I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Dancing in the air
Never work with children and animals? Circus 1903 abides by half of this showbiz maxim.
My memories of circuses are of plastic chairs, the smell of well-trodden grass and canvas shaking in the wind. Thankfully, on a cold night in Salford Quays, we are sat in the Lowry's luxurious Lyric Theatre.
Our Ringmaster for the night is Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson). He wears a top hat and handle-bar moustache and his voice is so gravelly that the acrobats could use it to help grip the ropes.
He has a great rapport with the children who join him. First up is Charlie who repeats that he is 8-years-old even when Willy teases that he needs to be nine to be allowed on stage. "You'll never make it in politics, you're too honest," Willy tells Charlie - to the accompaniment of knowing laughs from the adults. The first party leader General Election debates were, after all, taking place at the same time in the nearby ITV Media City studios.
The Daring Desafios get the show off the ground. They somersault higher and higher in the air. Like the other stars, their act is not original but that doesn't make their gymnastics any less impressive.
How does The Sensational Sozonov (Mikhail Sozonov) not lose his footing and clatter to the ground on top of those see-sawing plates and slippery cylinders?
The Elastic Dislocationist (Senayet Asefa Amare) is part of the 'Side Show'. Either she was kissed by a spider when she was born or her bones are made out of rubber. Her contractions are as unnerving as they are beguiling and also strangely sexual (although, in this family show, that is not made explicit).
The act which for me best-combined poetry in motion, jeopardy and a note of pathos was The Flying Fredonis. Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych have, the programme tells us, shared "love and trust" since 2008.
As they took turns to leap into each other's outstretched hands, I found myself praying that they hadn't had a blazing row before they came on stage.
How close is Circus 1903 to the real experience of seeing travelling shows at the start of the twentieth century? They certainly wouldn't have had the PA systems and sophisticated lighting (designed by Paul Smith) which we enjoyed at the Lowry Centre.
Our forebears would have seen live animals performing for their pleasure. Circus 1903 employs the skills of puppeteers Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller to get as close to the real thing as possible. The 'elephants' are expertly created but the enlightened use of puppets does take away the primitive fascination of seeing wild animals in the flesh. This is a production where only humans might be harmed.
Equally, any trace of the racial segregation of the USA in 1903 (61 years before the Civil Rights Act) was left firmly in its locker.
The real circus of 1903 inherited a legacy of brutal exploitation. One of P.T. Barnum's travelling exhibits was Joice Heth, a slave who he bought from R.W. Lindsay in 1835. She was rebranded as 'George Washington's 160-year-old nanny', and she was billed as "The Greatest Curiosity in the World."
The pit - the standing area - would have been separated, with whites on one side and blacks on the other
Even in 1932, a 'Jim Crow' law required all circuses and other travelling exhibitions to provide two separate entrances - for each race.
So, Circus 1903 performs a delicate balancing act, in more ways than one. It pays homage to the past but also leaves its nastier bits behind. That said, it is still a breathless reminder that there is something timeless about human audaciousness, trust, agility and coordination pushed to its gravity-defying outer limits.