tricks. Pagnota first started in music – his father was a musician – “but after that I got into the circus world because I like clowns and started to learn more about that,” he says. Ferreira on the other hand started off with breakdancing – “my brother was a breakdancer so I began to learn how to do it and after that followed circus.”

They agree that diversity is central to circus. “It is an equal opportunity for us to show our art, and the theatre isn’t any different from the circus ring or any other space to show our art. If we inspire others, we are inspired back. It’s an exchange.”

What’s important too, they add, is the fact that circus allows the exchange of experience between artists around the world. And again there’s that sense of inclusion, of family, says Alan: “We’ve worked together since 2014 and what matters to us is the partnership through both our work and our lives. Life in circus is difficult but it is a pleasure to work together with a friend.”

“Everything is possible in circus,” adds Rafael. “Everything you need, you have inside your mind. Nothing is impossible.”

Photo: Piet-Hein Out

Cirque Berserk! profile

Founder/producer: Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton
Production director: Beau Denning
Creative director: Julius Green
Founded: 2013
Bases: London and Newbury
Number of shows (2018): 289
Number of venues (2018): 34
Audience figures (2018): 121,250
Acts: 35 circus performers doing 25 different acts
Staff: 7 permanent, 5 temporary
Turnover (2018): £2.5 million
Key contact: Martin Burton

Cirque Berserk! runs at Pleasance @ EICC (Lennox Theatre), August 2-25


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