Interview with Circus Artist David Dimitri: Creator of L’homme Cirque, the One-Man Circus
You come from a circus family. Did you always know you wanted to pursue this as well?
Yes, actually. My grandparents on both sides of my family were artists — sculptors, architects, craftsmen — and my father started in the theater. He was working with [French mime] Marcel Marceau, who told him “You’ve got to do your own show.” He became a clown and did his one-man show in theaters. One day [the director of the Swiss National Circus Knie] went to see him in a little theater, and hired him. In 1970, my family — two brothers, two sisters, and I — travelled along with the circus. It was a big success and they asked my father if he would come back in 1973. I was 9 years old at the time, and was fascinated by this world and I wanted to become a Circus artist — that’s how I became what I am now.
I had no idea then of what I was getting into. I just wanted to learn all the techniques so I could be in the circus. When I began to tour with them, I started with just a little act on the wire, and then they would ask me “would you like to be in another act, with elephants?” and I would say “yes.” So I did one thing after another for 15 years. I slowly got a little bored, and I wanted to do my own thing. I come from a family that is very creative, so I started to think about doing my own show. That was also a long process, but now I’m here with my own circus.
What kind of training did you need to enter the circus profession?
I went to Budapest, to a well-known circus school, when I was 14 years old. It was still a communist country at the time. I stayed there for four years, and learned Hungarian and all the circus skills. From there I went to New York, where I had three years of dance training at Julliard. At the same time, I started to work with the Big Apple Circus, as well as in movies, in commercials, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. There were all these available jobs; being a wire walker was something that was relatively rare. It was a very interesting and full period of my life. I did many, many things and met a lot of interesting people. A lot of people from the film industry came to the Big Apple Circus: I worked with [film directors] John Houston and Franco Zeferelli in little roles. It was incredible… you meet these people and you work on the same set. People like Robert DeNiro and Audrey Hepburn were always at the circus in New York, and it was just so incredible meeting them after a show. It was a very exciting life, those more than 10 years in New York. Then I went back to Europe to be with the Swiss National Circus Knie and I created this one-man show.
What inspirations did you use to create the One-Man Circus?
One, certainly, is my father, who always told me: “Make something really simple for everybody to understand.” Of course, I grew up watching all these black and white movies with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and they inspired me. But I was also inspired by the clowns in the circus — especially by those who were masters of timing. As you perform, when you do nothing versus when you react is very exciting to experiment with. There were many artists and performers in the theater world that I really admired, including Marcel Marceau and Philippe Petit.
How would you describe the Swiss Circus tradition compared to the U.S. Circus tradition?
The circus tradition in America goes back to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. At the beginning, it was similar to the Swiss circus of that time which also had an arena where they did open air shows on stages and the audience sat on bleachers around the outside. In the U.S., the circus was a big business that brought attractions to towns throughout the country, so it developed really fast into a money-making machine.
Switzerland was incredible because it was so small, but had so many circuses. I think, at times, there were 25 to 30 circuses in Switzerland, or even more — a really great tradition. Swiss circuses were smaller than those in the U.S., but were eventually able to develop. Their major investment was to get circus tents so people could sit inside. A man named Fredy Knie was the sort of leader of the circuses, and had the clever idea to make his circus “The National Circus.” That gave him a lot of publicity and people saved their money and time to go to the Swiss National Circus Knie. If you wanted to see one circus a year, then you might as well go see the big circus. But it was always done in this kind of intimate style — in the U.S. you would call it the “European style.”
Ringling Brothers, since it was so huge and needed to accommodate thousands of people at the same time, created this concept of the three rings. They built huge tents with a zoo and everything in the back, etc. As a result, the audience missed some details, like with clowns. When a clown would come out, it was in such a big space that many things done in European circuses — where a little light and a little facial expression could do everything — would not be noticeable. In America, clowns would hit each other over the head with a bat, would have red and blue hair, and would have explosives and other effects. Although, there were some great clowns in America too — such as Emmet Kelly or Lou Jacobs. Everything was much more visual, more eye-catching. In Switzerland, and in Europe generally, it was more profound, more detailed, with a deeper value.
Basically Ringling Brothers in the U.S. wanted to have big attractions, three things at the same time, and also to have people consume all the concessions and everything — that was the big business really, not just the ticket sales for the show itself. At the Swiss National Circus Knie, you buy the ticket, you sit down, and you just watch. You don’t go out and in, or go get cotton candy. It’s just a different approach.
How has your experience travelling and performing around the world influenced or changed the way you approach your performances?
In my one-man circus, I basically do the same thing everywhere, with very minor changes. There are little things like, for example, everything related to a horse prop I use: I could go from the countryside — where kids grow up with horses and on farms — to a city, where kids know what a horse is from seeing them on TV, etc., but not what it would mean to live with those animals. So perhaps the people who live around horses might understand that part of the show a bit better.
But over the 12 years I’ve been touring this show, I see a change in that audiences now seem much more interested in this kind of performance. Really, it’s the opposite of high-tech, my show. Everything is very handcrafted. I feel there is a need for people to find this kind of entertainment that is very basic but very authentic at the same time. They appreciate that, without really expecting anything or knowing what they’re in for when they come to my show. I feel that they’re relieved when they realize what they’re about to see: that is, something that is good for them, for the soul.
What’s next for you?
I would like to continue doing my show, but I am also getting more and more involved in the foundation my parents started: the Fondazione Dimitri, which is a theater school and general cultural center in the little town of Verscio, Switzerland. I’m the President of the Foundation and would like to be there more often, and try to bring it to the next level; to make sure there’s financial support for it and continue to develop it. The theater school my parents created in 1975 now has a university level with Bachelor’s and Master’s programs. It’s becoming very important, and has great potential. But I have many other projects as well. I will not abandon my show. I still want to go around the world with it.