A Circus in Lockdown

On July 22nd 2020 there was a performance by Big Kid ‘Cuban’ Circus on the promenade at Morecambe. People queued, socially distanced in the rain, under the halo flare of the big top lights and a dark sky full of rain. The performance was limited to two hundred people, a quarter capacity, with masks mandatory and the sides dropped to allow the show to happen and a cold wind to drift in from the sea.

A first night that took four months, an end to a lockdown that had seen thirty five plus performers, workers, children, owners, friends and family stuck on the seafront with nowhere to go and no performances to give.

The show was free, and so are the shows today and for the three days afterwards, three times a day. Everyone worked for free because of a ‘moral obligation’ to the people of Morecambe. The Council that provided support and essential services, the food bank that helped feed them and the people that turned up everyday with things that might be helpful, donations of money, pizza, toys, clothes, solidarity and support.

People locally were sad to see them leave, as the lockdown eased they worked with local schools and a home schooling network, creating safe and socially distanced spaces for kids and parents to enjoy. They performed for artists, were painted, sketched and photographed. Their free candy floss and popcorn on the prom was a daily event and Sunday Salsa classes became a stage for both Cuban and Morecambe dancers, singers and other performers. Watching a performance of a Billy Elliot number, whilst someone performed aerial silks suspended from a digger above Cuban tumblers, became a Morecambe pandemic tradition.

Increasingly they also became ‘household’ names. For some time everyone knew Olympia, the ‘Ring Mistress’ from the show, and now they know her children, her remarkable partner, Mum and Grandmother, and her dog.

Inevitably the stress of being locked-down as one extended family unit caught up with some and two performers left. As money ran out, and the insecurity of whether they would perform again was compounded by falling through the cracks in Government support, keeping things together, and performers practising became more difficult.

There was a moment I remember vividly, sitting in a caravan on a cold afternoon, where someone at the centre of things told me quietly that their optimism was almost gone.

There is no certainty to Circus irrespective of a pandemic, but it’s very easy to be seduced by the romance of a tradition, of childhood memories and the first experiences of live performance, of clowns and trapeze, and the impossible made real in a dark space on the edge of a town. Hidden is the hard work of putting up and pulling down, the numerous ‘businesses’ from haulage and catering, to performance and PR, the languages spoken and taught, the performers, families and friends it supports, and who in turn support the circus.

On that first night, as anxiety became adrenalin, then humour and relief at the improbable becoming possible in the utopian space of the darkened big top, I had chance to talk with Kiril, amongst many things – the show director, spot welder, computer programmer, engineer, former trapeze artist and intermittent wall of death motor-cyclist. I explained feeling emotional at seeing the show begin and hearing the the audience. We recognised this moment was special but he described something I hadn’t expected, feeling that way every week, at the start of every new season of performances. Just before he was called away to do something, again, maybe something with a hologram, or some lights, or something.

Trying to understand some of this without seriously considering ‘running off’ to join ‘it’ has proven difficult, and it’s taken time to figure out how to create access that respects and observes the varying guidelines on safety and social distance over the last few months. We hope to make this is a long term project, and inevitably any long term engagement results in lots of images. I’ve included some here, and there are more in the 25th July edition of Amateur Photographer in their Picture Stories section where I am interviewed about this work by Peter Dench.


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