Basque Children Await the Return of Their Circus

In just three years, a whole revolution within the cultural landscape of the Basque Country has been created. What started as a living dream of actor and comedian Iker Galartza (Amezketa, Gipuzkoa, 1977) has become a sweeping phenomenon for both children and adults. The circus Gure Zirkua (Our Circus in the Basque language) has also been an authentic supply chain of Basque artists. Now, because of COVID-19, the circus is on stand-by, waiting to put up its tent again and to strike up laughter and joy throughout the Basque Country, and beyond its borders as well. In fact, this is one of its future goals. Although Galartza’s restless mind stretches much further…

by Aitor Azurki

The first Basque circus in the Basque language in the history of the Basque Country is standing still, unable to kick off. COVID-19’s global pandemic has caught it at the start of its third tour. “We would have been up and running, because ours is not a circus that tours all year round: it starts in the spring and lasts until December. Therefore, it caught us right at the time of the initial rehearsals to debut at Easter. We had already booked many towns, but at this point, it’s just not possible,” Iker Galartza, founder of Gure Zirkua explains with regret, yet hopeful.

Right now, all they can do is “wait and tough it out until everything else starts up, because people have to return to street life, sharing a beer and appetizer, and shaking off their fears,” he says. It is, after all, a show that moves masses, so many that wherever the circus goes, the influx of people arriving to the towns and consuming in its surrounding establishments is numerous. “We can’t start with reduced capacity either, with people afraid of getting inside the tent,” he adds with conviction.

This third tour in particular, consisted of stops through fifteen towns in Navarre, Araba and Gipuzkoa, with two weeks in each location. Gure Zirkua, like its founder, is always aspiring to be more: “You have to continue to seek challenges: just like last year we went to Iparralde (the Northern Basque Country) this year the left bank of the Bilbao estuary invited us (the most industrialized area of Bizkaia and with the least Basque-speaking population) and we were going to make a three-week strong commitment in Barakaldo for example. We also wanted to go to the urban Pamplona area, and we still hope to go, if not now, later, although we don’t know when…”

Iker Galartza has made his dream come true. Iñaki Lopetegi

Still, Galartza stresses that “We have a great attitude, always sending positive messages to each other; with no income or expenses right now, although we’ll soon be faced with insurance bills and that’s my main concern,” he says. Despite everything, artists, musicians and other staff have been working on new numbers.  They continue practicing however they can in these circumstances, “in their homes, garages, exchanging videos… but as soon as we can, we’re going to start and we won’t have the luxury of practicing together for 15 to 20 days. We’ll still have to pick up last year’s numbers to put on a good quality show and once we start up, we’ll introduce new acts. We’re not going to be able to start with a whole new show. That’s our reality,” the founder regrets.

But clearly, this won’t be a problem for Gure Zirkua to reach its capacity of 250 people at each show, as it has been doing since its inception. In fact, this is a project that sprung from a real-life dream, a hobby or almost an obsession with Galartza. “It was a dream I had as a kid: working in the circus. I had worked as a comedian, a clown in theaters, cultural centers, churches… At the same time, I’d been working at ETB (Basque Public Television), doing humorous roles on different television series. But whenever a circus came through, I always tried to go. I was always fascinated by it and even arranged my vacations around visiting some, until finally between 2005 and 2015, I managed to work on some, meet people and their working systems, the material…”

Help from the Rossi Brothers

As his dream started to become a reality, the circus took up more and more space in Galartza’s mind and heart. “And why not have one of these things in our land and in our language? And with Basque artists? With the money he made on television, he was saving little by little, until he found the perfect tent exactly five years ago. “There is a lot of camaraderie in the circus world. They knew me and helped me, accompanying me to the French border with Luxembourg to pick it up at put it together. They helped me make my dream come true, people like the Pelé brothers and Marco Rossi, among others.”

The project began: they built bleachers, acquired vehicles, trailers… and they still continue lending a hand. “I get emotional just thinking about it. Now when we started talking about 50% capacity because of the pandemic, they’ve offered to lend me a tent with capacity for 650 people because mine is small. It’s an option to consider, even though I dream of using our own,” he stresses.

The next step: the creation of a school for artists. Iñaki Lopetegi

So, with the tent, bleachers and everything necessary, Gure Zirkua opened on June 29, 2018 in Amezketa (Gipuzkoa) with its first four-month tour, which ended in San Sebastian. Since then, two years have gone by and thousands of people have attended. About thirty towns, one, two or three weeks in each of them and five shows per week, with 250 people per show. The figures are phenomenal for such a ‘small’ project.

Now, asked about his current objectives, Galartza answers: “It’s great to go to big towns, capitals, but the excitement we’ve generated when we’ve come to small towns like Elizondo, Arama, Aia, Orio, Dima, Muxika, Bakio, etc. is wonderful to see… It’s very gratifying when you can really meet the people of the town, integrate into it, go to the hairdresser, go shopping… You get to know these people and they really appreciate you for what you are doing, without hardly knowing you. And it’s great when the people from cities can go and spend the day in these towns. These are the memories you’re left with, where you’ve been so happy, so you have to keep doing it.”

Of course, you have to keep in mind that it’s a “company” and you have to pay all the salaries, mileage, maintenance, etc. “We’re slowly growing, carefully planning and strategizing to avoid a ‘flat tire’, but in a natural way. It’s true that the farther I am from home, the more I grow to love the circus and feel that the circus is also my home.” It’s a dream that Galartza is enjoying, but never losing sight of his sense of north. A well-grounded focus on bringing enjoyment to children and young people as well as adults. “Many have had a habit of promoting themselves by adapting series like PAW Patrol, etc. to the circus; but it’s something I’ve never liked. I’ve been working in adult humor for many years and I think it’s a pretty strong weapon I have. If there’s anything for the whole family, it has to be the circus. This is what we try to achieve. This is our philosophy,” Galartza says.

Going for a School of Artists

A successful philosophy has encouraged a constant supply of Basque artists, where many people have been able to train in their discipline and to do it live: “In confinement everyone has asked us artists to play our music, to write, to do crafts, to create art… but all of this, where is it taught? We need more schools for the arts, we need a supply chain for all of this. I have also been in Catalonia for a week, looking at the different schools there. I’ve been to France. It’s not like they’re a thousand light years away, it’s that they’re already there. And we’re not there yet.” In that respect, Gure Zirkua, is raising concerns and opening eyes, so much so that Galartza has prepared guided tours and workshops for young people in the locations where their show is going for two weeks.

Gure Zirkua has brought together thousands of children and adults from all over the Basque Country. Iñaki Lopetegi

Finally, asked about the future, Gure Zirkua‘s founder is clear: “I’ll push for a school of artists. I’m going to try to begin in my own town, Amezketa. I know it’s inexpensive, viable and simple. I’ve seen examples in Catalonia to apply and I want to make it happen, so that whoever is attracted to it has the opportunity that we’ve not had.” A dream, then, that of Gure Zirkua, which has flourished and is expanding, like spring, beyond the boundaries of the circus in the form of a school.

Physical borders, those of the Basque Country, which, by the way, with this circus, Galartza also wants to eliminate: “I dream of going beyond our borders one day; and that we can do something amazing like taking our artists and our music beyond them, because I believe that part of our culture is in Gure Zirkua. I don’t know when, but that time will come.”   

Gure Zirkua. In short, a small circus unleashing a huge amount of passion through a small language like Basque as a vehicle of transmission of light, humor and joy; all this in a world where it seems that success is defined by big things and where volume is what seems to triumph. This is the magic of the circus; where the power of ‘small’ shines in a global universe, a local force in a massive world.

About the Author

Aitor Azurki
Aitor Azurki is a journalist and writer. @AitorAzurki

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