It’s that time of year again, and all across Edinburgh the circus is coming to town. Big tops and indoor arenas are rolling out the “welcome” mat – a suitably springy one, to cushion acrobatic landings – as the Fringe celebrates how today’s new circus has become a mainstream family entertainment.

As public tastes in circus derring-do have changed, so the days of animal acts are now long gone. Instead of taming lions, today’s circus performers hurl themselves into the jaws of gravity, defying it to dash high-flying artistry to the ground. Unlike on the cinema screen, these live shows of risk-taking can’t cheat with special effects – not even when there’s no safety net. For eager audiences, it’s like white-water rafting without getting wet or leaving your seat – hurrah!

You can find circus thrills listed in the dance, physical theatre and circus section of the Fringe brochure. For the first time ever, a dedicated Circus Hub has been planted on the Meadows, offering 11 shows across two venues – Edinburgh’s new circus centre Full Cirqle are running participatory workshops on-site as well. Meanwhile a Big Sexy Circus City has sprung up in Fountainbridge where children’s circus workshops and various free pre-show entertainments are the lively context for ticketed performances by Rigolo and the Mary Bijou Theatre Company.

Bamboozled by so much choice? Here’s a high five that illustrates the rich variety of international talent that flies the flag – and the performers – for today’s “new circus”.

HeraldScotland:

BARBU Electro Trad Cabaret

If some of the escapades in this circus cum cabaret are hairy, then – in keeping with the show’s title, BARBU – so are the heavily bearded faces of the guys in Canada’s Cirque Alfonse.

Co-founder and performer Antoine Carabinier Lepine explains that the beards first appeared for a previous show, Timber!, that was themed around life in lumberjack camps – flying axes and death-defying leaps with razor-sharp saws were par for that concept. “We still tour Timber!,” he says “so we needed to keep the beards and now they really fit in with the traditional look we wanted for BARBU.” That look harks back to the 19th-century amusement parks in Montreal, where crowds gawped at bizarre side-shows, gasped at outrageous feats and the words “political correctness” never entered the circus tent. A similar spirit of mischief runs riot in BARBU.

“The first part of the show is traditional, then in the second part it’s the free-for-all show,” says Carabinier Lepine. “In BARBU, in the second half, everything can happen.” Could he be referring to the stuff on the Chinese pole? “For me, the pole dance act is the funniest moment in the show – and it’s so much fun to do. To be flirting with the audience and really shaking your ass for them!”

In fact, nobody seems to mind how far they have to push themselves in the name of full-on entertainment – but that could be because Cirque Alfonse is bound together by close family ties. “Actually, we are a real family,” says Carabinier Lepine. “Cirque Alfonse started nine years ago for the 60th birthday of my dad. My sister and I wanted to give him a present – it was the first show we ever made as Cirque Alfonse. My girlfriend and my brother-in-law are in the company, and our three on-stage musicians have been with us since the beginning – everybody who is working with us is now like our family.” Those musicians supply the “Electro Trad Cabaret” part of the show’s full title, and yes – they also sport whiskers.

Aren’t beards a hazard when it comes to acrobatics? Carabinier Lepine is philosophical about suffering for his art. “Sometimes … When you have each other balancing on your shoulder you need to push the beard away but now we are used to it. Still, sometimes it can get stuck and it hurts like hell.”

BARBU Electro Trad Cabaret is at the Circus Hub, the Meadows, August 7-29.

HeraldScotland:

Wings in My Heart

Midway through the sanddorn balance you can feel an audience holding its breath ... Not because there’s any danger of a performer crashing from a great height to the ground, but because this particular balance – where 13 palm-leaf ribs are built up atop a single feather – has a beauty and a fragility not often found in circus shows. Wings in My Heart, staged by the Swiss company Rigolo, prefers poetry in its motion to showing off in slick tricks.

Artist and company founder Maedir Eugster Rigolo gives details. "I invented the sanddorn balance in 1997, then developed and performed it myself until 2011. It attracted extraordinary international attention.” And several prestigious awards. However, the time came when he needed to train others in this act of concentration and serenity. Initially, his eldest daughter, Lara, took up the challenge, now it’s his youngest daughter, Marula, who is keeping faith with her father’s innovative balance, its sanddorn name an evocative blend of “sand and thorn” .

Rigolo continues: “Wings in My Heart is actually the story of how I hand down my most precious knowledge to my youngest child, to a new generation, and how she enlivens and recreates it in her own special way." Marula herself describes the effort involved – and the ever-present hazards. “For me, the biggest challenge is to multi-task during the performance: balancing the ribs, breathing, deep concentration and spending my energy wisely. It happened to me once that the balance collapsed in front of an audience. To start from scratch takes a lot of strength, physically and mentally. When the second attempt is successful, my relief and the audience's joy is doubled."

Aerial work, dance and music come together across 13 scenes that follow Marula’s character on her path to self-discovery and fulfilment. For audiences, it’s been described as “a soul-touching spectacular". For Marula, it is a profoundly personal experience and she says “it is a beautiful thing for me to play the role of the daughter that carries forward her father's life work. With the show Wings, I can open my wings and fly."

Wings in My Heart is at Big Sexy Circus City, August 7-30.

HeraldScotland:

The Elephant in the Room

Rest assured, all you circus fans and animal lovers alike: the title of this show by French company Cirque Le Roux does not herald the return of livestock to the ring. Instead, this elephant is more of an awful secret, something that’s been hidden away – until now. “Now” being 1937 when, in the true, smoky spirit of film noir, Miss Betty slips away from her wedding reception to have a cigarette – and instead ignites a tremendous mix of theatre, slapstick, mystery and circus acrobatics.

Company member Philip Rosenberg gives the lowdown on how Le Roux made a creative leap into the realm of old-style cinema. “We wanted the circus to be completely embedded into a theatrical storyline. We particularly liked the narrative of “film noir” – we felt it allowed us to bring in an aesthetic that we have never seen before in circus.” He’s referring to performers being always “in character”, initially drawing inspiration from screen stars of the early 20th century, but then bringing their own personalities to the mix. Once all four – three guys and Miss Betty herself – were role-playing on the ground, it was time to get acrobatic.

“We used improvisations,” says Rosenberg, “so as to find each character’s motive for being acrobatic, and we devised situations that allowed circus to appear spontaneously.” Think of saying: “You’re so exasperating, you drive me up the pole.” In Le Roux terms, to think it is to do it. The foursome first met during early training days in France and Montreal. They went their separate ways, working with different companies until reuniting to perform in the Broadway production of PIPPIN. A year later, they formed Cirque Le Roux and poured all their collective experiences into the mirthful and hazily nostalgic melting pot that is Elephant in the Room. If their imagination knows no bounds, neither it seems does their loyalty to the group. Rosenberg reveals that Lolita Costet was pregnant during rehearsals but “nine days after giving birth, Lolita and the newest tiny member of the company joined us in rehearsals under the big top. And six weeks after that Lolita was on stage for our preview. The hardest part was getting her into her old costumes!”

The Elephant in the Room is at Circus Hub, The Meadows, August 5-29.

HeraldScotland:

Circa Close Up

In 2013, Circa won a Herald Angel award for a Fringe show called Wunderkammer – a bravura “cabinet of curiosities” where the really curious thing was: how can bodies do such things and survive? Last year, the Australian company returned to the Fringe with Beyond, where Darwin rubbed furry noses with Alice in Wonderland as performers let their inner wild sides turn cartwheels, fly high in aerial antics or balance precariously atop a human pyramid.

This year, Circa are back and premiering Close Up, which director Yaron Lifschitz reckons is the riskiest show so far. Against a backdrop of powerful music and interactive video, four exceptional circus artists – described by Lifschitz as “sophisticated and yet super open and adventurous” – will offer audiences a stripped-back, physically close encounter with the humanity that delivers circus. There will be sweat and tension: you’re likely to feel both. And if some of the acrobatic virtuosity makes onlookers gasp, the slow-motion footage of bodies is likely to prove something of an eye-opener. It’s already done so with the performers themselves. Watching re-runs, which zoom in on fleeting movements, has apparently given the group a new awareness of what they put their bodies through as they take to the Chinese Pole, or sustain a risk-taking balance.

“The risks are manifold,” says Lifschitz, who has no truck with hydraulically-driven spectacles or “same old, same old” re-treads of previous shows. “In Close Up, we have nowhere to hide.” He’s on record with the following quote: “Andy Warhol once said sex and parties are the two things you actually still need to be there for. I think circus is a legitimate third addition to that list.” He does admit a degree of regret that the red stilettos that have, in the past, left their mark on the look of a show are absent from this one. But he does promise “graceful moves with absurd names. I love the names acrobats give to tricks – Rocky 4, Canes Baby, burrito ...” The typical, playful tease will be in identifying them when you’re Close Up to the action.

Close Up is at Underbelly, George Square, August 5-31.

HeraldScotland:

Dolls

Somewhere – maybe at the bottom of a wardrobe – do you still have the teddy bear, the doll, the cuddly toy that was your “special” childhood companion? Then here’s a circus show that will whisk you back in time to that fantasy world, then connect you – by way of trapeze work, acrobatics, dance and puppetry – to stories of obsession, joy, insecurity and longing. It’s child’s play – but with some very thrilling twists.

Rostislav Novak, director of the Czech company Cirk La Putyka, was intrigued by how our childhood attachment to toys can linger on into adulthood – only now the toys we see as our constant companions are likely to be mobile phones or computers. Are techno toys replacing human beings in modern relationships? He didn’t, however, want to be descriptive. "I was looking for an ideal language and metaphors.” He selected some acrobats, but then challenged them to work outside their comfort zones because he likes to blur the lines between genres. He set his ideas, and his performers dancing beyond the usual realm of circus techniques.

“I like the dance being physically demanding,” says Novak, “choreographies being imaginative and taking risks. By embedding this into a circus performance you are supporting the circus as such. The word, the light, the sound, movements and material – all must be circus.” Out of these challenges, Novak created a spectacularly visual show that explores playfulness, relationships and human interactions. He wryly observes: “It is wonderful to find out that we still need each other.”

He, himself, has been needed when injury strikes and a performer can’t go on. Luckily Novak can see the funny side – for instance, when he had to take on one of the female roles in Dolls, “I was hanging from a trapeze with my head downwards – I knew that there will be not too many occasions to beat this moment!”

Dolls is at Circus Hub, The Meadows August 7-29. Visit www.edfringe.com