Havana's magic circus 
 by Juliet Barclay
 
 
El Circo has a long history in Cuba. During the eighteenth century, “jugglers, magicians, mime artists and tightrope walkers” performed during the feast of Corpus Christi and in the 19th century an equestrian show opened in a vacant lot near to where the Capitolio now stands. Dozens of smaller travelling shows went from town to town throughout the island. This series of fabulous photos by Sven Creutzman follows one particular circus troupe which is in town…

Juliet Barclay lived and worked in Cuba for many years as Head of Design for the Directorate of Cultural Heritage of the Office of the City Historian of Havana. She has written numerous articles and books about aspects of the island including Havana: Portrait of a City.
Photos by Yadira Montero, © All rights reserved.
 
 

In the western suburbs of Havana stands a series of extraordinary buildings in a bizarre collection of styles from Modernist to Neobaroque to Hollywood Hacienda. These were the grand old pre-Revolutionary social clubs where exclusive sailing and rowing races were held and where rich, glamorous women in Channel sailor suits posed with their borzois for photographs which were later published in Havana’s society journals. In front of one of them, even more bizarrely, used to stand Havana’s answer to Coney Island Amusement Park. It had a rather jolly Deco-Streamline entrance and all the usual roller coasters, bumper cars and merry-go-rounds as well as a house of mirrors in which young couples were wont to hide from the girls’ aging duennas, who would become far too satisfyingly confused by the distorted reflections to be able adequately to police their pretty charges’ behaviour.

Sadly, however, Coney Island gradually fell into disrepair until only long grass and casuarinas trees grew on the site. Until last winter, that is, when suddenly the area became a hive of activity. The habaneros were galvanised with curiosity. What on earth was being built? A hotel? Offices? Another club by the sea, to join the old ones which had already been converted into workers’ beach clubs? Or was the site being cleared to become another of the huge vegetable gardens which have been planted all over Havana, to supply the city’s greens?

Everyone was astounded when the reason became clear. Almost overnight, a massive, gleaming, raspberry-and-custard-striped plastic tent was raised on the site, and lo and behold, the Circus had come to town!

El Circo has a long history in Cuba. During the eighteenth century, “jugglers, magicians, mime artists and tightrope walkers” performed during the feast of Corpus Christi and in the 19th century an equestrian show opened in a vacant lot near to where the Capitolio now stands. Dozens of smaller travelling shows went from town to town throughout the island–and still do–to bring a little frivolity to what is seen by the habaneros as the insufferable monotony of provincial life. During the 1800s, the Familia Montello Circus was famous throughout the island and descendants of those original Montalvos are still performing today, whilst their offspring attend the Havana National Circus School, which was founded in 1977. Every year, this worthy establishment turns out accomplished circus performers of all persuasions including clowns, acrobats, tightrope walkers, contortionists, magicians and musicians, all of whom have to undergo a rigorous four-year course which includes ballet, modern dance, drama, makeup, musical appreciation and history of art.

The Cuban National Circus has performed regularly in theatres, fairs and sports centers throughout the country since 1962 and has also had various triumphs abroad, winning awards at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, the Festival of Montecarlo, Italy’s Riva del Garda and the Nigiao Acrobatics Festival in China. So Roll Up! Roll Up! Roll out to Miramar to see Breathtaking Acrobats! Clara and Karina the Contortionists!

The Giraldilla lifted up to the top of the tent by her hair! and last but by absolutely no means least, THE FAT LADY IN THE BICITAXI.

Havana's magic circus
Octuber 2008
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