Photographer Joke De Wilde discusses her thoughts and impressions on Mechelen-based, family-owned Circus Ronaldo. She spent four days photographing and talking to circus members late in December 2015.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de WIlde

Coming here on the first day was a bit awkward. I really entered an environment that felt very private and intimate. They were obviously used to people sneaking into the tent and looking around, like it was a public space. I was surprised by all these curious visitors but they didn’t even see them. I guess that’s also why didn’t see me, they were so used to this. I even asked one of them : “don’t you mind all these people coming into the tent and looking around?” His answer was very clear: “No, it’s a part of our world”. That made it very difficult to make pictures, I really felt like breaking into a very personal environment. It’s not only a place where they put up their shows, it’s also the place where they live, eat, sleep,… It’s their lives.

The second day was a bit easier. Mostly because I ran into someone I had known for a long time and who was now working with the circus. We talked for a long time and it felt as though I had gained a bit more trust with the rest of them. This day was the day of the premiere. I was suppose to shut up and not get in their way, I could feel the stress hanging in the air. This made it even more difficult to make pictures. The focus was so intense. They were all running around and rehearsing at the same time (literally like putting up lamps in the tent while playing the trumpet!).

I felt like it was a very close and intense group of people. You can feel they’ve been doing this forever, that it’s a family. I guess, to really make intimate portraits, I’d have to travel with them for a year. They are so used to people looking at them, that they made a very very high wall to protect themselves. Two days is absolutely nothing, it makes me one of their spectators. But it was super beautiful to watch, how their lives, job and passion became one.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de Wilde

Danny Ronaldo (47), founder

When was the company founded, and by whom?
The history of the Ronaldo circus starts with the grandfather of my great grandfather.
Me and my brother David are the sixth generation. My kids the seventh. Each generation made his
own version. Some more towards theatre, some more towards traditional circus or variety.
During World War II my family lost mostly all its material and the possibility to perform.
So after the war my family performed in various different other companies and circuses, theatres and
variety. Then my father, together with his brother and uncle, created another circus in 1971.

What were the founders’ initial intentions, and what were their backgrounds?
The first generation was a boy of 15 years old who ran away from home to live with
a circus. I guess his intentions were mostly the desire for adventure. But soon a bigger desire was
growing…the love to make people happy, which became a strong incentive in all generations.

What were the founding principles of the circus?
The principles grow with the times but a search for purity, beauty and love have become the strongest
principles today.

Where does its name come from?
My father gives this name to the circus when he restarted his one Compagnie. Before the name
was “theatre Van den Berghe”.

How many family generations have been involved in the circus up to now?
Seven generations.

How has the circus grown over the years? Talk to us about its evolution…
In the history of the circus there were many different reasons for an audience to go to the circus.
In the middle ages media was important. Traveling performers came with stories and news
from other cities and countries. There was a time that circus was the only place where decent citizen
could see erotic images. The amazing skills and big stunts were also attractive.
Today there is everything on the Internet. And you can see the most incredible acts whenever you
want. The strong attraction of the circus today is recognition. Audiences can recognize their own
follies and madness in the game of the clown. Everyone needs this mirror.
The clown for example shows that failure is a challenge for more success.

How do you remain different than other circuses?
The mainstream entertainment industry is always searching for bigger effects. Amazing digital
creations. We search for the simplicity and purity of humanity.

Can you talk to us about your many different productions? Who creates them, and how?
I always start with a basic idea, which usually takes a long time to grow. Sometimes it takes two or
three years before I work it out with the group. Some productions like “Fili”, “Circenses” or the last
Christmas special has 10 or more performers. But there is also ” La Cucina dell’ Arte” with just my
brother and myself. Last year I created a solo show “Fidelis Fortibus”.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de Wilde

Can you present all the people involved in the circus?
There is the family: My father is 82 and in the last Christmas special he still performed.
And also my mama. My brother David and myself have already been performing together for a
long time now. There is my wife Kimi. She’s a wire dancer and trapeze acrobat.
And my three sons perform in the circus too. Nanosh is the oldest and is also my right hand for
technical matters. Pepijn is 17 and goes to the circus school in Leuven. Angelo is just 8 years and
performed in the Christmas special for the first time. There are some important actors too. Karel
Creemers is a natural big talented clown. We also have Rachel Ponsonby, a great woman clown.
There is the composer David Van Keer that created some great music for all our shows.

As a circus, what would you say you’re the proudest of?
I’m very proud of the heart! The love that audience can feel. This love is ours biggest success.

Can you talk us through a production from start to finish? What are the many different stages of
a production?
There is the basic idea that takes a long time to grow. It really starts growing most when I start sharing
the idea with other people. Then we start to work out this ideas with the right group of performers.
The real creation comes when the first audience is there. In many tryouts the show starts slowly to
get it right, precisely and pure human.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of running a circus today?
To create non-commercial productions with almost no support from the government. In Flanders the
government budget for circus is just a crumb when you consider all the support for theater and dance.

Can you take us through what a typical day in the life of your circus looks like?
Each day is different. A show time day has a special tension. Whatever you do before, the tension
for the show is in you. Traveling days have another tension. Then you have setting up days
that are different still to the day we take everything down. When we make a new production the
world becomes smaller. There is just the production and that’s all. And a tension of dead and live.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de Wilde

Who would you say are your main “customers”?
Curious people and people who love to laugh. People with old wounds, looking for happiness.

How many employees do you currently employ?
For some productions 14 and for others just 3. Everything depends upon the idea of the production.

How do you recruit most of your employees?
The stars send us the right people! We never do auditions. A great show depends on the right
people coming together at the right time and the right place.

How exactly do you train newcomers?
We don’t explain a lot. It works like flamenco dancers who’ve never learnt flamenco. They just see
and do. It takes a lot of time for new people to understand the simplicity. And like Shakespeare said: it
takes a wise man to act a fool.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
The moment that the magic appears!

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de WIlde

Rachel Ponsonby (51), performer

How long have you been working with Circus Ronaldo?
I’ve been working for about five years now with Circus Ronaldo. The shows I’ve performed in
include Circenses, Amortale and the recent Christmas show in Mechelen. But I have over
26 years of experience in the world of performing.

What does your position entail?
My main occupation is performing, I am a musician and a clown. During rehearsals
there is creative work together with the other performers. Proposing musical ideas
and then helping with arranging the parts for each person. Each performer has his or
her individual talents and the creative process is very much related to bringing out the
best in each person’s individuality. Danny is very good at seeing the spaces for each
performer and he’s generous while working and devising.

What’s your everyday routine like?
While I am touring with Circus Ronaldo I sometimes sleep in one of the wagons but
sometimes I go home to my house in Brussels. It depends how far we are from home.
While on tour I would usually rehearse a bit maybe adjust some props and set up for the
show.

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How would you describe the circus’ culture?
If I compare life with Circus Ronaldo to life with Cirque Plume, a circus company I previously
worked with, I would say Ronaldo is more of an authentic circus culture.
With Circus Ronaldo I’m not expected to do technical work and there isn’t not an entire
team of technicians as well as performers. There is more of a feeling that everyone does
everything. For example, I don’t want to lift heavy things but I can sew and help set up and
pack up. Cirque Plume has a team of great technicians, which is wonderful,
but I also think sometimes the feeling of being ‘in it together’ is lost.

What would you say people would expect the least about working in a circus?
It is hard work. I don’t personally do so much but most people are busy all the time.
Driving, building up, tearing down, driving, organising.

What was your dream when growing up?
When I was very small I wanted to be Shirley Temple but I was too shy. I also wanted to
be a farmer like my grandad. And I always wanted to perform. When I was at school I played
a lot of music in orchestras and sang in choirs and also did musicals but I couldn’t choose
between music or theatre. Then with Circus and clowning I found I could combine my
favourite skills. I studied at Lassaad in Brussels and then continued with Circus,
street theatre and also music for shadow puppets.

What would you say provides you with the most satisfaction at work?
Performing in the Circus tent is magical. I love the whole process.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de WIlde

Karel Creemers, sidekick

How long have you been working with Circus Ronaldo?
Since 1994, something like that.

What does your position entail?
Right-hand man for the famous Danny Ronaldo. He’s all poetry and I’m the evil side.

What’s your everyday routine like?
Waking up, realizing in what city, country we are, coffee, cigarettes, preparing the show,
repairing stuff of the day before if necessary. Daily life. Focus on the evening show,
dismantling, travelling, maps, addresses, roads we have to take. Circus life.

How would you describe the circus’ culture?
In the case of Ronaldo I’d say ‘Living apart, together’ symbolizes its culture.
The planet stays the same, gardens might change, stints in our own houses, own kitchen,
same neighbours, different places, strong working discipline and respect, rehearsing
understanding…

What would you say people expect the least about working in a circus?
I don’t know what people expect anywhere,…You have a good chance of
expecting an elephant in the circus, but maybe that’s not what you mean
with this question?

What was your dream when growing up?
I wanted to be garbage man, hanging on the truck and whistling after girls, that
was fun, I thought,….But I always played,…my game,… not taking life too
seriously.

What would you say provides you with the most satisfaction at work?
Feeling free, traveling, playing the game of life and trying to enjoy it, but
this is universal.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de Wilde

Annelies Mylemans (41)

How long have you been working with Circus Ronaldo?
I’ll start working for circus Ronaldo in March 2016.

What does your position entail?
For the moment it’s difficult to say. I’ll certainly be doing the administration, the
communication, the grant application,… But probably there will be a lot of other
things coming my way and I’m looking forward to it.

What’s your everyday routine like?
Hard to say since I haven’t started yet. But because I’ll be doing the communication,
my day will probably start with reading emails.

How would you describe the circus’ culture?
For me this circus feels like coming home. They’ve got an organic way of working.
Everybody is allowed to be as they are and all the prejudices seem to vanish.
There is a lot of pureness. They work in an enthusiastic and driven way.

What would you say people would expect the least about working in a circus?
I think it’s difficult for other people to comprehend the work it demands. There is a
lot of administration, consultation, maintenance of material, rebuilding material, etc.

What was your dream when growing up?
As a child I always wanted to built a castle with my own hands and invite all the
children who were unhappy or mistreated to come and stay with me in the castle.
So they would find happiness and cosiness there.

What would you say provides you with the most satisfaction at work?
For the moment I feel the most grateful for being able to work for a circus that
has moved me several times already in the past. And I’m looking forward to work for a circus
that inspires me.

Circus Ronaldo by Joke de WIlde