The family circus has arrived in Greater Manchester
For many of us, growing up with pets meant a few hamsters, a tank of goldfish, maybe a fat labrador or two. But for members of Planet Circus, tiger cubs were perfectly ordinary house pets.
It’s also fairly ordinary to have been riding motorbikes by the age of seven, or spinning upside-down in front of an audience before even getting to secondary school age.
Everyday things such as working a 9-5 shift, bumping into a familiar face in Tesco, or going to the pub with your mates? That’s what’s missing when you live life on the road with the circus.
A troupe of performers have arrived at the AJ Bell stadium in Eccles, where they will be performing twice a day until May 12.
Among them are aerial performers, motorbike stunt riders and clowns, many of whom know nothing other than circus life.
Ben Coles, stage name Benji the Clown, has been performing with the circus for as long as he can remember – and is the troupe member responsible for those tiger cubs in the living room.
“When I was a kid, me and my cousin used to have tiger cubs in our caravan,” he said. “I’ve been around these animals my whole life, I used to make their food and clean them out, make sure everything was nice for them. Then when I turned 16 my uncle taught me how to train them.
“The mother tigers sometimes eat their young when they get bored of them, so we’d have to keep a close eye on them. If there was any sign of that happening at all, we’d take the cubs away and bottle feed them. Which is how we came to have tigers hanging out with us! Tightrope performer with Planet Circus (Image: Manchester Evening News)
“We used to have all sorts of animals – lions, horses, alligators, snakes, zebra, dogs, even a rare white tiger at one point.”
This was back in Ireland, when Ben lived with Duffy’s circus, owned by his uncle. He was 18 when he made the move to the UK, but hasn’t sat still for long since then.
“I’ve travelled a lot, you’re very lucky with this job,” he said. “I’ve been to South Africa, China, Singapore, Malta, France, Australia. I’m 29 now and I’ve been to 23 countries.
“I’ve managed to learn a few languages working with a circus. I speak Chinese and Russian. At school, all I studied was German and I was rubbish at it, never got the hang of it. Kizzy, one half of the Gemini Sisters at Planet Circus (Image: Manchester Evening News)
“It’s fun, but it is hard work. It’s seven days a week, it’s not for the faint-hearted. I think a lot of people get excited by the travel and the sequins and the lights and then realise how tough it is. You don’t stop. But you get to see so much and so many places. I’m looking out of my window at Old Trafford right now, and next week it’ll be something different.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I left for a few months when I was younger, was close to settling down in Chelmsford in Essex. It was lovely, I had a group of mates around me who I actually got to see all the time, you’d bump into people you knew in Tesco – that doesn’t happen to me now, ever.
“It didn’t take long before I missed the attention, the thrill, the ring – I missed entertaining people. I do pantomime in the winter months and I love stand-up, but I always want to be with a crowd now. I can’t see that ever changing.” Bikers with Planet Circus (Image: Manchester Evening News)
Working alongside Ben – though in an entirely different discipline – is 19-year-old Peter Pavlov.
He’s appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, but you’d struggle to recognise Peter when he’s performing. Even if you can identify him in his leathers and helmet you’d have a hard time keeping an eye on him.
He, alongside four other motorbike riders, piles into a metal cage known as the Globe of Death, where they whizz around at 60mph, passing within inches of one another.
The globe is just 4 metres wide. At times, there have been seven motorcycles within it. The riders travel so fast the G-force can keep them upside-down.
It is, by all accounts, a terrifying prospect. But not to Peter. He can remember nothing else.
“I’ve been in the circus all my life,” he said. “My mum’s parents owned a circus from when she was born so I was literally born into it. Svilen and Edison who perform in the ‘Wheel of death’ (Image: Manchester Evening News)
“I love being on the road. I’ve got my whole family around me so I don’t find it difficult – my mum and dad used to perform but now they run it, my sister was an aerial performer before she became a mum.
“I’ve been into motorbikes since I was three years old. When you see kids doing something they love from a young age, they love it forever. I got a quad bike – just a battery-powered one – for my third birthday. I eventually broke that so then my dad got me a petrol quad. I got my first motorbike at seven and by the time I was eight I was training for the globe.”
Peter hopes to develop his skill and learn to master freestyle riding, clearing ramps and jumps on his motorbike – although he has a very clear career goal in mind, it seems like the circus way of life is too in his blood to ever leave him.
As well as his actual family, strong bonds form between performers. It’s crucial, when your life literally hangs in the balance. Flabson Rodrigues, a sky walker (Image: Manchester Evening News)
“You have to have serious trust and respect – we’ve only got seconds between each other, it takes almost nothing to have a really serious accident.
“I’ve already been injured, I dislocated my shoulder and had surgery on it, so now I’ve got three pins in my shoulder. During the recovery all I could think about was getting back on my bike.
“It’s not something that scares me – I would say I’m pretty fearless – but I always have nerves. Especially when something changes. At the minute there are five of us in the globe at once, but if we add in a sixth or even seventh, any change like that, that’s when the nerves really kick in and it gets a bit scary.
“Britain’s Got Talent wasn’t as exciting as you’d think. There’s a lot of waiting around. When you see people being really excited on TV it’s because they’re excited to perform to people – that’s just something I do every day. It’s normal for me.”
Planet Circus OMG! will be at the AJ Bell Stadium in Eccles until Sunday May 12, with various times available. Tickets for adults are priced between £9 and £15 depending on seats, with all tickets on Wednesdays and Thursdays priced at £6.99.
Discounts are available for concessions. For tickets and information, visit planetcircus.uk