Run away to the circus

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Sick of your everyday life? Try the twirling, flipping, juggling, exhilarating world of the circus with Timber! at Sydney Festival this summer

Photo: Jane Hobson

The history of circus in India is the subject of much conjecture and debate. Many believe the first Indian circus began in the late 19th century, although being a culturally diverse, expansive country, India had many travelling entertainers, similar to circus performers, before this.

It is widely believed the first Indian circus was established by Vishnupant Chatre, who was in charge of the stables of the Raja of Kurduwadi in Maharashtra. He would perform stunts on the horses for the entertainment of the Raja. Legend has it the Raja and Chatre went to see a performance by the Royal Italian Circus in Bombay and were impressed by the array of stunts. During a conversation after the show, Chatre is said to have been irritated by a comment made by the Italian circus director Giuseppe Chiarini that India was not yet ready to have a circus of its own.

Vishnupant Chatre decided to start his own circus. He was the equestrian performer and his wife a trapeze artist and animal trainer. The first show of Chatre’s Great Indian Circus was held in 1880 with an exclusive audience including the Raja.

As he travelled with his circus around India, including the far north and down to Ceylon, Chatre met the martial arts expert and gymnast Keeleri Kunhikannan in Kerala and requested his assistance in training acrobats for his circus company.

Kunhikannan is now refered to as the father of Indian circus after inaugurating a circus school in Chirakkara, near Kollam, in 1901. Within a few years, performers who trained under him had begun their own circus companies including Whiteway Circus, the Great Rayman Circus, the Great Lion Circus, the Fairy Circus, the Eastern Circus, the Oriental Circus, the Gemini Circus, and the Great Bombay Circus.

Photo: Sreenivasan Ramakrishnan

Kunhikannan’s school also spawned the Kamala Three Ring Circus. This began as a humble village cirus with a two-pole tent, and went on to become a large, American-style, six-pole, three-ring circus, the first, and only one at the time, of its kind in Asia.

There was even a popular television series screened on Doordarshan called Circus, starring Shah Rukh Khan in the 1980s. Today, India has more than 20 active circuses.

For those who want to experience the thrill of the circus this summer, Cirque Alfonse will present Timber! at Parramatta Riverside Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival.

Photo: Jane Hobson

Co-founder of Cirque Alfonse, Antoine Carabinier-Lepine joined Canada’s National Circus School as a 15-year-old where he trained for two years and met his future brother-in-law. The two toured with internationally renowned circus companies for many years, before eight years ago deciding to form their own company and perform a show in honour of Carabinier-Lepine’s father’s milestone 60th birthday.

Just over two years ago the company started work on Timber! in the barn of his parents’ home in rural Canada. “It is real lumberjack country, in the middle of the woods,” Carabinier-Lepine told Indian Link.

Photo: Nicolas Descoteaux

The show they’re performing in Sydney is a real logs, axe juggling, lumberjack scene, and everyone in the company is on stage for an hour and a half.

The circus artistes are on stage accompanied by musicians playing banjo and everyone singing together. “Every show is a little bit different,” Carabinier-Lepine confessed. “Everything is a bit uneven with the logs and you never know what’s going to happen. Even the musicians playing percussion get in on the fun by juggling axes!”

Photo: Timothy Cochrane

“It’s a dangerous show, obviously, with real axes and saws,” Carabinier-Lepine said. “But that’s part of circus – it makes it more alive! The audience can feel you sweating, they can feel that it’s really tough.”

Cirque Alfonse’s Timber! production is a family-friendly show, perfect for children and adults alike. The show features Carabinier-Lepine’s now 68-year-old father, who was the spritely age of 60 when he began his acrobatic career, in mainly character-based roles. “He fits perfectly into the show,” Carabinier-Lepine said. At the other end of the family, a three-and-a-half year old nephew is also in the production, doing balancing and bar work. “He’s been part of the show since he was five weeks old!”

Photo: Timothy Cochrane

Carabinier-Lepine has been touring the Timber! production for three years now, but in Australia will be performing with a completely new set, custom-built by the theatre in Sydney. “We’re not allowed to bring all the wood through customs,” he said. “So, when we perform we’ll be trying out the new set for the first time!”

“Australian audiences are going to connect with the show because it’s about lumberjacks,” Carabinier-Lepine said, “But it’s also about family and the connections we have between each other, how we trust each other.”

“Circus is fun – I wouldn’t change my life for anything in the world. But it’s a tough life. It’s physical, there can be injuries and it can be hard for relationships,” he continued.

“You need to be born for the circus life, but once it’s in your blood, you can’t let it go.”

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Kira has a passion for politics, and enjoys puzzles, bad jokes and cuddles with her cat.
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