Covid-19 hits circus’s big event but the show goes on

French Circus Biennale festival goes ahead behind closed doors as woes continue for performing arts

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The world’s top circus festival went ahead in 2021 despite the Covid-19 pandemic, but stripped of the tens of thousands of spectators who usually head to the south of France to see the contortionists, acrobats and tumblers demonstrating their skills before bookers and talent-spotters.

The fourth staging of the Circus Biennale, held every two years in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, ended on Saturday in front of just 2,000 circus professionals instead of the 110,000 spectators who attended the last event in 2019.

Virus safety signs put up at the port-side venue showed a clown with red nose, bow tie and protective face mask, and the accompanying text: “Having a big nose does not exempt you from wearing one.”

The organisers said they were able to stage the event after long-running discussions with the French authorities.

“We started with a plan A, then plan B, then plan C, then plan D, and finally we decided to do plan E, which was a Biennale for professionals,” said festival organiser Raquel Rache de Andrade. “That was possible; we were allowed to do it,”

The performing arts have been hit badly across the globe because of lockdowns and social distancing rules introduced to stop the spread of the virus.

Acrobats Gioia Zanaboni, from Italy, top, and Anja Eberhart from Switzerland of the Zania company practice outside in a public park as their training center room is closed prior to presenting their acrobat show "Never Retiring" during the BIAC, International Circus Arts Biennale, in Marseille, south of France, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said the performing arts are among the worst-hit sectors from the pandemic. It warned last year of redundancies, reduced wages for performers and long-lasting impacts on the sector.

In France, theatres, concert halls and other venues have been closed since October 30 owing to Covid-19. Before that, they were shut from mid-March to late June. It is uncertain when the performing arts will be able to begin again.

But it is important to show that culture is essential, said Yoann Bourgeois, a dancer and choreographer who trained in the circus arts.

“The management of this crisis has had an extremely violent impact on poets, artists, people who dedicate their lives to culture in general," Bourgeois said. "It has categorised what is considered essential or non-essential. We are convinced that poetry is essential to live.”