Stephanie Billen steps right up to take her place at the Big Top in Copenhagen with the motorcycle-riding circus, Archaos.
Photos by Jonathan Littlejohn.
Co-ordinating the affair in England. the normally irrepressibly optimistic PR. Mark Borowski. fires warnings at me like bullets. ‘I‘m telling you. it‘ll be rough. Take your jeans. Take your ﬂea powder. Take your rape alarm. The last person who came back from there said Vietnam had nothing on Archaos.‘ He is joking. but there is an edge to it.
Archaos is renowned for its edge. The sense ofdanger in the show is not a sense at all. it is danger pure and simple. Pierrot Sidon and his crew are not the types to claim that the circus is all in the best possible taste. or performed to the highest safety standards. Nor are they the types to hiss ‘that‘s offthe record‘ when you translate their swear-words or learn about yet another disaster of near death proportions.
My first experience of Archaos is at Copenhagen airport where I am met by Pierrot. puppy-eyed but tough-looking with extravagant side-burns. We walk to a car with unfathomable seat belts and the kind of unique character that only a circus car could develop. In the days
villain in a G-string
following I will learn that four years ago when Archaos was in its infancy. cars and motorbikes were merely functional replacements for the 25 horses which toured with Pierrot‘s former Cirque Bidon. Just as the horses were performers. so the bikes. lorries et al soon invited themselves on stage.
After a short drive circus-style into the city. we arrive at the big top. a greyish dome resembling an irregular white cabbage. The piece ofwasteland we have just lurched over. looks like a battleground. strewn with motorbike spare parts. lighting cable and on-offs like the washing machine. the engineless Archaos car and. buried in the grass. a toy gun. I am grateful not to have uncovered an ear.
All is quiet. I await the meeting that Pierrot told me about. the one where I am introduced to the circus. In the event I spend one second exploring my caravan and two hours reading my book in it. An unruly wind slaps my door open and shut. I peer cautiously through the window. looking for signs of life. On a kind of mobile platform (the kitchen Pierrot called it). a woman with pink and blue hair and a tie-dye T-shirt rocks to and fro on a plastic chair. A few halfnaked children run periously close to the edge. A man walks into my caravan. ‘Hello‘. he says. Then. by way ofexplanation. ‘nothing here.‘ After that I prop the door open with a spade. but receive no more visitors.
Finally at 2.30pm. the circus springs into life. Across the way. the platform quivers with noise. feet and food. This being a circus. everyone jumps up there. I do my best with some rickety steps missing essential planks. Nobody questions my presence as I help myself to undercooked sausages from the cab of the lorry (for so it is) and try to attune my ears to (iallic babble and
the cook's burps. Finally I say something in French. ‘Saxy the hedgehog‘ turns his spiky-haired elphine face towards me and questions my presence. I breathe a sigh ofrelief. At last — I’m in!
Hours and strenous conversations later. I realise this is the lifestyle that the performers in Archaos love. If it‘s Monday. it must be Berlin. ifit‘s Tuesday. Copenhagen. A nightly cathartic release ofenergy with the show. followed by a meal at midnight. then hungover tranquillity the next morning. Most showed no great desire to leave the site. ‘You cannot be in Archaos and be lazy.‘ says Pierrot.
Picture this. The lights have not yet dimmed but above us a woman working on the lights is hanging by her ankle from a rope. Four men are lying on the ground. A small blonde child. later identified as Ole Steinhausen. who wants to be in the circus on a motorbike when he grows up. sits in the front row telling his neighbours that his daddy is in the ring. A Roman with a large foot on his head walks over Ole‘s daddy carrying a pillar. Another man crawls out of the side ofthe ring. The lighting woman walks across the stage carrying a ladder. and bashes a light. On a stage at the back. spaneg curtains part with difficulty to reveal a Roman orgy and three women with fans across their nether regions. Every now and again they shout ‘ooh‘ and part the fans. while the lace skirt ofa roman centurian lifts up in excitement. A woman walks in with a cockerel and appears to be about to balance its beak on her nose. Instead she puts its head in her mouth. A man puts a cymbal on his head and the cockerel is put on the cymbal. It ﬂies offand is nearly run over by the
baby-sitter was a contortionist
villain in a (i-string who has just roared in on his motorbike.
The adventure is just beginning. It is not just the cockerel that has to watch out. The performers are frequently shooed offstage by the villain and assorted motorbikes. The baddie in turn suffers the indignity of being hung from his knees from a fork-lift truck in order to catch a pair ofexuberant lovers on a trapeze. As part of the spectacular finale his impressive bulk is required for the ‘cloud swing‘. flying alarmingly fast through the air on a rope against a hellish inferno ofsmoke. Pascualito Boinet explains philosophically: ‘For me it is the only possibility to ﬂy. because nobody would want the responsibility ofcatching him. He is unperturbed by the recent accident which gave him the chance when the former female cloud-swinger fell to the ground breaking one of her vertebrae. His own health problems have been extensive. ‘I broke all my body. With the ﬂying rope I fell down two years ago and exposed the knee. With the high-ﬂying trapeze I fell twelve metres and broke two legs. two arms and a vertebra. And if it‘s not in aerobatics. I still break my ankles. my fingers. my feet as well.‘
Pascualito was introduced to
showbiz at an early age. ‘When I was a baby my baby-sitter was a contortionist. He took me on the street and made his number while I sucked on a bottle. At the age of seven he was on the pavements himselfpractising fire-eating and ‘the dancing rope'. After years of successful street entertaining. he worked for over six years as a trainer for the touring theatre show. Freaks. in which handicapped people perform dare-devil circus acts. The experience reminded him what is was like to work with others. and shortly afterwards he joined Archaos. ‘When you work alone. you build around you a sort of wall. There came a moment in my life when it was like I was in jail with my own character. It was necessary to explode that.‘ And still dressed in black leathers and more than a hint ofsinister black make-up. he smiles: ‘I begin to understand that I am not a bear. I begin to be sociable.‘
Clearly he has had some success as a human. Jason. a fire-eater. clown and explosions expert from Brixton. calls him ‘the sex symbol of Archaos after Pierrot‘.
hellish inferno of smoke
Everyone gets their turn in the circus; a saxophonist hangs from his foot from the ceiling at one stage. the huge stoic cook crushes a baked potato in his hand. and (except in places like Edinburgh where animals are not allowed). takes command over a pig which uses its snout to roll the potatoey mess into a carpet. This is part of Pierrot’s ‘real-life-in- the-circus' policy but he is also sensitive to his employees as people. and he knows when to stop. Chainsaw juggling and an ascending motorbike are no longer staple parts ofthe show.
On our last night when Jonathan and I had taken more pictures and asked more questions than is seemly. Saxy the saxophonist hedgehog asks us to a party in Copenhagen‘s carrier de liberre. ‘You mean where there were the riots'." asks Jonathan. We go anyway. Christiansen is an otherwordly hippy commune. filled with Germans for some reason. Our party hosts live in a boomerang shaped tree-house affair called the Banana House. Jason eats cake with me and sways at the table as he waxes 'I‘olkeinesque about the crooked doors and windows. Later I sit round the bonfire outside wondering how Ole and the other young children there are managing to stay awake. Feeling as mellow now as I was tense when I first arrived. I embark on a slower than usual conversation with a red-haired German with a ponytail and death-white skin. ‘In the science ofjournalism I think there is not much room for dreaming.‘ he murmers questioningly. This depresses me momentarily. Then I look round the fire at the people I have met. What does he know — I get to see the circus don‘t I'.’
The Last Show on Earth (Fringe)
A rchaos, [.eirh Links ( Venue 12 l ). 11 Aug—2 Sept. 8.30pm. [8(1‘4. side seating).
G'I’he list 11— I7 August 198‘)