Skip to main content

By Ernst Albrecht, Editor and publisher of Spectacle online magazine, critics and historian.

Throughout 2018 the circus world will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the founding of the modern circus by Philip Astley in London.  Astley was a member of His Majesty’s Royal Regiment who had, during his course of duty, developed an expertise in horsemanship.  Upon his retirement from active duty he put his equestrian skill and sense of showmanship into a venture that stands as the starting point of what many consider the modern circus.  In its many alterations over the course of the past 250 years the one aspect of Astley’s creation that has remained as a vital and essential part of any circus performance is its display of extraordinary horsemanship and its respect for its animals.  In my own circus-going experiences I have been privileged to see many of the finest horsemen and women who are currently honoring and continuing this tradition in ways that are as thrilling today as those exhibitions created 250 years ago must have been to Astley’s enthusiastic London audiences.

In France three generations of the Alexis Gruss family—Alexis, his wife Gipsy, along with their children Maud, Stephan and Firmin and their grandsons, twins Charles and Alexandre—invoke and honor the equestrian spirit of the originators of the art form displaying the entire range of equestrian expertise: horses at liberty, dressage and jockey acts to perfection.  Alexis presides over the family’s performances as nothing less than its high priest, imperviously serene, elegant and in complete control.  His presentations, which have won him a Golden Clown at Monte Carlo, are nothing short of poetic.

Perfection is also on display in Switzerland with another extended family, the Knies, who exhibit a similarly awe-inspiring range of horsemanship in performances that unmistakably feature the equine arts.  Freddy, Jr. Mary-José, and Géraldine-Katharina are the most prominent members of the family working horses.  They have developed a level of perfection is all aspects of the family’s circus operation, but it is in the presentation of its equine displays that the Knie family achieves a level of performance that has won the admiration of the entire circus world.  Each appearance by a member of the family is a polished gem, beautifully polished and exquisitely timed.

Hungary’s family Richter, in particular sons Florian and Joseph, Jr. whose jockey acts recall the exploits of the Cristiani family of an earlier era, have both won gold at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival presenting sensational acts whose size and scope are increasingly rare in the circus world today.

In Italy it is the Togni family, featuring Flavio, which once again treats its audiences to the full range of equestrian arts that are direct descendants of the Astley exhibitions.  Eschewing flamboyance Togni’s style highlights the sensitivity of the horses to their trainer’s subtle commands.  Flavio himself presents horses at liberty and displays of dressage that involve many members of the family.  While with the Ringling Bros. circus he presented one of the largest displays of dressage ever created, involving 26 horses in all.

Certain female soloists all of whose families have been working in the circus for generations have also carried on the Astley equestrian tradition.  Katja Schumann comes from just such a Danish circus family who specialized in horse training.  Of her, noted circus historian Antony Hippisley Cox has written: “She has triumphantly proven that La Haute Ecole is far from dead and it can still top the bill in any circus given grace and fearlessness and above all that centaur like quality which welds horse and rider into one.”  Katja Schumann has displayed all of those qualities not only in dressage but in the presentation of liberty horses and riding Roman-post style.  Unlike the families noted above, the Schumanns worked in a permanent building with a stage and a ring reminiscent of the configuration used by Philip Astley in his amphitheatre.

In 1980 Yasmine Smart acquired a group of Arab Stallions which she trained herself and presented throughout Europe for the next twenty years.  In 1981 she competed at the Monte Carlo festival and won the prestigious Dame du Cirque award for her work as an equestrienne.  In 1985 she returned, this time winning a Silver Clown for a presentation of a liberty horse act.  She won her second Dame du Cirque in 1995.  She is the first British circus artists to have won at Monte Carlo and the only artist to have been awarded three times.  In 2003 she became the equestrian director of the Big Apple Circus in New York City, U.S.A.

Sylvia Zerbini, like all the equestriennes being considered here, is an intense student of equine behavior.  Speaking of her relationship with her horses her entire body seems to assume the very personality of one or another of her charges, physically projecting their attitude.  It is almost as if she has become one of her horses.  Speaking of what is involved in the presentation of her liberty horses who wear no harnesses and are cued by a short stick instead of a whip, she says, “It’s a constant mind game. . . I spend a lot of time and energy with my horses. . . I treat them like I treat myself, as an athlete.”

Jennifer Vidbel has trained and presented many different kinds of animals, but her specialty is horses that she presents at liberty.  Many of her horses, despite, or perhaps because they represent so many different breeds are rescue animals.  She trained her first pony when she was just nine years old.  From that experience she learned patience, being open to the horses’ point of view and she says, “Humility.”  She has also presented dogs and farm animals along with horses with the Big Apple Circus for seven seasons and before that with Ringling Bros.  In her current appearance with the Big Apple Circus, she is presenting an act featuring sixteen horses of three different breeds, all appearing in the ring at the same time.

In addition to these individual artists and their work in classic circuses, there have been, over the past few years, several attempts to unite circus and theatre in programs that are almost exclusively equestrian.

Cheval Theatre was an early, failed attempt by one of the originators of Cirque du Soleil, Gilles Ste-Croiz, to create a performance made up exclusively of equine feats.  It was performed under a big top similar to the one used by Cirque du Soleil. Although it was greeted with critical acclaim, its initial tour was aborted prematurely and never regrouped.

Franz Althoff’s Zauberwald was an attempt by the German impresario to combine story telling spectacle with horsemanship.  More often than not the former won out.  The show’s most memorable moments were when the animals were shown to best advantage.  The highly evocative scenes of desert horsemen, an Arabian market, and a Russian winterscape with Cossacks encased in furs and a troika dashing through the show created beautiful images of horses in various environments.

Cavalia has proven to be the most successful of all attempts at combining the equine arts and theatrical spectacle.  Based in Canada and founded by Norman Latourelle, the show places great emphasis on its animals’ wellbeing despite the rigors of its globe trekking schedule.  Like the other “horse operas” it features a wide variety of training and riding skills.  For a time one of its stars was Sylvia Zerbini who subscribes to a similar training method.

Zingaro is perhaps the closest contemporary approximation of what a performance at Astley’s Amphitheatre must have been like.  This “equestrian theatre” (it eschews the title “circus”) is located in Fort Auberville, a suburb of Paris.  The audience enters an ancient stone stable that has been converted into a buffet.  Later the doors are opened onto a courtyard where a roaring bonfire warms the atmosphere.  The performance is presented in an adjoining structure with unreserved bleacher-like seating.  The founder and director is a Frenchman who goes by the singular name of Bartabas and who might be called a “horse listener.”  Of his work with horses he says, “The more I plunge into the relationship of humans with horses, the more it seems to resemble the relationship between human beings.  That is the universal side of our work.  The horse for me is like a mirror. . . My aim is to bring out the personality of the horse as you might with people, to let the horses express themselves.  Movements are proposed, never imposed. . . My work is to learn to hear them and what they want to say.

Obviously the horse and the equestrian are still the kings of the circus.



Belgium in the story of the circus                        

by André De Poorter, The Belgian Circus Archive

An explanation for the word ‘circus’ is very simple, it means ‘circle’. Already in Antiquity the word existed with the Romans, which has tempted some mistakenly to try and find the origin of the circus there.

There, in Ancient Rome, it was however concerned with games, contests for horse drawn carriages, or gladiator fights fought in hippodromes. The real circus as we know it does not have any relationship with that.

Horses are undeniably at the origin of the circus. Already in the seventeenth century our cities held riding schools for the dressage and riding of horses. They were frequented by the well-to-do. Travelling horsemen companies went to these riding schools to demonstrate their riding proficiency. These troops of horse that travelled throughout Europe can be considered as the precursors of the circus.

The Englishman Philip Astley is deservedly seen as the founder of the circus. In London, in 1769 he started horseman demonstrations, which he performed within a staked out area. He was the first who, not so much later, composed a varied programme. Apart from trick riding on horseback, a comical horse scene, balancing on horses, and a rider pantomime, with him one could also see tightrope walking and acrobatics. In 1787 Astley came to Brussels for the first time to perform riding and other skills in the Warande park arena.

For many decades working with horses remained to dominate the programmes of the many circuses that came into being. But over the years the importance of horses declined. Ever since 1974 one speaks of ‘nouveau cirque’ (new circus) which deviates largely from the original “cirque équestre” (horse circus). These new businesses are widely applauded and especially attract a younger audience, but have lost their ties with the traditional circus. They still use a ring, although it is in fact unnecessary. The ring was a practical invention by Astley, as an only means to demonstrate horsemanship and freedom dressage, allowing the spectators to watch the performances at first hand. For enterprises without horses in the programme one should have thought of a different name for ‘circuses’.

Little Belgium has played a considerable role in the history of the circus. It is marked by small family businesses visiting the fairs and kermises in their own country. And yet some Belgian entrepreneurs went across the regional boundaries and also set to work in the neighbouring countries. We’d like to focus on them here doesn’t letting their names be forgotten.

Let us start with François Erasmus (1775-1847), nicknamed ‘Blondin’, the pioneer of the Belgian way of circus life. From 1810 on he travelled with his ‘Cirque Olympique’ (later called ‘Cirque Royal’) not only through the Netherlands, but also through Switzerland and France. In Germany he put on circus performances in special cities:  Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen, Munich, and Leipzig. In his own country, among others, in Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and his native town Gent. In 1818 François Erasmus, who was an able jumper and equestrian in his younger years, even had the most famous equestrian of his age, the Englishman Andrew Ducrow, on his programme.

‘Circus Sosman’ too has played an important role in the Belgian circus history. Managed by father Philippe Sosman, this Dutch family settled in our country round about 1874, and toured around here for almost fifty years with programmes that dared to risk competing with other settled values. The family name is still living on in the circus world. Who doesn’t remember clown Pipo Sosman, or Henny Bario-Sosman.

‘Circus Fernando’ is another name that appeals to one’s imagination. This circus building was established in Paris in 1875 by the equestrian Ferdinand Beert who hailed from Kortrijk (Belgium). In the course of the years ‘le beau monde de Paris’ (the well-to-do from Paris) came to enjoy themselves there, and the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a house friend. In 1973 this beautiful circus building in the Montmartre quarter was torn down by its last owners, the Bouglione family.

We cannot pass over ‘Circus De Kock’, established in 1895 by Hubert De Kock from Brussels. During a couple of seasons he toured around in France as ‘Cirque du Nord’, with performances in cities like Lyon, Orléans, Bordeaux, and Perpignan. Sporadically he also went to Swiss Genève and German Konstanz. His programmes paid a lot of attention to acrobatics and choreography. When Goliath ‘Circus Barnum and Bailey’ came to Brussels in 1901, David ‘Circus De Cock’ dared to set up his tent in the capital as well, and successfully. At the end  of the 1907 season Hubert put an end to the running of his circus to accept an engagement in America.

‘Circus De Jonghe’ remains a magnificent name in the story of the Belgian circus. Its founder was Alphonse De Jonghe who originally toured about with a   kermis theatre, but switched over to circus in 1899. In the beginning a modest little affair, it very quickly developed into a solid business that regularly went on tour before the first World War through the Netherlands, and also ventured on German, Luxembourgian, and French soil with performances in cities like Cologne, Luxemburg and Dunkirk. After the cataclysm De Jonghe regained his former reputation as the largest and most prosperous enterprise of the country. When Alphonse died in 1935 the management was passed down to his only son Joseph who, together with his five children, enjoyed quite a number of successful years thereafter. Also after Joseph’s death († 1948) the support remained for another couple of years. In 1963 the family shut up shop after a long and creditable existence.

An unusual figure was Charles Callebaut, originally from Aalst (Belgium), who made his debut as fakir Caroli, “the man with the iron skin” (l’homme à la peau d’acier). In 1917 he started his own business in France: ‘Cirque Caroli’. After the war he went on tour in Belgium and the Netherlands, to venture on a tour of North Africa at the end of 1924: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco. Half a year later Callebaut was back on French soil, and his circus adventures had come to an end.

Apart from the circuses mentioned before, there are three Belgian businesses who, although of limited proportions, enjoyed a certain reputation an account of the quality of their programmes. It was ‘Circus Libot’‘Circus Demuynck’, and ‘Circus Semay’, who all three ventured on Dutch soil already for some time. Together with other circuses they came to an end in the difficult sixties of the previous century.

Of course there were more meritorious enterprises, among whom we must certainly not forget: Saratos, Hendrikos, Tondeurs, Selma, Minnaert, Simon, Piste, and Jhony. These last few years Rose-Marie Malter, Monelly, and Magic packed it in. Nowadays it is still possible to enjoy circus pleasure in Belgium with Barones, Bavaria, Alexandre Bouglione, Firmin Bouglione, Pauwels, Picolini, Pipo, and Wiener. The odd man out Ronaldo presents a mix of circus and theatre, which is appreciated both at home and abroad.


Subscribe to our newsletter

We keep your data private and share your data only with third parties that make this service possible. Read our Privacy Policy.