Street Performers in Europe
In my early years, between ages the ages 24-32, I traveled around North Carolina and parts of the southeast performing at street fairs and art festivals as a juggler. For me, it was a beautiful combination of athleticism and art, and it suited me well. During this time, I met many wonderful and talented artists, and we all sort of agreed that, if you made it to Europe, you were making it to the “big-time”. It was somewhat akin to showcasing your talents at Carnegie Hall.
Well, I never made it to Europe as a performer, but fast-forward a few decades to our recent trips to Europe and what I notice is just how many street performers there are and how much they are a part of the street culture of Europe. One of the best ways to get to know a city’s culture is to check out the local music and entertainment scene. And I'm not talking about buying a ticket for the theater or a concert, I'm talking about catching the performers and entertainers who take their craft to the streets . . . also known as busking.
Busking has a long history that dates to ancient times and has been a part of every major culture in the world. As long as there have been streets, there have been street performers. In ancient Egypt and Greece, people entertained and passed the hat for donations. During the Middle Ages in Europe, troubadours were the personal street performers of the aristocrats, while minstrels and jugglers entertained the public. For many musicians, street performance was the most common means of employment before there were recording studios. Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger were two popular and pioneering musicians who busked their way to stardom.
Essentially, street performers transform public spaces into their own personal stages. And Europe, with its many pedestrian-only streets, wide open spaces, and large squares, is the perfect stage for street performers.
It’s a common mistake to think that performers are on the streets because they are not good enough to make it in clubs or bars, or other similar venues. This is not the case. Many artists simply like the freedom and challenge of street performing, as well as the learning that comes from performing on the street. When people pay to see a show, they are inclined to stick around for the entire performance - even if they really are not thrilled with the show. But being on the street, a performer cannot afford to let the attention of the audience drop, otherwise, the audience will simply leave. It’s also far easier to personally connect with your audience when you’re on the streets. There is no separation. . . typically no stage that puts you on a different level . . . it’s just you and your craft, in front of people you have never seen before and most likely will never see again. So, pay attention and you will see some amazing talent on the streets of Europe.
Of all the performers we’ve seen, I do have a personal favorite. His name is Jeff Cruz. He's from Caracas, Venezuela and is living now in Valencia, Spain. He is a Cyr Wheel Acrobat. I had the good fortune to watch him practice while we were in Valencia and managed to catch this shot (see above) with my iPhone as we were passing through the beautiful Plaça de la Verge. He's like poetry in movement . . . a beautiful combination of dance, acrobatics, and exquisite balance. I felt quite fortunate to get to see him working. He's truly beautiful to watch. While we did not see him give an actual performance, what we witnessed was perhaps even more impressive. We saw him practicing. We could see how relaxed he was. There were very few people in the square and his energy (unlike during a performance) was not focused outwardly. What we saw instead was a very intimate connection and exchange between an artist and his craft. It was such a privilege to see firsthand. There is no way that my words can accurately describe the poetry and grace of his movement. I felt a bit like a voyeur sneaking a forbidden peak at his craft . . . and yet I treasured every moment. If you’d like to see an actual snippet from one of his performances, here's a video someone captured that shows him in action. Enjoy.
Art comes to us in so many forms. In my previous post, I shared the beauty and the magic that we encountered with street art. Whether it’s murals that are transforming the city streets, or performers bringing their humanity to a city or town . . . art is so vital to the culture of a place. And street performers contribute to the fabric of a city’s creative dynamic. They bring people together in a shared space, with each of them enjoying and feeling a shared sense of connection, and not just with the performers, but with the strangers who stand beside them as they share a common moment of joy and art together. We need more of this.