“Viva el Cabaret!” whoops the compere, waving his arms, circling the circus floor, as the audience claps in time to the pulsating beat of the band. For those who have come inside this derelict factory, now is their moment to leave the real world and enter one of imagination and disbelief. They are treated to trapeze, dance and body contortionists, and the night’s finale combines a gypsy band and unsuspecting clowns: tapping their flippers while playing the saxophone. As the audience shouts for more, a mock authority figure moves the clowns on, before they cheekily sneak back on for their encore. Young and old are left breathless and smiling.
Such an effect, until recently, was known as the Makabra effect. Those who were fortunate enough to discover the site in Poble Nou, could pay €2 and see some of Barcelona’s best circus performers. The Makabra, as well as having a fully-equipped circus space, was a hive of raw creativity for all types of performers, musicians and artists. Even those opposed to the okupa movement admitted that the occupation by the Makabra converted the space into an artistic cultural centre, with an open door for all to enter and collaborate for free.
There were no places in Barcelona for aspiring circus performers to train and work without paying, so they established one. They constructed evolving circus, theatre, concert, art and skateboard spaces that were artist friendly. On site, a courtyard of caravans represented home for a core of 40 to 5O people. It was known throughout Europe as a place to stop off for any travelling clown or performer. Such a reputation led to a strong intercambio of ideas, which resulted in some productions that were more spectacular than highly-funded companies.
“The intervention of municipal authority left this talented troop homeless on the street late last year, as they watched years of work swiftly torn down by the diggers of the redevelopment project 22@,” according to Laia Gilbert, a circus student at La Escuela del Circo. “The loss is a major blow to the circus world here, it was a space that made circus accessible to everyone.”
The response of the Makabra was to temporarily relocate to the street. Rigging acrobatic structures in front of government buildings, they brought the circus to thousands. Support came from all parts of the city’s performing community: singers, African and tango dancers, capoeira practioners, acrobats and clowns performed in support of Barcelona’s unofficial circus company. These spectacular and peaceful protests questioned the government’s decision to pull the plug on creativity, the music, the cabaret and free art.
La Escuela del Circo Rogelia Rivel was one of the first to pay its respects, and its staff spoke of the Makabra as a professional platform for students. Gilbert, like other Escuela students, was drawn to training in the experimental gym of the Makabra, sharing ideas and learning from the performers. La Escuela del Circo, based in Nou Barris, features a large circus gymnasium equipped to prepare students for the big top. Aspiring performers train over a course of two to three years, building muscles, testing their nerve on trapezes, suspended cords, ropes and acrobatic vaults, as well as juggling a few million balls. During the year, the students perform in the Teatre del Ateneu, alongside a variety of visiting circus companies and directors. A highlight of the year is ‘Circ D’Hivern’ which invites a fresh creative team to push the boundaries and produce a piece of original, ground-breaking circus.
Aside from entertaining the public, the Escuela del Circo also runs shorter courses for all ages who want to dabble or hang upside down on a weekly basis. The school is keen to be the first point of contact for young learners to start their careers. Circus not only benefits children on a physical level but also on a creative level, Gilbert said. She discovered circus on the streets of Brazil, and Argentina, before returning to find where she could develop her skills on home turf. Over the past few years, she said, she has watched the circus in Catalunya spilling more and more onto the streets.
Throughout the year enthusiasts can discover circus in various festivals inside and outside Barcelona. Every September, the Tàrrega art festival is full of circus street performers warming up the crowds. In May, Tarragona offers alternative and innovative circus programmes at the Trapeci de Reus. The emergence of smaller circus festivals in Vilanova and Mongat reflect the growth of the art form and general acceptance of circus as a community builder. The number of circus courses in civic centres is rising, not only as a children’s activity but also as an adult one. In intimate art venues, such as Raí Art in the Born, small-scale adult circus cabaret is becoming a regular feature. Such a demand has led to the opening of specialised material shops for those who want to experiment, or buy a trapeze for the flat.
In Gilbert’s opinion, circus fever is spreading, and people are becoming more aware of the diversity of the art form. The future issue for circus lovers and practitioners is whether the government will take actions to support places that house circuses instead of closing them. Although cabaret has suffered a major setback, the Makabra spirit lives on, and Laia Gilbert is convinced it is just a matter of time before the band starts playing, the cabaret returns under a new roof and the smiles return to painted and real faces.
The circus world of Barcelona is awaiting an encore.