A TINSELLED world of reckless beauty and whirling thrills, of daring and dance, of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars. This is how Cecil B DeMille describes the circus at the start of his 1952 movie, The Greatest Show On Earth.

“Behind all this,” DeMille's voiceover continues with mounting portent, “is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed … that meets calamity again and again, but always comes up smiling; a place … where Death is constantly watching for one frayed rope, one weak link, or one trace of fear.”

If anything highlights the difference between the Big Top tradition of the mid-20th century and the “new circus” that's been gathering momentum since the 1970s, it's perhaps that the blood, sweat and human fragility exposed by that film's pathos-laden plot are no longer hidden from circus audiences. For while daring, beauty and discipline still reign, vulnerability, fearfulness and even failure don't only exist behind the scenes, they're out in the open as part of the show – and there is no expectation that those who use acrobatic mastery to tell powerful human stories will always come up smiling.

Ellie Dubois's current Edinburgh Fringe production is a case in point. Wittily titled No Show in an apparent rebuke to the notion that the show must invariably go on, it has an all-female cast who use cyr wheels and other apparatus to illustrate the perilous and sometimes disheartening process of trying and often failing to master the techniques involved.

“At circus school I was surrounded by super-brilliant athletes, but struck by the fact they were constantly failing because they were trying to do things they couldn't do,” Dubois tells me. “That to me is more interesting than the perfect tricks you predominantly see in circus shows, which are actually the tip of the iceberg.

“We see circus performers as super-human, we go to the circus to be awed and it's really exciting seeing people doing these super-human tricks. But when people are seen attempting things and failing, we can all relate to that – probably not in the context of a back flip but in other aspects of our lives.”

Dubois describes herself as a “performance-maker” and she's also director of the Braw Circus Festival which takes place in Easterhouse, Glasgow next month. We meet at Edinburgh's Summerhall arts centre along with Sarah Bebe Holmes of Paper Doll Militia and Bex Anson of Bassline Circus and MHz, who are all here to talk about their own shows and about the buzz that is building around contemporary circus.

But what exactly is that? It doesn't often happen in rings; it rarely involves animals – and not everyone here even defines themselves as a circus artist, with Sarah Bebe Holmes calling her work “aerial theatre” and Bex Anson describing herself as a “visual theatre-maker”.

“For me circus is high physicality,” says Bebe Holmes, who grew up in the US and whose company straddles both Los Angeles and Edinburgh. “It's take everything you've got and throw it at it. I think that's the difference between straight theatre and circus theatre. If you're using your entire being to tell a story, that's circus.”

Now we've got that straight, the artists stage a mini-performance for our photographer and it's fascinating to watch those three creative minds sparking off each other. When a cyr wheel is produced, Anson jokes about “doing a Leonardo da Vinci” before mimicking that artist's Vitruvian Man drawing. Eventually they settle into a pose that sees Dubois and Anson supporting the wheel while Bebe Holmes performs acrobatics on it. Watching her perform a backward crab position while balancing on that sliver of metal, my heart enters my mouth as it suddenly seems impossible that she won't fall.

Anyone who's been in a Big Top audience will be familiar with the collective gasp that goes up as the high wire sways or the bar momentarily slips from a trapeze artist's grasp. When you ally that intense emotional engagement with a powerful storyline, the result is electric – and this combination is precisely what makes contemporary circus such a powerful medium. That, at least, is the impression I gain from the three artists, when we chat later in the Royal Dick pub.

Theatre people are always talking about making “risk-taking work”, says Dubois, but in circus the risk isn't just emotional or artistic, it's real. “I love watching people pushing their bodies to the limits and there's that moment when your heart stops because someone is doing something extraordinary and you don't know whether or not they can do it. For audiences it feels like people are putting themselves out there in a way that's really exciting.”

For performers, the emotional demands can be as high as the physical ones. Sarah Bebe Holmes's show, Egg, is an intensely autobiographical piece focusing on her own decision, 10 years ago, to donate some of her eggs to a friend who was struggling to conceive.

One critic wrote of her “phenomenal” ability to “convey her past self’s emotional and physiological state in the air”. That must take its toll. “I have to totally feel it to make it authentic, so I'm feeling the emotions that are behind this piece every single night and it's fascinating and intense,” agrees Bebe Holmes. And exhausting? “I wouldn't call it exhausting. I'm making a lot of life choices that help, sleeping well, eating good food, running and stretching every day. I've also made the choice not to read any of the reviews because I don't want to be on that up and down curve of what other people think because it doesn't matter, I just need to tell this story.”

Describing herself as a director/scenographer, Bex Anson worked with her partner, AV designer Dav Bernard, to create their show, Void – an innovative adaptation of JG Ballard's dystopian novel Concrete Island in which dance artist Mele Broomes performs what's billed as “risk-taking choreography to the backdrop of an industrial soundscape”.

Anson, who originally trained as a visual artist, became increasingly interested in performance after she got involved with Glasgow's site-specific art scene. Then when Bernard, her partner, got the opportunity to tour around London parks in a caravan with Bassline Circus, Anson went too.

So she ran away to join the circus? Pretty much. “When I rocked up there with all these gnarly performers living in trucks and a tent with their kids and dogs I thought – yes, this is my calling.”

“There are so many different styles of circus happening,” she continues. “The kind of work I make is really immersive, audience-centric in the sense you can move through it, we work with lasers and other technology to carve giant digital landscapes. The performers are at the core of it and we're telling a story. Working with a freestyle dancer there's a real element of liveness and generative energy.”

“People's eyes light up at the mention of circus – there's a magic to it,” says Dubois, who believes the art form is at “an exciting tipping point” north of the Border having gone “under the radar” for too long, despite its high profile in countries such as Australia and France. In fact, she believes circus can be a powerful driver of social change, exploring important political issues in an accessible and dynamic way. Circus is for everyone, she says – “it's a non-competitive physical activity that allows people to express themselves” – and she hopes the forthcoming festival will give more people the chance to get involved.

In our risk-averse, safety-first culture, however, can we really expect parents and teachers to be encouraging youngsters to go clambering around on high wires and aerial hoops?

“We do live in a world that wraps children in cotton wool,” agrees Dubois, who has two under-two-year-olds yet describes herself as “pro-danger”, pointing out that preventing children from trying things hinders their ability to learn to assess risks and make choices. “I want to live in a world where if you see your kid climbing the curtains you are delighted and excited that maybe they are going to be a circus performer,” she says.

“Children are overly supervised now,” says Bebe Holmes. “You never see a kid playing in the street by themselves. When I was growing up my mom was like – get the hell out of here, don't come home until the street lights come on. We'd go off on our BMX bikes down to the railroad tracks, doing really weird stuff. Actually we got in a lot of trouble.”

“That's why you became a circus performer,” laughs Anson.

Speaking of risk, though, don't these artists ever get scared? Bebe Holmes routinely performs astonishing feats eight metres above the ground – and that, she says, is her “comfort level”.

She admits that when she was asked to perform off a tall ship in Glasgow, she “absolutely sh***ing myself”. “I was 16 metres up with a mermaid's tail, the wind was blowing and I was holding onto the hoop and actually shaking. But that's the only time.”

Talk turns to the practicalities of raising children while eking out a living within this economically precarious arena. “If I earn £500 a week, which is the going rate, I'd spend every penny of that on childcare,” says Dubois, who nonetheless believes it's vital that mothers can work in circus so their voices are represented.

“Circus gets treated as though it is an offshoot of theatre, but actually we need to start understanding that circus is different and that is brilliant and exciting but it also needs to be funded differently, we have different needs as performers.”

Complicated structural requirements such as aerial rigging means not all venues are receptive to hosting their work (Summerhall is lauded by everyone as a notable exception). The bureaucracy involved in risk assessment and long rehearsal time needed to perfect acrobatic routines also make this a financially demanding industry, and Bebe Holmes argues that artists need to exercise “unity” in asking for the kind of funding that makes their shows viable.

Viability is one thing, however. When Dubois calls for improved infrastructure, knowledge and media coverage of circus in order to “legitimise” it as an art form, Bebe Holmes is adamant.

“Why do we need it legitimised? I started in the circus in the desert with a bunch of f***ing crazy lesbians and it was awesome. There were all these street performer nuts doing stilts on aerials with giant puppets. It was community-focused and really edgy. And I find that the more circus gets pushed into the mainstream, the more pastel it becomes. I don't care if it's legitimised. I think what we're doing is great. I'm following my passion, the right audiences will come and it's cool.”

“I agree with you,” says Dubois, “but how can you say that and at the same time want venues on your side? It's not just about legitimising it and circuses going mainstream. I want that cultural criticism to exist around circus because it's exciting.”

This debate could go on for hours but with the Edinburgh Fringe in full swing there are shows to prepare, routines to perfect, audiences to thrill. So, Anson asks me, are you going to join the circus?

I think I've left it a bit late, I say.

“It's never too late to join the circus,” says Bebe Holmes.

But how do prospective stars get involved in this edgy, tinsel-free yet undeniably sparkling world?

“Come and see it,” says Bex Ansom. “Come and feel it, come and smell it, come and talk to us. If you are interested in finding a way in, whether it's behind the scenes or on the stage, it can happen. There are loads of classes being offered by people like Aerial Edge, Spinal Chord, All Or Nothing. Just sign up for a class, come and see a show and email someone who's made the show. If you want to jump in, you can.”

For information about and tickets for the shows visit


Void - Summerhall - Open Minds Open Doors


Based on JG Ballard’s cult novel Concrete Island, VOID meshes experimental dance and abstract glitch-video landscapes. Taking in typically Ballardian themes of dystopian worlds, liminal spaces and urban paranoia, Mele Broomes performs risk-taking choreography to the backdrop of an industrial soundscape.

No Show – CircusFest 2018 – Roundhouse


What do you expect when you go to the circus? The greatest show on earth? No Show joyously and heartbreakingly reveals what lies hidden beneath the showmanship. There will be desperate attempts and heroic failures, glorious achievements and bruised bodies and egos as the performers push themselves ...

The Braw Circus Festival takes place in Glasgow September 6-8




Egg is a powerful and evocative new aerial theatre production from acclaimed circus theatre company Paper Doll Militia, a highly visual exploration of female fertility, sexuality and choice. Weaving together personal testimony, live original music and stunning aerial artistry, the piece takes audiences on a deeply personal and political journey, following the true story of a woman who gave her eggs to her friend to have a child. Paper Doll Militia are an Edinburgh/LA-based aerial theatre company, combining  visual theatre with innovative aerial, acrobatic choreography and multimedia.