The Traditional Chilean Circus

by Ms. Pilar Ducci, Historian, researcher of circus history and folklore

Acrobats, jugglers, storytellers, singers, actors, and clowns have been an essential part of human history. Their wandering character has compelled them to tell stories of the grandeur of human nature through their carnivalesque performances. Jesters have occupied important seats as sharp-tongued ministers in medieval courts and acrobats have delighted audiences with their daring feats. There are abundant references to these performers throughout the globe such as China, Egypt or Mesopotamia. In the dusty roads of 12th and 13th centuries Europe small family caravans, many of them gypsies entertained people from town to town. Amongst these entertainers, in Romance Europe, the “Mesters de Juglaría” (Ministers of Jongleurs) made their living by telling and singing stories in public places and palaces while performing short theatrical scenes, acrobatics or other amusements.

These “juglares,” acrobats, puppeteers, clowns, dancers, and singers roamed through Europe during the middle ages, and eventually (mid-16th century) made their way to the Spanish – American colonies, where many of the acrobatic feats were already widely executed by pre-Columbian equilibrists, funambulists, and jugglers. Acrobacy and games were performed not as mere entertainment, but as ritual merriment that rested at the core of pre-Columbian religious beliefs and practices.

Thriving with Spanish and indigenous communities, Hispanic America not only was giving rise to a new mestizo (Hispanic-indigenous) race but also to a unique and distinctive Latin American identity, rich in religious, musical, artistic, linguistic and cultural syncretism. Early on in Chilean colonial history, we find plenty of chronicles that refer to these street artists, that sung songs brought from Moorish Spain, and performed at every corner of this distant land. Boisterous cities such as Santiago or Valparaíso, small towns lost high up in the Andes, mining towns in the desert, and remote towns in the thick southern forests and mountainous valleys regularly received these small groups of artists. They charmed their spectators all over the territory: flanked on the east by the massive Andes Mountains, the Pacific Ocean on the west, the merciless northern Atacama Desert and the vast Patagonia in the south, Chile has a challenging geography. These small family caravans brought together a mesh of communities contributing to the construction of the identity of this harsh new country.

By the time the first European circus arrived in Valparaíso (the main Chilean port) in 1820, Chile already had a thriving community of “volatineros” (roughly translated as “flyers”) that performed all over the recently independent country, in streets and plazas, churches and “Casas de Volatín” (“Flyer Houses”). The Bogardus Circus (which belonged to the English circus entrepreneur Nathaniel Bogardus) brought to our country an array of highly accomplished acrobats, écuyères on grand horses, and strange animals that had never been seen before such as elephants, camels or zebras.  Most importantly, the Bogardus brought the structure, rhythm, discipline, glamour, and elegance of the modern circus, developed only a few decades before by Phillip Astley in London.  Chilean “Volatineros” learned fast. Before long, they had transformed their performances into modern, prosperous circuses, applied new technology, eventually incorporating the tent, lighting techniques, improved transporting systems, and Chile thus developed its particular circus.

The circus has been, and is, until today, the most important, massive, widespread and beloved form of entertainment in Chile. Descendants of the old “volatineros,” circus folk incorporated all the novelty of the European circuses and kept certain unique aspects that make the Chilean traditional circus as particular and distinctive as it is universal and ubiquitous.

The heart of the Chilean circus lies in its clowns. A faded, yellowish national newspaper from 1961 boasts the following headline: “Chile: exporter of copper, poets, and clowns.” A circus in Chile may lack animals, jugglers, acrobats, or even the fantastic flying trapeze, but never a clown. Clowns in Chile are witty, sharp-tongued characters that perform under various formats, where contact and proximity with the audience are fundamental. They may be single monologist clowns (vaguely analogous to stand-up comedy), two clowns, where one is the serious, self-righteous, correct character that interacts with the silly, clumsy and funny clown. These duets are known in Chile as the “Clon” and the “Tony” (which may also be a threesome, with a “Clon,” a “Tony” and a “Payaso”). Or, we may find ourselves plunged into a delirious experience of up to 15 clowns running all over the place. Clowns have an elementary and unexpected grace, which at the same time, is profound and elaborate. They know of no right or left, front or back within their scenic space. They perform within a unique atmosphere, continually improvising. A chair, a barrel or a handkerchief are enough to represent a tragedy of love and jealousy with kidnappings, duels, marriages, deaths, resurrections, etc. with more dynamism than any Hollywood movie. The circus flees rhetoric and reality, everything under the tent is mockingly absurd and chaotic fantasy. Insightful and intuitive, clowns gather popular wisdom, traditional cultural references, the joys, sorrows, concerns, and desires of people and re-transmit them with a loose mouth and light feet. They are the intellectual acrobats of the circus, the cultural barometers, and the mirror of the human condition.

In many of the more traditional circuses, clowns still present “pantomimas,” roughly similar to funny sketches. The script may be based on historical or current events, freely adapted to delight and entertain people. During the 19th and 20th century, “pantomimas” used to be so important, that they were the second half of the show. In fact, as a small, remote country, most towns lacked theatres or stages, so the circus was the only scenic reference for people. Most folklorists (musicians and “payadores” (i.e., popular poets), performed under the Big Top. The Chilean circus constructed itself as a two-part show: the first part consisted of the traditional circus acts, and the second part offered either a “pantomima” or a musical show of Chilean folklore.

The circus was not just merriment and laughter; it was also an educational instrument, a transmitter of culture, a gatherer of communities, a constructor of identity. At the great 1905 earthquake, the circus served not only to entertain the terrified city of Valparaíso but also as a shelter for those who saw their homes reduced to rubble. And again, within days of the devastating 2011 earthquake, a circus reached the city of Constitución that had been swept away by a tsunami, bringing joy, food, and relief for thousands of children left alone while their parents tried to recover what remained from the disaster.

The Chilean circus lies deep within the very fabrics of our identity, popular culture, heritage, and self-awareness. As such, the Chilean government has acknowledged the traditional circus as part of our Intangible Cultural Heritage and is protected by a Circus Law and a Decree of Law, a National Circus Day (the first Saturday of September) and a recently appointed Annual State Award to Performers. During 2010 and 2011 the Chilean circus was part of the Bicentennial Celebrations: a large-scale Circus Exhibition at the Biblioteca Nacional (the National Library, the most important cultural institution in the country), sponsored by UNESCO. The Ministry of Culture funded the visit of the first circus to Easter Island and opened an Area dedicated to Circus Arts, which supports and funds circus artists (particularly the thriving new circus and circus schools). While much remains to be done to further government support to this particular form of art, the traditional circus is experiencing an exceptional moment in its long history. 

Vibrant and exciting, the Chilean circus participates in a vast variety of activities. A Circus Trade Union (founded in the 30s) safeguards the interests of this community and cares for its people. It also sustains a picturesque tent-like mausoleum in the oldest cemetery of the country, dedicated exclusively to circus people.  It coordinates the only International Circus Festival entirely organized by circus folk, a National Circus Football league, amongst many other undertakings.  Different publications are continually being released, and Joaquin Maluenda, the owner of the famous Circo Los Tachuelas, boasts a YouTube channel (“La Leona TV”) which features exciting interviews and conversations with old circus folk, keeping the memory and tradition alive.

Strangely well organized, traditional circuses are family enterprises, where every member has its place and chore. From lifting up the tent, driving the trucks, selling candy at the foyer, cleaning up after the show, to performing and shining in the ring. The pater familias is usually also the owner of the circus, but the community is interestingly strongly matriarchal. Women enjoy a particular position in the circus, and from behind the scenes, quietly run the whole show. Children grow up in these communities, under the tents, and, thanks to the Circus law, schools in Chile are obligated to receive circus children at any time of the year and for as long as they remain in town. In fact, a circus child may attend up to 20 schools in a year. Most of these children grow up to be circus artists. Currently, there are over 100 circuses swarming all over the country under their colorful tents, with an estimated community of around 5600 people, and hundreds of Chilean performers in circuses across the globe, at different festivals and shows, who have inherited their tradition and art through generations and maintain it alive till today.