Cirque Baroque from France are playing the Edinburgh Fringe. Their show Candides is a version, with several Candides, of Voltaire's conte philosophique. There is a Candide who dances on a tightrope; a Candide who holds up an 18ft pole for his female counterpart, Cunegonde, to balance on; and a Candide and Cunegonde who endure Voltaire's litany of horrors, from the Lisbon earthquake to beatings and executions by hanging. The performers wear grisly masks and rush about in hysterical hordes to pounding music played by a live band. This is not your usual kiddies' circus. So how did the children in the first-night audience react? They loved it, obviously fed a TV diet of blood-spurting shoot-outs and stomach-heaving special effects.
Cirque Baroque, founded in 1987 by Christian Taguet, takes its name from the original French meaning of baroque: "contrary to the norm", the norm being traditional circus. Ten years ago, the New Circus movement was still establishing itself. What is New Circus? A genre notable for its diversity, of which Archaos - extensively toured in the UK - and Cirque Baroque are differing examples. Still, Taguet and his promoters are agreed on the basic rules: no performing seals, lions and elephants; no conventional format of autonomous display acts linked by a ringmaster. "Instead," says Candides' promoter Adrian Evans, "the acts are integrated into a cohesive theatrical whole. Moreover, in traditional circus, these acts, each very difficult and performed with grace, will not tell you anything else. But New Circus makes the assumption that we no longer want to see only skills and thrills. We want them to be spiced with poetry and dramatic meaning and subtlety. The way they touch our feelings is now more important than the ooh-aah factor."
Candides, created in 1995 by Taguet and the Chilean mime director Mauricio Celedon, is Cirque Baroque's third show. Obviously, it is still circus. The white-clothed Candide and Cunegonde clearly belong to the lineage of clowns and commedia dell'arte characters; Dr Pangloss, Candide's mentor, who here might also be Voltaire and who exists in duplicate, is a relation of the ringmaster, a conjurer-up of personages and events. Candide's training in the use of arms becomes a juggling act between him and rows of soldiers; the sea journey to Eldorado is a sensational lurching tableau of swinging ropes and dangling figures; the Lisbon earthquake is translated into an image of hundreds of children's shoes, raining into the circus ring.
The level of technical skill falls short of the spectacular prowess of Russian and Chinese performers who might spend their whole careers focused on a single act. But that is not the objective of Cirque Baroque's 22 performers, required sometimes to turn their hand to several tricks. Above all, they are expected to have theatricality. "What I am looking for are circus actors," says Taguet, who started as an actor himself before becoming a tightrope walker and MC, "people who are masters of a skill - maybe even several skills - but who are also capable of adapting themselves to a mise-en-scene."
If the Chinese and East Europeans are so good, it is also because they come from cultures where circus is viewed as a high-calibre art, taught in elite schools. In the West, performers tended to be born into the profession, learning from their families, living a marginal, gypsy life. Today's performers, though, are different: they might have shopkeeper or lawyer parents, they live in houses and stay in hotels - they resort to camper vans when it becomes a financial imperative, as in these long UK fixtures. They also go to circus schools. In France alone, there are some 200, of which the foremost is the National Circus School at Chalons-en-Champagne. At first, this fresh breed of performer caused resentment. "In the 1970s, there were problems of coexistence," says Taguet. "Circus people had become a closed circle." Now, the new performers and new styles are well-established internationally; while, spurred perhaps by the competition, the traditional circus has made serious moves to revitalise itself. Taguet sees the mega- scale Cirque du Soleil from Quebec, for example - with shows simultaneously on tour in America, Japan and wherever - as a polished fusion of new and old forms.
Where does that leave circus in Britain? Not exactly thriving. The traditional Big Tops are struggling; animals are mostly frowned upon; and spectators are not terribly impressed by anything unless it is of exceptional calibre. Nor has British New Circus developed far beyond hippyish buskers. Most groups remain in the five- or six-performer category; larger ensembles like Cirque Baroque don't exist. Yet there are now two vocational schools: Circus Space in London's East End and Circomedia in Bristol. So you too can become a trapeze artist, provided you're in your teens and have already acquired some aptitude through evening classes. But, as in the fashion industry, the talent seeks work abroad, since they find so little here.
Adrian Evans plans to beat the odds with Circus City, a festival he is organising for London next year. "I'll be bringing acts from all over the world and using these to generate several British-based shows that can be toured over a lengthy period of time." Di Robson, another promoter, responsible for Cirque Baroque's London run next month at Three Mills Island in Bromley-by-Bow, is one of the people involved in founding a company, Still House, based on the island. Its building was once a gin and rum distillery and possesses huge gin stills; more importantly, it has extremely high ceilings - a rare but indispensable asset for aerial practice. "We also want the company to be rooted in the local community and we'll be offering classes for young people," says Robson. "And if they're keen and promising, we can refer them to either of the vocational schools."
"Il faut cultiver notre jardin'' was Voltaire's conclusion in Candide. Our circus certainly needs to cultivate its garden - although it knows that it cannot do this by cutting itself off from the world, but only by taking inspiration from it. And Cirque Baroque has a style and size and permanence it would like to emulate
Cirque Baroque: to 31 Aug, Leith Links, Edinburgh (0131-477 7200); 5- 21 Sept, Three Mills Island, Bromley-by-Bow, London E3 (0171-494 5491); 24 Sept-5 Oct, Chorlton Park, Manchester (0161-236 7110/832 1111)