You maybe have to think back to the Marx Brothers (sans Gummo) to find performers related along fraternal lines as accomplished and amusing as Les Castors, the headliners in Teatro ZinZanni’s current show, “Under the Gypsy Moon.” Toly, 66, Charly, 63, and baby brother Eddy, 59 (they have an older sister who is a famous French circus clown), evoke the madcap physical comedy of Groucho and his partners-in-anarchy – and indeed, Les Castors have honed their act over decades in theatres and music halls around the world.
But the brothers Castors are more than just funny faces: they wed extraordinary athleticism to unmatched comic timing. They are acrobats and jugglers (and musicians and wire walkers and who knows what else?), born and bred in the European circus where there’s an established tradition of classic acts being passed down, one generation to the next. The brothers learned the art of Risley, or body juggling, at their father’s feet – literally: this trio of antipodists performs astounding feats, betraying not the least effort or hesitation, launching objects and bodies into the air, spinning, twirling and passing them back and forth – on the soles of their feet.
What a kick it is to see Les Castors refining and elaborating on the specialty introduced by the circus acrobat Richard Risley, circa 1840. The speed and strength of Les Castors work is as contemporary as a T1 data line, yet they charm and entertain the old-fashioned way: by transporting the audience back into the world of gypsies and vagabonds in which they were raised.
We recently talked to Les Castors about their circus life and times.
Among world-renowned circus royalty there is the Wallenda wire-walking family, the Zacchini human cannonballs and the Fratellini clowns. And Les Castors. You are fifth generation circus performers?
Charly: Yes. Around 1830, there were two families – coincidentally of the same name – in a town in France. One was wealthy, the other not so much so. A young girl in the castle of the wealthy family fell in love with our cousin – a member of the other family.
She became pregnant. At the time, it was something very dramatic: a scandal. She was sent away and wandered the streets, alone. Members of a traveling show saw her as they were leaving town and asked if she wanted to join them. Since then we are part of the circus.
Eddy: She had the baby – our great-great grandfather. Our family name is Dedessus Le Moutier. It’s a noble name that means “over the monastery.”
Toly: Our family originated in Belgium. Then they moved into France. Our genealogy can be traced back to Charlemagne. We are related to royalty. Of course, you have to go back very far!
Did you grow up hearing stories of your ancestors performing in previous eras?
Toly: Our grandfather was well known in Russia, before the Communist era. There is a certain type of handstand – a Bedini – that was named after him. We have Italian origins, too. At the time there were many Italians in Russia. And Russia has always been a country where the circus flourished.
Charly: Our mother was Russian. That’s how we come to speak Russian in addition to French, English, German, Italian and Spanish.
Eddy: We were told that it was not an easy life in the beginning. Our father used to travel with his parents from town to town, with a caravan and a horse. He walked beside the horse. They were equestrians and had a small circus. But they did many different things. Because when you have a circus, you must fulfill a lot of roles. They tried a bit of everything: trapeze, clowning, acrobatics. Our father did much more than we do!
In addition to the Risley act you are performing in the new Teatro ZinZanni show, what else can you do?
Toly: We were raised in acrobatics. That was the primary specialty in our immediate family. Among our relations are clowns, wire dancers, trapeze artists, even lion tamers. We could do a whole show just with members of our family! We are related to us some of the most famous names of the French circus. Our cousins are the Bouglione – the largest circus in France.
How did the Risley act originate?
Toly: Our grandfather used to do this specialty. It’s quite demanding physically. It requires strength and coordination. He was very strong in a different style that involves lots of somersaults. There are two ways to do a different a Risley act. In the Egyptian style, the objects are propelled forward.
It was our auntie who decided that we would be jugglers. She had a lot of influence; she was a circus owner. When we were young, she tempted us with presents: “If you do this, I’ll give you that.” Always dangling a carrot! But it worked.
Eddy: We still wait for presents after the show!
Growing up in the demimonde of the circus, did it seem unusual to you?
Eddy: You start to work and you don’t realize its work. You think it’s a game. First you try to copy the show you saw your parents in last evening. This is the game of all circus kids.
Then once you go on stage yourself, it’s like a present. They’re very wise, the old performers. They say: This will be your birthday present, to come on stage with us. It makes you really believe that it’s a gift to be on stage. You accept that it’s a privilege.
I remember the first time I worked. I was eight years old. It was in 1957 in South Africa. I was in pain for a couple of days before I was to give my first performance. But I didn’t say anything to my parents because I wanted to go on.
I went on and after the show, I fell down in tears. They called the doctor. From the stage, I went to the hospital in costume and I was operated on the same night. I had an appendectomy. A very memorable beginning to my career!
Toly: My first performance was when I replaced an acrobat in my father’s troupe. The fellow ran away and at the last moment, just before the show, I had to jump in. Like Eddy, I was eight years old.
Charly: I didn’t start performing until I was eleven years old. I’m the slacker in the family!
Circus is respected as an art form across Europe. How does being a circus artist elsewhere compare with working in America?
Charly: We worked in the Ringling Bros. Circus when it played in Paris. So we experienced an American circus even before we came to the U.S. Three rings – a little crazy! In Europe, the traditional circus is very important. And there are many different types of circuses.
We worked a lot in Germany, where there is also a kind of show called varieté, which is something like vaudeville here. It’s stage work. Very interesting.
Toly: There was a period in our career when we worked mostly in varieté. We first developed the comedy part of our act while we were in Germany. We were in many different shows; some we also directed. That’s where we developed the style we use now.
Eddy: We were lucky to have different phases in our career. We started in the traveling circus, moving to a different town every day. Very traditional. Then we moved into revues. We played in the Lido in Paris; later we worked in Las Vegas. That was completely another challenge for us.
And, as Toly said, we worked in varieté in Germany, which is something else again. Now we are in the world of Teatro ZinZanni, where we can share our experience as performers in many ways. Here we touch comedy, we touch emotion; we’re acrobats and we’re jugglers. We can show all we’ve learned. It’s a wonderful and very theatrical style.
When did you first perform in the U.S.?
Toly: In Las Vegas, in 1974. We were in a revue at the same time Siegfried and Roy were getting their start in another revue in town. Decades later, Siegfried came to see us in Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco. He enjoyed the show very much. He’s a legend now, of course. And we need some legends in our profession.
Do you find American audiences to be enthusiastic?
Eddy: Very much so. What I love here in the U.S. is that audiences are very spontaneous. They make a judgment after they’ve seen the show, not during your act. That’s beautiful. Sometimes in Europe, audiences decide if they like you before you even start! Here they’re very open. They come with an open mind. It’s very easy to communicate. We love that.
Charly: When we first came here, we were a little bit skeptical about working in the United States. Because we knew that everything in the U.S. is big. But then joining Teatro ZinZanni and seeing that people enjoy a show performed in a small space – a tent that holds less than three hundred people – it’s such a nice opportunity to work and to interact with the audience. And audiences here seem to appreciate the European touch that we bring. That’s very rewarding.
What’s it like working with your brothers?
Eddy: There’s a lot of trust. We communicate with each other by a small look or a tiny bit of body language. Toly and Charly understand my moves; they understand when I’m in trouble. And I understand them, being brothers and working together all of our lives. Without words; just actions. We never felt it was a burden. It’s always been quite nice.
Toly: And we had no choice!
How many years ago did you develop this act?
Toly: When we met Norman Langill [artistic director for One Reel] we were doing a very traditional act. He said, “I would like you to work in Teatro ZinZanni; it’s a dinner show.” We said, “OK, we can do that.” So we built an act just for Teatro ZinZanni. In the beginning we played waiters. We adapted to fit the space and the show.
Eddy: Actually our act is constantly changing. The version we’re performing now in “Under the Gypsy Moon” is quite new to us. We started to develop it two years ago. And it changes over time. This time we changed the props and took some of the acrobatics away. Now we’re focused a bit less on pure acrobatics and more on juggling and comedy.
What can you tell us about your gypsy ancestry?
Charly: Our grandmother was a palm reader. She had a caravan just like the one on stage in “Under the Gypsy Moon.” When we were small, we would be in the back of the caravan – there were two rooms – and we could hear what she was saying to the customers. It was kind of strange. We heard everyone’s secrets! None of us inherited granmama’s fortune telling talent. But other members of the family did.
As children, you were around your grandparents and parents as they performed. Is there a sixth generation continuing the tradition?
Charly: I have a son who’s working at the moment in Vienna. He’s a juggler and he does comedy, as well. He started late. He said “I don’t want to study anymore at university. I want to be a performer.”
The way that “Under a Gypsy Moon” is structured, there’s a story line and you are working continuously for three hours. Is that challenging?
Eddy: I enjoy that aspect very much. It’s easier to do the act when you know the audience in advance. Going around and interacting with the audience, as we do throughout this show, you’re much more relaxed when you jump into the act.
And we have more than ten minutes to share with the audience. When you’re only doing the act, you have those ten minutes and that’s it. If it isn’t perfect, you feel so bad – frustrated. Doing the whole show is very rewarding. It’s gives you a lot of power in a way. Especially in this show. We feel our gypsy roots!
Toly: Listening to the gypsy music in the show, I think about our father. He was a friend of the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Django played while my father performed his acrobatic act. They were pals. Django was a true gypsy! It’s nice to think that we are continuing the tradition.
When you perform, are you presenting yourself or playing a character?
Eddy: We try to play a character that’s very close to our own personality. So we are playing a part, but put a lot of our self in the part. Just twisting it a little bit.
I use my family for reference. When I’m playing the maitre ‘d, for example, I think of my uncle who was very elegant and had a lot of style. Then I believe that I’m my uncle – take inspiration from his personality.
This is not just work for you, it seems. Its very personal – your passion.
Charly: If you are not honest, the audience knows. If you don’t love what you’re doing, the audience can tell. We really enjoy being in this show because we took part in its creation. And there’s always something new, it’s always interesting: we’re trying new things.
Toly: What the audience saw tonight may change during the run of the show. That’s what’s nice about a show with a longer run. We correct a line, perfect a move, refine a scene. It’s a work-in-progress.
You’ve worked with some of the great variety and circus performers of our time. Who will you never forget?
Eddy: There are a lot. I would name Francis Brunn, a juggler. He’s a perfectionist and a man with a lot of talent. He works all day long, every day, to polish his twelve-minute act.
Toly: Gino Dinati is maybe not as well known here as he is in Europe. He’s a great and respected cabaret performer. I would also include our grandfather and our parents. They are our roots and inspiration.
Charly: An entertainer who is well known in the U.S. that I enjoyed very much is Sammy Davis, Jr. We worked with him and he was a great personality. We feel humbled by the great performers we’ve worked with. But then, one day, they acknowledge and talk with you – those are really nice moments.
Toly: Teatro ZinZanni has provided us an opportunity to perform with a lady we all adore. Liliane Montevecchi played Madame ZinZanni and she is wonderful. We spent hours talking to her; she has so much amazing experience. We had a lot in common with her in our background. That made it very special to work with her.
What are the greatest moments in your career, so far?
Toly: Performing for Queen Elizabeth in the Royal Command Performance celebrating her jubilee. At the time, we were doing a lot of acrobatics. And that day I didn’t feel good. I had a sore back. I had to get a treatment right before the performance and I didn’t know if I would be able to do all of my part in the act.
I did of my part and everything went well. It was such a relief. Then later, we were introduced to the Queen and we talked with her a long time in French. That’s something I’ll always remember.
Eddy: For me, it’s being part of a show. Not necessarily my moment; it’s when a moment in the show really works for the audience. We’ve had great times like that here in the States with Teatro ZinZanni because we feel like we’re part of the family. We’re not just presenting an act. We’re part of a show. And when the show is successful, we’re very happy. We really have a good feeling working in this company.
There are many little moments that you remember. Recently, we were working in the middle of the tent. There was a lady at a table nearby and I heard her say to her husband: Did I really see what I think I saw? I really like those kinds of moments.
Charly: When you’re in a show and you feel you’re part of a team, that’s very satisfying. Everybody is supporting each other. That’s when its good. You’re not just working for yourself; you’re working for the whole company. That’s a very good feeling. It’s family.
What does it mean to you being involved in Teatro ZinZanni? The new show is built around you. You’re headliners and the story is based on your family history.
Eddy: This company is especially great. But Teatro ZinZanni is always very respectful of the performer. You always have a lot of creative freedom. Its very family oriented – like the circuses we grew up in. You can bring your kids. They love to have family around and you feel that.
Toly: As long as I please my daughter and my son when I perform, I’m happy. And they always enjoy coming to the States. Particularly, when we’re working in Teatro ZinZanni. They are always welcome backstage. One of the shows we did here, there were ten kids running around all the time. It was like the ZinZanni kindergarten!
Eddy: Its now been ten years since we did our first Teatro ZinZanni show. We’ve done something new in each show. That’s very nice. You always have a new project to look forward to and be excited about. You’re not performing the same thing over and over again. You’re always a little uncertain of what’s next. But uncertainty is good. The creative spirit here has carried us along year after year.
Charly: First and foremost, we appreciate the audience that comes to Teatro ZinZanni. They are always great. And we love the spirit of family that runs through the show, onstage and off. That’s very important to us. We come from the circus, which is very much about family. We also appreciate that Teatro ZinZanni allows us to take the crazy ideas we dream up and put them on stage.
Toly: This is a definitely a highlight of our career. It’s fabulous. We’ve taken our acrobatics and juggling and added comedy. We’re still growing and it seems like there’s no end in sight. With comedy you can go forever. Isn’t that good to know?
Jeffrey Hirsch loves the circus and has written souvenir program books for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Founding editor of City Arts magazine, he is a freelance editor and writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.