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International Circus Festival: Thinking outside the rings

A traditional circus conjures certain images–fearless lion-tamers, gravity-defying tightrope walkers and trapeze artists, accident-prone clowns, maybe a bear driving a tiny car. A traditional circus has big tops, balloons, bright lights and cotton candy, enormous elephants sitting on tiny stools, perhaps a cat leaping through a ring of fire. Contemporary circus, of the sort featured at the Cairo International Circus Festival, focuses on dance, gymnastics, and acrobatics and seems but a distant relative of the storied three rings–less Ringling Bros. than Ringling Third Cousins Once Removed. This might be a welcome change to some people, like grown ups and animal rights activists. To others, it could be a disappointment.

Friday night’s performance at Al-Azhar Park’s open-air Geneina theater consisted mainly of gymnastic feats and acrobatics, as well as one children’s entertainer who lacked makeup and recognizable clown attire (over-sized shoes, red nose) but did, at some point, skip around in a flowery dress. Others of the night’s performances were likewise difficult to interpret.

The night’s program featured three separate acts, starting off with CirkuSzínház, a Hungarian troupe specializing in interpretive dance. The performance began with a young man, dressed entirely in white, slowly snaking his arms and sliding around the stage to a somber soundtrack of Gregorian chanting, before being joined by a similarly dressed female counterpart. The two circled each other for a while, occasionally stroking each other’s faces with the backs of their hands and twisting their bodies around as if to convey some state of emotional discomfort. The pair was then joined by another couple for some more symbolic writhing. Eventually, one of the girls climbed and wrapped herself around a curtain but, overall, the four performers spent too much time jogging around in circles, literally. It probably all meant something, though decoding it would have required more attention than seemed possible.

The following act, Cia Sebas, found more success with the children in the audience. With a sudden burst of music, the aforementioned plain-clothed clown sprinted onstage, tripping on his own feet and props which were, mainly, a large cardboard box and some small rubber balls. For the following half hour, the Spanish performer got his limbs tangled in a length of jump rope, did some pratfalls, and juggled both inside and out of his cardboard box. The one-man show was mildly amusing and, at times, a little weird—one memorable routine saw the performer racing toy cars as a violin-only cover of Metallica’s "Master of Puppets" screeched from the speakers—but the children seemed to enjoy it, and interacted enthusiastically with the entertainer, openly admonishing him for being “weird-looking.”

The biggest success of the night was undoubtedly the third act, which had audience members cheering from the start, as the four performers marched out on stage, sporting eye-popping scarlet spandex outfits, and waving an impressive flag bearing their name—Los 2 Play. Deftly combining comedy with impressive acrobatic displays, Los 2 Play more than made up for the weaknesses of the first two performances and clearly left an impression on the audience—especially the mustachioed muscle man who kept thrusting his hips and winking at the first three rows of children.

This reporter was surprised to hear that the Spanish acrobats had spent their day sightseeing, and not rigorously training. “We visited the pyramids this morning,” laughed Cristina Sole, who serves as Los 2 Play’s comic relief. “At this point, we don’t need to practice that much anymore.”

A traditional circus may have featured a sideshow–an in-the-margins array of bearded ladies, conjoined twins, and other human oddities. The Cairo Circus festival had its own, accidental, sideshow in the form of a very large man in the audience whose continuous verbal attacks on children to shut up and get out of his way were as hilarious as they were brutal.

As the Cairo International Circus Festival features a schedule of rotating performances, readers are highly encouraged to seek out Los 2 Play, as well as various other acts. While the quality of performances may vary, the festival offers the rare opportunity to see something new and will definitely impress younger audiences.

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