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American Shooting Stars

The Cirque d’Hiver (the “Winter Circus”) is an imposing round ornate structure at the juncture of rue des Filles du Calvaire and rue Amelot (Paris 11th) that has acted as a landmark for the closest Métro stop near my apartment. In all these years, having passed it hundreds of times, I’ve never had the occasion to enter the building or attend any of its “spectacles” until this weekend, when the American human canon ball, Robin Valencia, offered complementary tickets to friends — me being one of the lucky to have been invited.

As a kid, I used to regularly attend the 3-ring Shrine Circus in New Orleans with my family — my father was a “Shriner” and would often act as an usher, wearing a “fez” and sometimes clown make-up. The clowns always intimidated me, but I swooned over the massive elephants and gasped as the high-wire acts. On TV, the European circuses would be broadcast, so different from our American counterparts — with their elegant and sparkling costumes, sophisticated acts and small single-ring venues. I hadn’t ever seen one up close and in person — now well beyond childhood, when you think circuses are for kids.

Since 1852, the Cirque d’Hiver has been a prominent venue for circuses, musical concerts and other events, also including fashion shows. An ancient drawing of it found in a “brocante” (rummage sale) by a friend, adorns the wall of my kitchen, just as a reminder of the history of my “quartier.” The building is an oval polygon of 20 sides, with Corinthian columns at the angles, giving the impression of an oval building enclosing the oval ring, surrounded by steeply banked seating for spectators, very like a miniature indoor Colosseum. A low angled roof is self-supporting like a low dome, so that there is no central pole, as under a tent, to obstruct views or interfere with the action. It was designed by the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff (who also designed the two fountains in the Place de la Concorde) and opened as the Cirque Napoléon, a compliment to the new Emperor of the French Napoleon III. Since 1934 it has been the Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione, operated by the Bouglione brothers and their heirs. Although the original configuration accommodated 4000, it was reduced because of fire codes to 2090.

Only a few days ago, on February 7th, French aerialist Gilles Antarès died following a fall the previous day at the Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione in Paris. The fatal accident was the result of a fault in the belt by which he had been suspended from brother Bruno. The Antarès had been working at Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione, since October 22nd and were due to close there this coming February 29th, before joining Denmark’s Cirkus Arena in Copenhagen on March 17.

The “Shooting Star,” Robin Valencia wrote, “The mood is a bit subdued because of the death of our friend Gilles Antarès, but we need all the energy we can get from the audience to make it through our last ten days.” She is the only female human projectile in Europe and is one of less than a handful in the world.

Entering the Cirque d’Hiver for the first time was like entering the Opéra Garnier — stunningly rich and elegant, magical and fun. The orchestra sits high above the adoring crowd, in tiered re

d velvet chairs so there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Through the tall red curtains enter the ringmaster, dancers, acrobats, clowns, beasts and side shows — this one made up of a bumbling overweight stage hand in blue overalls and a long, lanky hunched-over old lady who keep the audience laughing in between acts with their antics, crazy interactions with the ringmaster and the audience and their skills as acrobats, which one would never expect.

The clowns, in their magnificent beaded and sequined costumes, skillfully applied make-up — white faced with fine lines to exaggerate their features, topped by the symbolic white fez — were accomplished musicians and performers and set the stage for what for me was the classic European circus — the one I remember watching on TV as a kid.

One act after another performed their amazing feats, interjected by beautifully costumed dancers and clown acts, with commentary from the ring master. The beasts were magnificent — a half-dozen pure white steeds, four two-humped camels (one as young as a few days old!), ten puffed-up poodles and a massive Bengal tiger. They performed perfectly at the whips of their masters, two of which were Bouglione family members. The performers come from all over the world — Italy, Russia, Spain, Moldavia, the United States and of course, France.

We were awe struck, amazed, amused — totally and absolutely enthralled with the entire scene. When it came time for Robin to be shot from the mouth of her sleek steel cannon, I angled for a shot, difficult as it might be to catch her in flight. She climbed to the top, perched on the rim, waved to the crowds below and slipped herself in. Breathlessly we waited for the boom and the blast of smoke and light. She flew at the speed of a bolt of lightning, yet with the grace of an elegant bird, through the air above our heads, touching down at her target, an airbag at the other end of the ring, landing with a breathtaking impact.

I kept snapping hoping for success…and voila!…there she was in full flight, arms spread wide.

At intermission, the performers come to the refreshment bar where they serve drinks, crèpes, cotton candy and snacks, to intermingle with the audience and sign autographs. It was such a human touch — to let the children see that their idols were real people, just like them.

But I didn’t think so…I left thinking it was all simply magical.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris
Email [email protected]

P.S. Yolanda Robins and I were recently interviewed by New York Times Real Estate Journalist, Stephanie Rosenbloom. For those of you thinking of investing outside of North America, see what she has to say about “A World of Affordable Choices” — “Popular cities like London and New York have less-expensive areas, but the true bargains are to be found elsewhere.” Published: February 19, 2006. Click here to read the article in its entirety: http://www.nytimes.com

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