In Berlin, the old patches of wasteland left by the bombings of World War Two are vanishing, replaced by shiny glass and granite luxury apartments. But sometimes, the remaining squares of grass and cracked concrete will throw up white tents, brightly painted caravans, and swirls of colored light bulbs, moth-eaten camels grinding hay in their teeth—the unmistakable children’s-book shorthand for the circus. Scarlet and yellow posters sprout on neighborhood lamp posts offering matinee performances and promising that the animals are well kept (“Doesn’t your dog like driving in a car?” asked one poster I saw. “Our dogs are no different.”) At least once a Christmas season, a zebra escapes and gallops through a German town. Despite the animal-welfare restrictions and Netflix, the circus endures.
I wasn’t a child who liked clowns, and, barring a large and sticky red lollipop, I barely remember being taken to the Moscow State Circus when it visited my British hometown, but for the last nine years I’ve been scratching up the time and funds to immerse myself in another circus—that of nineteenth-century Paris—for days at a time. I’m looking for fragments of lives, for women who lived at the center of public attention while simultaneously being marginal. They dealt with racism, misogyny, abuse, and great physical danger but, like the circus, they endured.
I read about the circus écuyères or “horsewomen” of that period in Hilda Nelson’s The Ecuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus when I was working on my first book, a cultural history of pony-mad girls called If Wishes Were Horses. They were perhaps the first professional horsewomen in an equestrian culture storied in masculinity. They came in two forms. One, another children’s-book silhouette recognizable from Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, and Picasso: the vaulter or acrobat who balanced on the broad barrel of a docile rosinback and leaped through flower hoops or wobbled in arabesques, as sinewy and feminine as a ballerina.
HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC, AT THE CIRCUS: WORK IN THE RING, 1899
The other circus horsewoman, the haute école écuyère, has largely disappeared from our consciousness, though she was the star of the nineteenth-century circus. She’s a dressage or “upper school” rider gingering up the classical moves of the courtly riding academies of early modern Europe by jumping over dinner tables and making her horse walk on its hind legs. She, too, was drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec in his 1899 “Au Cirque” series—the unnamed woman bent in a strange, spidery curtsey or sitting, pin-headed, in a severe riding habit on her horse.
The glamour of both types of horsewoman was impeccable, their skill and bravery vertiginous. These long-dead performers became celebrities to me, fleshed out beyond the Impressionist postcards: Elvira Guerra, the first woman to compete against men at the Olympics in 1900; Caroline Loyo, “the diva of the crop” whose black eyes and disciplinaire riding brought the Jockey Club boys to the Paris circuses; and Suzanne Valadon, the acrobat of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings who went on to be an artist herself after an injury cost her her career in the ring.
The modern circus was born in England in the late 1760s when a former soldier called Philip Astley pioneered the first recognizable circuses, centering on the horse. His wife, Patty Jones, became the first woman performer, standing on the backs of three horses as they cantered around the ring. Later she took to riding with her hands covered in bees. Hilda Nelson is wise to say she cannot pinpoint the first woman to ride haute école dressage in a circus, but Philippine Tourniaire, whose husband had previously worked for Astley, was performing dressage in 1801.
The circus rapidly transferred to Paris before the French Revolution, and local performers and showmen started rival establishments and dynasties. Paris became the capital of circus in the nineteenth century, with performers based not in tents but in grand, permanent buildings that seated up to six thousand people.
Horses were the medium that gave the circus, and the Paris circus especially, its tricky, fluid quality. The horse dominated Western society—from royalty to the poor, all encountered and worked with horses on a daily basis. Horses were working class—the brewery drays, the delivery vanners, the nags who pulled the omnibus and tram—but they were also aristocratic and bourgeois—the king’s favorite charger, the lady’s mount, the racehorse. In the horse and at the circus, all classes met.
By the early nineteenth-century, the old dressage of the military and aristocracy had been dealt a blow by changing fashions and the Revolution (Louis XVI was actually tried and sentenced to the guillotine in the old riding school of the Tuileries palace) but it was adopted and embellished by the circus and the hippodrome. The golden, spotted, or even “tiger” striped horses that had been treasures of the pre-Revolutionary court found a home in the Cirque Nouveau, the Cirque Fernando, and the Hippodrome at the Pont d’Alma. Circus absorbed the spectacle of the great European court “carrousels” of earlier centuries, turning diplomatic displays of pomp and power into entertainment for the masses. Compare a twentieth-century Barnum’s circus wagon to seventeenth-century paintings of gilded, curlicued wagons at court pageants—they are the same.
Horses lifted the circus into its peculiar orbit, part flashy and part illegitimate, an arena where wealthy white men found themselves admiring the skills of people from other walks of life. Philip Astley was the son of a cabinetmaker, not a duke, when he recreated the Battle of Waterloo and made his horse pour tea. Pablo Fanque (aka William Darby), from my hometown of Norwich, rode haute école at Astley’s in the 1840s as the “hit of the evening, never seen surpassed or even equaled.” Later he was the first black circus director in Britain. And the wealthy fans were stage-door johnnies to the écuyères, who performed male stunts on male horses in their half-masculine riding habits.
In their off-stage lives, the écuyères moved up and down the social scale. Many were from circus families, but others, like Elise Petzold or Jenny de Rahden, became performers by necessity when their fathers ruined their comfortable middle-class existences. The Bavarian Countess Ugarte spent so much money on horses that, after a divorce, she had to join the circus as an écuyère for funds. Top billing was no guarantee of financial security. Once-celebrated écuyères sometimes died in poverty. Antoinette Lejars was immortalized in the James Pradier statue that still sits on the facade of the Cirque d’Hiver but eked out a meager living as a circus usher in her old age. Countless others who did not make the grade or were injured early in their careers must also have faded down through the ranks.
JEANNE GRIZOLLES, ÉCUYÈRE HAUTE ÉCOLE. FROM LE SPORT UNIVERSEL ILLUSTRÉ, N° 168, 1899.
This combination of sex and sexism, ambiguity and dare-devilry drew me into archives in Paris, in Berlin, and online. Écuyères feature in the writing of French cultural giants like Balzac, the Brothers Goncourt, Octave Mirbeau, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Georges August Sala, but I wanted to encounter them not as literary devices but as real women. At the Archives de Paris, a chunk of brutalism next to a hay meadow in the XIXième, I combed boxes of dusty folded pink copies of the trade paper l’Intermédiaire Foraine. In the reading room of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, I flicked through what was left of the visitors’ cards of the photographer Gaspard-Félix Nadar and his son, Paul, who shot portraits of several of the horsewomen. In Spandau, the librarian greeted me with sheaves of printed-out book titles and a trolley full of back issues of Le Cirque dans l’Univers from the Berlin circus archives.
As I worked my way through the twentieth-century trade publications, they recorded the deaths first of that nineteenth-century generation, then of the early twentieth, and finally, of the historians who had written their obituaries in earlier editions. Circus history slips away under your eyes, leaving you grasping at scraps and ephemera, trying to stitch together stories about a world where the names are often false, the letters long gone, the account books evaporated. Circus research is addictive, a slot machine with no reliable prizes, that dishes out the goods at random and keeps you hankering after the next document box or microfiche.
I could find a shaky diagram of the Nouveau Cirque in Paris, with the names of the horses added to their individual stalls, but I couldn’t find out the identity of the enigmatic Selika Lazevski, who might have performed there. I found adverts for a horse-riding seal, a human diabolo (pictured, stuffed into a wooden reel and flying across the ring at altitude), and a clairvoyant called “the Black Princess Zama,” but there was no way of knowing the real name of Sarah l’Africaine, the stuntwoman who blew up the 1866-67 season with her pistols and “infernal exercises.” The only person I have so far truly run to ground was the composer Gustav Meyerbeer, whose 1865 opera, L’Africaine, probably inspired the stage names of both Sarah and Selika. I found him in the Jewish cemetery behind my apartment in Berlin, ten minutes from the camel-grazing land.
CIRCUS POSTER C. 1890‑1900 (SOURCE GALLICA DIGITAL LIBRARY)
But despite the patchiness of the material, the tarnish of misogyny, the missing details, and the counternarratives left out of the newspaper reports, the women’s stories emerged. Some of them are too brief to work into short essays. What about “Adèle,” a hippodrome horsewoman turned conwoman and absinthe addict? Wild Fanny Ghyga, who ran away from her army-officer husband to join the circus but fell in the arena and was dragged till she blacked out, later dying of her injuries? What more could be uncovered about the life story of Blanche Allarty-Molier, the “centauress” who managed the vaulting trick that killed a leading male acrobat—the first woman to do so—and married the aristocrat circus-owner who had been her teacher when she was thirteen?
Tristan Rémy’s essays in Le Cirque dans l’Univers feature a vaulter called Ella Zaroya who stormed the German circus scene with tricks never before achieved by woman nor man before returning to their native America and marrying a woman under their original gender (male) name, Omor Kingsley. Rémy also mentions an acrobat-écuyère named Willy-Lily, who never billed themself as male or female but both, and two white English women who blacked up and passed themselves off as “African” horsemen, “Publo Paddington” and “John Clifford” (Rémy said this worked until “John” got pregnant). Sadly he doesn’t give his sources. They’re a project for another time.
Even if the circus has lost top billing, women are still leading equestrian performers. Think of Camilla Naprous, who went into battle on Themyscira in Wonder Woman and who directs, coordinates and manages the horses for Game of Thrones. In France, Camille Galle of Théâtre du Centaure trots through the Gare de l’Est standing on the back of her black horse in a performance called Surgissements. Sabrina Sow of Equinoctis performs both dressage and vaulting and styles herself as “la Négresse à Cheval.” Géraldine Knie remains the star horsewoman of her Swiss circus dynasty, and the British circus world just lost the ringmistress and écuyère Nell Gifford, whose memoir, Josser, detailed the grit of life on the road. Of their precursors, five substantial stories did emerge from my research. I’ve already shared two here (those of Selika Lazevski and Sarah l’Africaine). Three more will follow in the coming months: Jenny de Rahden, Céleste Mogador, and Emilie Loisset. The éclat and daring of the old écuyères still lives on.
(Source: The Paris Review)