Let's celebrate 250 years of circus!


2018 is the 250th anniversary of the circus and we’ll be celebrating with some fabulous events at Bell Square this summer!

The Birth of Circus
Despite circus being mentioned in Greek and Roman times, the word really only referred to the ‘circular’ amphitheatres used for public performances.  Circus as we know it started in London in 1768.

Philip Astley left his home town of Newcastle-under-Lyme at the age of 17 to join the Light Dragoons cavalry regiment.  He had always loved horses and proved to be an outstanding horseman in the army.  Seven years later, having reached the rank of Sergeant-Major, he left the army and was given his favourite horse, Gibraltar, as a leaving gift.

In 1768, finding a patch of waste land (now under Waterloo Station), he drew a circle on the ground.  Here, he and his wife Patty taught riding in the morning and put on shows for the public in the afternoon.  Along with horseback acrobatics, he presented clowns and jugglers, and his wife Patty rode a horse surrounded by a swarm of bees!  The circus, as we know it today, was born.  

A year later, he acquired a better site near Westminster Bridge and set up a circus with 3-tiered wooden seating (just as we have at Bell Square today!).  The shows became more elaborate with fireworks, and acts including a man and a dog on a tightrope.

These spectacular shows started to tour around the UK and Astley built several permanent amphitheatres which were just as intricate and ornate as the theatres and opera houses of the time.

Within a few years of 1768, many new circuses set up, usually run by circus families such as Barnum’s, and quickly spread across Europe and then onto America.  They became a huge commercial success, attracting many thousands of people to their performances. They continued to develop, with animals such as big cats and elephants joining in the early 1800s, and freak shows later.

The start of ‘Contemporary Circus’
In the 1970s, ‘contemporary circus’ emerged as a reaction to this traditional form of circus with its animals, ringmasters and suchlike, all in a ‘big top’ tent.  Contemporary circus still brings us the clowns, the trapeze artists, the jugglers, the high-wire acts - the skills and daring that we associate with circus.  It still has all the flying, the falling, the fear and the beauty, the gasps and the cheers.

But it has spread its wings, finding a place in parks, in theatres, on a piece of waste land, and on the street.  It has broadened its form, sometimes including a narrative, and often combining with other artforms such as dance, or theatre, or big sculptural structures.

But at its heart, it is still about the astounding skills of the performers - and the awe and wonder of their audience.

The Circus at Bell Square
This summer, some of the finest contemporary circus companies in Europe will perform at Bell Square in celebration of its 250th anniversary.  With London being the birthplace of this fabulous artform, where better to celebrate!

From France, from Belgium and from here in the UK, with all their different styles, scales and skills, these companies show the diversity of circus in 2018.

In June, we welcome Sur Mesure from Belgium with their dazzling acrobatics and live band.

In July, we have the fabulous Gandinis, combining juggling and dance - and taking juggling to completely new heights.

In August, come and see the high-wire artists of Cirque Rouages tell their story of lost love.

And in September, watch one of the UK’s most exciting circus companies, Ockham’s Razor, surf and ride their beautiful wooden structure in The Belly of the Whale.

An exhibition of Circus
And when the performances are over, the circus keeps on going!  From the autumn, a new exhibition telling the story of circus from 250 years ago to the present day will tour Hounslow’s libraries.

This fascinating exhibition has been created by Cathy Haill, the circus historian at the V&A, especially for Hounslow.  

It has been commissioned by Creative People & Places Hounslow in collaboration with the Borough’s Libraries.  Follow CPP Hounslow twitter to be the first to find out more - @CPPHounslow

So, roll up, roll up the circus is coming to town!
And if you are attending Bell Square events – don’t forget to share your experiences on social media using the #BellSquareLDN hash tag.
2018 Circus performances at Bell Square
16 June, 1.00pm & 3.00pm:   Sur Mesure -  Fillage

28 July, 1.00pm & 3.00pm:  Gandini Juggling and Seeta Patel Dance Company - Sigma

25 August, 8.00pm:  Cirque Rouages - …Sodade…

8 September, check website for times: Ockham’s Razor - The Belly of the Whale.
For full details, visit our What’s On pages here.