Deep in the heart of Cathedral Quarter the big top is about to be hoisted aloft and a dazzling array of circus skills, comedy and theatre are in the final throes of preparations for Tumble Circus Christmas show.
As performers put the final touches to the extravaganza in Belfast’s Writers’ Square co-founder of the troupe, Ken Fanning delved into the history of Tumble Circus and what audiences can expect.
Running from December 17 to January 3 the all-human performances combines acrobats, aerial artists, jugglers in an hour-long fun-filled show.
“Someone described it as the Irish Circus Soleil hit by a bus,” explained Ken, adding: “It’s not like normal circus. But it is. It’s like Belfast-inspired circus. It is circus made in Belfast for Belfast people. It’s a bit of craic. Noisy with lots of skills, comedy, beautiful bits, and a bit of poetry.”
For anyone unsure if the circus is right for them Ken said one comment sticks in his mind.
“A father coming out of the show with his kids came up to me and said ‘I didn’t want to come but my wife made me buy tickets and take the kids. Thought I was going to hate it but it’s the best thing I’ve been at since Metallica’.”
Ken’s journey to become a skilled circus performer began on Spain’s back streets.
“I was kidnapped by a bunch of English circus performers in Spain and kept in an orange orchard near Valencia,” he joked.
“When I was 19, I was travelling around Spain and happened to go down a side street and watched two guys juggling doing a show.
“They offered me and my friend somewhere to stay for the night and they were living in an orange orchard. There were a bunch of circus performers living in vans in this orchard and we just stayed and started learning circus tricks.”
Running low on money, Ken returned to Ireland and began busking in Dublin, where he met and worked with others doing circus. There he met Tumble Circus co-founder Tina Segner.
“I was in Grafton Street and noticed that Tina had three juggling clubs,” he explained.
“I had my clubs so I stopped her and asked her if she’d like to juggle. We went round the corner and we started passing juggling clubs to each other. That’s how we met. Within five minutes of meeting we were doing circus.”
From that initial meeting they travelled to Australia to join a circus before attending an adult circus school in Bristol. But their decision to set up in Belfast after working in Dublin was due to property prices.
“We were living in a garage in South Circular Road in Dublin with a mattress on the floor,” he said.
“We came to Belfast for a show and realised we could actually rent a house with a garden for the price of the garage in Dublin. And, there was a whole circus community that was active and really fun, so we stayed.”
Ken believes that circus has a universal appeal with people doing skills or falling over on their faces.
“People love it,” he explained.
“It’s always interesting to go places where people don’t usually see that entertainment. They don’t know how to behave and they’re just wowed by it. Especially the Youtube generation. They’re numbed by the stuff they see. When it’s in their faces and live it’s a whole different experience and that’s great to give people. People feel like they’ve seen everything, but when you put it in front of them and they actually see stuff in front of them, they become alive and they experience the fun and joy of it all – the sensation of ‘they’re going to die’.
“They have a real experience. It’s great to watch people. It’s like they wake up.”
With the heated Big Top going up in Writers’ Square Tumble Circus will be performing every day, except Christmas Day throughout the run with 11 of the days presenting two shows, with nine performers.
For Ken the growth of audiences and the number of performers is a justification of what Tumble Circus is all about.
“It has moved away from just being a form of entertainment for kids in a field outside of town,” he said. “That’s still some of the perception in Ireland. But in France and other countries circus has been an art form for some time and is taken seriously.
“They have big productions that take eight months to stage. In Ireland it’s different although I think it has changed somewhat. I think there’s an emerging art form to become mainstream across the island.”
Established in the mid-90s Tumble Circus has an impressive set of credentials having headlined Glastonbury Festival’s Circus Big Top, played at Edinburgh Fringe, Perth Fringe World and Adelaide Fringe Festival. They have been seen in Norway, Iceland, Canada, Australia and many other countries. We have toured our big top shows all over Ireland.
Previous Winter Circus show in Belfast has become a yearly fixture and sell out. Their circus films are watched by thousands worldwide.
The genesis of the Winter Circus came about at a time when most performers were getting good work over the festive season.
“We were busy touring internationally and Christmas was always a busy time where we got booked for gigs and got paid well” said Ken.
“One year we just thought we had to try this at least once and just put it on.”
There’s a whole circus culture alive here and we wanted to celebrate that by putting on performances and giving performers the opportunity to perform here in front of Belfast audiences and do our unique kind of Belfast circus for people and hope it makes money.
“It worked the first year and we did it ourselves. That’s the kernel of it but we just wanted to perform in Belfast. It meant we could stop touring as much and be able to do circus in Belfast and make an income from it.”
And amidst the merry mayhem the soundtrack is very much themed around Northern Ireland.
“Music is very important,” Ken said. “I’m always trying to pick up music that goes with the acts with some local music to try and get some Belfast tunes in or bands from Ireland. The likes of The Undertones and songs that kind of alternative scenes. You get a good soundtrack that people like to listen to with the performances with tunes that people recognise.”
For Ken, whilst settled in Belfast, he feels he now has responsibility and freedom, despite having had a rocky time as a youngster that forced him to leave Ireland.
“I feel very privileged that I get to do circus and I make a living out of it,” he said.
“I feel a sense of responsibility about doing that which means I work at it. I find opportunities for the company and the people who work for us. I feel that responsibility which makes me less free in some ways but I feel creatively free. I can say the things I want to and the things I want to do.
Winter Circus is supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, Tourism Northern Ireland and Destination CQ BID.
Family tickets are also available and group bookings (10+) can be booked by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
View the Winter Circus Covid-19 policy at https://www.tumblecircus.com/winter-circus-show/#covid-19-guidelines