Go Inside the Magical Life of Europe’s Family Circuses

Get lost in the drama of the contemporary circus world.

By Abby Sewell
photographs by Stephanie Gengotti
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:39 BST
Photograph by Stephanie Gengotti

A small boy stands in the middle of a wooden dock with the calm, sun-dappled water of the Rhône river stretching behind him, fixated on three oranges that appear suspended above his head.

In her series “Circus Love,” photographer Stephanie Gengotti captured scenes of the mundane and the magical while embedded with Europe’s independent circus troupes.

Gengotti discovered the world of Nouveau Cirque while shooting Cirque Bidon in 2016, a French circus troupe that tours in a caravan of horse-drawn wagons. It was her first exposure to the contemporary circus world, which has left behind tigers and elephants in favor of a more theater-based style of performances. In these new circuses–the largest and most well-known being Cirque du Soleil–human performers take center stage with a mixture of drama, acrobatics, art, and dance.

“I always thought the circus is a traditional place with animals and things like this, which is what I saw when I was a kid,” Gengotti says. “But when I saw this, I just flew to another planet.”

Cirque Bidon piqued her curiosity about what it would be like to live on the road with a family troupe. She followed three circus families from different parts of Europe, traveling with each of them for about 10 days to experience all aspects of life on the road.

“I really tried to live with them like I was a family member,” Gengotti says.

That meant helping with cooking and cleaning, passing out fliers, and childcare. The resulting photos focus very little on the performance itself, and instead shed light on everyday life. Gengotti’s infatuation with the circus lifestyle grew. She found a slower pace of life that seemed a throwback to the days before constant digital distractions and an oasis of whimsy “in a society that has lost all its poetry,” she says.

Back home in Rome, “I get up in the morning and I start running and I don’t stop until night. In the circus, time is really slow. One day really lasts one day.”

She captured the scene of the children on the dock during her time with Les Pêcheurs de Rêves (or “Fishers of Dreams”), a small troupe consisting of French husband-and-wife duo Vincent and Florence Duschmitt, who have been on the road together for 20 years.

Their children, 10-year-old Zoran and 13-year-old Zia, do not perform in the show but accompany their parents on the road as school allows and have begun to pick up the art form, Florence said.

Zoran and Zia rehearse a small show they will put on for their parents.
Photograph by Stephanie Gengotti

They are a tight-knit, matriarchal clan. “She is the boss and I am the boss, but not the first boss–the second boss,” Vincent says.

The Duschmitts’ current show explores the love story between a pair of clowns–one that roughly mirrors their own–in a wordless series of comedic sketches and acrobatic acts, culminating with a lovers’ tango dance. Florence described their performance style as “visual poetry.”

“It takes time to make a real story without text, to make it interesting from beginning to end, to have it make sense,” she says.

Florence said Gengotti’s images transported her back to a happy summer spent performing in rural France.

“It was really interesting to see us in her eyes, the way she sees us, with the sun in Avignon,” she says.

Manu, Lisa, Luca, and Maria of the Brunette Bros. pose for a portrait after their clown show.
Photograph by Stephanie Gengotti

As for Gengotti, who is planning to head out on the road again with Cirque Bidon this summer, she says that every time she returns from the circus to normal life, she finds herself itching to go back.

“I like the idea to be part of a family you choose, and also the sense of freedom,” Gengotti says. “They don’t have to respond to any chief, and they don’t have to thank any boss. They are the owners of their own life.”

Zia gazes out the window of the caravan, waiting for her parents to return from their performance in Avignon.

Photograph by Stephanie Gengotti
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