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The story of the circus -

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The story of the circus

Broadcast: 19/05/2011

Reporter: Matt Peacock

A new book about the story of the circus in Australia is about to be launched at the National
Institute of Circus Arts.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The story of the circus in Australia and its travelling troop of artists
and acrobats has rarely been told, despite the international acclaim for many of the nation's top
performers. There's now a National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne, where tomorrow a book
titled 'Circus: The Australian Story' is being launched. Matt Peacock reports.

CIRCUS ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, roll up, roll up to the greatest
entertainment in the world: the circus.

MARK ST LEON, AUTHOR: Australians like a good circus when they see one.

???: While there's children, there'll always be a circus.

MATT PEACOCK, REPORTER: And Australian circuses today, as they always did, still entrance children
and the young at heart.

Lennon's circus, now playing in Sydney's Liverpool, like most, is a family business stretching back
generations. At 95, its matriarch Dolly Lennon has fond memories of the big top.

DOLLY LENNON: I learnt the trapeze, just the one person up there, and my father-in-law taught me.
"Up you go," he'd say, and he'd stand there while I did all these tricks and I'd come back with my
arms aching, my legs aching and everything. But, "No, go up again. Learn another trick or two."

WARREN LENNON: I was dressed about four years old and dressed up as a clown and coming and doing a
forward roll in the show, and it was great. I thought I was a star.

MATT PEACOCK: Once you're hooked, you'll never leave, believes Dolly's grandson Warren Lennon.

Can you ever imagine life without a circus for you?

WARREN LENNON: No, never, never. My children wantin' to take over running the circus - they're
talking about it already. They were talking about when they were two year old, three year old, the
circus was their life.

MATT PEACOCK: Traditional circuses have evolved, along with community concerns about animal
welfare. But until now, the stories of the close-knit travelling circus families have remained
largely untold.

MARK ST LEON: It's been almost entirely overlooked by Australia's historians.

MATT PEACOCK: Author Mark St Leon has tracked his own family's origins in Australia's rich but
unchronicled circus tradition.

MARK ST LEON: It's a mobile, adaptable type of entertainment, so it's well-suited to Australian
conditions. We're a mobile, adaptable people.

MATT PEACOCK: Mark St Leon's great-great-grandfather's circus followed the gold rush to Ballarat,
and it was in this tent the Eureka Stockade rebels first met and hid their ammunition.

MARK ST LEON: Some of the diggers, armed with revolvers and pistols, came down to the circus and
grabbed the German bandsmen, musicians, and marched them at gunpoint up to where the stockade was
being built and had them serenade the diggers all day while they were hewing and cutting all these
logs to make their stockade.

MATT PEACOCK: More than a century ago, there was a golden era for Australian circus. Family troupes
like Ashton's and Wirth's became household names as they travelled the country then the world, with
the skill of performers like May Worth winning instant fame.

MARK ST LEON: Shortly after arriving in New York, she's made the star of Barnum and Bailey's
three-ringed circus and she's introduced as the world's greatest lady bareback rider. Because she
was doing things which Americans had never seen before, such as flipping somersaults from one horse
to another.

A few years after May Worth came Con Callina, who reinvigorated the style of tight-wire performance
by not only doing acrobatics on the tight-wire, but dancing along the tight-wire the same as
Nijinsky might have danced across a ballet stage.

MATT PEACOCK: The Aboriginal acrobat Con Callina was arguably the greatest high-wire artist in
history. He made backwards somersaults on the wire seem easy.

For decades now it's been predicted that the traditional circus like this one, with its acrobats
and clowns, would simply fade away under the onslaught of television and other electronic
entertainment. But the circus has adapted, and as you can see, reports of its demise have been
premature.

The advent of the Canadian Cirque de Soleil and closer to home Circus Oz have taken the art to new
heights.

Here at the Sydenham Trapeze School, a new generation of trapeze artist, acrobats and
contortionists like Thomas Worrell is training.

THOMAS WORRELL: You wanna learn these new tricks and reach these achievements and goals, but at the
same time you wanna learn them for a reason. The motivation towards that is being able to perform
them and show people what you can do.

ELLI HUBER: When I saw a flying trapeze, I went, "That's what I wanna do; I wanna run away and join
the circus," 'cause it just seemed so inspirational.

MATT PEACOCK: Ellie Huber is now following her dream, off to Montreal to train with Cirque de
Soleil.

ELLI HUBER: It's less about the drum roll, I'm standing on this and ta-da, like, there's my trick.
Usually, like, Cirque de Soleil's very, you know, emotive and it has a story and there's a reason
that you're up there and every movement is telling something which is - I think is really great
'cause it has another level.

MATT PEACOCK: The young acrobat's trainer Nat Harris believes modern circus is finding new
audiences in more theatrical shows like her recent hit Ami Amore.

NAT HARRIS, TRAINER: I love the feeling of circus, and I think you feel that more from the older
circus. What we've turned it into is so theatrical and so modern that sometimes it almost feels
more like theatre. So I think it's about not losing that component of glamour and glitz and sawdust
and all that stuff, but doing it in a more modern, approachable way, I s'pose.

MARK ST LEON: You don't need a PhD to appreciate to circus - it can help, but you don't actually
need one, so that's explained a lot of its popularity in years gone by and will probably continue
to explain a lot of its popularity in years to come.

MATT PEACOCK: Circus in all its forms, believes Mark St Leon, is here to stay, and for acrobat
Jessie Grant, a seventh-generation member of the Ashton circus family, it's a way of life.

JESSIE GRANT, ACROBAT: I'd never leave the circus, not for the life of me. Not for no-one, not for
nothing. Circus is just a part of me that I'll never take it out. Like the old saying goes, it's
sawdust in your shoes, you can never get it out.

LEIGH SALES: Matt Peacock with that report.