Off the planet

Sara Royle can hardly contain herself as she watches the death-defying stunts happening under a big top in Hull. But it’s all in a day’s work for Planet Circus’s performers. Photos: Ryan Ashcroft  

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“Oh my god!” Seven motorcyclists are whizzing around the ominously named Globe of Death, seemingly defying gravity as they chase each other’s tails.

It’s the penultimate act in Planet Circus’s show and approximately the twelfth time that the performance has made me audibly exclaim. During the last 90 minutes or so, I’ve gasped at blindfolded acrobatics, cheered for a mischievous clown and “wowed” at an aerial display that left me wondering if it was too late to take up gymnastics.

The troupe are in Hull for two weeks, often performing twice (sometimes even three times) a day, before they head for a long summer stint in Scarborough. With a big top and kit to wrangle with, highly skilled acts that require athlete levels of fitness, as well as tickets and candy floss to sell, it is, quite evidently, hard work.

“We work 11 months of a year,” says Planet Circus’s director Tanya Mack. “The other three or four weeks are spent preparing for the next season. If you didn’t love this, if you didn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t survive it.”

For Mack, who launched Planet Circus in 2010 with her husband Pavel Pavlov, it’s the only life she’s ever known. She’s the third generation in her family to have worked in the industry. From starting as a pony-mad little girl to taking charge as ringmistress, she’s done just about every job going in the circus.

Nowadays she deals with the admin – but two of her kids, Peter and Emilia, are in the Planet Circus line-up, Peter as part of the freestyle motocross team (you might have seen him on Britain’s Got Talent) and Emilia on the Wheel of Death. There’s been many a night spent in A&E, Mack admits.

“She’s spinning up there, he’s on a motorbike,” Mack laughs. “It’s like my heart’s in my mouth all the time. And now the grandchildren, they’re the same. They’re just stunt crazy and they’re only three and four.”

While most children might be desperate to fly the nest once they’re old enough, the circus seems to come with a pretty high retention rate. Emilia, 26, was born into the life. “Growing up in a circus community, you grow up with so much freedom yet you’re so protected,” she says. “Everyone looks out for everyone, we all live and work together.”

When it comes to her own kids, she says she just wants them to do what makes them happy but adds that she’d love for them to follow in her footsteps.

“I think it’s the sense of community,” her mum echoes. “Even if you’re a single mum, you’re not alone, you’re not isolated – you’ve got help. The door is always open so you’re not really ever struggling by yourself.”

And that community is a global one. On a small patch of land in Hull, Argentina, Brazil, Romania, France, Iran and Hungary are all represented.

“For me, this is the only lifestyle where there is no racism,” Mack says. “As long as we all work hard and pull together, we’ll get on. The only thing that causes any problems in the circus is when you have one person who is not a team player.”

That sense of togetherness was never so important as during lockdown. Forced to stop performing after only a couple of weeks of their new season, more than 30 of the Planet Circus crew ended up staying on Mack’s land in Lincolnshire.

“Covid was a struggle,” she says. “The first time was a struggle, the second time was heartbreaking. My field gate was open to anyone that had been stranded with kids or pets and couldn’t travel home.”

With no income, bills stacking up and no sense of when they might be able to perform again, she turned to the East Coast Homeless Outreach group for support.

“They were incredible,” she says. “Within an hour it was a lorry load of everything we needed. The kids were eating fresh fruit like it was going out of fashion.”

From just a few hours on site, it’s clear that this is a bunch of people who love their work and the opportunities it gives them to travel alongside their family and friends – but there are misconceptions, Mack says, about their lifestyle.

“There’s a belief that we’re uneducated, which is totally untrue. We may not go into a traditional school – although a lot of children do nowadays – but that doesn’t mean we don’t home school. My grandson is three and he speaks two languages so far. You’ll know about money because you’re working with the public from a very young age, you travel the world and you learn a lot of things just travelling.”

She adds that some people seemed to believe they just “rock up” on a field and then “scarper” when in reality they do all the necessary legwork – contacting the council, paying ground rent, paying taxes.

“People think we just live in a caravan,” Mack says. “But 99 per cent of us have a house or a bit of land somewhere. We’re normal people, we have a normal life – we just happen to travel for work.”

Planet Circus’s tour includes Scarborough, until 4 Sept and Goole, 6-11 Sept (planetcircusomg.com)


Peter Pavlov

Freestyle motocross (FMX) rider

Riding in the Globe of Death since he was eight years old (and bike-obsessed since well before that), Peter Pavlov was once Europe’s youngest stunt rider.

“I used to be nervous at every show for the first year or so, just because it was all new at the time and it was the pressure of making sure I did it right,” he says. “Slowly with time, I got used to the audience and crowds and then that blurred out and I just concentrated on riding.”

He’s the fourth generation in his family to be involved in the circus. His parents, Tanya and Pavlov, met while working for his grandad at Uncle Sam’s Great American Circus.

For the past year, he’s performed as an FMX rider in the show’s finale – jumping a ramp inside the tent, gliding over the Globe of Death and doing tricks in the air.

“It feels fun – obviously scary,” he admits. “With it being inside the tent it’s difficult because you come out from so much sunlight and then you go in and it’s just pitch black for a second. By the time you can see anything you’ve already landed. It’s pretty mad but it’s good fun.”

And despite “a few bumps” over the years – a dislocated shoulder and broken tibia and fibula among the worst – Pavlov says he’s “living the dream”.

“I love being able to spend every day on the bike, as well as travelling all over England, meeting loads of different people in different towns.”


Imogene Reynolds

Ringmistress

At just 20 years old, Imogene Reynolds is running the show.

“I’m basically the ringleader of the circus,” she explains. “I am in charge of everything in the ring and I announce all the people on and off and help get the show along.”

Normally up in the air as an aerialist, it’s Reynolds’ first year in the ringmistress role – although she’s been in the industry since she was 14.

A first-generation performer from Great Yarmouth, she’s loved the circus since she was tiny and running away with the circus has always been her dream.

“As soon as I saw all the amazing acts, when I used to dance at the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth, I knew that it was what I wanted to be when I was older.”

With a background in dance and gymnastics, she was first approached by Russell’s International Circus for a two-week stint but that quickly turned into a full-time gig and she hasn’t looked back.

“Having all the lights, the attention on me when doing what I love is just the best feeling you can ever have,” she says. “I followed my dreams and it’s taken me so far already.”

And although she’s a long way from home, she loves meeting and getting to know different people.

“Every year new artists come and go and it’s exciting to meet everybody. It is literally just like one big family.”


Andreea Delbosq

Clown

Andreea Delbosq has been clowning around for more than 16 years.

“I was with another show in England and the boss asked me if I’d like to be part of their ‘crazy crew’ because I was a bit crazy,” she says. “I said okay, I’ll give it a try, and I started like that.”

Originally from Romania, Delbosq was born into the circus – in fact, she’s the 12th generation of her family to work in the industry.

“I had a choice,” she points out. “We had schooling and education like my kids have now. You had the choice of staying in the circus or having a normal job or normal life but obviously I loved it too much.”

Delbosq, who is now 40, would spend the school holidays with her parents at the circus – she first stepped into the ring when she was just four years old.

“It was brilliant,” she says. “You’re free to do whatever you want. You meet new people, see new places all the time, and visit new countries.”

After a six-year break performing elsewhere, this is Delbosq’s first year back with Planet Circus. Her character is far from what you might expect of a traditional circus clown – fewer sinister smiles, more impish and mischievous. She says that her role is to make people laugh by being “silly and naughty”.

“My favourite bit is when I start making the audience clap, feeling happy,” she says. “You can see they have no stress on their face. They forget about their worries and they just enjoy their time with us.”


Krisztian Krizsa

Aerial pole and German wheel

Krisztian Krizsa isn’t afraid of hard work. When lockdown hit, he took jobs with DPD, Amazon, Dominos – anything to keep him going before he was able to get back into the big top.

“I was working hard, just in a different job,” he says. “Just waiting so I could get back.

“I said to my boss when I can go back, I will go straight away. My bosses were crying: ‘Oh, stay with us’. I said: ‘I told you before, when I can – I will go.’”

Before joining the circus, Hungarian Krizsa was into “all sorts of sports, dancing and acting”.

“My brother was a ballet dancer,” Krizsa, who has been in the circus for 25 years, says. “His friend was an artist and came to visit my house and he asked me if I wanted to try some circus acts. I said yes, it sounded fun.”

From there, he went to a circus school in Hungary and ended up getting recruited.

His performances are incredibly physically demanding – something the 40 year old clearly enjoys. He says his favourite acts are “anything that needs to use muscles”.

“When the people come they want an amazing act, amazing looking people, amazing costume, amazing music. Everything needs to be perfect.”

And, much like the rest of the performers, Krizsa has found a sense of belonging within the Planet Circus team.

“This is a family,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that we are 20 or 30 people – we are a big family.”

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