Circus is one of the oldest and most popular art forms and during the last hundred years or so, it has also helped to revolutionise “straight” theatre by bringing back “theatre in the round” and introducing clown and music-hall techniques to wider audiences. The Italian futurists Marinetti and Bragaglia adopted circus styles and characterisations. Mayakovsky wrote for the clown Lazarenko, and his plays Klop (“The Bedbug”, 1929) and Banya (“The Bath-House”, 1930) employ pantomime satire. Early in the century, the French were also enthusiastic about music-hall and circus arts, as in Cocteau’s Parade (1917) for the Ballets Russes, and his play to music by Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The Ox on the Roof”, 1920) which was in fact played by clowns. Jacques Copeau admired the Fratellini trio as models for acting based on improvisation, and this trend was carried on by Jouvet, Dullin and Jerome Savary’s Grand Magic Circus (De Moise a Mao – “From Moses to Mao”) as well as in the work of Dario Fo and Raymond Devos. It’s this influence on Europe in Film, Theatre and performance by the Fratellini’s that leads me onto the story of ‘Little Annie’.
|Annie Fratellini, was the first female clown descendant to emerge from the great circus dynasty the Fratellini’s, and throughout her career she often made decisions that challenged the status-quo of traditional circus, and later on she took active steps in the development of what would be seen as contemporary circus. She did this with her second husband, Pierre Etaix and they founded the first circus school in Europe in 1975.|
She was herself a clown of genius, with jaunty bowler screwed on her ginger fright wig, a big crimson plastic nose, cheeky grin, two stylised black tears, paillettes on her eyelids, boat-like boots and baggy pants. She was the type of country bumpkin known as an “auguste” one who takes the mickey out of the silk-clad, bespangled “white-face” clown, to the delight of the audience. The auguste typically cannot be kept in control even by the ringmaster, known to the French as “Monsieur Loyal”.
”She harkened back to the golden age of clowning in France,” said Paul Binder, a founder of the Big Apple Circus, who worked with Miss Fratellini in the 1970’s after she saw him juggling on television. ”If there had been no Annie Fratellini, there would be no Big Apple Circus. She brought us to her circus and showed us the beauty of the intimate theatrical circus, and that was the inspiration for our circus.”
Miss Fratellini, born in a trunk, the fourth generation of one of Europe’s most famous circus families, was neither as droopy as Emmett Kelly nor as boisterous as Bozo. But for years she avoided following her father, grandfather and 22 other relatives into the ring. Instead, she sang in music halls and nightclubs until 1960, when she met and married Pierre Etaix, the person she credited with making her take her talent for clowning seriously.
”I was born a clown,” she said in 1977. ”I never felt comfortable as a woman. It took Pierre to recognize that.”
In the ring, Mr. Etaix was the serious one who specialized in elegant sleight-of-hand. Miss Fratellini was dizzy and outlandish-looking, an overgrown child with a painted-on smile and half-moon eyebrows. When Mr. Etaix lifted off his top hat with a flourish, she was standing by with water to dump in it. When she had the spotlight to herself, she would play two concertinas at once, or try to. She would let the two instruments cascade toward the ground like a waterfall as she made the crowd laugh with her body-bending stage business. Or she would poke fun at French expressions like ”Il est encore jeune” (it is still too young), which is normally used to describe wine that is not mature enough to drink. Mr. Etaix would go onstage playing a baritone saxophone. She would step into the spotlight with a miniature sax and interrupt him.
”Why is that saxophone so small?” he would ask.
”Il est encore jeune,” she would reply.
But Miss Fratellini did not get many laughs at her debut. ”Circus people didn’t believe that a woman could take pratfalls, get slapped and kicked and be ridiculous,” she recalled in 1977, arguing passionately that women could be acclaimed clowns.
”A clown is sexless, so you must hide your breasts and face,” she said. ”But women have more sensitivity, the essential quality. It’s not a question of gaiety or humor. A clown isn’t a comedian. To be a good clown you must have lived.” ”To be a clown means more than just putting on a costume and making funny faces at the audience,” Miss Fratellini said in 1993. ”The clown must take the audience on a unique adventure in a strange dimension.”
Little Annie was the first of the Fratellini offspring ever to attend school. But her real education was the family circus, where she learned all the classic disciplines. Her uncle, Albert Fratellini, taught her acrobatics, the basis of all good clowning, and her father, Victor, the trapeze and the art of the clown. Her mother, Suzanne, taught her music: she was the daughter of Gaston Rousseau, fabled director of Le Cirque de Paris. Annie played soprano sax, clarinet, vibraphone, accordion, violin and piano. She made her circus debut at the age of 13 at the Medrano, after a trial run at the family circus balancing on a huge beach-ball and playing the saxophone.
Pierre her husband had also been successful, as an actor he can be seen in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and as a clown, partnering Nino. He had been assistant to Jacques Tati for Mon Oncle (1958) and directed several movies including Le Grand Amour, starring Annie. But they were both nostalgic for the circus and that is what prompted them to perform together with the Cirque Pinder in 1971. Annie played in her husband’s play A quoi on joue ce soir? (“What are we Playing Tonight?”) at the Theatre Hebertot in Paris in 1973. But that was virtually the last of their theatre ventures. The circus school took all their time and energy.
The Ecole Nationale du Cirque had its permanent chapiteau or Big Top at the Porte de la Villette. Students were not drawn from circus families, another aspect of the school that was to help to bring new blood into the business. They were all given basic training in dance, acrobatics, high wire, trapeze, juggling, clowning and souplesse (contortionism). At the same time, taking their cue from Annie, they learnt courage and imagination, how to take initiatives in emergencies, how to improvise, how to cover up faults and accidents and, most important, how to take a bow.
Annie started a new Fratellini (“little brothers”) trio with Pierre and Valerie, her daughter by her first husband, the film director Granier- Deferre, who had starred her in his comedy Metamorphose des cloportes (“Metamorphosis of the Wood-Lice”) in 1965. Valerie and Pierre were the “white-face” elegants Annie’s auguste always got the better of in hilarious slapstick fashion.
Annie Fratellini’s last appearance was in April in Concerto pour un clown at the Cite de la Musique in Paris, with a host of her pupils past and present. To music by Piazzolla, Milhaud, Bach, Trenet, Satie, Nino Rota and Gershwin she helped them to illustrate and illuminate every discipline.
Annie Fratellini, actress, circus artiste and clown: born Algiers 14 November 1932; married 1954 Pierre Granier-Deferre (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1969 Pierre Etaix; died Paris 1 July 1977.