At least 15 circuses are currently on the move in Switzerland, descending on town after town in colourful cavalcades. But shrinking audiences and rising costs mean that, for most of them, the season is a fight for survival.
However, thanks to innovative programmes and new sources of income, the circus troupes seem to be winning the battle.
"Circuses have had to change to survive," says Katharina Strub, a member of the Swiss Friends of the Circus. "They've had to rethink everything that a traditional circus offers in order to decide how they want to distinguish themselves from each other."
This doesn't mean that acrobats, animal trainers and clowns have disappeared from the ring. Instead, these traditional acts have often been reorganised around a theme or supplemented with new forms of entertainment.
The Starlight and Monti circuses use their acts to tell a story, turning their performances into plays. Viva is known for creative conjuring tricks and Medrano for animal acts, while Stey features special guest stars from foreign circuses.
Circus has a long history in Switzerland. Knie, Switzerland's largest circus, opened in 1919.
By 1950 there were five Swiss circuses - Knie, Nock, Stey, Royal, and Olympia - all run by traditional circus families. The Steys, for example, trace their history as Swiss acrobats back to 1437, while the Knies' first performing ancestor was born in Austria in 1784.
Despite financial challenges and the development of other forms of entertainment, new Swiss circuses have sprung up over the past 20 years, some founded by younger members of well-known circus families and others by newcomers.
By the time the touring season peaks in August, at least 25 circuses and variety shows will have been presented around the country, and the competition is fierce.
The fear of being deliberately upstaged has led Viva to keep its touring dates a secret. "We have done that ever since we arrived at the first of our usual stops in the Valais and found that another circus had visited every town where we traditionally perform just a few days before we were due there," says Viva's co-director Margeritha Zimmermann.
Viva, with a staff of 16, can break even with 200 people at afternoon shows and 90 in the evenings, while Knie requires an average audience of 1,800 to carry on. After 40 years in the business, Knie's publicity director, Chris Krenger, is philosophical about the future of Swiss circuses.
"Each year we circus people complain about the competition and predict that this one or that one will go broke," he says. "But somehow all the circuses manage to reappear each spring."
To supplement their incomes, many circuses rent their tents for private parties. Another popular innovation is to invite families or groups of children to spend a week living among the performers, participating in rehearsals and watching every show.
Clemens Lüthard, Benedicte Bütler, and their baby son are the owners of the tiny Kunos Circus Theatre and, with their two dogs, its sole performers. Last season, the shows in their100-person tent were usually sold out.
Lüthard fears not competition itself but bad competition. "As long as every circus is great, there can never be too many, because when you see a good circus, you want to see another. But if you see just one lousy circus, then the next time a circus comes to town you don't go - and that hurts us all."
by Kim Hays
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