Under the Big Top with Zirkus Knie: Birth of a Passion
By Liam Klenk
Last year, an icon of the circus world celebrated its 100th birthday: The Swiss Zirkus Knie. Swiss TV SRF filmed a wonderful documentary in their honor. It aired last November. I’ve provided the links for you at the end of this article.
While watching, I was delighted. In tears a bit, I must admit, since now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, everything has come to a halt and I miss my own work for contemporary circus shows. At least, Zirkus Knie was able to finish their anniversary tour at the end of last year before almost all live performances around the world were shut down.
The well-made documentary about this Swiss flagship began with the narrator saying, “The story of the Knie family is the story of love and passion for the circus. But, for 100 years, there has also been plenty of drama and strife to be able to pass on the circus to the next generations.”
This struck an instant chord with me.
My dad watched as well and asked, “But, isn’t there mostly harmony? To enable them to smile onstage for the audience and project such good energy?”
“No Dad, there isn’t,” I said, “There can’t be. It’s impossible considering they live and work together so closely every day. But it’s OK. Because those frictions are part of the human experience. And, ultimately, no matter what happens, everyone works towards a common goal: to perform the best show they possibly can, on a daily basis.”
In the words of Geraldine and Franco Knie:
“This is our life. It’s what we grew up with. We don’t know anything else. We learned from an early age that the show takes priority over anything else. You either love it or you don’t. Not everything’s always hunky dory. We’re selling emotions, so we also need to live them and share them.”
Watching several generations of the Knie dynasty speak about their circus life reminded me of some of my own experiences in the entertainment industry… as well as drove some points home that I had learned over the course of the last decade. Every minute of listening to the Knie family members describing their traditional backstage circus life felt strangely familiar, home, and… in so many ways… clarifying.
Many years ago, as a photography student, I spent one month photographing during the creation of a Knie show which featured Cirque du Soleil. After this experience, I went to see Zirkus Knie every year. Enchanted! As Cirque du Soleil began touring Europe more frequently, I also went to every Cirque du Soleil show I could. Enthralled! I was always the last one to leave the auditorium. I was sad to say goodbye after every performance. Whenever I could sneak in, I visited backstage, too. Life was never quite the same again. I knew, I needed to get backstage on a more permanent basis.
Over the years, I worked hard and gradually found my way into working for contemporary circus shows.
Since then, with every passing year of doing so, I am surer of where I belong.
When I began working full time in the entertainment industry in 2009, I was thrown straight into one of the biggest extravaganzas on Earth – The House of Dancing Water in Macau. At the time, I was both mesmerized and overwhelmed by the experience. As I learned how to function in a production with 300 cast and crew, I was struck by the genius vision and beauty of the show we worked for. At the same time, I was also struck quite heavily by the myriad of human conflicts, misunderstandings, and daily moments of drama. I began thinking of it as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde… beautiful on stage, yet with a definite dark side lurking behind the curtains.
Little did I understand at the time that I was simply not yet mature enough to grasp the dynamics of working within a large show family. I had not yet learned to remain calm. I had not yet learned not to take things personally. And I had not yet learned to appreciate other people exactly as they are.
As Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology once said, “People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right-hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”
Working around the globe in multinational show environments has helped me appreciate his profound sentiment first-hand.
I am still in awe. More so with every passing day.
Simply said, when I first worked for acrobatics shows, I had not yet understood the necessity to take whatever was thrown at me with a grain of salt. How could there be no drama, and how could things not get complicated when up to thirty or forty nationalities and mentalities worked together (sometimes to the brink of exhaustion) to achieve one common goal? We all came from radically different backgrounds. We all dealt with our private demons. Many times, while we worked on a show, our personal lives crashed spectacularly. Add to this the fact that at any given moment we all experienced and perceived the same situation totally different from each other, based on the life experiences we had accumulated up until that point.
Franco Knie is spot on when he says, “We’re selling emotions, so we also need to live them and share them.” For how are we able to project emotions on stage, how are we able to touch the audience, if we are not profoundly human ourselves?
For me, the growth process was multifaceted. Additionally, to the complex emotional environment backstage, to slowly learning to read human behavior better, and to not get offended by it, I had to unlearn some German and Swiss conditioning.
I had grown up in a tidy and controlled German environment plus had later on spent years working in highly perfectionist Swiss work environments. This helped me in many ways in regards to my own work performance. I was always on time, organized, and attentive to detail. On the other hand, it had made me rigid and unawares of the fact that there are always multiple ways to get to Rome and mine might not necessarily be the best one. I had to let go. Of the perfect world. Of some of my ego. Of my preconceptions.
Growing as an employee, as a stage manager, and as part of a collaborative team operating under a lot of pressure, I also had to accept the inevitability of politics and personal agendas within any company (be it in entertainment or other industries for that matter).
On a whole separate level, I needed to learn how imperative hierarchy and discipline are in theater and shows. How crucial structure and repetition are to build consistency, protect the artistic vision, and ensure a good, safe performance in the long run.
I had to embrace ambivalence.
Shows are strange creatures. All the colorful joie de vivre we present on stage can only be performed and sustained by strict discipline and dedication backstage. Especially for shows running over a long period of time. It is no democracy. It can’t be.
Slowly, but surely, I came to the realization that what I had learned in Swiss management offices and movie theaters would never translate directly to working in a multinational show environment. There could be no flat hierarchy, there could be no work environment built on a projected twenty-year development plan. This was show business. Ever unpredictable, demanding of us to grow and roll with the punches, and to never quite know what the next week, month, or year might bring.
I had stepped through the wardrobe and gone from neatly fenced pastures, and manicured meadows with black and white cows to a land of fairies and dragons.
While battling and dancing with an even amount of both fairies and dragons, I was (and still am) un-becoming and re-discovering myself. I am still struggling every now and then. With myself as much as with the ever-changing environments around me. But I am also treasuring every minute of my international show life.
It’s like Geraldine Knie said. “You love it or you hate it.”
Turns out, I love it.
I was wrong. There is no Jekyll and Hyde. There is no darkness lurking backstage other than the obvious visual blackness we have created intentionally so as to blend unnoticed into the background and allow our audiences to focus on what happens onstage.
As we wait in the wings behind those curtains, there is just as much magic backstage as there is onstage. With the difference that the magic we experience backstage is rooted far more in real life, in our life, in the hard-working life of cast and crew.
As we get closer to top of show, any experienced member of a show family knows and treasures the intensity of working together backstage during a performance (and I won’t even begin talking about the vastly more intense work experience of doing a creation together). Some might have screamed at each other over breakfast, some might have just had a messy break-up after getting romantically involved with each other, someone’s grandma might have just died, or they might be annoyed at each other for a million reasons… it doesn’t matter. The moment preset begins, cast and crew focus entirely on the show. They work together. They are professional and dedicated. They watch each other’s backs. They direct their collective energy to delivering that onstage magic the audience has come for and is longing for.
If all goes well, the crew will never even be noticed by the crowd. And this is our common goal, to provide uninterrupted immersion. Everything will be timed to the second. We will be working together like a well-oiled machine. And when a little bit of sand gets caught between the cogs, through technical difficulties or whatever else that may happen, we’ll swiftly – hopefully even on the go – lubricate that faltering machine somehow and keep going strong.
The Show Must Go On. Always.
I worked for The House of Dancing Water for four years, then for another acrobatics (and stunt) circus show in Macau, and then for yet another aquatics circus show. This one on the Oasis of the Seas, a behemoth amongst cruise ships.
I’ve now accumulated about a decade of show experience. It’s never been easy. But it’s always been fulfilling and worthwhile.
Over the years, I have also worked for smaller theater productions, yet my undying love affair lies with acrobatics and contemporary circus shows. Working with athletes and performers as a stage manager is one of my greatest joys. There is something about mixing the performing arts with stunning athletic accomplishments and classic circus elements that I find irresistibly exhilarating and inspiring. There is something about the dedication, passion, and controlled daredevil spirit of such acrobatic performances that jibes with my personality.
Doing my small part backstage to help present an unforgettable experience to our audiences, is where I find the end of my rainbow.
Here are the links to the documentary “Dynasty Knie – 100 Years National Circus.”
Two parts (1 ½ hours each). In Swiss German, with English subtitles.