2000s Archive

The Showiest Show on Earth

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But the most remarkable aspect of the spectacle is the show itself. In any given year, the circus put on by the festival in Monte Carlo really is the greatest show on earth. The prince invites top acts from around the world to compete against one another for the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Clowns.

This year’s performance included a North Korean acrobatic troupe making a rare appearance in the West; a Chinese troupe presenting the debut of an act that mixes tumbling and ballet; tigers, elephants, camels, and poodles; a father-son contortionist team from Guyana; an American trapeze act; and a Spanish wire-walking family long considered the best act of its generation. The competition was intense, but the mood among the performers was largely one of joy and wonder, since most were grateful for the invitation, the free room and board, and the lavish working conditions.

“We come for the experience,” said Gary Jahn, an English tiger trainer and part of a sixth-generation circus family. “This audience really knows what it’s seeing.”

Monaco today is a throwback to an age of opulence, inviting rich Europeans to come to show off the tiaras and Rollses they hide in their daily lives. Above all, it’s a guilt-free zone: Epcot Jet Set. Partly to make the well-to-do feel at home (and partly to keep away the paparazzi), the principality employs draconian security.

It would be easy to mock the Grimaldis: their tabloid lives, their peculiar principality with cameras hidden in every lamppost and guards on every corner, their casino and hotels, and all the Brinks trucks they require. But I was stunned by their stamina. They arrived promptly at the start of the circus and stayed until the end, four hours later. This was followed by dinner, then a jury meeting at ten-thirty the following morning, and, at least on one day, a brunch at twelve-thirty. And they did this not for one day, but for six. During circus week, the Grimaldis are the hardest-working family in show business.

By the end of the second day, speculation had it that the top award would likely go to a combination of the Koreans, the Chinese, and the Spanish wire-walkers. The member of the Korean troupe who does their most difficult trick—the quadruple somersault—injured his ankle on the first night, which threw their chances in doubt. The Chinese acrobats, meanwhile, mesmerized the crowd with a trick in which a female tumbler, Wu Zhendan, dressed in a tutu, performed an arabesque on the forehead of her partner, Wei Baohua. In almost two decades of watching circuses, in nearly a dozen countries, I found this act to be the most beautiful I have ever seen.

But by far the most conversation focused on the Spaniards. In the 1980s, the Quiros, descendants of a multigenerational wire-walking family, had a high-energy, deeply dangerous routine that involved three brothers and a sister who ran, jumped rope, rode bicycles, dueled with sabers, and built pyramids on the high wire. In the early 1990s (when he and I worked together in the Beatty–Coles Circus), one of the brothers, Angel, fled the troupe to marry a Mexican woman of whom his mother disapproved. For two years, the brothers did not speak.

After a time they reunited and returned to their triumphant place in the wire-walking world. But in 1999, Angel slipped on the wire in Richmond, Virginia, and fell to the ground, breaking his back, several ribs, his collarbone, and his wrist. He would never perform again.

The two surviving brothers struggled to rebuild the act, recruiting a younger brother and a cousin to round out their team. The new act had come to Monaco to reclaim their reputation. On Sunday afternoon, the four men pranced spiritedly around the back of the tent, moments before their second and final performance.

“We’re nervous,” said Roberto, the elder brother.

To improve their odds, the brothers had completely redesigned their act, casting aside their Spanish costumes and music for a newer image, based on Fred Astaire, with white top hats and tails. The new look—and new equipment—cost $45,000. Is a Golden Clown really worth that?

“I think so,” Roberto said.

“Because of the jobs you can get,” I asked, “or because of your heart?”

“For us, the heart. No wire act has ever won the gold. Nobody from Spain has ever won anything.”

As the moment approached, he finished limbering up, blindfolded himself, then practiced jumping over his brother and landing on the wire. His father arrived, along with his wife. Other performers, who had been smoking and flirting outside, began trickling into the tent. It is a sign of how good the Quiros are that every single performer came to watch them. Out in the ring, the trumpets blared, and the introduction sounded. The four men held hands, made the sign of the cross, then darted through the tent flap into the light.

Later that night, the performers, along with socialites and circus executives, gathered in the ballroom of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel. Lining the walls were long tables of sushi and roast meats interspersed with flowers, fresh fruit and nuts, and ice sculptures of dancing bears. The royal family sat in the center of the room, eating caviar out of tins the size of snare drums. The performers, many in formal dress, tiptoed tentatively around, yet somehow they seemed as if they belonged.

After dinner, Prince Rainier announced the awards, and each act stood as its name was called. The American trapeze artists won a bronze, as did two other acts. The North Koreans shared silver with a sensational juggler named Picasso Junior.

The first Golden Clown went to Wei Baohua and Wu Zhendan, the Chinese pas de deux. The excitement mounted; the Quiros shifted in their seats. At last Prince Rainier announced the final Clown d’Or: “The Quiros troupe!”

bruce feiler,
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