The Beauty of Canvas ... When has an artist ever painted an indoor circus?

The Beauty of Canvas ... When has an artist ever painted an indoor circus?
By George Campbell Tinning, on Facebook Circus & Fairground Art

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Morning with Don Marcks: My First Book Lands Major TV Attention ... Don's Circus Report Subscriptions Plunge ... Faultfinding Circus Review Draws "Uproar"

Yes, it's been a while.  Don is back. While reigning in my clutter, as I periodically do (I hate clutter), I came upon a bulging folder of his yet-to-read letters, and, looking through a few, was put back in a certain mood.  All it took was something out of the ordinary to reboot my interest.  Once in a while, something jumps out.

Today, from his of March 5, 1984:

"Did you watch the TV show on Ringling last night?  If so you already know what I am going to say. For at the end they named three books viewers should check in their library for in order to learn more about the circus.  One of these was 'Behind the Big Top.' So, I thought that was a pretty nice plug.  Also shows some recognition that you might not have thought about."

Was I ever flattered to learn of that!  Not sure if Don's letter got to me before a phone call from somebody else delivering the same news.  Was hard to believe.

Behind the Big Top was my first book, and I suppose the first book is always the most exciting, as long as it does not flop. Mine earned enough enthusiasm from most book reviewers and readers to give me a genuine feeling of accomplishment. Amazing, considering the incredible number (it would be too embarrassing to say) of typos and misspellings that are in it.  This alone should land me in the Guinness Book.

In Don's three page letter (his flawless typing is so impressive)  here is what surprised me the most: 

 "Oh, almost forgot to tell you - I've lost almost 300 subscribers, so guess I have to figure out something to improve and make CR a bit more appealing.  That's a pretty big loss over the past few months."

The understatement may tell you something about the man's cool, at least on the surface.

He had been "laid up" for a time, probably for medical reasons, and wondered if that was a reason.  In fact, he constantly struggled to get new subscribers to replace departing ones.  He sent out free samples every week to a good number of prospective takers, drawn from circus fans lists.  Now, it seems, the fan magazines were listing far fewer newer members, and thus Don had fewer people to pitch to.

Here is another of his disclosures that could surprise me.  "One thing that would help is to have better reports on shows and such.  It is too bad when you have to depend on gratis reports, also too bad that  like the one review when the fellow says the bad was bad that so much uproar results."

Yes, indeed, same then as now.  Dare criticize a single element in a circus program and you're a traitor to the big top.

"Then that musician [I've no idea who he is talking about here] opens up a can of worms by saying that anyone can become a performer with practice but not so a circus musicians.  Well, if nothing more it makes some interesting copy, I guess."

I think that awareness of "interesting copy" was one reason why Don had little trouble reporting on both sides of such contentious topics as the emerging animal rights movement and Cirque du Soleil.  He seemed easily able to report what came down the pike, often drawing from the AP.   No, no real circus reviews, but hard news, yes.  That impressed me. 

So, how does he close off on March, 5, thirty years ago?

"Well, got to get back to work."

Heck of a nice guy, Don.  We talked many times on the telephone, not just about circus but about issues  of the day, and how refreshing it was to hear him take on a subject without politicizing it.  Being open to considering all points of view out there.  I never quite figured out what his political party may have been.

Maybe he didn't either.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Big Top Book Unlike Any Other: Paul Binder Teases With a Winning Big Apple Circus Sampler

The title may be too clever for it's own good, but Paul Binder’s new book,  Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion, is easy and fun to read, a charmer, filled with anecdotes about his years in and around the Big Apple Circus that he and Michael Christensen founded in 1977.

It is noting like I expected, although I don’t know what I expected, come to think of it, other than it would not tell us much about company conflicts, about Binder’s views of other circuses.  The book does, however, dish a little inside dirt (and pachyderm poo), some of which the author may live to regret.

Best of all, and rather surprising considering that Binder is possibly the most intellectually inclined circus producer in American history, the book is not a plodding polemic or an “academic,” to its redemptive credit.  So, those seeking a gender-bending study of how circus “reflects” the changing socio-economic-astrological-digital shifts in society will be just as let down as will the fans who count wagon wheels, tent poles, stringers, jacks and elephants.  Especially the latter. For several seasons, New York’s own circus has stuck with house-friendly critters, like horses and dogs, and the occasional tent-crashing skunk.

Here, Binder is a charming host, and here he does not drop the word “retirement.”  In the end, a third- person account states that he  “stepped out of the ring.”   I believe he did not want to retire, that he was gently, if not firmly, shown a way to make happy in the backyard and continue helping to raise money. 

How to talk about or  review this book? The best and fairest thing to do, it seemed, would be to go with questions raised by what appears on the printed page, rather than, for example, comparing what I find here with what  the author told me during a generous interview several years ago.

He jumps back and forth like an acrobat, and so there are holes in the narrative, some gaping and, one could argue, negligent.  Such as this:  Binder’s early account of how he set up the New York School for Circus Arts, which itself would present the circus, does not cover what became of that short-lived school. When I saw the show in 1978,  I was swept up by its youthful energy and creative spirit.  Some of the acts, as I recall, were developed at the school. Nothing from the ringmaster on its early demise.  I told you not to expect scholarship.

 Old World tested and certified:  Binder, left, and Michael Christensen, who honed their juggling on street corners in Europe, before returning to New York to found the Big Apple Circus in 1977.  Seen between them are Russian clowns Nina Krasavina  and Greory Fedin.  Binder also appears above, as the show's ringmaster.

 In its youthfully ambitious beginning, when the New York School for Circus Arts was a dream: Students perform New York Charivari, in the 1978 show. 

Another amazing gap: After writing about how he and Christensen secured their first  tent, a lot, and funding support, nothing about the first show, the reception, reviews, or the circus school’s diminishing role.  In fact, from there, the narrative leaps forward by five years! 

To his credit, Binder allows us to view his intense temper, in particular, during a box stacking act by David Casey (Oaf)that should have stopped at failed box number 3, but would not, due to the performer’s dogged resolve, contrary to Binder’s cues, to keep going until he succeeded.  Cut to an ugly row backstage — some of it shockingly audible to audience members  —  resulting in what, for a moment, sounded and looked ominously violent.  (Casey alleges in an angry review of the book on Amazon, that Binder’s account is partly fabricated.)

 In its matriculating years, when the circus turned away from youth and presented world class acts, like the Carillo Bros on the high wire, in 1984

Another inexplicable omission is the name of a legendary flyer, only alluded to in this rousing passage:

“Fifteen hundred people stare upward, motionless, neither breathing nor thinking but believing there is no way that flyer can ever break out of four — four! — somersaults, find a catcher’s arms in the blink of an eye, grab them, and hang on.  But what happens in the next instant calls into question every assumption this crowd has made about how the world works: hands and forearms do meet; they clutch, grasp, and hold ...
    And the crowd goes wild.”  

Guess who he’s talking about?  Not Tito Gaona, whom he loved, as anybody would, and who gets prime coverage in Never Quote.   No, a guy named Miguel Vazquez, whose name appears no where in the text.  The slight is astonishing.

For me, by far the ringmaster’s most memorable prose describes the feeling of connection to the crowd that came over him when he and Michael stepped into a circus ring for the first time, to appear at Anna Fratalinies new circus in France.  Here is how he begins: 

“... what I felt when I entered the ring was nothing less than pure joy — not just a personal sense of satisfaction and pleasure, but something far more powerful and deeply primal: true, elemental ritual celebration ...”  

His mantra is a two-word descriptor, “classical circus.” But he spends little time defining what exactly this means.  Would the definition include aerialists hooked to lifelines?  Does Ringling present “classical?” circus?  Or how about bout UniverSoul, or Cirque du Soleil?  And if not, why?

Binder believes that he, and a few others his age,  reintroduced the one ring show to a American audiences. They did not.  That distinction goes to  Polack Bros. Circus, which, in 1935, opted for one wonderful ring, and presented, during its heyday years, some of the greatest “classical circus” acts in the world.  In my boyhood, I saw the great Francis Brunn with Polack that Paul Binder would announce in his  own show thirty years later.

On animals, Binder's thoughts about their moods, and about how the best trainers work around those moods, are quite interesting and may be helpful, may not be.  I was impressed.

On occasion, he takes more space than need be, when he recounts acute looks of displeasure on the faces of opera patrons, Lincoln Center bound, having to pass a circus area freshly scented with late-breaking elephant emissions. 

Final chapters bring on some high drama from the Middle Kingdom, with the arrival of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe from China, resulting in one of its performers, Lanrong, wanting to defect, being locked up in a room by the troupe’s stern task master, Lu Yi (who now teaches circus arts in San Francisco), actually wanting free of  Yi rather than her country.  Here lies a tale made for a movie,  But, please,spare us the languid cameras of PBS.

Production soars in Pictureque, 2004, a near masterpiece.  That season, the Kovgar Troupe, from Russia, sent the show into orbit at finale.  

It’s a book you’ll be beguiled into meeting on its own randomly organized terms – part of its quirky charm.  Which gives it a rare easy-to-take effervescence.  The informally artful layout (short chapters, most headed with small sketch drawings, charming) is another asset.  Only are the poorly reproduced black and white photographs a drawback (and I thought some of mine in recent books were bad!) -- but who cares.  It's the writing that counts.

Binder’s mother never seemed sure about her son’s career choice.   He would call her up after another opening to share his enthusiasm, and she, per he, “asked hesitantly, almost as if she feared what the answer would be: “But ... Paul, ... are you ... are you happy?”

Perhaps more then than now.  Just after announcing  his retirement, the ringmaster told a TV reporter what a joy it was, every single day, to dress up in his costume and wait to go on. To face another ring. Another crowd.

You'll never read about this in Don't Quote the Weather.  A showman to the end, Paul Binder spares us a sad closing parade.

Act creator Paul Binder gave artistic birth to the clown Bello Nock, after watching him perform with his family on sway poles, and offering to help him create his own solo act.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Big Top Bits: July 4th Semi-Sizzlers, Fireworks Not Allowed Here

Charles Demuth

Bella to Binder: Fresh off the grass of Circus Bella, holding court last week in the city that works either for the very rich or the very poor (San Francisco), I scampered across the mean streets (most dangerous for pedestrians in Calif, if not the country, if not the world) to the lovely homeless sanctuary known as San Francisco Public Library, Central ... On one of its shelves, I would find a copy of Paul Binder’s new book, Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion,  which I checked out after renewing my library card.  All for the book, nothing like I had expected.  Read a little there; decided to bring it home and take the full tour.  More on this to follow; I must first try quoting the weather to a sea lion.

Race to FaceBook, those of you who enjoy painterly visions of circus, going way back to when, remember the horse? Remember the acrobat riding the horse?  You’ll be regaled by a treasure trove of wonderful art that captures classic circus in its many manifestations, pre-animal rights anxiety.  We have Jim Stockley to thank for this wonderful gallery.   Jim, whose mother and her brothers managed Chipperfields Circus,  brought his Facebook page to my attention recently by e-mail.  Thank you, Jim!

Putting “Ringling” and “Art” back togetherThe Wall Street Journal calling the Ringling Museum “an amazing place with an amazing history,” and they aren’t talking circus. They’re taking ART.  A work by Bernardo Strozzi, “An Act of Mercy,” profiled back in the March 23 issue.  How refreshing to see the museum that John Ringling built getting major recognition for the reason it was built -- before the big top invasion, and I'm putting that politely.  I promised to withhold my sparklers.

Alice Neel.  1932.

America’s Got Circus Talent, Too!  On the popular TV show, Christian Stoinev, and his doggy partner, Scooby, to compete on  July 17.   I’ve seen winning pictures of Christian holding a hand stand, while atop his back, stands Scooby.  Can't wait to see the act in motion.

Where was the "circus" inside Circus Maximus?  Once more, another reason to wonder.  I took on Mark Twain's vastly long Innocents Abroad, and surprised myself by staying with this great writer to the end.  When he gets to the ruins of the Roman Coliseum, he, whose other writings are sprinkled with circus accounts, describes every last bloody thing that thrilled the crazed spectators there, but says nothing about any circus acts.  Maybe he knows more than we.  Has anybody out there (among my 7 visitors) ever seen an ancient ad, herald, etching in stone or painting depicting circus action at Circus Maximus?   I'm starting to smell myth.

Everett Shinn

END RINGERS:  Aerial ballet heaven: Not one, Not two, but THREE ballets were witnessed on a Hamid Shrine unit in Hamburg, NY. Wrote Circus Report's Joy Moreau, “What is particularly well planned ... is that each is completely different in theme.”  Ah, Barbette, the Great One must be smiling in his grave.  Sour Song of India: Country now rules out wild animals from circuses.  Domestics, including moneys, are okay.  Down in Tinsel Town, city exacting steeper permit fees for circuses wanting to flaunt wild animals, causing Ramos Bros. to cancel a horse and camel display in city limits. ...Cirque du Soleil’s new opus, Kurios, drawing early strong notices.  Still, when it comes to San Francisco, I’m gonna read the local reviews first before deciding whether to go.  I’ve been burned by this company twice in a row now ... Vargas  tenting through the Bay Area cities... Kelly Miller’s first time in America bounce juggler from Ethiopia, Abraham Tarat. said to be nearing his first appearance in the ring, pending prop completion.  With all the delays, might this season turn out to be Tarat's Last Time in America?  Sorry, I just couldn't resist that ... John Ringling North II has around three acts in the "First Time" category.  His mind is in the right place, if not his operation ...  I've seen no reviews so far, not even in Circus Report. 

OFF THE LOT, OVER THERE ACROSS THE STREET:   Did you know that a clear majority of U.S. youths would flunk military standards for service?  Blame falls on drugs, felony convictions, high school drop outing, HDD's, and the B\ig One, Obesity.  ... Our local track celebrity, California Chrome, thrilled me, too, and I agree with its complaining  owner, who argues that it had to race, unfairly, against horses who had not appeared in the first two races.  In fact, Chrome outran those horses that DID, like he, run all three courses...  Beware of Drones!  I’m waiting for a direct hit mailer from Feld Entertainment, summoning me to its next show. Perhaps one day, Amazon will deliver by drone ... BTW: Ramos Bros. is a new name to me.  Some come and go incognito.  Ah, the circus, a form of entertainment that entertains whether anybody shows up or not ...

All images from Jim Stockley's Facebook Circus & Fairground Art.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Circus Bella Entertains Validly — Until it Doesn’t

The Big Juggle.  Photo by Ron Scherl

Yesterday in San Francisco, for a good part of this one hour free show at Yerba Buenna Gardens, they were looking more professional than amateur.  As usual,  the company's crack five piece band, lead by composer Rob Reich,  plays a starring role.  And STAR, they do.

Show is performed in a little ring, in front of a colorful back door.  Spectators make do, sans chairs, sitting on the hard grass.  A good sized crowd responded gratefully, and very few left early. 

Opening ensemble romp is as charming as a delicate confection.   Directors Abigail Munn, David Hunt and Sara Moore prove that you don’t need top acts to create a lively splash.

First act on the bill, foot juggling and risely by the Gentile Family — a woman works with three very young daughters, all of them hip to charming the crowd — sends the show into high gear.

David Hunt, working his customary slack rope routine, cast a more showmanly air this time around.

Hunt’s co-founding partner, Munn, was in top form executing a series of artfully polished classical posturing, twists and turns and drops on a single trapeze, all of which, in the key of aerial ballet, holds the eye and earns quiet respect.  If only she could set herself into swinging arcs –  she’d have so much more to offer.

Blue Suits, five or six guys having a ball sliding back and forth across a table, sometimes in and through and around each other, manage to compose an amusing array of comedic situations. 

Keep in mind, all of this action is being cleverly and joyfully scored by five agile musicians, each of whom seem to gleefully dance around the goings on. The original scoring is relevant and rich, full of contrast and whimsy, nothing less than a force unto itself.  Fans who bemoan the dearth of live music under our truncated tents will find this alone a satisfaction to savor.

Circus Bella is weak on programming showmanship.  Prop changes and transitions are rough and sloppy and time-consuming, possibly the reason the clowns, sometimes funny enough (one of them reminds me a little of Mr. Sniff), sometimes silly, spend a little too much time hanging out between the acts. 

Okay, to this point, I was thinking Big Advance for the Oakland-based troupe.  They had me in the palm of their hands, to a decent degree, yes.  But ...  then came two strained acts  that failed to   sustain what so far had engaged the kid-heavy crowd: The weirdly obtuse antics of DeMarcwellos Funes “Hambone Body Percussion,” a turn that failed to go anywhere,  and the Chinese Pole maneuvering of Ross Travis, whose overly labored workout amounts to a work in progress not yet ready for prime time.

At least, to compensate between these two dragging moments, Natasha Kaluza, working hoops, not like some humdrum house hoop act  but like a gifted juggler of invention and poise, easily won the crowd’s most rousing reception.  

Show lacks pacing. Worst of all, it takes the company far too long  to set up and test the Chinese Pole.  And once the act is over, rather than just leave it standing and segue smoothly into the group juggling finale,  more dead time is taken up in getting the thing back down onto the ground. 

Given the company's free-show status and ties to the public school community, it would be unfair to to issue a star rating, even though, for a good half, they were looking like a circus that might one day go pro. But that is not in their DNA.  They do a string of leisurely spread out dates during the summer in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They rely on funding in various forms. No tickets sales, which makes me wonder if this is the first “free circus” I have ever seen. Probably.

In 2009, when I saw the show in its second season, I had hoped they would move in a more quasi professional direction, like the old Pickle Family Circus, but that does not appear to be in the cards.

One day, when Circus Bella’s day has passed, looking back, those who correctly remember, will write about that the troupe's terrific little band.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Back to Court for the “Greatest Show in Court”? Recovering Ringling "Hairialists" Hire Attorneys ... Lawsuits Loom over Failed Rigging

After the fall, yesterday, far from full recovery:  Dayana Costa, right, tearfully reads a statement to the press at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.  AP photo.

Back before a judge or jury may go “The Greatest Show in Court.”  That’s what Feld Entertainment calls itself these days, gloating in the wake of its big Pay Day victory against animal rights groups that had smeared it  for years with fraudulent Tim Rider testimony.

But now, the show may not be so happy about a return engagement to court, or look so well when four of the eight aerialists who performed a spectacular hair hanging stunt, still recovering from a fall on May 4, when the rigging from which they hung betrayed them, consider taking legal action for damages.  The four have hired attorneys and are talking to Big Media.

Investigation of the rigging continues.  Evidence so far suggests that, indeed, it was a critical component of the rigging that broke apart, leading to the shocking descent of all eight aerialists to the floor of an arena in Provedance, Rhode Island, wittinesed  by 3,900  stunned spectators.

The entire incident,  as previously speculated here, may be history making.  When has an aerial apparatus of this complexity broken apart -- or simply collapsed to the ground?  Luckily, nobody, from what we know, was seriously injured.  But that story, too, is yet to be fully told.

Among major network reporting, this morning on CBS, one of the performers was quoted as saying she once dreamed of being “a star performer.”

Now, she just dreams of getting out of her wheel chair and walking again.

A sobering account, compared to earlier reports alluding to good recoveries for all.

Thanks to Don Covington, who contributed to this report.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Lost Angeles: Backlot City Spreads Gold Among the Garbage

The City That Never Is: One vast junky back lot of sets old and new — the best too bright and full of wonder to ignore.  Sharing space with this vast nothingness, they are the reason you go.  Find them and be entertained.   Be inspired.   Find them and believe in this sporadically brilliant one-story metropolis, squeezed callously between a rape of incestuous freeways along a dried up river bed, cemented over, a real river that once flowed with pure water and glistened under a paradise of endless sun.

Now, the “L.A. River” lays there like a disgraced skeleton nobody dares claim – they are all too busy making deals, tearing down the old to make way for the new in an ever-expanding mess of off ramps and on ramps, over and under.  Detour City.  Perhaps one day there will be no way out. Coming back over the Grapevine, the bus came to a stop, and for two tortuous hours I watched the same trucks and cars moving ahead then behind us, over and over in slow slow motion, wondering if we would ever see land again.  When we did, we managed to reach the place, where you transfer from bus-to-rail, called Bakersfield.  (No, no, David, leave that one alone.)

But, it’s the “in-between” that counts.  Move this way or that by a few miles, and another cultural oasis will smash your low opinion of the town.   Will make you fall in love all over again with the  towering treasures that keep its depressing sprawl an irresistible draw.  The Disney Concert Hall, up there on top, soars and glides, dances and swirls — without ever moving an inch.  Its mere existence, a miracle, shows the world how.  Los Angeles knows how to show the world how. The Getty museum, next three images, elevates art high on an exalted hill overlooking the insulting urban patchwork below.  It’s the American story, brother — you’ll find smaller versions of this depressing challenge everywhere.   Maybe a few blocks up the street from where you live.  Northern California’s Santa Rosa, once a  tender little town, also suffers the rape of auto-mania. Guns and gas.  Point made?   Consider that last sentence a sincere act of honest journalism.

Come here and gawk: oil wells in front yards!  Maybe still.  A brand new modern subway of ugly claustrophobic carriages (who designed these -- the IRS?) putting you six feet under — when the Big Earthquake breaks you’ll already be where you may have ended up, anyway, your burial on the town.

I have come to loath a subway system I loved when it opened.  Its individually designed stations, real artists in charge, showed the world how.  But one rush hour, a few visits back, I pushed myself down below into a stuffed and hot Metro car, which stalled now and then, and could not wait for the liberation I prayed God would grant me.  Suddenly, I rediscovered the charming relief of an above-ground bus ride!  Glory on high!  Something about fresh air and sunshine (okay, even smog) that appeals to my earth-bound nature.

Above L.A. once again, I exult in the humdrum rides that show me exactly where I am and where I am going.   And, of course, the MTA is cutting back on buses to force commuters down into these rat holes of human transport.  Why is it, then, that I never feel so doomed riding New York's rattletraps?  For one reason, perhaps: the riders in Gotham speak my own language.

Here are a few of the bus-stop photos I took on my bus ride out Sunset Boulevard to Westwood for a connecting bus to the Getty art museum   (This was intended to be a very sociological, award-winning photo spread, but then came Beverly Hills, with not a single soul anywhere at or around a bus stop.  And there my project died.)


The elevated  Gold Line, God bless it, feels so perfectly L.A.  Something about the sunshine it favors.    You glide, Disneyland-style, past a panorama of contrasts, cement plants to houses on hills, Italian style.   To another great museum, the Norton Simon, you are sanely delivered.  When the Big Quake rocks, I'd rather be above than below earth. 

Now the Gold Line, extended, moves the other way too.  I took it to reach another lovely oasis, Little Tokyo – the place that gave birth to the international acclaims that put a new troupe from Montreal, Cirque du Soleil, on the map.  In 1987.  I was there.   Wherever it was that Cirque pitched its little tent, there should be a plaque marking the historic occasion.    At the East West Players, they were presenting a revival of their 1999 work, Beijing Spring.  There was much to enjoy in thunderbolts of youthful passion and protest, passionaely scored, crossing a busy stage.  But the  scene inevitably expected, "tank man" stopping a column of tanks dead in their tracks, never arrived.  A major let down.


Sometimes, the city gets it right:  That depressing slab of old downtown, around Broadway, that festered with huge homeless encampments, along with society's dangerous outcasts, is now being transformed into thousands of upscale new condos and apartments, and a thriving working class revival. Anything wrong with that?  I have no problem with a return of civilization.

You can't sit here anymore!   Shame on Union Station for these ropes, that deny one the right to enjoy its phenomenal atmosphere

Worst thing about L.A?  Well, I see less and less of my own whenever I visit.  Ask somebody for directions and hear them tell you: “Me no speak English”.  Half the population is now Mexican. They keep on coming (I’ll refrain from going political) and will soon dominate the demographic contest.  What then? Our own version of South Africa -- hard working poor in tense alliance with a narrowing rich upper middle class? 

An exhilarating bus ride to the Getty out in Brentwood takes me through Beverly Hills. You are in Never Never Land. Gorgeous scenery all the way. 

At Fillippe's sawdust-over-the-floor restaurant, near Union Station, photos and posters hung during the era of the Paul Eagle's Circus Luncheon Club, ever shrinking in number and space allocation, still grace one wall.

Farewell, Back Lot City. You always send me away with a fresh goal; this time, I'm dreaming, how long before Union Station returns to its senses and cuts down the damn ropes encircling the lobby seats like prison-yard chains, killing the freedom for anyone to walk in, sit down, and savor the magnificence of it all?  It's up to you L.A -- L.A.!

[all photos by Showbiz David]

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Big Apple Circus Disappoints, Big Time: Between Powerhouse Acts at Both Ends, Luminociy Lacks Velocity

Mesmerizing star power at the outset:  Ty Tojo

Circus Review
Big Apple Circus, Luminocity
May 24, 12:30 pm.
Queens, New York

Luminocity will not go down as one for the books.

This latest edition of Big Apple Circus strives to link circus acts to the sundry goings-on around  Times Square — construction workers to cab rides (for dogs), to the surly pickpockets who may still be stalking the sidewalks.  But except for two outstanding acts that frame a surprisingly slim lineup, neither the theme nor the performers engaged to bring it off rise above a moderately pleasing campaign.

First, to the good news: Upon entering the tent, a deftly designed set evoking both the grit and glitter of Times Square neon, captivates.  Show's amiable host, ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, casts a welcoming figure, both gracious and commanding.  He exudes a genuine warmth neither hackneyed nor pandering.  And if at moments he comes off a tad awkwardly constrained by some stiff scripting, yet his true colors shine bright at finale.  Then, by the sparkling power of his concise announcing style alone,  Kane reaches a perfect pitch in oratory, persona, and flair.  He and Ringling are a dream match waiting to happen.

An articulate asset:  John Kennedy Kane

Another production asset is a rich and vibrant original score, composed by David Bandman and Jeffrey Holme, and delivered with smooth gusto by bandleader Rob Slovik.  Only rarely do the charts turn bland or drone out. When the kick-off act, astoundingly accomplished 15-year-old juggler Ty Tojo, hits the ring, the band reads his every move as if the two had been touring together for years.  With only one slight miss, this astonishing wizard of manipulation fashions mesmerizing fountains of flying balls in a myriad of patterns, shifting his body positions as he operates.  Profoundly satisfying, I could have watched his record-breaking routine another time or two

Tojo’s exhilarating assault is not, unfortunately, sustained by what follows, not, that is, until the Dosov Troupe come on to close out the program.  One could argue that there is work of merit on display here.  Surely the impressive contortions of Acro Duo command respect.  And Daniel Cyr’s agile workout on a free-standing  ladder is fairly neat stuff.  But these two relatively static turns, neither a driving force, are symptomatic of an inherent weakness in the programming.  Add to that the minimal impact of two animal drills managed by the usually brilliant Jenny Vidbel (a big let down -- perhaps, the dogs had an off day) and then, factor in a couple of borderline aerial offerings (one being the theoretically terrific Mongolian Angels,but rigged to mechanics)  — and together, they compose a slow-motion pageant shy on the wow factor.

Nor does the show draw much of a pulse from the soft staging given it by director Michel Barette, who seems to favor a tender coddling of audience members for numerous in-the-act recruitments.

So we turn to the clowns. Returning jester Rob Torres is a pleasing enough asset, creatively engaging in a laid-back manner, who evokes some warm laughter.  If only he had a stronger show against which to contrast his essentially gentle nature.  Another comedic figure is the curiously one-note Pierre Ginet,  a fast talking pickpocket who works an audience volunteer. Ginet’s incessantly annoying chatter while removing the man’s assets is much ado about nothing, and before our eyes, we witness an act fizzling out well before its ring time is up.

Most ill-fitting of all are the rickety exploits aloft, fairly fundamental stuff, of aging high wire walkers, Duo Guerrero, whose allusion to romance — she opens with a slow stroll up an inclined wire while taking her sweet time warbling out a schmaltzy ballad, somewhat self-indulgently  — comes off as a little cheesy. Now, if she had sung, "Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today!" -- well now, that might have worked.  At their best and most serious, they execute a fine two-high human pyramid without lunge down the inclined wire.  But exactly how they are supposed to connect with the Times Square angle left me feeling a bit thematically deprived.
Back into high gear sails Big Apple –  just in time to thrill us before our ambivalent exits.  Enter the Dosov Troupe of teeter-board gods.  Their entire act is one perfect sensation — staging to choreography, costumes to scoring, pacing to build.  Monte Carlo Gold all the way.  

On balance, this meager opus is the weakest Big Apple Circus I have ever seen.  Tent only being two-thirds full, the smallest crowd I’ve come upon at a BAC outing, it seemed hardly a surprise.   Luminosity must mark a major misstep for new artistic Guillaume Dufresnoy, who has produced superior action and theatrical cohesion in some of his earlier offerings.  His reach into a variety of artistic formats is a plus.  But like any circus, if you don't have the acts, you don't have the show.

Overall rating (4 stars tops): 2 stars

 The Dusov Troupe lift a lagging lineup into big top heaven

Monday, May 26, 2014

Posting in the Dark: Perfect Pleasures and Crushing Let Downs in the Big Apple


The best of company: Niece Lisa and her son, Noah ("Mister McFiddle" by me)

Sounds exciting.  Truth is, I am hacking this out on my laptop on another of Amtrak's charming milk trains, the LakeShore – no, make that the LateShore Limited, bound someday for Chicago.  Must hurry, for once there, I will post this via e-mail.

Gotham the Great and Glorious is still a draw, but I've had it with Amtrak, and doubt I'll be returning for a long time, if ever, unless I can break my fear of aerial commuting.

The Gershwin Hotel, my home away from home, went from $139.00 a night to three hundred (new cold-hearted owners), so I found a little room without even a chair at the Hotel Newton, nice enough, on the upper East Side..  My niece, Lisa, who arrived a day later, found fabulous quarters in Times Square Area at Candlewood Suites, for about the same price!  Hers was like a mini modern apartment.

On my own, I looked forward to taking in the Monopoly board game exhibit at the Forbes Gallery, not knowing till I got there that all those cool looking people entering the building  were going to work on upper floors at Forbes magazine.  And then, once the gallery opened, I learned the Monopoly set and all the toys had been sold a few years ago! .... Onto to another museum I've wanted to see, the Guggenheim and, boy, am I glad I finally saw it.  What I loved about Frank Lloyd Wright's circular layout is how it guides you on a clear path up up up, from one display to the next.  They're showing work from the Italian Futurism era, a rare discovery that I can see helped set the stage for the radical violence of Hitler and  Mussolini. ... One of the best special exhibitions  I've ever seen ... So good, that only a few steps into, I took the free reference ear phones, etc, that came with it, back to the front desk and got rid of them. I'll take the art as it strikes me without somebody telling me what to think, thank you, world of superfluous technology.

New York: How Disgustingly Hollywood of You! ... For lunch, I revisited Café 28, around the corner from where the once bohemian Gershwin Hotel once stood.  Then to the Gershwin, to savor the atmospheric front lobby, drenched in seductive shades of red.  But, once inside, all I could see were panels blocking that space from passage.  I was mortified to learn that the lobby  has been gutted!  Something else is to go there - maybe an extension of the Sex Museum down the street.

At the gutted Gershwin, were rooms went from $139.00 to $300.00 - yes, I went somewhere else.  Beyond the  temp panels, gone is the red lobby and all the art work in the halls and rooms!

I talked to a young doorman.  "It is all gone," he said, "all the paintings on the floors, everything."  The woman who owned the Gershwin sold it a few years ago, how could New York have allowed this to happen?  I thought such a rape only occurred in Tinsel Town. 

Disney's Newsies, I grabbed a half pricer ($92 – can you believe?). Show tells a great little story, really more a play, the dialogue scenes are so strong, with so-so songs and terrific dance work, and like so many bloated tuners, too long.

This kid is so much fun to hang out with and watch cavort through toy stores.

.... All of this amidst the ever-present threat of rain.  Now comes the Big Letdown.  Niece Lisa's great expectation was of our seeing the hot new show After Midnight. She nabbed three tickets, for me, her and her little bright boy, Noah, all of eight.  We got there, high expectations.  Woman scanned our tickets, made a face.  Looked again.  "These are for last night."  My poor niece nearly fainted, so I went into consoling mood, and we regrouped (heartless box office manager would not do anything, although the tickets can be re-used under certain conditions).  Out into the rain we straggled, losers before midnight, to an ice cream sit down, to sugar away our tears.  I took Rocky Road. 

Next morning, we played my game, still in development, Can't Stop Shopping.. Here is how good it has become, and this was NOT scripted: While Lisa was offering me valuable feedback  on the wording of the rules and images on the Act On Coupons, Noah, I thought, was buried in a bed pillow and sleeping. But, no, said Lisa, he is with his little  i-Something playing a video game.  And, then, he wanted to join us to be the banker for second play of the game, and THEN, he wanted to play the game!  How honored I felt that he, with a mind of his own, would break free of his thickening electronic addictions for a board game – which, ironically, could end up someday, if commercially lucky, being sold as a mobile board game.  And then Noah can play it in bed.

We had also taken in the Big Apple Circus out in Cunningham Park, which I will review upon my return.  Lovely ride out to Queens, such a different world, so airy and evergreen.

About the Big City, the best thing I can say is this.  These New Yorkers are so friendly and outgoing when asked for directions — even when they sense you are lost and go out of their way to assist.  All of them.  One young guy, who had helped me at a subway ticket window figure out how to get to Forbes, a little later came running down onto a platform after me:  "Sir, you want the other side!" .... My take?  Together, the residents share a great pride in and love of their city, and each may feel that how they treat a tourist will reflect upon their home. They are A Number One.  Top of the Heap.  Blue Ribbon Boffo.

How I'd love to go back.  Not on Amtrak.  I've had my fill of endless delays. Of squeezing myself into and out of the claustrophobic closet-sized  "sleepers" outrageously overpriced.  How I wish this railroad ran like those of my lucky youth, when I rode the Shata Daylight, the North Coast Limited, the Super Chiefs, the real California Zephyr.  I've given up on a hopeless wish for modern age rail. 

I'll be posting this during my shortened Chicago layover.  Train is now two hours late; its NY-bound counterpart that limped past us yesterday was then six hours behind schedule, and counting. I'm posting safely via my e-mail, because with XP windows, as some of you will know, I dare not go on-line lest the "bad guys" come after me.

So... once  I press "send" on my e-mail, I will have no way of checking how this looks on my  blog..  And If you got here, that means the entire mess got through — Be kind; I walked this wire without a lifeline. 

Au Revoir, New York New York.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“Greatest Show in Court” Wins Another Big PR Battle Against Animal Rights Activists ... Cirque du Soleil’s Founder Poised to "Rejuvenate" Show's Lagging Fortunes

From the gift to Kenneth Feld that keeps on giving -- notoriously untruthful witness, the late Tim Rider -- another big victory amounting to millions.  Latest to get stung with steep costs are the Humane Society of the United States, and other related groups, who have been ordered to pay Feld Entertainment $15.75 million.  For those firmly in the Feld camp, it’s Good News.

For others not quite so convinced, well, in the Court of Public Opinion, the jury is still out.  In a pair of seasons, if a Los Angeles city ordinance voted in holds, you won't see any elephants cavorting at Staples Center – that is, if Ringling still comes to Tinsel Town.  On a wobbly fence I sit, watching this whole thing play out, noting, at this juncture, the monumental stupidity of these animal rights activists that banked on the words of Ryder, a one-time Ringling elephant trainer, who made quite a bundle posting as a witness for the activists.

Onto the circus of no animals.

Cirque King, Guy Laliberte, telling Sophie Cousinea of Montreal’s The Globe and Mail, that, yes, he’s been knocked about by some big failures in recent years, and, yes, the profit margin has retreated to near nothing.  He hastens to add that his shows, on balance, are not losing any money.   He sells “between 14 and 15 million tickets per year.”

He's now, headlines the story "on a mission to rejuvenate his Cirque du Soleil."

“We fell into the trap of thinking we could do all things entertainment-related,” said the 54-year-old dynamo, ready to sell 20% to 30% of his live entertainment group, the funds to be channeled into continued expansion into other areas.

So, back to circus concentration, hardly.  Laliberte still covets a  durable and respected slot on the Great White Way.  Funding now being sought will underwrite yet more Broadway shows (or attempts at).  The man at the top still harbors a dream of “finally cracking the New York market.”  Given Laliberte’s paltry track record competing with giant ticket draws like The Lion King and  The Book of Mormon, I fail to see much hope here — unless he can join money with the right Broadway talent to bring in that one-in-a dozen miracle: a Hit Show. 

Declining CDS fortunes are blamed, partly, on the overly high tickets prices of the failed Iris in Hollywood (iffy excuse), on Z in Tokyo going down under the crippling 2011 tsunami (I can buy that).  Most critically along the Vegas strip, wracked by the financial crisis, hotels were driven to offer discounted tickets, “forcing” CDS to follow suit. 

Now, if you, like I, have grown tired of overproduced mediocre “circus” shows under the Grand Chapiteau, you may opt for a newer Cirque venture soon to be coming your way — maybe – such as your own glitzy wedding reception organized by 45 Degres, with whom CDS has formed a partnership.  And then, on the theme park horizon, there too may rise another incarnation of Cirque du Soleil in the form of  “multi media theme parks.”
Once, they employed 5,000 staff. Now, the number is 4,000.  “I am a warrior,” declared Mr. Laliberte to Ms. Cousineau. 

And so I, a naive dreamer, still await the Cirque du Soleil with animals.  Don’t count it out, kids.   If they can just get the right deal with Peterson Peanuts.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Opening Day Today at Circus World Museum: New Wonders on Display Promise Fresh Excitement, A Rousing Reason to GO ...

From Ben Bromley, reporting in the Baraboo News Republic:  "A historic animal house that formerly held a gift shop now displays models illustrating Ringling Bros. Circus history. One is a 200-piece miniature replica of the 1947 Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus train, donated by model train builder Joe Kaspar and housed in a custom-built case that runs the length of the building."

Kasper spent decades crafting the train.  He selected the year 1947 because "that's when the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey show was at its largest."

In the same room, you can take in a set of nine recently restored dioramas, one of them seen below. They were created in Circus World's imposing railroad car shop by the late Jean Leroy in the 1960s to depict the Ringling rise to international fame.

These dioramas traveled ahead of the circus in the 1960s to drum up free publicity, and were later put on display at Irvin Feld's lavish Circus World theme park in Florida. After the park folded in the mid-1980s, they were sold, and languished in an unknown location for years.  A New Jersey collector, revealing their existence, donated them to Circus World in 2011.  Rigorous restoration, undertaken by volunteers Steve and Dawnne Flint of Janesville, consumed 400 hours.

The process was complex.  Asbestos had to be removed, old wiring replaced with LED, among other arduous steps.  "It was more than just glue and paint,” explained Steve Flint. “There were a lot of curse words I didn’t think I knew.”

Of the new miniatures on elegant exhibition, says Circus World Executive Director Scott O'Donnell,  “I fully believe the Ringling brothers would wholeheartedly approve of this display."

Also new this year at Circus World, the annual summer circus show is back under the big top!