Swings and roundabouts

Moscow State Circus On tour
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Going to the circus with my three-year-old son raised a problem with "childhood wonder" that I had not previously considered. The problem being this: that a lot of wonder is actually rather sophisticated in its operation. It's the result not of wide-eyed innocence, but of a more jaded knowledge of how the world conventionally works. Visiting the Moscow State Circus last week, for instance, it was clear that my son found it pretty wonderful to be inside a large striped tent on a sunny afternoon. I quite liked this myself, to be honest - entering that hot, noisy darkness, waiting eagerly for the spectacle - but it wouldn't, for any adult, be worth the price of admission alone.

The first act, described in the programme as the Russian Bar, came closer to filling that description and, I suspect, would have much the same effect on old and young. It consists of a long, very flexible pole, held at shoulder height by two strong pairs of shoulders (Igor and Oleg, I like to think). This is then used to bounce acrobats to alarming heights. The ascent is remarkable enough, a reckless snubbing of gravity, but the landing is more breathtaking still - back on to the same narrow perch - and that after a couple of somersaults. Clearly, even if you're three years old and generously credulous about the powers of adults, this is manifestly dangerous behaviour.

The next act, Elena and Lioudvig Chtchoukine on the Aerial Straps was less clear cut. It's just a big rope swing, in essence, but one used with extraordinary grace and cleverness; at one point the man lifts his feet from the floor and swoops in a low parabola round the circus ring - passing by like a swallow, his arms spread. I thought it was wonderful - but wondered, too, whether such hard-won ease is not self-defeating in younger eyes. There was more than one point in the performance where I felt like leaning sideways and whispering, "I know this looks easy - but actually it's incredibly difficult".

In this particular respect any animal-free circus is up against a problem - beasts providing a thrill which is independent of skill as well as a useful variation on human routines. I know all the arguments against animal acts; I accept most of them - an elephant's place is clearly not on top of an industrial-strength beach-ball. But there is still something anaemic about the corrected version, that faint despondency of decaffeinated coffee and alcohol-free lager. The Moscow State Circus goes some way to surmounting this problem with a considerable variety of acts in addition to the familiar favourites -- the highwire and trapeze. You get acrobatics, illusions and some dazzlingly visual forms of juggling; Elena Iniakina gyrated inside a mass of iridescent hula-hoops, like a human Slinky, and the somewhat clunkily-named Flying Hats redeemed an early patch of butterfingers by filling the air with a glittering blizzard of synchronised clown's hats.

My son's favourite, though, judging from the width of his eyes, were the quick-change artists - in particular a final transformation achieved under cover of glitter dust alone. This, I'm sure, was a more sophisticated wonder. If you took as long as he does to get dressed in the morning, you'd be astounded too.

n On tour until November (Details / booking: 01604 787777)