Sunday, December 06, 2015

When Mallorca Had Its First Circus

The big top has arrived in town. The Circo Alegría will be providing the thrills and spills, the clowns and the trappings of the contemporary circus, such as laser, until the new year. This current Circo Alegría, it is probably safe to say, is not linked to a Circo Alegría of the nineteenth century. The name was really a nickname. It was formally known as the Circo Ecuestre Barcelonés - the equestrian circus of Barcelona. It was a circus theatre with 3,000 seats in the Plaça Catalunya and it existed between 1879 and 1895.

This was a circus which, through translation, was "happiness", "merriment" or "joyfulness": take your pick. It was one of a host of circuses which developed in Catalonia and other parts of Spain during the nineteenth century. The first ever circus in Spain is said to have been the Circo Olímpico in Madrid from 1830. This was a time when the circus, as we think of it nowadays, was becoming increasingly popular in Europe, its actual origins being attributed to Newcastle-born Philip Astley, who hit on the idea of a show with horse tricks, tightrope walkers, ventriloquists and other acts in 1768 before having a permanent, wooden circus built in Westminster in 1779 and exporting the idea to France three years later.

The idea caught on pretty rapidly, crossing initially into Spain in 1789 with a performance at the Teatro Principal in Reus by the French horseman, Jean Gadis Colman, who was followed by Italian acrobats who were to appear in Barcelona in 1800. These weren't circuses as such. They were individual acts associated with the circus, and this, by and large, was how the circus was to develop in regions like Catalonia, the emphasis being on acrobatics.

It does, of course, depend a great deal on definition, because types of circus act had been around for much longer. In the early sixteenth century, for instance, there was reference by one Baltasar de Castiglione to "gentlemen" and "noblemen" who performed tightrope acts and acrobatic tumbling, and there are various other examples of the existence of such public performances in Spain from roughly the same time. (Indeed, it seems as though Castiglione was recommending such activities to the courtesan class of the time.) Through the eighteenth century, something of a business grew up through "gymnastic" displays, and so by the end of that century, the "Diario de Madrid" was able to refer to spectaculars which offered companies of acrobats and tightrope walkers whose entertainment was "greatly appreciated".

The first reference to some sort of professional circus-style performance in Mallorca seems to be from 1841 when one Angel Martínez (and company) put on a show of acrobatics at the bullring in Palma. Such was the occasion that the performance culminated in a fireworks' display and a hot-air balloon lifting off into the evening sky. Angel was certainly still at it until 1853, having taken his show, or so it would appear, to other parts of the island.

But the circus, as it was truly to become, was largely the product of an Irishman, Thomas Price. In 1846, he first appeared at Madrid's Circo Olímpico. Both acrobat and clown, Price became a businessman and, in 1866, launched one of Spain's most famous circuses, the Circo Price. Spain's National Library has a collection of posters for the Price circus, the earliest ones from 1874 and 1875. Among the acts were The Pirates of the Savana, the Algerian Arabs and the Aerial Bamboo.

And it was at that time that Mallorca acquired its first circus theatre. It was called the Teatre Circ Balear. The site on which it stood in S'Hort del Rei was to become the Teatro Lírico, mentioned previously in connection with the development of film-making in Mallorca. Before the Lyric Theatre was built and opened in 1902, there had been a construction which had the distinct look of a circus tent or, as has been suggested, a style like a Chinese temple. It was red and white, sixteen metres high and made of wood.

The story of this original circus is not well documented. But it is evident that it went into decline. Before it was demolished to make way for the Lyric, a first-hand witness account recalls that "enchanting" circus theatre which, by then, was in any event falling down. The circus had stories of the "lovely Geraldine", who had seemingly caused a scandal on the island, of an ancient galleon, of the "beautiful Talia" and her music, of the clowns, of the Chinese wise men and of the "absurd" Don Hilarión.

It was all a long time ago, but like the Circo Alegría of Barcelona it brought joy and merriment. The witness said of the old circus that it was "marvellous and adventurous", a memory of the "happy, early years of my childhood".

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