x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ali Hassani: The tumbler who was kidnapped by a circus troupe

The Moroccan was kidnapped brazenly from his family at the age of seven by a troupe of circus performers and spirited away to Spain to perform the acrobatic tricks for which he would become famous.

Ali Hassani, holding the human pyramid, became a circus tumbler after being snatched from a Moroccan marketplace at age seven.
Ali Hassani, holding the human pyramid, became a circus tumbler after being snatched from a Moroccan marketplace at age seven.

Rather than running away to join the circus at a tender age, the Moroccan Ali Hassani was kidnapped brazenly from his family at the age of seven by a troupe of circus performers and spirited away to Spain to perform the acrobatic tricks for which he would become famous. As a child, he had been transfixed by the contortions of the artists at the marketplace of Jamaa el Fna in Marrakech, the nearest city to the remote village where Hassani lived, together with some 12 siblings. His daughter Zayna recalled: "He used to run and watch as a child and the tumblers said, 'Do you want to do this?' and he was quite cheeky, apparently, and said 'Yes', and they actually took him away with them."

Hassani made good on his inauspicious initiation to the world of the peripatetic entertainer. Years later, as a successful promoter he returned to Marrakech to recruit young gymnasts for his own shows. Over the years, around 1,000 Moroccans worked for him. Meanwhile, by way of Spain, then in the throes of civil war, he arrived in Britain in 1950 and went to work for Billy Smart's Circus, which was on the cusp of becoming Europe's largest travelling show. As the strongman anchoring the Ifni Sahara Troupe, he supported the weight of his fellow acrobats as they performed human pyramids and dizzying tumbling sequences.

When he married Tamara Polakovs, daughter of the famous Bertram Mills Circus clown Coco who hailed from Russia, the two went out on their own, forming the Hassani Troupe. Britain was then enjoying a golden age in circus: the troupe travelled the country, performing with Sally Chipperfield's, the Blackpool Tower Circus and Glasgow's Kelvin Hall Circus among others. From Britain, they crossed to Europe, starring with Switzerland's Circus Knie, the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris and German's Circus Krone. Later, they would feature in John Glen's 1983 film Octopussy, where Roger Moore as James Bond, dressed as a clown, runs in the main arena of Octopussy's circus pitched on an American airbase in West Germany.

As the leading producer of Arabian tumbling acts for circuses, cabarets and theme parks across the world in the postwar period, Hassani had more than three troupes on tour at any one time, appearing anywhere from the casinos of Las Vegas to the three-ring circus of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to onstage with The Paul Daniels Magic Show. In 1979, the Hassanis launched their own small tenting circus. It had the misfortune to appear as the public appetite for circuses was dwindling. The Hassanis were adamant that traditional circus skills should not be forgotten.

Theirs was the first animal-free circus, but an all-human show failed to attract sufficient audiences and they lost their investment. It was some decades before their particular brand of entertainment would find public favour as epitomised by Cirque du Soleil. In a later incarnation as the Circus of Human Skills, however, the Hassanis' enterprise found a home at Chessington Zoo (later Chessington World of Adventures).

During the 1980s, the couple founded the first Children's Circus Academy, but the great storm of 1987 destroyed the Big Top and all the equipment. Hassani was typically sanguine. "He was still positive and acting as if nothing had happened," one of his performers remembered. "He was making jokes with us. He had hope." His Big Top spectacular continued there until 1997, when the amusement park introduced its own in-house performers.

A Muslim, Hassani converted one of the company's lorries to serve as a mosque. During the summer season, Tamara Coco's Circus performed daily to the hordes who crowded into Chessington. An offshoot of the company, International Circus Hassani, played to visitors to the Alton Towers theme park. Hassani was a hard taskmaster. A former pupil recalled: "If you had to do 10 somersaults and you did nine, he would say 'Why did you do nine? When I pay you, should I give you nine instead of 10? No.'"

Later in life, with his second wife, Souad, Hassani served as foster carer for Kingston Council in south-west London. Ali Hassani was born on March 7, 1927, and died on January 16. He is survived by the three daughters from his first marriage to Tamara, and his son with Souad. * The National