Upstart Jugglers: Chloë Balcomb

Hen Run (an imprint of Grey Hen Press), 2020    £4.00

A spectacular sisterhood

I thought circuses were a bygone form of entertainment, but Chloë Balcomb’s exhilarating pamphlet had me googling contemporary circuses, and discovering I was wrong. Circus is very much alive, and in the case of some of the all-female companies around now, doing a lot more than kicking. While many circuses still use animals and assign stereotypical roles to female performers, there are definite changes afoot. If you’ve never heard of YUCK or Alula, you might want to check them out.

Upstart Jugglers is Chloë Balcomb’s tribute to some outstanding female circus performers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their talent, strength and determination was radical in its day, and paved the way for companies like those I’ve mentioned.

In the opening poem, ‘Razzle Dazzle’, the women wait ‘behind a tasselled velvet curtain of deepest crimson […] impatient for the spotlight’. The show begins:

Annie F plays sultry sax, Lillian chalks up her palms.
Miss La La reaches for the rafters, grasps the strap
between her teeth and greets the leather’s sour kiss.

In the subsequent poems, a parade of funambulists (tightrope walkers), animal trainers, aerialists, contortionists and human cannonballs enter the ring in turn to tell their stories. Performers such as ‘The Magician’s Assistant’ are at last given a voice:

I knew the tricks, was sawn in half but never spoke a word
just lay there still and smiling, the Magician’s brainless bird.

In ‘Ursus’ we meet the diminutive ‘Polar Bear Princess’. The arrival in 1952 Dresden of the State Circus saves her from starvation. Drawn by ‘the elephants’ brassy welcome’, she joins the circus as a cleaner, but in time becomes one of the most famous animal trainers in the world, specialising in polar bears, coming to love:

    their translucent fur
and tar black skin, their slow and steady heartbeat.

This is a deftly written, varied and thoroughly entertaining pamphlet. It includes a helpful introduction and some fascinating biographical information on each performer. At £4, it’s a real bargain!

Annie Fisher