Walking around Pigalle in the Parisian twilight I’m reminded of a quotation from Walt Whitman: “The past – the dark unfathomed retrospect! The past! The infinite greatness of the past!”. The present here is a neon seediness, but the past, oh how glamourous we imagine it to have been! The image we retain, the colour, the sounds, the laughter is pure belle époque, but even this was a term created in retrospect. It was only the horrors of the First World War that could make consumption and syphilis seem beautiful.
I am curious therefore when I see an advert for “Diana Moreno, le cirque de la belle époque.” What exactly is a belle époque circus? We know that the circus was an extremely popular diversion in Paris in the 19th century, with traces remaining notably in the paintings of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat. It was a form of entertainment that had grown out of equestrian events, with different acts added only when it became clear that new audiences did not appreciate how difficult it was to dress horses. The equestrian element had though made the circus an event that was popular with the nobility, and the belle époque circus was still a show that attracted spectators from a wide range of backgrounds.