The greatest little show on Earth: Tiny travelling circuses face an uncertain future in Colombia

As Cirque de Soleil brings its lavish new show to London, Gillian Orr looks at the tiny, but colourful, travelling circuses that face an uncertain future in Colombia
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The Independent Culture

As Londoners welcome the Cirque de Soleil back into town with its lavish new show, Totem, it's a reminder that the circus, one of the oldest and best-loved forms of family entertainment, still has the power to delight crowds all over the world whether it is a Cirque de Soleil £20m production, the likes of which have earned the company more than $1bn since it began its acrobatic extravaganzas in 1984, or something rather less sh

In Medellín, Colombia, there are a dozen small circuses that travel around the poor barrios competing for business. It is a world away from the glitzy, expensive productions enjoyed in Britain. Costing just 1,500 pesos (around 50p) for a ticket, you can expect to be treated to juggling, balancing, flying trapeze and jumping through hoops ringed with knives, as well as the opportunity to buy homemade toffee apples or popcorn from one of the clowns.

The circuses are usually family affairs, and many have been in the business for generations. The Sombrillita Circus is one such troupe. The owner, William, plays the clown, while his wife dances with boa constrictors and their 10-year-old daughter, Karen, performs contortions.

The children begin by performing the more basic stunts: bending and balancing hoops, then graduate to balancing on top of stacked chairs before being allowed to take part in aerial acts such as the high wire. As the members get older, and their bodies begin to age, opportunities within the circus narrow. Unless they have the wit to become a clown, their place is in jeopardy.

And business is not good. Times are difficult in Medellín, and the public have grown bored of the circuses, deeming them unsophisticated forms of entertainment, meaning many of the travelling families have to endure a hand-to-mouth existence. They might lack the gloss of Totem, but behind the run-down tents and limited physicality of the cirqueros, there is a long legacy of friendship, rivalry and family.