Bargoed, Wales; 1st May 2016
The 11th season from family owned and operated Circus Mondao is a welcome reminder that the best shows don’t always come from the biggest operators. Away from the big city, their tents are pitched in the Welsh hills, amid damp earth and friendly smiles. Blue and gold military uniforms for the performers serving front of house match the blue of the big top, and the matching stable tents out back.
There are catering stands for hot food and iced-drinks, where we get a preview of the glamorous eye make-up the ladies serving will wear for their later acts. Other wandering performers sell animal masks, sweet treats and glowing toys, slipping into an impromptu juggle or balance, revealing themselves to be relaxed and natural entertainers. Pony rides around the ring for children arriving early are spiced up with the option to travel atop a double-humped camel, before the sawdust ring is cleared and we await the first act.
Ringmasters Petra Jackson enters on a chestnut horse wearing a sparkling tailcoat that shows off her legs beneath. With consummate microphone technique, she announces each act and plays the traditional tussle of wills with Walison the clown (Walison Muh).
She has a great, believable rapport with the refreshing Brazilian clown, who interrupts the opening charivari with a pair of tennis rackets. His desire to have a match rather than be in a circus show provides an underlying thread that Walison uses to tie all his routines together, giving us a coherent character to latch onto. His costume is bow-tied and bespectacled modern geek chic, lent a little radicalism with his own reddened mohawk hairstyle.
Walison subtly insinuates himself with a couple in the audience before inveigling one to partner him on stage. The purpose for the clown’s radio mic becomes clear as he creates clever oral sound effects for a play-along Wild West mime routine that, later in the show, he builds upon and develops towards his tennis theme.
Next onto the levelled stage in the middle of the ring is a neon tie-dye effect Mr Slinky. The bending, extending alien costume may not be used as effectively as some of the popular youtube videos that regularly do the rounds on social media, but is still very watchable. The dancer is also backed by two slink-lite backing wigglers, setting the tone for a show whose acts are often introduced by showgirls who are costumed and choreographed to establish the upcoming number.
A Cyr wheel act from Ruslan Arlanov is introduced as the ‘only act of its type in the UK’ which, to hold any validity, must refer either to his Arabian theme and dressing or the fact that the Cyr is appearing in a classical tenting show. He builds anticipation for his performance as the drama in the music increases, beginning with only minimal touches to the wheel that keep it spinning at a distance, until he gradually starts to pass his body through the hoop and finally rides it fully.
Excellent lighting infuses the tent with colours from the glowing ring fence, flashing beams, and LED rigs on each of the four king poles that hold up the tent. A smooth transition into a blue lighting state highlights the luminescence of Cinzia Timmis’ lycra for her performance on aerial hoop. The 15 year old has a strong presence and technique that belies her years.
The brightness above keeps our eyes diverted from the trampolines being rigged beneath, and the next act reveals a prison guard asleep on the edge of the equipment. When a convict appears to pinch a big bag of money it marks the start of a routine both funny and skilled from Duo Nicolaev (Andrei Diujinov and Anatolie Nicolaev), who combine their hand-to-hand skills with their acrobatics on and around the sprung surface.
When Petra announces ‘something sophisticated’, Cinzia’s prima ballerina is of course a cue for Walison to become her hapless duet partner. Then the pace picks up for Rigoberto Cardenas’ juggling act.
The Chilean tosses and speed-spins three clubs as he sambas round the ring, his enjoyment clear on his face. The Latin American connection shared by several of the show’s performers (including the pet llamas) is emphasised in the music and costume choices, and Cardenas dashes about the ring with exuberant energy as he moves into tossing five, then seven rings, and then gets us all clapping along as he flings returning hats from his head.
Nadejda Diujinova makes her UK debut in this show with an innocently romantic routine in a wash of pink light and aerial silks. She’s clean and graceful, with a choreography whose drops and rolls build in visual impact to end in a series of star drops.
The first half of the programme is brough to a close with a presentation from Carol Macmanus of an act in training. Three small llamas and three Shetland ponies parade around the ring in Peruvian pom-poms and golden tasselled capes. The ponies already know their part, while the llamas are led gently through their paces on custom made halters. The act finishes with a larger llama who clearly knows his stuff, hair flowing longer than you normally see in agriculture, galloping untethered around the ring and jumping a bar, followed by another wildly racing Shetland.
Everything is kept clean and professional, down to the branding on the trucks. The glossy programmes for sale focus on the personal family ties and biographies of the performers, accompanied by dozens of photographs.
The second half begins with a display of high school riding from Carol. The Andalusian’s mane is plaited with red ribbons that match the flamenco outfits worn by his rider and the girls who introduce the number, and he performs dressage steps around the ring.
After another tennis interlude from Walison and his delightfully playful volunteer, Cinzia returns for a routine on aerial net. The sky blue sparkles and pink ribbon of her costume are a surprise after an angelic introduction, but if it was meant to be a comic reveal it can be pushed further. Once she’s in the air, we see her glinting through constantly evolving lighting states as she shows off her flexibility and confidence.
Duo Nicolaev now present their strong ground-based hand-to-hand, with costumes and ethereal music that allow us to focus on their bodies’ abstract sculptural qualities as Diujinov balances one-handed on Nicolaev’s hand or head, or stands straddled on the bigger man’s feet.
Another section of mime-based shenanigans from Walison develops its archery theme fantastically in time with the crescendo and diminuendo of the William Tell overture, and his attempts to communicate the volunteer’s role lead to much hilarity.
The Andalusian and Appalloosian stallions of the liberty act, again presented by Carol, bump into each other a little when turning, but know their cues well. They finish off presenting solo bows, and a quick lighting shift allows their mule friend a dash around the ring too.
The raffle is drawn while a neon-rimmed Wheel of Death is rigged above the ring for the Cardenas Brothers. Rigoberto gets the wheel spinning, while Cristofer waits for a dramatic entry into his metal ring by catching hold of the outside and swinging into it as he reaches the roof of the tent.
They treat this terrifying equipment with devil-may-care abandon to party island nightclub sounds, white shirts blowing open with the force of movement. One real-looking stumble is as well recovered as the tension raising pre-planned ones and, when their blindfolds go on the routine is better acted than any I’ve seen in a while.
The Circus Mondao show is an excellent entertainment, and families are also invited to visit the animals afterwards if they want a closer look. After seeing the Continental Circus Berlin tent so packed in Cardiff yesterday, it breaks my heart that this show, only a few miles down the road, is playing to a half empty tent. Sometimes it’s worth taking a trip out to the countryside to find the traditional family circus atmosphere.