Chinese contortionists, Bulgarian acrobats and a Siberian bear on a motorbike brought the magic of the big top to Madrid this month as the glittering finale to an international congress on the circus.

The performers and enthusiasts holding the congress put their message over loud and clear: the circus is alive and kicking, above all when government lends a hand."In Bulgaria the circus is like an art, we are stimulated to make good acts," said Bulgarian acrobat Alexander Balkanski.

Some 400 artists and delegates from 23 countries attended the "Friends of the Circus" congress, including circus directors from most of Western Europe and state officials from Cuba, China and seven East European countries.

"The socialist countries . . . are the ones that most support the circus as a popular spectacle," said congress organizer Antonio Marquerie, a Spanish engineer who admitted that he wishes he had been a clown.

The delegates called on governments and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to support the circus, recognize its artistic and historical value and set up schools to preserve its traditions.

"The circus is the origin of the performing arts and is made up of old arts and ancestral traditions that should be preserved and developed," the congress said.

In Spain, as in other Western countries, the circus has been in decline since its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Marquerie said.

"There were around 100 circuses (in Spain) in the 1950s and 1960s. Now there are 10 . . . and only three of those can be considered authentic."

But at a spectacular gala performance to mark the end of the congress, artists from East and West showed the circus is far from ready to lie down and die.

"Double death leap on a single stilt!" the ringmaster boomed to a roll of drums, and a Bulgarian acrobat turned two elegant somersaults perched on a single six-foot stilt.