With acts from around the globe under one canvas roof, the UniverSoul Circus is bringing an urban edge – and a whole lot of joy – to Edinburgh
It's not until the opening routine of UniverSoul Circus: Hip Hop Under the Big Top comes to an end, that you realise what your face is doing. Eyes wide and shining, mouth open and smiling, and a sense you've become Tom Hanks in Big (unless you're a child already, of course).
So full of colour and wonder is the carnival celebration by Trinidad and Tobago group, Caribbean Dynasty, that the stilt-walkers, giant puppet and brightly costumed dancers catch you in their wave of energy.
Which is exactly the response UniverSoul founder, Cedric Walker, is going for. 'That's our goal,' he says. 'It takes you to a place where you turn into a child again and forget about all your problems.' A lovely sentiment, but Walker's reasons for starting his company 25 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia had much deeper roots.
'It was an idea whose time had come,' he says. 'In America back then, there was no family entertainment that reflected the urban culture – meaning the dance, energy, colourfulness of the kids in the urban communities. So our initial goal was to bring families together and create a show that reflected their culture.'
Walker stage managed and produced live music and theatre shows before turning his hand to circus, including touring with 1980s soul group the Commodores. When he looked around, however, he saw black lives represented in theatre, film and music but not in large-scale family shows. At that point he decided: 'I want to be the Spike Lee of the live entertainment industry.'
credit: Boon Vong
A quarter of a century later, UniverSoul has played to over 25 million people and branched out both onstage and in the auditorium.
'It's done more than I expected, in that not only did it bring families together, it brought cultures together,' says Walker. 'We took in performers from America, Asia and Africa right from the start, but we performed it to mostly black audiences.
'But then it took on a life of its own and evolved. We're living in a time now where the internet allows us to learn about each other, which takes down the compartments that used to be there: this kind of music is only listened to by this kind of person, that sort of thing. And one of the most pleasing aspects of what we do, is bring cultures together – I love watching all these different people have fun at the same time, with each other.'
UniverSoul's Edinburgh show has performers from Cuba, South Africa, Mongolia, Colombia, Guinea and America – as well as the aforementioned Trinidad and Tobago crew, whose fire work will have you clamping your legs shut. Straddling a burning pole before dancing underneath it, six inches above the floor, the dancers keep on smiling.
'They don't get hurt,' assures Cheyenne Rose-Dailey, a member of the Caribbean Dynasty act, and the show's co-host with ringmaster Lucky Malatsi. 'There's a technique called bongo dancing, where you dance over the fire before going under it. So you're taught specifically where to place your feet and how not to get burnt. Usually you start learning when you're very young, about four or five, because your bones have to get used to going under.'
credit: Boon Vong
Rose-Dailey and Malatsi are responsible for building, and maintaining, the party atmosphere inside the UniverSoul tent. A member of the troupe since he was nine, Malatsi previously performed as an acrobat, contortionist and trapeze artist before they put a mic in his hand to 'see what I could do'. What he does, is get us all up on our feet.
'We're known for being the most interactive circus in the world,' says Malatsi. 'We consider this a show for the people – and not just for you to watch, but to be a part of. We get everyone dancing, throwing beach balls around and having fun. That's what it's all about at UniverSoul, we create the atmosphere of a family reunion.'
One act we won't be joining in with is the contortionism (although the incredible Mongolian acrobat team and Colombian tight-rope walkers probably wouldn't have us either), which almost beggars disbelief. When a performer from the Guinean Bone Breakers walks into the ring with one half of his body round the wrong way, it's just the start.
'Different parts of the world present different types of abilities and artists,' explains Walker. 'So when I'm looking for contortionists I go to Ethiopia or Guinea, and we use an African trainer because he understands their bodies.'
As with the rest of the cast, the contortionist group was found during one of Walker's regular global searches. 'We travel around and have agents in Paris and China that keep an eye out for us,' he explains. 'Our show is based on hip hop culture and urban-ness, so we look for acts that fit that energy and can perform at that tempo.'
UniverSoul Circus: Hip Hop Under the Big Top, Underbelly's Circus Hub, until 25 Aug, £19.50–£21.50 (£18.50–£20.50).
Underbelly and UniverSoul Circus After electrifying US audiences for 25 years, America's 'coolest show on earth' (Newsweek) comes to the UK for the first time. It's Hip-Hop Under the Big Top, combining edge-of-your-seat performances, stunning spectacle, hilarious audience participation and a soundtrack that will blow the…