Arts & Entertainment
7 min

Under the big top

It's no wonder queers run away to the circus

THE GAYEST SHOW ON EARTH. Zumanity, the Cirque du Soleil show running indefinitely in Las Vegas, is one of the most explicitly erotic — and homoerotic — circuses to date. Credit: (Tomasz Rossa/Cirque du soleil)

My favourite childhood book, Put Me in the Zoo, details the adventures of a misfit leopard trying to earn a home in a zoo. For some reason (beyond the book’s mandate to teach children about numbers and colours) zoo admittance required lengthy auditions where the beleaguered leopard frantically changed the configurations of his spots in quite dazzling ways. At the end he is told, “You should not be in the zoo. With all the things that you can do, the circus is the place for you!”

Reading those words I made my natal queer mind up: the circus was an option for those of us who were different.

As a longtime fan of all things circus I excitedly attended the queer night at Cirque Niagara’s Avaia in May. The invite lauded the fun-for-the-whole-family aspect of the show at the expense of the erotic potential, but the homos, who were settled comfortably but indistinguishably in a section of bleachers to the left of centre ring, were definitely aroused. As the military-clad Cossacks exploded into the spotlight astride charging stallions there were more than a few smaller tents raised under the big top.

The opening act, titled Atlantis, consisted of four twinky, if tautly muscled, acrobats who supported each other in feats of balance and trust. Their tight garments left little to the imagination and sheer netting covered, except when a headstand grip was required, their bright bleached-blond hair. The effect, compounded by their Russian ancestry, was of the introduction to a Bel Ami porn film where the fresh young boys show off their athleticism before exhibiting their intimate assets and sexual abilities. The innocence and skill on display somehow increased the erotic charge.

In Cirque du Soleil’s newest show Kooza, currently playing in Toronto, the male half of a balancing act is clad in transparent tights, decorated with runic symbols. The curtain call seems carefully calibrated so that his rock-hard bubble-butt is always the last thing we see leave the stage. The preponderance of bulging briefs left me wondering if Kooza was actually Esperanto for “codpiece.”

Several circuses have attempted to play up the inherent eroticism — and homoeroticism — of the circus. In 2002 Chilean impresario Julio Meneses announced his intention to tour an all-nude extravaganza. Even the wild animal trainers were to bare their dangly bits before carnivores.

The French circus Archaos, which visited Toronto in 1991, featured a seminude male/female hand-balancing act with contortions that were brazenly suggestive. Archaos’ further ventures into prurience were ended when the troupe’s penchant for extreme risktaking — chainsaw juggling and extensive pyrotechnics in particular — injured so many of the company’s ranks that the circus collapsed.

Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity, installed indefinitely in Las Vegas, is billed as “a sexy thrill ride full of sensational acrobatics and naughty fun.” But because Vegas doesn’t allow alcoholic beverages and full nudity in the same establishment Zumanity is forced to rely on the evocative. Sometimes this works spectacularly. A topless lesbianesque duo swirling aquatically in an oversized water bowl has the audience stirring with each sensual caress, kiss and seemingly impossible contortion. But other points in the show just don’t achieve the desired effect. A massively muscled male stripper who bumps and grinds down to a silver-sequined jockstrap is too gaudy even for Remington’s. A pas de deux between two real-life male partners, clad solely in bulging black shorts, elicits horror from one group of Midwestern voyeurs and boredom from the more jaded.

Meanwhile the Aerial Straps number in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Varekai, which features the scantily clad and exceptionally handsome brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton in a physical seduction high above the crowd, inspires almost universal lust and longing. Even the usually staid Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus featured a troupe of Russian trapeze artists throughout the 1990s whose mullets, bared hirsute chests, spandexed thighs and go-go boots created a Chippendales-in-the-air effect that routinely heated things up across all three rings.

Hunky but heterosexual Vincent Rother of Hangtime Circus says he was unaware of his homoerotic appeal before becoming involved with Fashion Cares in 2002. Rother created a specific routine for the circus-themed fundraiser involving, as he puts it, “two men basically crawling all over each other, supporting each other almost naked.” It was a major hit.

Could it be that skill and artistry trump teasing and swagger in the sexual stimulation sweepstakes of the circus? Or is there just something inherently arousing about a man on the flying trapeze?

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The ostensibly heterosexual 1956 film Trapeze purports to be a melodramatic look at Parisian circus life. It is actually a love story between trapeze artists Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster with a predatory, but voluptuous Gina Lollobrigida as an evil interloper. Curtis’s lush lips, wide wounded eyes and camera-ogled physique make him a leotarded lust object as he first seduces Lancaster in mid-air and is then spurned and left heartbroken.

Traditionally a troupe of transients living outside the norms of society, the circus has historically attracted outcasts of all stripes. Authors Angela Carter (Nights at the Circus) and Gary Jennings (Sparkle) speculate that clown alley (the dressing area reserved for those of the droll persuasion) was home for homos at a time when straying from heterosexuality was a crime.

“It was as though a fairy godmother had given each clown an ambivalent blessing when he was born,” writes Carter. “You can do anything you like, as long as nobody takes you seriously.”

In addition to the ranks of queer clowns who found a measure of safety in the circus there was the half-man/half-woman character who ruled the circus sideshows in the first half of the last century. This sexually shocking blow-off coaxed customers out of their remaining coins with the promise of seeing taboo nudity under the guise of medical curiousity.

Johnny Meah, a sideshow performer turned historian, asserts that these performers were rarely intersexed individuals. More often, says Meah, the ballyhooed “freak” was a clever female impersonator as were many of the hoochie koochie girls who provided the midway with titillation and, occasionally, surreptitious prostitution. For a lucky few who were skilled with makeup running away with the circus was a way to explore sexual and gender identity.

Homos may no longer feel the need to run away to the circus to be themselves but many end up in the big top biz just the same. Xtra cover model September Smith is an aerial artist based out of Sante Fe, New Mexico where she says the majority of local performers are queer. She attributes this in part to a great freedom among queers to depart from the responsibilities of parenting.

“[As a queer person] you have more space in your life for circus,” says Smith. “I feel pretty indulgent that I get to go to circus school. My sister, who is younger than me has a kid… doesn’t have as much freedom as me to go and train every day.”

Jerry Nadal, Cirque du Soleil’s openly gay senior vice president of resident shows, says being out at Cirque is “not even an issue.”?Although the circus world is still very family oriented (traditional circus techniques are often handed down from generation to generation) Nadal notes that talent trumps all, with Cirque performers coming from more than 25 countries and encompassing a wide variety of “cultural backgrounds and languages.”?He adds “lifestyle” only as an afterthought.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, the world’s largest and most prestigious circus, had an openly gay ringmaster, Eric Michael Gillett, from 1987 to 1997.

“I’ve always been openly gay,” Gillett once said. “It would never occur to me to behave otherwise.”

The circus conglomerate has also featured a team of out clowns. Bo Allen and Alan Ware were a hit with an act that lampooned then omnipresent homophobe Dr Laura.

Elsewhere in the clowning world Dustin Portillo and Brandon Foster are making their marks as scene-stealing cut-ups in the current edition of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Ouchy the Clown, the San Francisco-based clown, dominatrix, certified business meeting facilitator and DJ, leads the Clown Porn Posse, a group that melds humour and erotica. His dildo and whip-wielding appearance in Titan Media’s gay porn film Cirque Noir is overshadowed only by female-to-male trans porn star Buck Angel’s unfortunate turn (the freak angle of his vagina is exploited in true sideshow tradition).

Ducky Doolittle aka Knockers the Clown (best known for spanking radio personality Howard Stern with a rubber chicken), appeared at Buddies in Bad Times earlier this year in the one-clown show Knock Out. Drag artist Joey Arias is the “Mistress of Seduction” hostess of Zumanity and brags of taking three hours to complete her makeup — as much as any clown. And, blatantly courting gay circusphiles, pornmeister Kristen Bjorn oversaw the lush porn production Under the Big Top where the opera Pagliacci is reimagined with a threeway on a trapeze.

The magic of the circus to transform transgressive or “freakish” acts into erotically charged moments is perhaps best exemplified by a moment in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Corteo. Two little people clowns, Grigor Pahlevanyan and Valentyna Paylevanyan, perform a shamelessly romantic balancing act on a vertical ring set on a revolving platform. At first the audience, with their Vogue/GQ-trained eyes, titter uncomfortably at the midget musculature presented as a carnal ideal. But as the act progresses and the emotions expressed grow rawer one can only watch in wonder and envy as the sinews strain into sensual beauty.

If sex appeal mingled with the thrill of transgressing social taboos aren’t enough, Paul Bouissac, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, has an additional explanation for the circus’ allure. Bouissac, who briefly ran a Toronto-based circus in the early ’60s, is the author of Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach, posits that a major part of the charge of the circus is the risk factor. Risk creates a rush of adrenaline and that excitement, combined with real-life performers flaunting their beautifully sculpted bodies, creates an undeniable charge.

In a world numbed by computer-generated special effects death-defying acts of sheer physical bravado and tremendous skill gain an extra frisson. The horses at Avaia thunder so close to seats that the spectators shudder with delight as wind blasts their faces. In the Braveheart-meets-West Side Story Cossack segment a knife aimed at a shield flies into the shocked crowd. There are more gasps of sheer horror and delight as a horse misses a turn, falls and almost crushes its rider. But the show goes on and the performers are triumphant. As the equestrian acrobat, with the artfully torn bodice revealing his sweaty pumped pecs, raises his arms in triumph the erotic conquest of the big top is complete.

Now that’s entertainment.