Saturday, September 24, 2016

Big Apple Circus in Meltdown? The Paul Binder Equation May Not be Sustainable – Without Paul Binder

Given the urgency of the moment, I am bringing the one back.

Part 2 in a Series
 
Bottom Line, from the top:  Paul Binder lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the entire company and its many supporters could cohere.

 The proposed circus school, in the beginning.
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The most oft-visited reality of circus -- forever on the brink of disaster -- is once again threatening to put another show off the road.  Now, it is the theoretically formidable Big Apple Circus of New York --  not for the first time, but once more comes news of severe cutbacks and shake ups at Big Apple.   These are dire reports.   And so, direly I speculate:

Circuses by and large rest and move on the strong shoulders of one person -- the owner (or a figure virtually occupying that position) at the top.  They by and large do not work well as non-profit performing arts entities, which have a way of self-expanding into payroll-crushing monsters, not to speak of constant internal battles over who gets to run the show. Circus Vargas may call itself non-profit, but it hardly fits the profile.  Is it thriving?  I can’t say it is.  Please understand, one of the factors I look at is audience size.   I’ve seen mostly good crowds at Big Apple, mostly meager turnouts at Vargas, including, most recently in my own backyard, in Hayward.


THE BINDER EQUATION

At the foundation of Big Apple circus, founder Paul Binder, wanting it to be non-profit from the outset, built up a complex arts organization, to which his multiple talents seem to have been effectively applied.   Back slapping to fund raising -- big bucks in better times from corporate NY; discriminating trips abroad to scout some of the best acts in the world; a warm personal connection with the audience in his ringmaster red -- I fondly recall, during a performance in Brooklyn back in the 1980s, Binder taking some time, not overdone, to insert bits of historical information about some of the acts.  A tinge pastoral.

 The Dusov Troupe: Big Apple books world  class acts.

There are many things of which I am uncertain, but here goes my best long-held impressions -- key components of the Paul Binder Equation -- primarily in the positive.

* An infections pied piper:  Great at fund raising, from the man on the street to the CEO in a glass tower. I can picture him talking the City of New York into giving him space at Lincoln Center, if not free, at dirt cheap prices.  Through the worst of times, he found ways to muddle through.

* The bogus (as I see it) repertory type troupe he commandeered — don’t think it ever produced first rate acts, but it added to the elitist imagery surely designed to impress arts-conscious New Yorkers.  This they could believe was their own circus.

* The Clown Care Unit, a noble venture, has helped sell BAC to corporate sponsors.  To this I see they have just added an Autism wing.   Charity has been used in many ways by circuses as a survival tool — pardon my pragmatism — but it can’t, I don’t think, save a show from irresponsible budgeting and top heavy management, or temporizing showmanship.


* Binder’s adoration of Bary Lubin’s Grandma, seen above in Dance On!, was,  I will concede, arguably well placed.  From on the ground experience, talking to a few Gotham locals around the Queens lot, while I do not believe that Grandma could solve all the problems,  I’ll be the first to admit, there are lot of New Yorkers out there who took this classic clown to heart, and were none to happy when he was let go.  Comedy is the trickiest thing to bring off, they say, even more so perhaps in a sawdust ring.  There are some great clowns and comics out there; BAC should do a better job at finding them.  In other words, Give the French their walking papers. 

* Binder paid great attention to the concerns and feelings of each and every member of the board, I can only infer, from his having, during our one interview, spoken highly of somebody who had just joined the Board, wanting to be sure I wrote down that person’s name.  A master diplomat in my distant view.


* Animals.  Genuinely sensitive to changing public sensibilities, Binder steered a wise course, safely in sway with domestic animals.  In recent years, Jenny Vidbel, above, has delivered delightful originality to the ring bordering on pure genius.  Photo by Bertrand Guay.

* Bureaucratic bloat:  On the downside, Binder's biggest shortcoming and  miscalculation, as I see it, was to foster too complex and far too costly an operating bureaucracy at the top.  Only he seems to have been able to sustain it through thick and thin.  The Great Recession took a terrible toll on the lush corporate funding that had given Paul & Company a free ride.  Much of that funding has dried up, and has evidently yet to return.   Barring a big box office turnaround --- in other words, evidence of showmanship that fills the tent day after day, I can't see it ever returning.

* Altogether, these attributes composed the Paul Binder equation.  There were, of course,  other more minor counterproductive policies and traits. He could not make his founding base, the circus school, work.   And he has been said by more than one source to have treated the lower working class ranks  with a cavalier disregard bordering on disdain.
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**** Summing up, given the man's multi-faceted gifts, I have to believe they lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the company could cohere.  Since his retirement, an increasingly ominous succession of short-lived CEO’s has left a clear impression of disarray and chaos at the top.  Can you imagine Apple or Goggle or Facebook — or even Ringling — being run in so slapdash a fashion?  I can’t.

And that’s the way it seems to be from my perch here in Oakland.

First posed September 27, 2015

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Creative Shanghai Acrobats Sizzle and Soar in Plodding Circus Ballet



Circus Review
Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China
Shanghai Nights at Berkeley, CA
September 10, 2016


The richly talented Shanghai Nights, from one of the country’s leading troops, offers yet another one of those tortured patch works combining  ballet, theatre, opera, and circus.  But the circus parts are well worth the patience it may take for you to sit through the story-alluding segments. If I got it right, two fated lovers get torn apart, until they are reunited, and a clown is murdered.

How Novel: A Chinese Clown

The clown is played by the gifted Nia Jian, a charming asset to the troupe and to the story telling, such as it is, or may have been; I don't pay much attention to those things, and I don't think anybody else does, either.  Jian has comedic flair and charisma, agility and deft dancing skills.   A star jester, I'd guess, and in so unexpected a setting!

Show starts sluggish and slow, opening sequence needing to set up the story.  But once the best acts hit the stage, you will be amply rewarded.  The inventive genius of this troupe is stunning to behold. They employ clever new props, twists and turns to most of the familiar staples, ball juggling and bouncing, hat exchanges while dancing, diablo and teeterboard and the hoops, among the standout displays.

For example, when Nie Jian takes time out from his clowning for some serious work on the rolla bolla, he places cups on the tip of his balanced board, and flips them up onto his head. First one cup, then two, all the way up to five.  Five.  Get this: They are all flipped together, though separately, into the air and manage to land, each in succession, one after the other into the preceding cup! Jaw dropping.  

Collectively Dazzling

Much of the circus in this show is like that.  At delicious intervals, ensembles blossom into mesmerizing charivari action, banners flaring, people jumping off springboards in one direction, flying up in another, yet others dancing or juggling in a front line, the hyperactive juxtapositions a work of great joy.  So many tricksters doing so many wonderful things at the same time!  The hand of Buzby Berkeley comes to mind.  Yes, sit there through the big top broccoli servings and take it -- if you want to get to the good stuff -- the cotton candy thrills.  Oh, the sacrificial drudgery (pretending to be following a plot) of circus-going these days.

Imprisoned in Darkness

But don’t count on the first half stream of pure circus to be as abundant after intermission.  In fact,  the second half grows darker and more dramatic with the invasion of “evil forces.” The ballet crowd may go for some luminous stage pictures.  And those who favor Bach on solo violin may feel placated.  Yes, Cirque du Soleil’s fetish for opera comes annoyingly to mind.  Some of the recorded scoring, to be fair, is strong and relevant.


The Shanghai Acrobats have performed  with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and, lately, in concert halls to the music of the masters.  I think I would much prefer the symphony showcase to this.  But then again, I suppose they have their eye on patrons of the higher arts who want their circus free of all the things with which they have their "issues."  The perfect show for this crowd, which filled the Zellerbach.       

Were Shanghai Nights true, with every frame, to its acrobatic brilliance and compelling creative genius. I’d gladly give it at least 3-1/2 stars

But, it has all the other stuff that can feel stifling, however well intended or execuited.  Sorry, something about the weakest links in a chain, you know.  So, I'm giving it a decent 2-1/2 stars.
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After the show talk: Shanghai Acrobats appeared at the ERA Intersection of Time, In Shanghai, in 2010-2012.  When I was there in 2010, I saw another very creative show, but with no where near the same problematic story line as this one.   I discuss it in my book, Inside the Changing Circus ... I'd love to have a photo of Nie Jian, but can't find any in my searches. Were I to contact the management, I am almost sure they would not favor me. I think they have a thing against giving any individual artist a shred of individual attention ... Was every act a gem? No, there were a few so-so routines.  The lady plate spinners, this time on stilts, did nothing but keep the plates spinning while walking around and around during one of the most boring narrative sequences.   I saw few flubs at the show I caught, doubly remarkable among the populous ensembles when so many things were in motion.  Much of the group work manipulating  similar objects was outstanding. As you know, it is not always that way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Pig Goes to the Circus, and the Circus Comes Home

  Elmo Gibb and his Teeny Weeny Circus -- no pigs yet, but there's a mind-reading pony.

Full disclosure:  Nothing at a circus delights me so much as a very unusual animal entering  the ring, even if it only does, well, almost anything   All it need do is something unexpected, and I’m a happy fan.  Yes, a bag of popcorn please!

Perhaps the sheer elation, the humor and joy of it all reconnects me to how the circus can delight children.  How it, I suppose, delighted me in my boyhood.

It’s a reason why I love the more bohemian animal acts of Jenny Vidbel, who’s been a regular of late on the Big Apple Circus.   A while back, she had, did she not, a rodent and a performing skunk?  Critters off the beaten big top path.  And she had them snapping to and fro on cue.  Now, that’s entertainment!

When my friend Boyi Yuan, who went to Ringling’s Out of This World with his girlfriend, told me about the experience, I asked him what he thought of the show.  He twisted his face in frustrated  ambivalence.   “I wish there wasn’t so much stuff going on,” he said, stating his preference for watching the acts in a less overdone format.   He thinks the show might please the children more than the adults

And then his face brightened fully. “I loved the animals!” 

I told him how much I agreed, how they had, for me, made the show, too. 

“The pig!” he said.

Around a pig Boyi and I could rally a shared joy.  We talked about how it reached the top of the slide and stood there for a moment, looking down in hesitation, and then on all fours, and ever so cautiously, made the slide all the way down.

Boyi, raised on a farm in China around barnyard critters,  wondered, in a kind of awe,  how it could have been taught to perform as a it did

Nothing charms me so much, or did I already say it?  Well, then, let met say it again, as the entrance into the ring of out of the circus-ordinary animals. 

Up there at the top is a photo found and linked my way by Don Covington, of the Teeny Winny Circus, whose mover and shaker, clown Elmo Gibb, presents it at fairs.  It reminded me of the old John Strong circus when it played county fairs under a tiny little top, when John greeted the audience as an ambassador of great and looming gratitude. “Oh, look who I see in the crowd!  Well, how are you!  Hey, there’s Art!” 


When he coached a gaggle of home grown mutts through their boisterous basics.

When he touted big moments in his humble ring.  “Got a good hand, Muster the Clown!”

When he even once had a little elephant, Nina, in his mighty little lineup.

Boyi and I fell into accord over how the animals at Ringling made the show.

In my opinion, they rescued  a shaky space voyage. When all else fails, bring in the dogs.  Even better, give us a pig fit for the greatest show on earth.

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Up next:  I review Shanghai Nights, from the Shanghai Acrobats of the People's Republic of China.

Monday, September 05, 2016

San Francisco and the Circus on Labor Day

 
For over half a century Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey came to the city by the bay every year without fail, and on almost every Labor Day weekend.

They played the Cow Palace, where they had turned crowds away by the thousands in 1948, above,  the year the building was built.  I saw the circus there in 1955, during a labor strike when more than half the seats were empty

 The Ringling side show, in front of the Cow Palace, 1955

The show returned in 1957, and would play the Cow Palace every year without fail, up until a few seasons ago, when the modern scene with its many issues coming into conflict with circus made it near impossible to pull decent crowds without animal rights protestors spoiling circus day.

In San Francisco, the city of my birth, I saw my first circus, Polack Bros, at the Civic Auditorium.  Three images would stay with me: the flying trapeze net, elephants  entering the arena, and a clown gag that made me laugh: They lit off a cannon, which only made a squeak, then a small firecracker which produced a huge cannon blast.


The San Francisco I was born into was a real city.  Working class families.  Factories and produce, and all the ships of commerce that came in and docked, were off loaded and on loaded,  and sailed back across the sea.   After graduating from high school in another town - Santa Rosa, I went down to live in San Francisco, still enamored of the city.  I worked as a bus boy in Foster’s restaurants and as a clerk typist at Planters Peanuts in the warehouse.  The SF stint lasted less than a year.  I would never live there again.


Because a thriving middle class once lived there, it had a great amusement park that entertained the masses.


Today, Playland-at-the-Beach is long gone, which may tell you something.  Most American cities have retained their amusement parks.  But San Francisco has dehumanized itself into a cold and heartless, elitist and greedy metropolis for the one percent crowd.  Here, the rich make an art of it. And here over precarious landfill by the bay, buildings continue to rise.  Nauseating.  Now the developers are reaping engineering nightmares:  One of the new towers is leaning, believe it or not, and owners of million dollar condos are beside themselves, filing lawsuits, fearing the unthinkable.  I feel little sympathy for these high rise hedonists.  

All over town, renters, some up in years, are being callously evicted or run off by steep rental hikes, the owners lusting after the new crowd willing to pay anything to live here, or the tourist trade. 

I have little feeling for this city.  They can’t destroy its natural beauty, but they can and are destroying its character and spirit.

What remains is a freak show of in-your-face liberation fanatics.  A smug “sanctuary city,” driven by white guilt.  A navel-gazing playground for digital airheads.

San Francisco has a circus school, Static Trapeze among its studies, and some in places of higher leaning point to it as one of America’s best.   The roster of teachers is so long, I wonder if there are more instructors than students.  I have yet to come across an artist or act at a real circus that came out of the school.  No surprise, for that is the state of the States.  This country simply does not produce world class acts.  Too long a story to substantiate here.

I thought that Ringling might play the Cow Palace to show off their new circus without elephants.  But they did not.  That's right, the show still flaunts wild animals in the big cage. For this reason alone, not exactly a surprise that Out of This World was panned by the S.F. Chronicle.

I suppose the Felds have had their fill of this place.  I can’t blame them.

My mother once saw Sells-Floto Circus in San Francisco. And once upon a season, every labor day, I went to see Ringling Bros. at the great and glorious old cement barn, the Cow Palace.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Out of the Past: A Ringmaster to Remember

From the first year of posting ...

The arena fell dark. The band fanfared up. The blast of a silver whistle pierced the air. We could feel a thrill coming ...

Spotlights shone down on a man in red raising his hand with a flourish -- like a magician about to pull a spectacle out of a hat -- and turning twenty magical words into the most important-sounding announcement in the world:

Children of alllllll ages! John Ringling North welcomes you to the 95th edition of the Greatest Show on Earth!

He was maybe the greatest ringmaster on earth -- the one and only Harold Ronk, who died at the age of 85 on August 2nd in Canton, Illinois. He had been away from the big top for twenty five years, content to spend a quarter of a century in near-anonymous retirement.

What made this particular ringmaster arguably the undisputed king of an art from that he himself helped define? First and foremost, the statuesque and commanding, blond-haired Ronk was blessed with the fullness of a smooth stentorian voice. Not shrill or grating, it had timber. He shaped his introductions word by word -- each like a choreographed step forming a visual pattern. And, once delivered, he stepped discretely aside, never one to overstay his welcome. In fact, so above it all was he that he never even lived on or rode the circus train, opting to drive overland and reside in hotels.

In 1951 (or 1952 -- a mystery to be explored here sometime up the road), Ronk was hired to sing songs for spec and production numbers. On occasion, he filled in for big top announcer Count Nicholas, and when the circus went indoors in 1957, Ronk became both its ringmaster and vocalist.

There were rare Ronkian touches. He once spoofed old-fashioned circus hyperbole as a leaper was about to dive from the upper reaches of the rigging to a tiny net below. Declared Ronk, stretching out just two words in low foreboding tones, "W a a a t c h - - - h i i i m!"

Ronk's robust figure, his overall elegance and majestic oratory suited the classic American three-ring circus. Al Ringling, who is said to have defined the mystique of the ideal tanbark orator in three words -- "elusive yet vital" -- would have approved with a smile, we think. Ronk was a gracious personality away from the ring, a tactful diplomat for the show, both for the Norths and for the Felds. He avoided controversy and refrained from criticizing any acts -- or, for that matter, any other circuses. He was, indeed, as classy an act as ever appeared with Ringling-Barnum.

I, like many others, hoped that he would one day return. He never did.

The ringmaster waved the crowd farewell

and whistled down the drums

His magic kept us dreaming still

of a season that never comes

Au revoir, Ringmaster Ronk ...

First posted October 30, 2006

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Heavy Scripting at the Circus: Ringling's Tediously Overwrought Out of This World Loses Heart in Space ... Animal Stars Save the Trip

Circus Review:
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Out of This World
Oakland, August 20

Having just seen the new edition of Ringling Bros. Circus, Out of This World, I am filled with a disorienting mixture of exasperation and exhilaration, and, mostly a sadness for something so ambitious that left me so wanting

You can’t blame the Felds for trying.  They are up against an increasingly jaded ticket buyer.

What they give us here is a tediously complicated sight and special effects show adding up, in its weaker frames, to much ado about nothing. If you want flash and lots of ensemble action on skates, you’ve got plenty of that.  If you want substance and clarity, don’t expect much here.  Perhaps this one was tailor made for the Disney on Ice moppets. 

Out of This World strains to tell a story, much of it ill staged off to one side, that may have more potential in cinema.  Since I did not buy the program, and could not understand all the announcements about it over a variable sound system, I will defer to a description of it on the website: “A heroic quest of good versus evil.” And how does that grab you?  Opening segments  run very slow.

How absolutely ironic, given the Felds stated need to compensate for the absence of elephants by breaking ground in new directions, that their first outing, post pachyderms, should realize its greatest appeal over the audience in old directions -- through its animal stars.  Through two acts, in particular:  The magnificent  tiger and lion display of Alexander Lacey, and the Cossack-style horse riders.  Yet another winning animal turn, no plot necessary,  has Lacey working a mixed group in the one fixed ring, including goats and a jumping kangaroo, while dogs and pigs nearby delight the crowd.  Ringling's website does not mention any of the acts by name.

Entering the arena, you are immediately placed in a very definite atmosphere that conveys the imagery of space travel.  Opening music, pre-recorded, is very strong.  When the band takes over and the animal acts hold court, the disconnect between the older fashioned circus and the rest of this overwrought hodgepodge is remarkable to behold: Circus, straight up, is far and away the more compelling force at work here.


I counted three standout routines: Lacey's cage display, the Cossack horse riders, and  probably the best flying return act I've seen in years. The Tunziani Troupe. Multiple riggings with flyers working side by side, offering a wealth of twisting and turning, deliver the real thing.  A thrilling climax has two triples executed simultaneously, the flyers moving perfectly in sync, AND in opposite directions, and both landing.  Who could ever ask for anything more?

It is revealing to feel so calmly anchored by the Lacy cage act, the flyers, and the horse riders.  This  same feeling of steady and compelling focus, however,  is hard to come by when heavy-handed ringmaster Iverson and others are hard at work trying to push a frivolous and plodding tale.


During the Cossack campaign, which lifts the show to a rousing end-point, I thought of  the English equestrian Philip Astley, who invented the circus over two centuries ago.    Here, his vision came brilliantly through: Power, speed, courage, agility, grace and gusto, and all in a ring.  CIRCUS, my friend.

For me, this was the true story line.  Compared to trying to make a circus into a lame play, the broad  strokes of the best performances were  far and away what moved the crowd.  I was there to hear it and to share it.  And when audiences leave this show,  the memory of those acts will give them greater pause to question the validity of everything else in the coldly alien Out of This World.

Despite the high points, frankly, it was something of a pain to sit through to the end, but I did.

Ringling, come back to earth!

Overall rating:  (out of four stars max)  2 stars

Friday, August 12, 2016

Big Top Tremors: On Carson & Barnes, A Second Spring ... On Ringling, Will Ice Suffice? ... On Bella, a Ringmaster is Born ... On Vargas, A Dog Might Help ... On Big Apple, a Llittler Apple Would Do ... And More on the Inside!

Back following the arrows, Carson & Barnes is NOT down and gone.  Not by a dozen scrappy seasons, I’d guess.  As C&B goes, I have come to feel, so too goes the circus. The Byrds have a way of making it happen, assuming they are not running a Ponzi peanut scheme on the side.  They took an ominous “mid-summer break” and some wondered in dead-season dread, are they doomed?   Not so.  And that cheers my battered big top heart. 

So, too, is Circus Vargas — still on the road, that is.  And headed my way.  A wining Vargas TV ad looks awesome.  Makes me want to go again, and hope again, and rue the dismal setting in which they, the antiseptic circus without even a dog or a cat, so fittingly pitch their top -- on another one of those dying American malls (no tears here, I’m old-school Main Street)  in a place called Hayward, CA.  So depressing, the tent over asphalt, the tent up against a cold thundering freeway, the tent lost in a concrete canyon, one by one, big name tenants deserting.  Macy’s gone.


How good or not so good is Ringling in its new space age colors?  Strange they could not pull a major review in Los Angeles, where they uncorked Out Of This World. New York Times sent Brooks Barnes out to cover the prior try-out date in Fresno, and his report offered two views of the space voyage.

THE AUDIENCE: “Judging from the zealous applause ... Feld’s vision has its fans.”

HIS OWN OBSERVATIONS:  “Modernization efforts are never easy, especially when the product being updated relies on nostalgia for a great deal of its appeal. Ringling’s customers tend to be parents wanting to pass along a rite from their own childhoods — the smell of the sawdust, the drippy snow cone, the booming voice of the ringmaster. Too much change too fast could upend a form of live entertainment that remains an enormous draw, particularly among working-class families.”


The Little Apple Circus, anyone?  Let’s put this theoretically out-of-business show on the Watch List.  All they need do is run the bureaucratic bloat off the lot, let go of Lincoln Center — You are NOT a Broadway show, Big Apple  -- and put on a dandy enough circus in city parks.  Me thinks, if there is to be a future, it is in Paul’s hands.  Me thinks, he  awaits a Wall Street angel-to-the-rescue.



On a Bella Bounce: Once Oakland based, the student-family Circus Bella, with a dozen or so free summer shows in Bay Area Parks, again juggles up a modest little energizer,  managing to keep most of the clubs in motion. In its favor, Bella has retained its engagingly inventive clown, Calvin Kai Ku and its tip top band leader, Rob Reich. Best of all, Bella’s best new discovery is a ringmaster named David Hunt,  above, the fellow who co-founded the show and did a slack rope act --  until now.  Let’s hype Hunt: A natural born charmer, smartly short of overkill, Hunt combines the zest of a carny baker with the cool of a stand up comedian warming up a studio audience for a TV show taping. Circus owners are you reading this?  The name, to repeat, is David Hunt ... As for the music man, I still recall Reich’s joyful score two years back (the best Bella show, one could feel promise then), which capered and giggled, tooted and rooted on  a breezy melodic bounce.  This year’s music is more grunge than than gusto, more sax than piccolo.  I prefer the latter.

Shunning its roots, Circus Bella now calls San Francisco its home, and what a groveling and sad sell out to the epicenter of narcissism and greed. A city where circus skills are pitched to the rich with an itch to dabble. A city of pretenders.  Welcome to the club, Bella.



END RINGERS: Rhode Island banning bull hooks.  Might the issue end up in the supreme court?  Not without Feld contesting it; perhaps they will put their retired bulls back to work in some other world. The Elephant exit is not about to be overturned, kids ... John Ringling's old private car, The Jomar is now a restaurant.  Why did one of the museums not grab it up?  ...  The Windjammers recently gave three concerts in Baraboo, two on the square, and one at Circus World.  Circus Historical Society President Don Covington, and himself a piccolo player, likened the experience to “coming back to Mecca.”

Anybody watching the rah-rah Olympics? I got so frustrated with the NBC schedule, which did not match what I actually looked forward to seeing, because of that schedule, that as long as they try making me watch everything, I won’t watch anything.   Besides, I am still smarting over the chronic absence  of roller sports at the games. 

Go, Carson & Barnes!  

 Big Apple Circus in the beginning

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

U.S. Circuses in the Age of Virtual Reality: The Struggle to Placate Ambivalent Americans



The late Henry Edgar once posted a comment on this blog to the effect, What if you were to offer the customers what most of us would agree is the best circus possible and yet they still failed to fill up your seats ?  A very good question given shrinking crowd sizes over the last thirty years.  Maybe it's time to review not the show but the audience itself.  To continue Henry's thread, I have a question:

What is the circus owner to offer a jaded public turning fickle on big top staples?  

The Very Real Circus:  Not Virtual Enough?

Perhaps the force of circus being a live show no longer holds the same drawing power, as more people turn to virtual realities, albeit it everything from texting to eDating, video games to porno.  



I have long argued the compelling reality of circus.  More and more, I am starting to doubt the argument’s relevance in this new and rather frightening era of electronic interaction where, one day — people as smart as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have ventured — “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.”  Wozniak can see ourselves becoming the pets of our robots.   

Item: A group of friends sharing restaurant table space, but not each others company, preferring interaction with their smart phones over the people actually sitting next to them.

Item:  Check out the movie Her, in which a man forms a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha.  Frightening.  And very believable.

Enter the Ambivalent American Audience


Yes, Mr. Producer, I feel your frustration, even if you don’t.  You no longer enjoy the total attention of a crowd.  You now must complete with smart phones and tablets and other tweety distractions, ad nauseum.



You now must also compete for the respect of a crowd that arrives with issues about the contents of your show.  Oh, those weird looking clowns.  Don’t .. Come ... Near ... Me ... Look at that draggy tiger, think it's been mistreated?   Which reminds me, I've got to get some suppression pills for my pit bull. No, he can't attack anybody in the nose muzzle when we go out walking. ... Oh, no, look -- she's not wearing a safety wire, is she?   Sometimes they don't?  What if, oh God!  [Another day, another show]: Oh, look, she’s strapped to a wire!  Must be a beginner.  I could do that.

Even granting that a live show can still draw big crowds, then what next to question under the big top?  There's plenty according to the critics.  On parade, here come the most politically incorrect offenders.

Circus Staples Under Siege

DAREDEVILS
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This key element of circus  may be losing its luster to more spectacular acts of risk-taking on TV reality shows or aerial stunts in the great outdoors captured on film.  Compared to which, the sight of a mere human scaling a wire only thirty or forty feet above the ground may somehow seem, reverse affect here, old school.  Another trend that is emasculating the show are the solo and duo fabric aerialists who throw more focus onto slower balletic moves. I think this sort of action, some of it, to be sure, quite exciting, has nonetheless eroded the public’s taste for the more perilous tricks we associate with the single trapeze.   Would Pinito Del Oro, above, have settled for a silken web? For a static trapeze?

The protected aerialist: The presence of lifelines (mechanics) has done more than anything else to produce today’s ambivalent audience.  Courage or cowardice, which will it be today, Circus? With some performers flying under protection, others not, the vacillating impression does nothing to sustain a committed identity.  And the primal power of circus suffers.   

CLOWNING


This old-time jester might today consider either less greasepaint or horror flicks

The heavily painted funny faces are not so welcome anymore.  Reports and images of creepy characters in grotesque clown makeup terrorizing citizens on city streets and in public places have produced a growing number of adults who fear taking their kids to a circus for this among the other reasons.  In Europe, there seems to be a trend towards less makeup, down to a red nose maybe and a few whimsical marks, sufficient to paint a face in mirth, but not one of implicit mayhem.  This is a viable route for today’s jesters.  After all, a clown is a character far more than a painted face.

ANIMALS


The elephants may be on the way out. So, too, the big cage cats.  But there are still plenty of dogs, horses, camels and other critters — well, if  Jenny Vidbel can find and train them. I think that John Ringling North II made about as shrewd and sensitive a move as a circus man can make these days by featuring just one small elephant, Louise, on his Kelly Miller show last season.  The dancing of Louise, nothing like I have ever seen, was pure magic.

Encore for Elephants?  If the public’s skittishness over performing pachyderms is ever to be reversed, it may take one elephant at a time.  And it may take a far simpler approach like the one advocated by UK author and critic Douglas McPherson in his book, Circus Mania

“The elephants don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.  Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough.” 

Indeed, a day may come when an audience new to such a spectacle as elephants on parade will thrill to that alone.  Certainly the children will.

Bring back the one-act show:  Circuses may help their cause by removing the intermission and running a shorter show straight through, as once they did.  Promise patrons less time away from their gadgets.  On their way out, happier, they may still be more inclined, maybe more so, to patronize the rides and concessions — the vain lure of selfies.

 Remember When Circus Day was Guilt Free?



Unlike their forebears, today's patrons enter the tent loaded with electronics and with overwrought minds buzzing with issues over whether to patronize a circus is even a good idea in the first place.
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That long-gone circus day that enjoyed the total attention of an undistracted crowd not fraught with issues, that long ago world in which we once thrilled to a circus show feeling not a qualm, reveling in the honest and simple joy of it all --- that wondrous world, I am sadly afraid, no longer exits.

The Big Show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953

Next: Can Kenneth Feld Rebuild The Greatest Show on Earth?

Photos above: On horseback, the Cristiians
On the high wire:  The Wallendas
On the single trap:   Pinito Del Oro
Clown Buzzy Potts.
Barnum & Bailey on parade, 1908
Under the big top At Gil Gray Circus (from the Circus Blog)
Ringling elephants on Parade, 1978, with Ana May in the lead, the Woodcocks in charge

First posted January 18, 2016

On Big Apple Circus: I Am Very Depressed

UPDATE, 7/29/16: Carson and Barnes  now shows future 2016 dates on its Facebook page.

I have little will to say much at this point, considering how devastating a season we are living through.   I would like to lay down and cry.

No Cole Bros.

For an ominous spell, Carson & Barnes, after half a season, went on a break.  And then came a terse announcement on their website, still posted, "No upcoming events." I tried calling the number and got no where.

And Big Apple.  They aren't going to play Lincoln Center, and that seems final.  But that alone does not bother me so much -- as long as they play somewhere.  Surely, Paul, you can do that, can't you?

I am feeling very sorry for all circus owners and producers, so here is this, from earlier in the season of 2016.

7.17;16

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

America's Got Circus, Too: TV Judges Give Tanbark Talent Genuine Respect

Big Top Action Helps Power America's Got Talent

And what a pleasure it is. And how glad am I that I took the time to check out the current season of America's Got Talent.

I'd known of the show's history, circus acts appearing now and then, but haven't watched it for a few years.  Simon, yes Simon Says Yes - Simeon Says No is what brought me back.   What I like the most is how the judges embrace the best circus acts, their raving reception making them seem fresh again.  

I assume that audience members surrendered their smart phones upon entering.

Really, most of these acts are hardly amateur.   


These veteran wire walkers performed a fairly standard routine.  The judges appeared to be in such dread,  that I wondered if they were overdoing it a bit. 

I've never felt so unnerved by a knife and fire throwing routine. 


Simon, of course, is the star judge.  The one whose word we await.  But the other judges form a most winning panel.

Yes, if this act is not razor-edge dangerous, I don't know what is.

Back to no-nonsense basics: TRICKS

Circus "tricks" is not a dirty or passe word on this program -- as it has become in higher quarters of advanced circus learning and credentialed creation.  Said one of the contestants, proudly to the judges, "We have new tricks and surprises." 





A dancing dog.  Wish I had better pictures to show.  These were taken on my iPhone in front of my TV screen.

The judges loved this oddball character, half clown, half experimental prankster.  Why can't we get somebody like him under a circus tent?


 Pure circus -- hold the big top broccoli 

As some of you may have noticed, circus acts today may come to you in any number of overwrought formats -- straddled to a "story" line; rendered inside a black S&M tent drenched in blood; over ice or under water.  Here, circus is performed straight ahead, and what a pleasure that is. 


Which is to say that Cirque du Ballet  has not infected the program, And this speaks well of the producers, who apparently have a good understanding of what circus is all about.  I compared it to the earnestly plodding   Celebrity Circus on NBC back in 2008, whose Cirque-obsessed contestants seemed driven to land contracts with the Montreal monster.  After five labored episodes, that tediously pretentious sell-out to fringe circus was history.

Minus excessive airs, our attention is thrown exclusively onto the tricks themselves. 


The judges -- Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Mel B, and Simon, :  I like all four of them a lot -- augmented here with the fellow in the middle, a guest judge that week. So much better than some of the sleazy panels on Idol in recent years, which put me off and left me with no desire to watch the foundering program.   Simon works well with his cohorts.  I would venture to guess that this panel might be the most winning of all on either of the talent shows so far.  The cool and warm Nick Canon is the perfect host.

Okay, yes, notwithstanding the above, this amphibious  ball juggler looked like a veiled promo for Cirque du Soleil.  The judges loved him.  I found him slightly more repellent than riveting. 



 WARNING TO ALL CLOWNS.  You SCARE Simon.  Apparently, he suffers from coultraphboia, a recent British diagnosis for the fear of circus clowns.The put down "creepy clowns" was uttered more than once.

And this overdone Bozo drove Simon close to the edge.  The guy was stupidly silly.  I doubt he made it through.  Maybe a future on the Shrine clowning circuit?

Call the doctor! Simon is having a coultraphobia attack!


When I first watched the program some years ago, I don't recall as many circus acts.  Perhaps the producers are banking on big top gusto to give the show more variety and surprise.  And think of it, where in the world can a circus performer get an audience in the millions? Where?
 
 

So let's all hear it -- GO CIRCUS on America's Got Talent!

************  THE RATINGS  ************* 

So, how are you doing, circus?  After writing this, I just checked on the ratings, having no idea what the show has been doing.  Whopping good!  They drew over 10 million viewers last week, more than twice  that of second place The Bachelorette:

Yes, Go Circus Go!