Circus performances today are highly technical, and thankfully, in most cases, don’t involve live animals. However, in the early days of European settlement in New Zealand, right through to the mid 20th century, the travelling circus was a pretty basic affair where a variety of animals from lions to monkeys and even elephants, were dragged around the country to entertain people in towns and cities from Kaitaia to Invercargill.


The term ‘circus’ can be traced back to ancient Rome. A ‘circus’ was a building where a variety of races, and shows would take place for the public. These included fights with trained animals, gladiatorial fights, reenactments of battles and races involving horses and chariots. Thousands of people would attend; the biggest one known to have been built, Circus Maximus, could apparently hold over 150,000 people. After the Roman Empire crumpled, mass entertainment also largely disappeared. Instead, small groups of performers travelled from one place to the next putting on modest shows.


The modern circus as we know it didn’t appear until the 18th century. In 1768, Philip Astley, a British cavalry officer, decided to set up an amphitheatre where he would perform tricks on horseback. The performance area was a circle with the audience seated around it. This circle, or circus arena, was 42 feet in diameter and most circuses to this day have stuck to this size. While the first shows focused on horse riding tricks, within a few years acts included clowns fooling around, tightrope walkers performing high up off the ground, acrobats doing choreographed routines and jugglers keeping balls and plates in the air.

The shows were very successful. By the end of the 18th century, lots of places throughout England, Europe and America had purpose-built venues similar to Astley’s original where shows were performed. The focus was still very much on horse riding, but more side-acts were included. It wasn’t until 1826 that the first circus-style show took place under a canvas tent.


The first circus shows performed in New Zealand were from Australia. They started touring the country in the mid-19th century and would visit mining towns where there was money to be made from an entertainment starved population. Here, people would pay to see a show using freshly mined nuggets or gold dust. As railways became more common-place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, circus troupes were able to travel more quickly and easily. Circuses would commonly be held at or close to train stations. The sight of a train transporting animals such as elephants would get people excited and would help drum up interest in the shows. During World War II, the larger travelling circuses no longer operated, however, Wirth’s Circus still put on shows, but on a much smaller and reduced scale. This was to give people some entertainment and enjoyment during war time.

Today, circus shows don’t have any animals and offer a more theatrical and coherent experience; they tell a story using characterisation and have a much more advanced production quality, incorporating lighting, soundtrack and special effects. Many contemporary shows are staged in proper theatres as opposed to canvas tents.

The contemporary circus genre started emerging in the 1970s. At this time, TV was becoming widespread and many people preferred watching shows at home to going out to see them. Circus companies were forced to upgrade traditional shows to make them just as compelling, worthwhile and enjoyable as what people could get from watching TV. Cirque du Soleil is the best known of these companies. They have a number of shows playing simultaneously in cities all over the world (including Auckland)


The biggest and most lavishly staged local New Zealand circus is Weber Bros. They have been well known across the country since the 1990s and, along with traditional family entertainment, offer sophisticated shows that hold the attention of a modern audience used to seeing the best acts in the world on their devices. Having recently returned from a world tour, their new show ‘ADRENALINE’ features The Globe of Death, FMX, and the show stopping act The Human Canon! plus a number of exciting international circus acts presented with the latest technology in lighting and sound.

Weber Bros Circus


Circus Aotearoa is a small, family-operated company that was set up in 2008 and specialises in putting on circus shows for the whole family. The shows are modern and use today’s technology, but they have the traditions of the circus at their heart. They’re performed in canvas tents and have the audience seated around the central ring, with a ringmaster introducing the show and keeping everyone’s excitement levels up. The company has been completely animal free since it started because its founders don’t believe animal performances are necessary or right. Acts include the traditional clowns, acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists and Chinese pole performers and last no longer than five minutes, so the shows are suitable for those who don’t have long attention spans. The company’s colourful tent reminds everyone of a time, a hundred years ago, when the circus was the most colourful and exciting entertainment available.


New Zealand’s other main homegrown circus company, Zirka Circus, was also established in 2008. The company’s owner Jeni Hou, is from a family of entertainers – in fact, the last three generations of her family have worked in the circus/entertainment field, and she prided herself by putting on a good show!

However, there were issues with employing child performers. Six Chinese children were uplifted over allegations of exploitation and the issue became heated. Reports the circus was dangerously run surfaced with the information verified by WorkSafe. The circus no longer exists.

Ceidrik Heward

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