Danielle Wright finds there's still magic in the greatest show on Earth
In our entertainment-focused world, it's hard to imagine just how exciting it must have been in years gone by when the circus came to town - a procession of colourful trucks arriving to create a world of wonder in small towns across New Zealand.
The circus today has been bent and shaped into amazingly diverse representations of the original that would have even the most hardened circus strongman weak at the knees with awe.
Just look at the high-energy Circolombia with its street-circus theatre, the glamorous 1930s-era Cantina, the colourful contortionists of Zirka Circus or the action superstars of Nitro Circus Live.
If you haven't been to the circus for years, it's time to take another look.
Here's our pick of the big tops this season:
Urban by Circolombia
Wednesday, March 13, to Sunday, March 17, at The Civic, Auckland. Cost from $35 C Reserve, all ages. Book at The Edge, ph (09) 357 3355 or 0800 289 842.
Lauded by critics as "high-attitude, high-energy" and "bad, sexy, dangerous", Circolombia is one of the most respected and sought-after circus acts in the world. A mix of acrobatics and dance, the young artists' latest work is Urban, showcasing the best of the Colombian national circus school, Circo Para Todos, where members of Circolombia trained.
Expect gravity-defying stunts and a gritty, no-holds-barred circus-theatre experience to a soundtrack of Latin rap and hip-hop that, by all accounts, is not to be missed.
The circus has taken on many guises since the first show back in ancient Rome. My favourite, though, has to be the 1930s circus style, with its glamorous ladies and dashing young men performing spectacular feats. You think walking on a tightrope looks hard? Try it wearing stiletto heels. Award-winning Cantina showcases this stylish circus era with its underground circus-cabaret including acrobatics, optical illusion and tightropes. There will also be a live soundtrack performed on old-fashioned instruments under the big top of a Spiegeltent.
Nitro Circus Live
Today at North Harbour Stadium, Auckland, and February 6, Waitangi Day, at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton. Both events start at 6.30pm, prices from $39 and upwards to Super VIP at $149. Tickets from Ticketek.
If you like stunts Evel Knievel would be proud of, you can't beat the pure adrenalin of Nitro Circus Live. It's a live-action sports show with FMX, BMX and skate spectacles, as well as a 15m Nitro Gigant-A-Ramp.
The Nitro crew are from the MTV hit series and 3D movie, as well as X Games medallists showcasing their skills and nerve. There's even an extreme wheelchair athlete, who is a crowd favourite, as well as displays on kids' trikes, snow skis, Barbie cars, garbage bins, chilly bins and more.
Catch a mini-performance at the Auckland Easter Show on March 28, or watch the website for dates in Hamilton, Bay of Plenty and Gisborne before June, when a new show and nationwide tour begins. Ph (07) 211 7599.
Zirka Circus has the world's biggest "Globe of Death", which has up to five motorbikes racing around it at any one time. General manager James Finlayson says it has been likened to a giant cheese grater but, thankfully, there have been no nasty accidents on it.
"There's also a ballet dancer who does her routine on someone else's head and shoulders, that's spectacular," says Finlayson. "We also have an incredible group juggling, set to hip-hop music, and the overall atmosphere in the huge tent makes it very special."
Finlayson's partner, Jeni Ho, comes from a long line of circus performers who founded a circus school in China. Although Zirka Circus is based in New Zealand, all performers are Chinese and it's an integrated show, rather than with a ringmaster announcing each act. As a contemporary circus it is animal-free, and a nationwide tour takes about two years to complete.
Hat in the ring
If you've ever dreamed of joining the circus it's a lot easier than you think, with workshops for budding performers all over New Zealand.
The internet sends you on a lot of wild goose chases to groups that are no longer active. Save yourself the hassle and start by getting plugged in to your local circus community - they'll know all the newest and best classes and clubs to join. Here are some to get you started:
Circus Kumarani's main office is at 14 Parenga St, Dargaville. Ph (09) 439 5152. Connect on Facebook by searching "friends of kumarani". Other Circus Kumarani branches include Waipu, Whangarei and Wellsford.
"A big part of our focus is helping people feel good about themselves, so they will be more positive about their surroundings and the people in them," says manager Jenny Huriwai, whose classes are for all ages and abilities. "We are much more than a circus - we're about building a community.
"To start with, it's more about binding balance in the body, hand/eye co-ordination and building up muscular skills, as well as associative play - working in parallel play with others, social interaction, trusting and being trusted, as well as being part of a group," says Huriwai, whose son holds the title of World Street Champion in unicycling and mentors some of the performers.
Choose from trapeze, unicycling, fire-spinning, hoop fitness, acro-yoga, globe-walking, stilt-walking and more general circus classes for pre-schoolers through to adults.
Auckland Community Circus
11 Coleridge St, Grey Lynn. Ph (09) 361 3801. Classes for term one will be at Victoria Park, see website for details.
Frances Kelliher and her partner Thomas Hinz set up Circus Kumarani about 10 years ago. They moved to Auckland and set up the same concept here. The circus works with mixed abilities, such as with deaf students and the mental health community, as well as performing at kindergartens, retirement homes and major events.
"In the circus there's a spectrum. There are really new avant-garde professional performers to be inspired by, and then there's the 'having a go' performers," says Kelliher.
"We're more at that end. We try to use the circus for other purposes, such as social causes, building self-esteem and life skills. It's a way to engage people."
Kelliher points out that overseas such a circus is called a "social circus", yet to have an impact she stresses that it still needs to be professional.
General circus-skills classes include acrobatics and a bit of performance, and are broken up into groups: 5 to 8-year-olds, older kids, adults and people with disabilities.
"It's really starting to come alive," says Kelliher about the Auckland circus scene.
"Circus skills are great for people who don't normally get into sporty things; they'll find some skill they'll get addicted to learning. There's also behind-the-scenes - working on the lights, costumes, props, filming and editing.
"It seems to bring people together from all backgrounds."
100-102 Motions Rd, Western Springs. Ph (09) 845 0295.
Complete with a suspended circus rig with static trapeze, a hanging hoop and aerial silks, Tapac holds workshops and classes for all levels and ages - from as young as 8 to the oldest in the class, a man in his late 50s.
"We have all the equipment you can think of, so we can cater to everyone's wants and needs, says tutor Mike Baker.
As well as learning acrobatics and tumbling, the classes will help in developing motor skills, strength, flexibility and endurance, as well as the possibility of making new friends - probably while hanging upside down.
The Castle Circus Studio
4099b Great North Rd, Kelston, West Auckland. Ph 021 728 597. Facebook.com/thecastlecircusstudio.
The Castle Circus Studio provides circus classes for all ages, from beginners to professional performers. There's everything from "Hip Hoop" fitness, the "Foxie French Pole", juggling or a Cyr wheel workshop.
Clown Doctors visit hospitals throughout the country to cheer up sick children and their families. They also offer businesses humour workshops and have "New Zealand Smile Days", starting on May 31.