Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VII, No. 2

The Horse is Still King in the Traditional Circus

Jennifer Vidbel


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.

That same level of 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.

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.  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.  She 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, in Denmark 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.  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.

Jennifer Vidbel has trained and presented many different kinds of animals, but her specialty is horses that she presents at liberty.  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.

Sylvia Zerbini , like all the equestriennes being considered here, is an intense student of equine behavior.  Speaking of what is involved in the presentation of her liberty horses 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.”  The feature article of this issue is an interview in which she discusses her recent career which  has taken a significant new direction.

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.  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.”

This issue’s Passing Spectacle contains a review of the latest Zingaro production which is almost entirely dominated by horses rather than human equestrians who remain almost invisible throughout.  The performance concludes with the most startling display of equine behavior I have ever run across in person.

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

Alexis Gruss