Friday, May 01, 2015

Touring World Circus Festivals through the Pages of Planet Circus

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As before, my eyes are opened to a world of dazzling innovation out there, most of it born beyond the borders of my own country.



As before, I marvel at the extraordinary feats of young circus artists in far off places, and take joyful comfort in a sure knowledge that circus is still very much alive. Vibrantly. Daringly. Thrillingly.



As before, I need only turn the pages of Planet Circus to behold the brilliant manifestations of it all, alive and brimming in rings of magic from Paris to Moscow, Spain to North Korea. And, yes, in these apolitical visions that fearlessly cross all borders, I take hope in the universal language of circus to help liberate tyranny and oppression.  I take pride in the people who inhabit this great embracing world.


Over There, circus festivals are taken seriously.  They draw gifted young acrobats and flyers to the spangled parade.  Inspire them to try harder, dig deeper into their imaginations, practice and invent, perfect and compete -- and reach for the stars.

Over There, they are at it, still, inventing new twists and turns and tricks in a quest to top each other and to stop the show.  And that is why the world returns.



Over There, in older worlds where it all began, younger minds and hearts find constantly surprising ways, season after season, to renew what Ernest Hemingway called "the ageless delight.".



Ageless, indeed.  Over Here, we await their latest exploits to fly our way.  We await them in our seats at Ringling and Big Apple, Kelly-Miller and Cole.  

Thank you, Planet Circus.

Thank you, Over There, for keeping our dreams alive Over Here. 

All photos from Planet Circus magazine, Festival Edition, 2015:

From the top:

Clay juggler Jimmy Gonzalez -- Gold Medal, Circus of Tomorrow, Paris

Pyongyang National Troupe -- Gold Clown, Monte Carlo; Golden Bear, Festival of Circus Art in Izhevsk, Russia

The Tianjin Acrobatic Troupe -- Silver Clown, Monte Carlo; Golden Bear, Festival of Circus Art

Gartner Family elephants --Silver Bear, Festival of Circus Art

Elakterina and Dimitry, straps -- Silver Elephant, International Circus Festival of Figures, Spain

Maxim Helmut on the Spanish Web -- Silver Karl, Riga , Russia

The Yunan Troupe -- Silver Elephant, International Circus Festival

Sons Company on teeterboard --  Gold Medal, Circus of Tomorrow


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cirque du Soleil in Limbo: What Drives -- and Bores -- Guy Laliberte, When the World is Not Enough?


 
Out on a cold dull day here in Oakland, on my walk about, thoughts of the Cirque King Guy Laliberte, and reasons why I no longer feel so connected to the man or his circus.
                                 
Personally, he insults me by the way he hands out "free water" to patrons. For years, in large bottles outside the tent, free water and cups.  That was fine and decent.  Classy.

And then for years, they were swimming in money, and the bottles disappeared.  Go pay two bucks or more for a bottle of spring water, from the "One Drop" man who made a big thing about wanting to preserve the planet's water for those in need -- and I guess for himself, to sell it off to captive customers.

Now, the large bottles have returned.  Free water!  But, good grief, no cups.  To buy one -- you gotta pay one dollar. How desperate can they get?

Artistically, of the last three shows, the first two left me naggingly unmoved. Mediocre.  Humdrum.  Too much same old same old.  The last one, Kurios, said to be a return to their "roots," was really just more special effects and fewer top class acts.

Thirty one years is a good record. Mr. Guy, who just sold all but 10% of his interest in the company, already will go down as one of the greatest circus impresarios ever.  Another great 20th century big top mover and shaker sold out after thirty years -- John Ringling North.  But the latter left when his circus was back on top, following a break-out 1965 opus with an invasion of acts from behind the Iron Curtain, bringing fresh blood to the rings, raves to the reviews --- NY to LA, putting more bodies in the seats. And JRN was not lusting after new markets to conquer. He had tired in the Old World and failed.

Laliberte's operation is hurting, and now, still at the helm, he wants to finally somehow someway conquer the Chinese.  He's already tried.  Not sure he understands how or why it did not work.

Leaving the tent after taking in Kurios (3 stars) last December in  SF, I fairly floated.  It was the vibrantly compelling second half that put me back in the "fan" category.  But, still, not enough.  Know something?  I had to concentrate too hard to understand all the clever little lighting effects and various other goings-on around a pole, over there in the audience, through a hole in the tent, up up up  see, can you believe it?  Pay attention! ... When should going to a circus be a workout? 

I never thought that Cirque du Soleil, so brilliant at first, would last beyond a few years, thinking it would soon become a caricature of itself and fade.  Remarkably, it did incredible things.  For a time, it could do no wrong. Laliberte was a marketing genius.

The future feels already sinking deeper into limbo.  Circuses are NOT operated by corporations. And if the Cirque King stays, trouble is, he seems bored without new markets to conquer.  And I fear that he already has run out of new markets to conquer.   Mars?  Pluto?

If only he could accept the world as it is.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Smell of Circus Inside a Book: Authentic Pachyderm Poo for the Critic Who Wanted More ...


Since my papers and interview tapes, as well as photographs from here to Russia and China, will be going into the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco later this year, I have been
going through my "archives" to make copies of things I may need when I write a book about the adventures of writing my books and then dealing (short of going nuts) with publishers.

The Smell Edition, my idea,  responded to book reviewer Allen Grasso, who complained in the Santa Cruz (CA)  Sentinel that my tome failed to convey the scents the smells of circus.  I prepared on my own a press release with photo of the cover and sent it out to 300 newspapers around the country. It made me laugh just doing it.  It did not make the publisher laugh.  The publicist reverted to addressing me by my last name rather than "Dearest David" (OK, Dear David).

Certified pachyderm poo off the Carson & Barnes lot!   Ted Bowman signed off, exempting all parties of liability.

Not to be outdone, Ringling-Barnum included, as well, sawdust and "mile high building dirt."

These scintillating samples of earthly material found on real circus lots were personally packaged by myself into a sample, and sent to Mr. Grasso at the Sentinel, with an inscription wishing him a more authentic read.


I then apprised my PR contact at A.S. Barnes in San Diego of the prank -- after the fact, knowing that to have asked for their cooperation permission before would have put an early end to the stunt.

Sometimes, you need to take matters into your own hands.

My caper made it into a few California columns; if other newspapers picked it up, the publisher did not favor their problem author with tear sheets; in fact, they favored me with none.  The sampler package itself never reached the reviewer; it got only as far as a Sentinel librarian, and she, in reaction to, refrained from returning the offense to my publisher but removed it from the premises immediately, stating, "the smell would more than likely clear out your office.

She called my action "childishly indignant."  Okay.  I can work with that.

Behind the Big Top was generally greeted with glowing notices, sold out its first print run in less than two years, but they did not take it back to press.  Oak Tree publications in San Diego, which specialized in children's books and which had purchased NJ-based A.S. Barnes the year before, would not last very long. 

Perhaps too many of their kiddy books lacked that certain authenticity.  

They All Like to Fly, Not I

There I am, on a perfectly delightful San Francisco afternoon, with niece Lisa, right, my sister Kathy (both from Luray, VA), and my other niece Debbie (in from Phoenix), last Sunday,outside the Cliff House.

How much the weather reminded me of being raised down the street in the park, in the windmill tender's house.  Of being serenaded, day after day, by the roaring gloom of the ocean forever rushing to reach the mean grey icy cold sand.  We are not in Santa Monica!

We had a great time, nonetheless.  All of the "girls" love to travel, and in the air.  Lisa was a flight attendant.  Debbie has worked for years booking travel for American Express members, and Kathy once, while a resident of South Pasadena, was employed by Sigmund Travel.

Even my mother, bless her fearless heart, once harbored fragile dreams of piloting an airplane.

So how did I end up so grounded?  Blame it on a few bad flights, and leave it at that. But with my vow not to ride Amtrak across the country anymore, I may have to fly again,  Or take the bus.  Or roller skate.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Cirque du Soleil is SOLD ... Guy Laliberte Self-Liberates for Personal Freedom and Family ... China Market Remains the Goal

From CirqCharlie Rivel, dated today:

Cirque du Soleil confirmed its sale to a group of international investors led by US firm TPG, for an undisclosed but is estimated at 1,500 million. Although the details of the transaction are not public, sources close to the institution forward last week Efe-Dow Jones TPG will become the majority shareholder of Cirque du Soleil, while Chinese investment group Fosun and Canadian financial institution Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec have minority stakes. Furthermore, current majority owner of Cirque du Soleil and one of its founders, Guy Laliberté, will retain a minority stake "and continue to provide a strategic and creative contribution to the company," according to a statement released by Cirque du Soleil statement. "After 30 years building the brand of Cirque du Soleil, we have found the right partner at TPG, Fosun and Caisse to bring the Cirque du Soleil towards its next stage in its evolution as a company created with the belief that the arts and business can, together contribute to making the world better, "Laliberte said in the statement. For his part, David Trujillo, a partner at TPG, said that the firm is "excited about the opportunity" to use its global platform of resources and expertise "to propel growth worldwide in the particular brand, content and capabilities Circus ".

Guy Laliberte speaks:


I watched a three minute video, connected to the release, (interrupted by commercials, a current problem on my PC).  Laliberte was very animated and passionate, stressing that he wants to be with and focus on his kids, to help them each reach their passion.

Sounds like they are not up for following him, and he feels emotionally burned out, or irrelevant to his own operation.  He even hinted at maybe someday wanting to buy it back.

He seemed very forthcoming, perhaps more openly expressive than he has ever been. 

My gut feeling is that he may feel a sense of not knowing where to go with the show, that its future is beyond his control and grasp, and decided it would be better to get out  now.

Although, he retains, it appears, a leading position as planner.

He told another source, the Financial Post:  “In all consciousness and with a rigorous personal reflection and corporate reflection, I believe I am making the best decision for Cirque du Soleil and its future, and the best decision for myself and my family.”

 http://www.infocirco.com/noticias.php?pagina=2
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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Today is WORLD CIRCUS DAY! How About a Movie Tonight?

Here are my favorites, not necessarily in this order, except for my top pick


Beyond being a "circus" movie, Trapeze is a great drama, combing a torrid love triangle with one trapeze flyer's quest to master the triple.  Set in Paris, famed circus talent scout John Ringling North checks in now and then, ready to sign the flyer to a contract once he proves he can do it.



It's been decades since I saw Fellini's masterpiece, La Strada, not exactly a circus film, but about itinerant circus and carnival performers  And how it moved me then.  I have it in my Netflix queue, wanting to take another look.



Yes, The Greatest Show on Earth Of course, it has to be here, it offers too much of a circus to ignore.   And too much (two and a half hours) to sit through; I would like to hire an editor and cut out the most boring parts and end up with my own greatest show on earth.  First to go would be most of the train wreck, which IS a train wreck, sucking up the film's waning momentum and my patience.  Yes, the best moments are dazzling, thrilling, memorable, all that.  But the more I watch De Mille's lumbering epic, which thrilled me like no other film in my boyhood, the more difficult it is to watch. 


Toby Tyler is warm and touching story, a wonderful movie.



I once called Ring of Fear "Ring of Drek," but, I've grown accustomed to its modestly enduring appeal, smartly contained in a tight 1 hour and 33 minutes, a full hour less than De Mille's bloated elephant.  Ring has likable characters (the Mexican guy, the older fellow with the drinking problem, Clyde Beatty himself, the lovely helpless heroine), a few good circus  acts, the wagons coming off the train at dawn, a haunting musical theme -- and that monster maniac who gets it in the end, getting locked up inside a box car with a loose lion!  Go, lion, go!  (or is it tiger?)
 


Spangles.  There are many reasons to love this 1926 silent classic. At the top of the list, authentic big top atmosphere -- or so it appears..  And you'll have to rent it to find out for yourself.  You can read my complete review by typing "spangles" in the blogger search box, above, left.


 Another wondrous cinematic gift from Fellini, The Clowns.

Big Top Pee Wee is a joyful romp --  entrancing, whimsical, one of the most touching circus flicks ever made. 


Circo, more a documentary, captures the spare beauty of a profitless passion.  The film follows a typical Mexican family circus struggling to stay on the road. A soft ringing authenticity
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Now, for some lowdown trashy fun, you might invite either or both of these odd ball flicks into your home on a listless night in need of a little tacky shock-cinema relief




So there they are.  Pick one or two, turn your damn dumb phone off, and bring on the dark.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

World Circus Day is Coming, Saturday -- So, Let's Talk Books!

Circus books.  What makes for a good read?   Prose or scholarship?  Please be aware, there are many books I have never read.  I rarely buy books, but read them from the library, if they are available.  These personal favorites are here primarily because they entertain me and I find them generally trustworthy.  All doubtlessly contain errors.  It's the bigger picture that counts.

Books that fail to make my list strike me as agenda-driven, giving undue or disproportionate attention to favored figures or to fringe groups or social and cultural "studies."  Others come off as irresponsibly incomplete, such as Linda Simon's vividly-written The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus, so exciting at the outset, so limp and empty at the end.  Example?  She completely ignores the entire Russian-Soviet circus scene -- a colossal blunder.  And it suggests, the best reason I can come up with, a political bias against Communist countries (she also, as I recall, ignores China).

Yes, books about the Ringling juggernaut tend to dominate anybody's list, as they do mine, because that's the circus in this country that everybody wants to write -- or read -- about. 

Be warned:  "scholarship," no matter how many footnotes or end notes, is only as good as is the objectivity and honesty of the author in bringing it all to the table.  Even then,  any quoted "source" -- an interview, a passage from another book, press releases and program magazine materials  --  may itself propound misinformation.  Most troubling is the compromising writer who excludes knowledge in order to serve a preset narrative. 



My top of the list.  I discovered Earl Chapin May's classic at a very young age.  Loved the way it is written, the fast-moving parade of actors on the stage of circus history.  I still refer back to the book, time and time again.   May coined the phrase  "the ever changing, never changing circus."  Too bad the book came out in 1932, just before a war among Ringling heirs for control of the circus was about to be waged.


Barely in my teens, I found This Way to the Big Show (1936) high on a library shelf in Santa Rosa, took it down, checked it out, and was fascinated.  Dexter Fellows, one of the most colorful circus press agents ever, flacked for Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum and the Ringlings.  He paints a richly detailed account of how circuses operated, including a juicy chapter, The Customer is Always Wrong, on how con men worked suckers in so many clever ways. 


Possibly the most entertaining circus page turner of all time.   Its author, Connie Clausen, joined the Big Show as a "ballet broad," during the boom years of  John Ringling North, who himself, so it is written, discovered Clausen on a Sarasota street in 1942, and talked her into joining the show.   And what a tale she tells!   



Famed Ringling equestrian director Fred Bradna,  sharing memories and inside information with writer Hartzel Spence, offers a vibrant account of his life with the circus.  The man who blew the whistle to keep three rings and four stages in constant motion, Bradna offers incisive critiques of the greatest ring stars.

  
Henry Ringling North, adoring brother of John, fashioned, with Alden Hatch, a warm and wonderful history of his Ringling family story.  


Gene Plowden's cheerfully informative  chronicle of the Ringling Bros. story contains a compelling subplot on John Ringling, most famous of the five brothers, who outlived them all, only in the end to rule recklessly and lose all of his power.  A haunting tale of the arrogance of success in a world of  dazzling risk takers forever on the brinks of disaster   How I wished that Plowden had made the life of John Ringling his central premise.



Reader beware:  Like too many circus books, and that surely would include some put out by the academics (Linda Simon, mentioned above, is a college professor), Robert Lewis Taylor's captivating Center Ring, one of the most literate books ever penned about circus, is perhaps as much fiction as fact.  Example: The song  "Lovely Luawana Lady," as featured in the movie The Greatest Show on Earth,  never became, as claimed in these well-paced pages, "nationally popular."  Nonetheless, Center Ring's profiles of major Ringling players during the heady days of the John Ringling North era, which originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine, make for a deliciously good read.


Let us now cross the Big Pond to the land were circus was invented.  Antony Hippisley Coxe's A Seat at the Circus is a must-read for fans of tradition-rooted artistry.  The author, a proper English gentleman, shares with us in elegant fashion, his fastidious knowledge of the various ring acts, of what to look for and how to judge measurable achievement.  He has little patience for the embellishing spectacle that marked American three ring big tops, and, before that, early British circus shows, too.


UK Journalist and critic Douglas McPherson (The Stage, Daily Mail, Guardian) takes a refreshing, in-depth look at the contemporary  circus scene over there.  Right Now. Today.  Remarkably,  McPherson became something of a circus fan, not as a boy, but well into his adulthood, and so he brings a fresh perspective to current issues shadowing the big tops.  Example:

"As with horses, 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."  Given recent Ringling plans to retire its performing elephants, how brilliantly McPherson's suggestion now resonates. Heck, I can  actually, yes, see myself thrilling merely to a parade of pachyderms!

Ringmaster, by Kristopher Antekeier and Greg Aunapu is a bold rarity among circus books, offering a candid look behind the scenes during the Irvin and Kenneth Feld era – doubly amazing considering how shrewdly effective are the Felds in manipulating the media to buy their grandiose press kit fictions — from fans to willing authors.   In these stark pages, fraught with depressing work conditions and low morale, the staring antagonist is Gunther Gebel Williams, who reveals a nasty controlling nature.  For Antekeier, his first season goes from euphoria to disillusionment, and so, rather than re-sign for another tour, he walks away. And writes a remarkable book. 


For all true Ringling fans, Jerry Apps offers a meticulously researched study of how the five brothers worked so well together to build arguably the most famous circus in the world.  We follow them season by season.  The book is particularly rich in correspondence between the brothers, illustrating how they planned new shows and scouted acts.  Lushly illustrated, too.  A center ring treat.


Fast, breezy, as light as a souffle out of the oven.  This delightful sampler of Big Apple Circus history and lore comes from its founder and ringmaster, Paul Binder, who puts aside his scholarly bent to charm us with effervescent memories of life in and around New York's "own circus."   It's a hit and miss affair, leaving out things I wished he had discussed, like his short-lived circus school.  Maybe he will follow up with another book, let's hope.    The Binder parade bounces and shines with brevity.  And what a nice little one-ring charmer to end this post on.

Next: My favorite circus flicks.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday Morning, Hopelessly Hollywood: Collaborating at College with a Composer Destined to Make Movieland History



During my senior year at San Francisco State College, while preparing to produce and direct the annual student revue, Kampus Kapers, one of the respondents to my call for original songs was a very young Shirley Rogers. All of 20 years.  So talented was she, that she ended up not only setting the lyrics of others to music, but also orchestrating the entire score and composing a haunting ballet of modern symphonic depth, Market Street. 

She was eager and polite, very efficiently organized, all business-like.  . 

Here, from my book, Hopelessly Hollywood:

Shirley Rogers was also the first person to score a lyric of mine; what a day to remember when we adjourned into a small piano practice room and she played the music she had written for the song that would open the show.  The notes were thrillingly strange, taking my words in a direction I’d never imagined when I first drafted them to my own dummy melody:

                        Kick up the Kapers again!
                        Stick out your hearts
                        Stir up a fuss
                       This is the show that is us!

The verse may read, yes, corny, but Shirley’s sophisticated setting, full of subtle modulations on a forceful ascent, was anything but.

 Whatever in the world happened to her?

In the years ahead, four members from the Kapers cast would reach Broadway stages.  As for Shirley Rogers, I had hoped to write a musical about the Ringling brothers, believing that she would be the ideal composer, but my reaching out to her was not returned.  My student revue had been a step in her career, and she was onto a step higher than that.  Much higher. Whatever happened to her, however, became a mystery for me, lasting many years.  My friend Mike, of Kapers days, only knew that she was composing music for industrial films. Now and then I would google "Shirley Rogers" and come up with nothing.

A few years ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered that Shirley Rogers had become one of the first female composers to earn solo score credit on a major Hollywood motion picture.  And while she did not achieve populist fame, she was highly respected and revered within the industry.  Prolifically active, she scored and/or conducted music for TV and film, much of it at Warner Brothers.

Why had I been unable to find anything about Shirley Rogers?  Because, when she married, she took the name of her husband and became Shirley Walker. 

 She died, following a stroke, in 2006.

What a talent. What a day in that small piano practice room, when, for the first time, I heard somebody else's music to my verse.

                        Gosh, but the feeling was strong
                        We were on edge moments ago,
                        Now we are bursting to go!


Charlie Berliner, left, a member of the cast, and the director.  They always love you before the show opens!