SHOW BIZ

A dream of the big top

Anne Collins April 27 1981
SHOW BIZ

A dream of the big top

Anne Collins April 27 1981

A dream of the big top

SHOW BIZ

Anne Collins

A pig is not such an unusual sight to see strolling jauntily alongside the barns at the fairgrounds in Aylmer, a small southern Ontario town. But its companion is another matter, a young man wearing a squashed hat, who leans down every now and then to exchange a kiss with the little pink beast. Something odd going on here. Trailers are pulled up on both sides of the laneway and out of them comes floating Italian music and bursts of conversation in French, Portuguese, Spanish. A trailer door bangs open and out walks a fellow in red trousers decorated with curly swirls of sequins. He heads around the corner of the fairground office and suddenly, rising there in the field, is the reason why Aylmer has gone a little mad this spring: the big, electric-blue tent of Canada’s new European-styled one-ring touring show, Circus Tivoli.

The boy who kissed the pig is 23-yearold Kevin Brooking, and he is only doing his job as Tiv, Circus Tivoli’s resident clown. The sequined fellow climbing with his partner up the vertical yellow frame of the tent is Henry Castro, of Los Castros, about to wow a small army of Aylmer schoolchildren by walking the top guy wire with no safety net. “You’re going to fall!” yells a kid, hiding his face in his hands. Circus magic has struck—children thrilling as grown men defy gravity and common sense. Tivoli, its big top designed so that 2,726 pairs of eyes will focus on its “one wonderful ring,” will carry that magic across Ontario and Quebec this season and into the rest of Canada the next. For those who know circus only as it is presented in North America—three rings set in confusing motion in a cavernous arena, a la Ringling or Garden or Shrine—Tivoli will seem like the essence of a circus dream. For artists like Polish circus star Teddy Beran, who was ready to give up performing in the U.S. altogether, it is a bit of heaven: “I lost my artistic focus with the threering shows. I come back into life with this one. Here the audience must watch each performer. They will see the smile, the look, as well as the trick. And they will remember those touches all their lives.”

Before the blue tent and circus performers appeared like a mirage in Aylmer, someone had to imagine them, and that was Sergei Sawchyn. Enshrined in the first annual souvenir program, the 44-year-old Sawchyn looks more like a lawyer or investment broker than a circus impresario—except for a small brass elephant marching across his lapel. Born in Regina, he has had a bit of sawdust on his shoes since the age of 3, when his parents took him to Ringling Bros, and Barnum and Bailey. As a young man he joined circus historical societies, but it wasn’t until he took the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to Europe as its general manager (a post he held from 1964 to 1972) and saw the great circuses of the world—the Moscow Circus, Switzerland’s Circus Knie, the Italian Orfei—that he realized they could be theatrical events equal to any.

Two things clinched the notion for Sawchyn that Canadians might be ready for their own European-styled circus. In 1977 he brought the Moscow Circus to Canada for a seven-week tour, and broke all circus box-office records. Then, at the International Festival Circus at Monte Carlo, he walked into his tent, a brilliant beauty of plastic-covered nylon by Canobbio of Italy, with an electrically operated self-raising support system that could go up in five hours. Contemplating with wonder the mysterious tent-raising apparatus, Sawchyn began to question via sign language the guy who ran it. He turned out to be its designer, Sauro Anceschi, who would be Tivoli’s first tent master.

Opening night in Toronto, April 15, 1981. Searchlights frosting the air and 10,000 yellow and white lights flashing stars and CIRCUS TIVOLI again and again along the circus facade. The openingnight crowd is looking at $2.5 million of circus tent and “rolling stock”—the first to be founded on public financing and certainly the first time Richardson Securities of Canada has ever got sawdust on its toes. But perhaps only the investors among the crowd care about such things.

The six days in Toronto setting up for opening night had been disasterprone, a testing of Sawchyn’s luck. Cold weather, power failures and high winds caused all but one of the preview performances to be cancelled. On opening night, cast and crew donned full regalia for the first time. The show starts late and it’s cold in the tent, but as the eight Moroccan tumblers of Hassani! burst into the ring in sparkling lime green and blue and begin to leap up on one another’s shoulders the audience starts to roar. Twelve acts follow. Tiv kisses Oli his pig and balances a chair on his chin. La Mafalda balances more dangerous objects, a dagger, a sword and a bowl of fire. The tiny female trapeze artist crosses herself before leaping onto the back of Gabriel Castro in midflight as the Flying Condors do a “piggy-backed double pass-over.” One too tense moment occurs during Dieter and Helga Kraml’s magnificent bear act as one of their charges scuttles around the corner and into a ringside box —but the bear is quickly retrieved. The show runs too long and the exhausted crowd is thinning but it still has the strength to utter a long moan for the last act, as Jorge Guzman jumps from Henry Castro’s shoulders onto the high wire, and almost loses his balance. The circus lives in such split seconds.

In the end Sawchyn’s luck held, and Tivoli demonstrated that it has all the raw stuff of which great circuses are made. If it is refined so that it constantly glitters and amazes, Sawchyn’s dream has every chance of coming true—for many people. Three months ago, Connie Boyd of Newmarket, Ont., was in the National Ballet School steadfastly preparing for a career as a ballet teacher. Now her head brushes the yellow-starred roof of the tent as she balances on top of a pole that Teddy Beran is balancing on top of his head as he stands on top of a ladder—and her smile is as bright as the spangles on her costume. “Isn’t she something?” Sawchyn had said, watching her in rehearsal. “She’s the first of a brand-new Canadian circus tradition.” One that any kid would be proud to run away to.