In December 2009, I starting going to the Cirque Romanès, which was playing every weekend up at Porte Champerret. The show was amazing, and I kept going back, weekend after weekend through the winter, until I had photos and an article and a feeling for the place. That article and some of those photos are below.
In America, tacking the word gypsy onto almost any other noun hints at a wild charm and the air of possibilities. Gypsy music, gypsy colors, gypsy dance — it’s nice to imagine someone, somewhere, who lives unencumbered by mortgage payments and year-end performance reviews.
For Europeans, the connotations are different. Besides conjuring the footloose or fancy-free, gypsy brings images of ramshackle campers parked too near tidy apartment buildings, women wearing several sweaters as they beg for change, or under-age pickpockets working tourists on the subway.
The backlash against the crime, ignorance and poverty popularly associated with the gypsy community has been particularly acute in central and eastern Europe, where the Rom minority is far larger than in the West. Hate crimes against them have increased in recent years, with fire-bombings and murder souring ethnic relations in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Balkans.
Yet all that seems foreign to the Cirque Romanes, France’s best-known gypsy circus.
In the shadow of apartment towers rising just beyond the peripherique that encircles Paris, its maroon big top, hardly larger than a house, stands in an empty lot, encircled by potholes and campers. From inside, you hear the steady jounce of a stand-up bass carrying the beat under a woman’s almost Indian vibrato.
“It’s like a village, but in the city,” says Olivier Brandicourt, the man found hanging by his knees every week from the trapeze.
Arriving at the edge of town each November, the circus is an annual fixture in the capital for the winter, before it migrates south to warmer weather.
This year, for the first time, that orbit is widening beyond Europe. The Romanes, their name stamped in ornate white letters atop the tent, have played to packed houses this season, and were off to Shanghai this month for the world exposition which that city opened with great fanfare in May.
“The Chinese love the circus,” said Jose Freches, head of the French pavilion, explaining why the Romanes had been chosen to go. “It’s about a gypsy circus, with Indian origins,” which are the same as those of the Chinese circus, he said, the three countries united by
the Silk Road.
In some ways, the selection of the Romanes to represent France is unlikely; last autumn, they applied for more than a dozen permits to set up their Paris tent, before obtaining one. But they’re following in Paris is loyal, and the name has spread abroad. Talks are under way for tours in Australia and New York after their visit to Shanghai.
“We are more like birds than human beings,” says Alexandre Romanes, who founded the circus 17 years ago, after a first career as a baroque musician. In his customary bowler, he spends the show constantly on the move, greeting and directing the crowd and crew.
But even birds need to land somewhere, and the Romanes are calling for a more permanent center for Gypsy culture, where other groups like theirs — often marginalized — might meet the public.
Run by Alexandre and his wife, Delia, the show is a hybrid of traditional circus numbers like the tightrope, and newer acts almost dance pieces, all performed as the family, a orchestra in miniature, plays in an offset line facing the stands.
As their fame has grown, so have the crowds. Long a favorite of Paris’s bourgeois bohemians (bobos), the circus in the past year or so has started to draw a wider audience from the suburbs, who “don’t necessarily come because they identify with gypsies,” Mr. Brandicourt noted.
Those packing the 340 seats are seeking neither polished choreography nor uncommon feats of daring-do.
“Everyone has a place here: the old, the young,” said Juliette Jourdan, a young French mother with her six-year- old girl. “The gypsies still have something we’ve lost — family values, solidarity — they don’t really care about profit.”
With the Romanes, circus and family are almost synonymous.
Delia, the singer, rises from the row of chairs where her sisters look on each night, and begins her mournful vibrato; her adopted father follows on the violin, as her middle daughter hangs in the air under the spotlights, black hair as long as the rope she turns on.
Meanwhile, her two young nephews wait their turn to juggle, Alexandre keeps the show going with a quiet hand, and her mother prepares mulled wine for when the clapping is done.
“Family is everything. It’s the origin,” Delia says. Any friend of the Romanes is introduced with a “C’est de la famille!”
About 200 years ago, jugglers, strongmen and acrobats of all stripes moved off the French streets and into the bigtops. The performers of those early years produced dynasties, marrying among themselves and training their children to perform. They have made the circus a world of close and distant relations.
“The circus is one of the last milieux in the West that still exists in itself, that reproduces itself, like an Indian caste,” said Sylvestre Barré-Meinzer, an ethnologist who spent years studying that world in France, and who herself once had a rope number. “It’s a closed world, on the defensive, but very generous to those who belong.”
Nomadic and poorly understood by outsiders, the world of the circus mirrors the gypsies, so a gypsy circus is in a sense doubly removed. And yet, it connects.
When the show is over and the mulled wine gone, the crowd dwindles and the music peters out. All that’s left is the empty ring, a worker sweeping, someone waving a flashlight for umbrellas fallen under the stands.
“What’s the circus good for?” Mr. Brandicourt muses, and leans back on the bleachers. “Nothing, luckily.”