Archaos: When Hell's Angels met Billy Smart's

Miranda Kiek
Friday 20 August 2010 00:00 BST

Roll up, roll up – for an exhibition about the radical collectivist circus Archaos, running as part of the Mayor's Thames Festival this September.

It used to be that a trip to the circus invariably meant a series of sprightly performances accompanied by jolly music and overseen by a ringmaster in coat-tails and a top hat. The development of Nouveau Cirque in the seventies started to change all that. Archaos was a leading exponent of Nouveau Cirque and took a main role in the reshaping of the circus world. Its influence can be seen today in companies such as the Cirque du Soleil.

The exhibition, Archaos: Cirque de Caractère amasses memories from performers, press clippings, video extracts and photographs from the likes of Gavin Evans and Dominique Margot. These will be put in context by Sophie Kennedy Martin's history of the troupe.

Anarchist is not the adjective one would readily associate with a circus troupe, but anarchy is what Archaos aimed at. A "cross between Hell's Angels and Billy Smart's", Archaos sought out the motifs of the circus only to subvert them. Sequins were replaced by corrugated metal, artists juggled chainsaws rather than hoops, and girls on white horses gave way to stunt riders on motorbikes.

Twenty years ago Archaos was at the zenith of its success, but only a year later the troupe broke apart after a storm wrecked its uninsured tent. It was an apocalyptic end for an apocalyptic troupe. 1991 was also a year in which British manufacturing was wracked by the storms of a recession: manufacturing jobs fell to under half a million for the first time since records began.

There is a strange irony in the fact that a circus which modelled its acts on an "infernal factory" and prided itself on capturing the zeitgeist should implode at the same time as the manufacturing industry. The story of the rise, the demise and the afterlife of the doomed Archaos promises to be as at least fascinating as one of their original performances.

Archaos: the Sensations of the Circus World is at the Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, London from 9-12 September. Admission is free

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