Yecid’s clothes don’t fit him right, his shoes are four sizes too large, his left wrist sometimes pops out of place and always aches with arthritis. The mangled joint is a painful reminder of a fall he suffered at work. At the same job he’s had more than forty years, where every night his employer beats him and a gathered crowd of spectators applaud his humiliation.
This may seem exploitative, but Yecid has passion for his craft and hopes others find it silly. He’s a clown in the Darix Togni Il Florilegio Italian National Circus; his employer is the tiger-tamer and both say the Circus is more than work, it is a family and culture they will perpetuate.
“When you are born into it (the circus). It is a part of you, it’s in your blood,” Yecid says. He’s forty-five now and at this point has done every job under the big top. He sits on a concrete park bench between two temporary alligator ponds. In addition to clown duties he is also the crew’s chief animal wrangler and makes nightly cameos with the trapeze act. “The circus gives me joy, I live for the adventure.”
Yecid’s nomadic path began at birth in a caravan in Venezuela. His father is a trapeze artist and his mother dazzles audiences with graceful precision on the aerial silks (aka ribbon trapeze). “Her performance was the most beautiful,” he says, pausing a moment to wipe nostalgic tears from his face. “All eyes in the crowd were on her. It inspired me.”
As a toddler, Yecid takes his first steps into the family act. He starts as a child- clown, by five is on the trapeze and in his teens can be seen on television screens across South America. He founds his own circus in his mid-twenties and says “I became famous, people in streets I’d never walked knew my name.” His performance is an intense display of refined acrobatics executed high above the heads of frenzied fans. During one of these spectacles, Yecid’s hand slips. His momentum propels him beyond the net and gravity brings him to the hard packed clay ground below. He attempts to brace himself but his left arm shatters on impact. The fall leaves him with broken ribs, bruises and an arm no longer capable of intense trapeze maneuvers.
Backstage is an open-air yard fortified by strategically placed shipping containers, fences and temporary animal enclosures where five tigers, two alligators and one kangaroo watch the performer’s last minute preparations. A group of men converse in Spanish and Italian. They spin wrenches, tell jokes and fine tune the motorcycles used in the “Globe of death” act. The showgirls plume their head-dresses while other artists gather around a octagonal pedestal beneath a canopy. Vera, a Brazilian acrobat, goes through her yogic stretch routine while Mongolian contortionists Inga and Tsatsral apply shimmering eye make-up. Martina, a blonde Italian clown, and Ali, the resident mystic, sit on the edge of the octagon.
The pair are already painted and take a few moments to entertain a baby while the child’s parents prepare. The infant is the seventh generation of Togni to travel with the circus. His parents are Francisco, the strong man, and Elis Togni, solo trapeze artist.
The family patriarch is tiger-tamer and master of ceremonies Davio Togni. He and his brother Livio, a politician and former Italian National Senator, keep a watchful eye over the circus and all its naturalized offspring. The family descends from a legendary Italian circus performer.
“In Milan, Darix Togni is synonymous with Circus,” says trapeze artist Daniel Togni, while reviewing the playlist for the night’s performance. He is the son of Davio, brother of Elis and current heir apparent. “Darix was the first man in Italy to master the art of animal taming.” Daniel never met his famous ancestor, but the family moniker has defined much of his life. From youth, he studied circus performance in Italy, and the United States where his mother works as a costume supervisor for Cirque de Soleil.
“Traveling this way is never boring,” he says.
It has been forty-four years since the Togni family last appeared in Ghana. Times have changed, and the entertainment market can be unforgiving. Several major International Circuses have closed their tents permanently. However, the Togni’s Circus continues to find ways to electrify the audience. At times the journey takes them into exotic, conflicted, and dangerous territory. In 2009, the circus was nearly stolen in Iran at the outset of the Twitter Revolution. They narrowly escaped after taking refuge on a late night cargo ship to Qatar organized by Uncle Livio.
“It’s an extended family,” says Elis Togni, in a pleasantly maternal voice. “We look out for each other, help each other.” Her eyes examine the group of artists gathered before her, “I know if I need help with the baby they are here. And they know they are safe and protected. If an outsider caused a problem it would be handled.”
Constant travel can weigh heavily on group dynamic and mileage with animals, artists and loads of equipment can revert to utter chaos. People have come and gone, isolated conflicts have escalated to violence yet the nucleus remains strong, focused and united. Yecid has performed with the Togni family’s circus for more than two years. He sleeps backstage in a shipping crate cluttered with over-sized wardrobe changes, prop jokes and other more banal necessities of life. He has five children of his own, all in Venezuela, some in the circus and others who are not. “It is their decision, I would never force them into this life. But I tell them it is the only life for me.”
The Togni’s “Il Florigielo” Circus Ghana tour has been extended. The big top will host shows six nights a week in Accra’s Children’s Park opposite National Theatre until May 20th.
By Danny Kresnyak/Citifmonline.com/Ghana