Street entertainment is as old as history, with musicians and performers showing off their act where they lay their hat for a coin from passers-by. At some stage we’ve all been dazzled by a performance of some sort when simply walking down the street. Here’s a look at its history, what’s happening today and what you can book from Centre Stage.
The verb ‘to busk’ originally came from the Spanish word ‘buscar’ meaning to seek. Although in modern Spanish the word is relegated to speaking only about female sex workers, it formed the basis of the English word we use today. Called troubadours or jongleurs in French, minnesingers or spielleute in German or skomorokh in Russian, the word English word ‘busk’ was brought to the country by the touring Romani people, or ‘gypsies’, when they travelled up the western coasts of Europe.
These families of entertainers had long honed their craft through lifetimes of performing and represented art and entertainment for the masses, but also found their way into upper class entertainment in a convoluted way. It was not uncommon practice for classical composers of the Romantic period (mid – late 19th century) to filch melodies they heard from these street performers and to transcribe and compose pieces of classical music around them, Mikhail Glinka, for example, beginning such a trend in Russia, later continued by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Although an age old art, one can trace back early legal recognition of the practice to 462 BC in Ancient Rome, where a law was passed forbidding any such performers from performing anything which satirized any aspect of government. In England, Henry VIII was the first to introduce a necessary license of all street performers in 1530. Indeed this bureaucracy lives on today in London. Any busker is still required to hold a license and the generally high standard of entertainment you might see at Covent Garden or on the Underground is actually due to the fact that these busking venues audition those allowed to perform there. Some buskers cannot afford the license however and perform until moved on by the police,
who have also been known to interrupt legitimate street performers’ acts to see a license, much to the artists’ chagrin.
The Street Performance World Championship, now ten years old, attracted a quarter of a million viewers in its latest instalment in Dublin and Cork. The festival features all the wonderful acts you would expect: jugglers, acrobats, sword swallowing, contortionists, magicians, break dancers, comedians and more, inspiring the locals of the cities to get involved too.
Evidently the range of types of performances on the streets is vast, including larger scale art installations such as the plinths in Trafalgar Square or the contemporary artist Anish Kapoor’s piece, ‘Cloud Gate’ in Chicago. The work is a vast reflective structure with smooth curved sides, glinting reflections of surrounding buildings, with a space underneath it where you can view the most bizarre reflected images.
Typically street performance and art represents the everyman, the honest entertainer. In direct opposition to this was the Southbank’s recent plan to convert the famous concrete bunker spaces into shopping facilities as part of £120 million redevelopment project. The project faced a strong backlash from the many skaters, BMX bikers and street artists who use the space daily to practice and perform, and was subsequently scrapped. If this has piqued your interest, check out Centre Stage’s performers page to book any band or act at a corporate or private event or engagement, and feel free to get in touch on 0800 179 9424 or [email protected].