250 years of the modern circus in Mexico

By Mr. Julio Revolledo Cárdenas, circus historian in Mexico. He is the director of the Degree Course in Scenic Arts and Modern Circus Arts of the Meso-American University Puebla, Mexico



As a rule, when we speak of the beginnings of the circus there is a certain confusion as to whether we are referring to the origins of the disciplines that comprise the circus arts (acrobatics, trapeze, juggling, high wire, etc.), or to the origin of the first circus troupes or shows, which are completely different topics.

The precise beginning of the history of the arts of the circus, both in Mexico and in the world, in which men emerged who felt the need to make acrobatic leaps, to balance on a rope, to contort themselves, to play with objects with juggling dexterity or to realise man's greatest dream, to be able to fly, has been lost in the mists of time.

The Chinese researcher Fu Qi Feng says that the circus is the most ancient of all the activities of the performing arts, since man executed death-defying leaps for the purposes of hunting or for military reasons, perhaps even before being aware of “performing” in that sense. Later, many of these physical actions would become rituals and religious manifestations and would be the clear precursors of the images that we understand today to be circus acts.

Russian researchers have given a specific value to the circus, recognising it as “the mother of all the arts”, since from time immemorial it has included all the performing arts within its structure.


Age of the circus disciplines

In the history of the circus worldwide, each individual circus act has had its own historical process; we have some traces of paintings with figures of circus acrobats in Knossos on the Island of Crete from 2400 years BC, jugglers and sleight of hand among the Egyptians from 2200 BC, the presence of tightrope-walkers in India and Ancient Greece, balancing acts in Egypt and China 2000 years BC and centuries later in Rome. China has records of circus acts that are more than four thousand years old.

The other disciplines gradually arose due to religious rituals, offerings to cosmic forces or deities, military practices, hunting or household activities, working practices, recreational activities, etc., which developed abilities and dexterities in human beings that surprised and astonished their fellows, enriching the entertaining character of the physical actions that today we describe as circus acts.


Background in Meso-American and Prehispanic cultures

The ancient Mexicans left important traces of figures and images that today we associate with the circus, such as the statuette of “The Acrobat” from the Olmeca of the Middle Preclassic Period, 800 years BC, or hand balancing on the murales of Bonampak. Forms of rituals and entertainment developed similar to those that took place in other places in the world: men jumping on stilts in San Pedro Zaachila, Oaxaca; groups of acrobats in Tixtla, Guerrero, and in the Mixteca Baja of Puebla; individuals playing with sticks with their feet (antipodists) in Yucatan. Incidentally, a group of truhanes (jesters) and antipodists was among the “treasures” that Hernán Cortés took back to Europe and presented to Pope Clement VII, and these were certainly the first circus performers that Mexico had exported in its history.

In old codices, which it would take too long to list now, but which can be appreciated in the book La Fabulosa Historia del Circo en México, written by the writer of this article, we find many references to images of actions that demonstrate the capabilities of the human body, such as that of the “matachines”, who were a variety of acrobats, the use of poles to perform acrobatics or competitions on the greasy pole that were taken to Europe after the Fall of Tenochtitlan. It is in the process of being investigated whether, in this period prior to the encounter with European culture, balancing on rope was already carried out among the Meso-American cultures, as well as the execution of the “cuerda volante” [flying rope], which is very likely to be of Mexican origin.

We must emphasise that few peoples in the world flew as much as the Mexicans, who specifically created a large quantity of apparatuses in order to be able to exhibit their abilities.

The “Papantla Flyers”, in the State of Veracruz, perform an age-old display with religious connotations, in which, with extravagant physical abilities, at the top of a 20-metre-high mast, four men clothed as different birds and tied by their feet throw themselves into the air simultaneously and, rotating on a frame moving with their own weight, complete thirteen turns of the ropes, which slowly unravel, symbolically completing the 52 years that make up an indigenous cycle of renewal.


The emergence of the modern circus in Europe

From Rome until the appearance of Philip Astley in January 1768, we have the sensation that the circus had disappeared for several centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact no closed space existed for it; after the Roman spaces, the circus resumed its nomadic nature and continued to circulate along the roads of the world. This was the time when families took up the activity, conserving techniques and attempting to astound audiences around the world. They resolved to take their art and their capacity to astonish to the far-flung places of the globe, and perhaps it is in this that the popular force that the circus still possesses lies.

The contribution of Astley in England goes beyond the fact of having drawn the first circus ring and having performed acrobatic exercises on horseback, which was a physical discovery. Astley created a favourable space for the circus spectacle, which he presented with the name of the Royal Amphitheatre of Arts. During those centuries the circus artists were on the streets, in the squares, in a courtyard or a farmyard, at the transhumance. There arose clowns, jugglers, acrobats, tightrope-walkers, tumblers, contortionists, jokers, magicians, musicians, puppeteers, automatons and animal trainers, who took their entertainment to the most remote towns on the planet. Many of them travelling on donkeys, on horses, others on foot, but building fantasy with their daily work.

The circus, as such, was one of the most dynamic propellers of what we today understand as globalisation and it based its strength on transferring “common things” from one point on the globe to where these were “strange things”. Thus the magicians and conjurers took technical and scientific advances from one place to another, becoming - perhaps without knowing it - the propagators of science and technology to different cities across the globe. The animals were also a clear living example of genuine classes of natural science; it was not uncommon for this type of show to take a tiger to Paris, to present an elephant in New York, to transport a giraffe to Rome or a brown bear to Buenos Aires. The emotion, the impact that this caused in the spectators who could enjoy them at close hand for the first time made the circus show captivating.

The incorporation of a circular track, a ring, possessing a closed space for displays and charging a fixed entry fee, and originally perhaps the dramatised participation of the animals through historical representations, was the beginning of the so-called Modern Circus, which was born precisely in the historical period that we know as modernity and whose 250 years of existence we are celebrating today, although in Latin America in general, like the other performance arts, it arrived decades later. In the case of Mexico, exactly forty years had to go by before Philip Lailson’s Royal Equestrian Circus was to arrive.


The “Compañías de Maroma” [Acrobatic Troupes]

Throughout the period in which we depended politically on the Spanish Crown, tightrope-walkers, contortionists, illusionists, somersaulters and other European artists began to arrive, becoming an inspiration for the many Mexicans willing to cultivate new disciplines of the circus art of which we were unaware.

One of the oldest documents in New Spain that reveals the presence of somersaulters is in fact the one that presents the first miracle performed by Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, in Jalisco. Although it was drafted in 1634, it refers to an episode that occurred in 1623, a miracle performed to save the life of a girl who was dedicated to the itinerant life of the “Compañías de Maroma” [“Acrobatic Troupes”].

The “maroma” [acrobatics] may be defined as the artistic manifestation that preceded the arrival of the concept of the equestrian circus developed by Philip Astley in Europe. The acrobatics yard was the place where these displays of ability took place; they generally included a tightrope walker, an acrobat, the exhibiting of some animal and the work of some “gracioso” [joker] (this was the name used to refer to the clown, due to the influence of the Spanish comedy). Of course, neither equestrian acrobatics nor a zoological exhibit consisting of exotic existed in these presentations.


The European circus in Mexico

In 1791 the first troupe appeared in the capital of New Spain, called the La Romanita Company of Acrobats, coming from Spain and owned by José Cortés. It included artists of various nationalities and there are documents mentioning the act by a “payaso” [clown] (this is probably the oldest reference to the use of this name, because they were previously known as “graciosos”), and performing, among other things, a spectacle that it announced as “Chinese shadow theatre” and as “intangible shadows”, which we know to be the precursors of projected images with movement and, by extension, of cinema.

Then there arrived the man whom we must consider to be the father of the circus in Mexico, an Englishman called Philip Lailson, who announced the “Royal Equestrian Circus” for the first time in this country on 5th January 1808. His work in the United States is very well documenting, and we have several references to it. In addition to his extraordinary equestrian exercises, which were a novelty to the citizens of New Spain, he presented a monkey dressed as a French general; this presentation caused great commotion at the time, since it ridiculed the army that was invading Spain at that very moment.

It was in 1831 that the Circus of Charles Green appeared, coming from the USA. In addition to its extraordinary equestrian exercises, it also provided pantomimes, a combination of theatre and circus that had it moments of glory in Mexico with the Circo Orrin in the late 19th century and many years later in the Circo Beas.

The first elephant to be recorded in Mexico was in 1832; it was announced asThe Giant of the Mongol, and was adored and admired by rich and poor, so people never tired of contemplating this extraordinary and intelligent animal. Its death a year later caused great consternation in the capital of the Republic. As is revealed by a newspaper of the time, its astute owner sold its tusks to jewellers in the centre of Mexico City and had its bones cleaned, to then reassemble them and exhibit it again as a prehistoric animal on the streets of Zulueta, still charging an entry fee of two reales.

Before aircraft appeared, ascending in hot-air balloons was also an activity performed by circus people; for decades they inflated enormous balloons in front of the location where they were to present their entertainment in order to attract larger audiences to their shows.


The emergence of the national circus

Small companies had emerged throughout the Mexican territory, but it was in 1841 that the Olympic Circus of José Soledad Aycardo arose; he was an equestrian, a clown, a puppeteer, an acrobat, but above all a reciter of verse. A picturesque artist who filled the life of shows in Mexico with enthusiasm for more than 25 years, we must consider José Aycardo to be the first Mexican circus impresario, who also included acrobatic exercises on horseback in his repertoire.

The figure of José Miguel Suárez emerged in 1853, in the acrobatics yard of Paseo de la Retama; he was the head of a Mexican family that distinguished itself for its work in equestrian acrobatics, and that this year celebrates 165 years of constant presence in the circus life of Latin America. At the moment the Circus of the Hermanos Suárez is working on the island of Jamaica.

The first US circus with a big top entered this country in 1859, although it never reached the capital of the Republic. According to US records, Eldred's Great Rotunda Menagerie and Circus worked throughout the north of this country with great success.

The Circus of Giuseppe Chiarini debuted in 1864, four months after Maximilian of Habsburg’s entrance into Mexico City; Chiarini was a charismatic Italian, one of the first to bring artistic innovations from Europe and the United States, such as his magnificent equestrian acts and a third canvas tent, which was known at that time as the “gigantic country tent”; he was the first to use gas lighting and other advances, which for several years meant that the circus was the favourite place of entertainment for Mexican audiences from all the various social classes.

Chiarini, incidentally, was the first to ask to set up his big top in Plaza de Armas in Mexico City, and the level and elegance of its facilities and spectacle were very far removed from anything our countrymen had known until that time. The authorities supported its installation in Calle de San Agustín, on the corner with Uruguay and Isabel la Católica, and it made its debut on 17th October 1864 with fifteen horses performing and twenty artistes. Its success, needless to say, was tremendous and it became Mexico’s fashionable entertainment during those years. In 1867 Chiarini held a function in honour of the President of the Republic, Don Benito Juárez, with an equestrian show that included his horses running freely.

The period from 1864 to 1910 was the true breeding ground of the circus in this country. From the arrival of Chiarini’s Circus until the blossoming of the Circo Teatro Orrin, many other Mexicans emerged in the activity. Specifically, the troupes that arose in the second decade of the 19th century were those of Tranquilino Alemán, Toribio Rea, Esteban Padrón, Eduardo Codona, Juan Treviño and, of those that still survive, there are the Suárez, Sánchez, Gasca, Atayde, Olvera, Gaona and Esqueda families, and at the beginning of the 20th century came the Hermanos Vázquez, González, Ibarra and the Gran Circo Beas Modelo, owned by Francisco Beas, the largest circus in the entire history of Mexico, which came to the fore amid the uproar of the revolutionary struggle.

With the appearance of the steamship and the railway, the circus panorama evolved quickly all over the world. As I have mentioned, during those years countless foreign circuses arrived in Mexico, both European and from the USA, indeed listing them here would be a very long endeavour, which will have to be undertaken elsewhere. They all brought large-scale productions that dazzled the Mexicans, mainly on account of their zoological giants. Let us take a single example: on Thursday 14th March 1901, at twelve noon, the Gentry Circus presented a parade that was 10 blocks in length along Avenida Reforma, displaying 175 animals, including 66 horses, elephants, polar bears, trained dogs, etc., placed on classic, beautiful English floats, which we Mexicans could admire for the first time. They also displayed a beautiful big top with the capacity for 4,000 spectators (to provide a comparison for the reader, today the big tops that are in circulation in Mexico have an average seating capacity of between 1,500 and 1,800 people).

In this context the struggle was not easy for the pioneering Mexican families that were involved in circus activities, since their economic possibilities meant they could not afford to get hold of a “gigantic country tent” when they were starting out. The first grand circus that Mexico had was undoubtedly the Circo Treviño, owned by a tough impresario who was in open competition with the Orrin Brothers at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Circo Teatro Orrin came to be considered one of the best circuses in the world; since attractions arrived two or three years after their emergence in Europe or the United States, this was the space in which the figure of the great British clown Ricardo Bell, the clown most famous and respected by Mexican society of all time, became established. If we talk about Orrin then we must talk about Ricardo Bell, an inseparable formula, the conditio sine qua non in order for the seasonal shows that were presented every year to the various audiences of the Mexican Republic to triumph. We may consider these illustrious Britons to be a hugely important part of the history of the circus arts of this country; they knew and deeply valued the essence and the way of being of our compatriots.

There were 26 years of continuous presence of the Orrins in Mexico City, where the secret of their success was the permanent search for what could be novel for the public. Ricardo Bell always sought the precise figure of speech, the word in the appropriate space, the correct gesture, the exact grimace that would cause laughter in the audience whenever he wanted it. A single shout from Bell from behind the curtain received an immediate response from the audience, who eagerly awaited him. A single pose by Bell caused the desired hilarity in almost everyone. This identification between performer and spectator was so great and so magical that few in the history of our spectacle have achieved such heights.

A few years later came the story of Francisco Beas. It is said that Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the famous revolutionary, supported him in the building of his circus dream, and that Beas presented shows exclusively for soldiers and scheduled benefit performances to support the cause. The shows of Pancho Beas came to include circus, theatre and rides, which he called Circo Teatro Carnival Beas Modelo, and which he managed to move around in the 35 rail wagons he owned between the main cities of the Republic. He had many rides, stalls, restaurants for the public, and countless exhibition marquees where certain phenomena were exhibited, all travelling with a staff of artistes and technicians numbering over 400 people.

If Orrin was the one who over 26 years accustomed his audiences to his presenting of novel acts and Beas took the crown for being the biggest circus company in this country’s history, there is no doubt that the Atayde family was the most traditional circus in Mexico, after its return from 20 years of touring Central and South America in 1946. The Atayde family began its activities in 1879 and has achieved its prestige by exhibiting extraordinary international attractions over the last sixty years, when the circus based its attractiveness on the names of celebrated circus artists. Starting from the crisis that the circus has been experiencing worldwide, even the Circo Atayde has seen its presence on the national artistic scene reduced.

In the 20th century countless Mexican families became involved in circus activities and some have been touring artistically for three or four generations now: such as the Campa, Murillo, Cárdenas, Del Castillo, Fernandi, Rodogel, Padilla, González, Portugal, Alegría, Ayala, Aguilar, Rodríguez, Macías, Osorio, Medina, Márquez, Ortiz, Bells, España and Caballero families, in addition to those already mentioned above. Some families have produced artists of international renown, such as the juggler Rudy Cárdenas, or the great trapeze artists: Alfredo Codona, Ramón Esqueda, Nacho Ibarra, Lalo Palacios, Tito Gaona, Gustavo Bells, Raulito Jiménez and Rubén Caballero, even the stupendous Miguel Ángel Vázquez, who was the first human being to accomplish the quadruple somersault, the source of pride of all Mexicans, working with the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1986.

The Fuentes Gasca family developed the Circo Unión until it generated an organisation containing twenty independent circuses, founding a transnational company of great importance under the name of Espectaculares Hermanos Fuentes Gasca. This Mexican company to a large extent controlled the Latin American circus market. Another company, the Circo Suárez, worked for several decades around the Antilles and various nations in the area, strengthening the image of Mexico in Latin America as the leader in this field of entertainment.

At the end of the 20th century it was a rather complicated task to conduct a survey of the families involved in circus activities. But it is known that hundreds of companies existed, revealing the deep affection that still endures for the circus among our compatriots.


The new Mexican circus

At the beginning of the decade of the 1980s, various companies began to arrive from France and Canada, proudly proclaiming that they did not use animals in their shows, as a way of attracting those sectors of the population that had begun, in one way or another, to express their disapproval of the use of animals in performances.

Some national groups also arose coming from theatre or dance, which began to make forays into the world of the circus, as was happening all over the world; among these we can mention the Cirko De Mente in Mexico City or the Circo Dragón in Guadalajara, among others, who have consolidated their presence and developed their own audience over recent years, but are a long way from the levels of the new artistic offers that are now abounding in Europe.

Perhaps the process of reinvigorating the new circus has been delayed in Mexico because we have had a strong and numerous traditional business sector, since it has controlled the activity not only in this country but also in several nations of Latin America. Meanwhile Cirque du Soleil from Canada daringly made its first tour of our region here, appearing in Mexico many years before the rest of Latin America. Due to its geographical position and size of population, Mexico has always been an attractive place for the major international companies, among which we could include Ringling Brothers until it closed down.

Yet in the first decade of the 21st century, the most important families, among which we may include the Atayde, Fuentes Gasca, Vázquez, Suárez and González families, etc., were in agreement that the circus continued to be good business in Mexico, but they were experiencing severe difficulties because they did not have the capacity to evolve towards fully fledged entertainment industries and they remained within the framework of family consortia, with administration problems and issues of technological stagnation in their entertainment offers. To this we can add other obstacles to the development of their companies: the shortage of spaces to install circuses, the increase in the price of these spaces, high advertising costs, especially in cities such as Mexico City, which has in excess of 20 million inhabitants, heavy taxation and excessive travel and transportation costs.


The present situation of the circus in Mexico

In 2010 it was estimated that more than 400 circuses existed, mostly small family structures travelling with big tops all over the geography of Mexico. Among these there were, if anything, a dozen or so that aroused deep concern over the artistic level of their performance offers. Others possessed modern equipment, but the quality of their shows left much to be desired. A further group belonged to the so-called regional circuses, which had serious problems being able to afford to survive. In Mexico there has never been any government support for the circus art, because the State considers that these are private businesses and does not associate them with art, but rather with entertainment.

Undoubtedly the most serious problem the Mexican circus faces today is to be found in artistic training. The traditional families have reproduced their artistic forms intact, inherited from their ancestors, so they find they are hindered in creating new performance proposals. Being self-taught and not having multidisciplinary artistic training, no in-depth capacity for innovation exists to enable them to create and compete from the point-of-view of multidisciplinary performance art.

The Mexican circus traditionally generated its own artistic teams, supplying themselves with staff from within without any problems, for as long as this was attractive and they had their own audiences. The change in artistic activity on the part of many families towards a more managerial activity, in the period 1970-2010, brought about considerable immigration by circus families from Central and South America, who had no options of working in their own countries. Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela are examples of countries where circus companies have disappeared, and Brazil has travelled a painful road of the same kind, caused, as in Argentina, by the prohibiting of shows with animals in the major cities of the two nations.

Our proximity to Cuba has meant that we have been saturated with numerous good-quality circuses, as the performers have been through a school, and there have also been no small number of artists who have immigrated definitively to Mexico from the countries of the former Socialist Bloc. So the question is: where are the new national artists to be trained?

The strength of traditional entrepreneurial activities did not make it possible to develop educational centres like those that arose in Europe, from the creation of the Soviet Circus School in 1927 to the diverse range of circus creations offered by the French decades later, which nurtured the training of acts that were understood to be more within the so-called new circus, until in 2007 a degree-level educational programme was created at the Meso-American University of Puebla, which enabled new circus performance offers to flourish or already disappeared acts to be recovered; I have personally run this educational programme since its creation and throughout its ten years of existence.


A law that became the Sword of Damocles

As we have indicated, the government of Mexico has never channelled any support towards the preservation of this age-old art, and remains extraneous to this business sector, which gave employment directly or indirectly to fifteen thousand people before the amendment to the Comprehensive Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection proposed by the Green Party, which came into force on 8th July 2015, and prohibited the use of wildlife in shows, with the payment of large fines for any infringement.

There was no consensus in its development, nor were the sectors affected convened to hear their points of view; it took society by surprise with a cajoling campaign that discredited the circus, openly dismissing the role of the animals, generating serious consequences for their existence. The Mexican families who still attended the circus with animals did so almost clandestinely in order to avoid criticism from their neighbours, who repeated disgraceful advertising slogans concerning a supposed non-proven abuse of animals, all to give support at the time of the election to an action with a highly political tinge, delivering an almost mortal blow to this age-old activity in Mexico. The tradition was not respected; the years of existence of families that had battled to possess their zoos and to be able to entertain the population healthily for more than a century were forgotten.

As a matter of chronicle, the Suárez family arose years before our first constitution, the Atayde family is older than the institutional appearance of the Mexican army, but none of this was enough. We must admit that the circus community did not have the capacity to organise itself and to express the problems it faces in order to make its existence feasible, or to have a policy of permanent communication with society as to how to operate within it in order to eliminate mistrust.


An uncertain future

If no clear and creative future projects exist on the part of the Mexican circus sector, which is in a phase of despondency and apathy, the existence of many family companies in this sector will be under threat. The large national companies have reduced their activities and their tours. The new companies operate with another logic, which suits the current market conditions better, such as using the Internet intensively for advertising purposes, or only working for some specific weeks in the year.

As we have pointed out, the disorganisation of the traditional circus sector has not enabled it to undertake census-taking activities or to have an exact idea of the effects of the amendment in question, but it is estimated that eighty circuses have disappeared since the promulgation of the amendments to the law. The new companies that are less tied to the tradition have had a greater capacity to meet up, get to know each other and acknowledge each other, but their lack of experience, the absence of a proper handling of tours or travelling with complex equipment will mean they will have to battle for years to acquire the necessary experience and gain a presence on the national scene. There is an urgent need to channel all efforts in order not to allow the circus to die, as has happened in other Latin American countries.

In this uncertain panorama, it is hard for us to expect major celebrations for the 250 years of the English circus, which reached every corner of the planet, or the 210 years of its arrival in Mexico. The task at hand is to imagine new alternatives, to reinvent itself, to discover new paths for the Mexican circus, to investigate what it is that this society expects of this type of spectacle, which is increasingly losing its family character in order to open up to a range of offers that are perhaps more dramatised, or the appearance of new genres to satisfy the aesthetic concerns of the ever more diverse tastes of our population. We are undoubtedly living through a period of transition in which everything is yet to be defined.


Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, 22nd January 2018