Alexis Gruss and his Cirque National have been well known to Parisians for some 40 years. This traditional circus with its dozens of horses and artists takes up its winter quarters in the Bois de Boulogne, where a new show is created every year.
The 2013-2014 season promises to be a unique one for the Cirque national Alexis Gruss!
A. G.: That is true, several founding events will be celebrated: the 240th anniversary of the arrival of the first circus in Paris and the 160th anniversary of the meeting of my great grandparents, the first generation of the Gruss family in the circus world; I will also be celebrating my 70th birthday and the 20th anniversary of our installation at Piolenc in the south of France. And then, ironically, next winter will be the year of the horse in Chinese astrology!
So the circus arrived in Paris 200 years ago?
A. G.: Yes, almost 250 years ago even! It was in 1774 that an Englishman, Philip Astley, moved to the Marais, to rue Vieille du Temple; it was the first time that a circus had come to Paris. The circus ring already had the same shape and dimensions that we have preserved in the circus tradition: a ring 13 metres in diameter, exactly the same length as a chambrière, a whip used by horse tamers. The circus is a place, not a show. Just as the theatre has a stage, the circus has a circus ring. You may call me a purist but I am a defender of this place, which is the most extraordinary of all. It is a performing space that is infinite and fertile, in both the literal and figurative sense: look at what this ring is made of, earth, sawdust and horse dung, isn’t that the most fertile terrain there is?
So, the French circus was created in Paris. What kind of welcome did it get from the public?
A. G.: It was a huge success! Philip Astley was soon joined by an Italian, Antonio Franconi, who presented a circus act with birds. However, seeing the success that Astley had with his horses, he soon dropped the bird act for horses, and quickly excelled with them. Unfortunately, his circus, which moved to Lyon, burned down. Franconi therefore returned to Paris to rue Napoléon, today, rue de la Paix. His circus was made up of a circular ring on which he had mounted a stage. In fact, at the time, entertainers did not have the right to perform just anywhere: they were confined to wooden planks so that the constabulary could check them. As for the horses, they used to be used in the war, so their use in a show was something quite new. In fact, all the disciplines today originally had a military purpose: the pommel horse, the rings, they were all apparatus for training. Antonio Franconi had the idea of putting one of the planks of an entertainer onto the back of a horse thus starting the discipline of acrobatic horse riding – what’s more it is on our logo representing what a traditional circus is.
Next season, you will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of your arrival in Paris
A. G.: That’s right, we gave our first performance on 25 May 1974 in the courtyard of the Salé mansion house, today the Picasso museum. We had been touring and had a big top, horses, of course, and even an elephant. It was only a few years after I had taken over the running of the circus from my father, and it was Silvia Monfort who invited me to create a traditional circus.
Circuses are often a family affair and a passion that is passed on from one generation to the next. How many members of the Gruss family form part of the circus today?
A. G.: Since my great grandfather, a stonecutter from the Alsace, met my Italian great grandmother, a horse rider, in 1854, one and a half centuries ago, there have been six generations! I am the fourth, my four children Stephan, Nathalie, Firmin and Maud make up the fifth and my grandchildren Charles, Alexandre, Louis and Joseph, aged 8 are today the sixth generation in the ring. Altogether, there are more than 30 of us from the same family. And all the circus disciplines are represented from down on the ground to up in the air …contortionists, juggler, tightrope walker, acrobat, etc.
How old were you when you started?
A. G.: I entered the ring when I was only a few months old in the arms of my father on a horse. Then, aged 9, I staged an acrobatic horse riding act with my cousins: ‘the junior rodeo event’, then a pas de deux on draft horses with my sister. We learnt from our elders as at that time there was no circus school. Today, I teach my grandchildren, my wife teaches them tightrope walking, haute école, acrobatics, and one of my sons teaches acrobatic horse riding, juggling, etc.
And of course, everything turns around the horses, lots of horses! Where do they come from?
A. G.: From everywhere! I choose them myself and go to look for them in their country of origin. My 60 or so horses are purebred Arabian, Dutch Friesian, Boulonnais, Appaloosa from America, Falabella from Argentina …I go as far as Turkmenistan to find horses. Then, they stay with me all their life, even when they are too old to take part in the show. In the end, they leave me.
You are about to leave Paris to go to the south of France, to Piolenc, where you have spent the summer for the last 20 years. Will you create the next show there?
A. G.: In fact, it has already been created! It takes three years to put a show together, the next one ‘Silvia’ is therefore in its final phases of preparation. I will be in a articularly extraordinary act with my daughter Maud, something which has never been done. I am also working with 6 horses for a ribbon act, a particularly difficult exercise that requires great patience. At the same time, we are working on the next shows for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
The circus has the particularity of being accessible to children and adults, whatever their language or culture. Do you have many foreign artists in your troupe?
A. G.: I have had foreign artists and I will certainly have others. We recruit according to the needs of our shows; we don’t recognize any boundaries, the circus is a really universal art.
With just a few days before the circus leaves, there is quite a commotion at the Cirque Gruss. It is a huge move that you undertake, twice each year!
A. G.: That’s right – what’s more, when the circus leaves Paris, the Republican Guard accompanies us to the motorway, via Auteuil racecourse to the entrance of the Paris ring road. Just imagine it: our convoy is several kilometres long, with 27 articulated lorries and 15 small vehicles! We have more than 700 kilometres to travel before arriving in Piolenc, but we are already thinking about our return to Paris in October – I love Paris, I feel happy here!
Cirque Nati onal Alexis Gruss
19 October 2013 – 2 March 2014
Carrefour desCascades, Porte de Passy, Paris 16th
Tel +33 (0) 1 45 01 71 26