This first appeared on May 8, 2008
His face aglow, his simple words surprisingly to the point: The essence of circus, he said, is about stunts. Is about “tricks.” What a refreshing declaration from Lu YI, who teaches ancient Chinese acrobatics at, ironically, the ultra-elitist San Francisco Circus Center. He also serves as the institution’s Master Teacher and Artistic Director. “I love circus,” says he.
He showed up on local television last night in a rerun of a feature piece on the school, originally aired over three years ago. And for the first time, I got to see him speak.
Another voice on the same program, a much younger voice, enthused about good circus having “a theatre aspect to it.” Implicitly earnest was he to make clear his dedication to something much deeper than mere tricks. That’s our younger, woefully misguided generation paying lip service to a dwindling circus movement perhaps more avidly preached in San Francisco than anywhere else. After all, this is Bohemia Central, and this is where the once functioning Pickle Family Circus was born and entertained — before it lost its way trying to equal the Montreal monster.
Why am I so smugly taking aim at “theatre” under the big top? Using a stage director to pace and shape a show can be a very good thing. But allowing the theatre to eat your magic alive is a futile exercise in abstract self-anialation. When, may I ask, have you ever heard somebody tell you after having just returned from a circus, “What a great story! You gotta see it!” When, World? These drama-obsessed pretenders fail to supply the character and conflict essential to their vague dramatic claims.
The once-promising Pickles lost their way when Cirque du Soleil bolted onto the scene in 1987. I remember well Judy Finelli’s “Luna Sea” in 2000 having Cirque envy all over it. And I knew then that the Pickles were in trouble, for they had neither the money nor the capitalistic savvy to duplicate a complex commercial phenomena. Years later, at best, they might put up a theatre-circus piece during the Holidays in San Francisco. “Circumstance” in 2002 was hip and cynical and ultimately so gloomy that I wanted to run. Chris Lashua’s theoretically brilliant “Birdhouse” in 2004 felt strangely still born. You get neither satisfying theatre nor compelling circus in the grip of these egghead experimentations. Of course, friends and kin of the cast and school toss kudos, the local rag, critical acclaim. And the show does not go on -- not, that is, beyond the city that cradles it with subsidies and cheer.
Now essentially an educational operation, the Pickles offer instruction for nearly nine thousand bucks a year, which strikes me as a form of the capitalism they shunned when they produced actual circus shows that actually toured. And what do they produce for those hefty tuition fees? From what I can tell, a graduate grounded in some fundamentals and full of dramatic aspirations, ready, I suppose, to advance to another circus school or land a real job under a real tent. Some have found employment. Circus Chimera hired a pair of matriculating clowns who showed a degree of promise. Outstanding acts from the Circus Center? I'm not aware of any.
A band of intellectuals, among them Finelli, Peggy Snider, and Dominique Jando, may passionately believe in the artistically impotent results you produce when you place circus in a trenchant theatre vice. What might they have done with a young Miguel Vasquez? “Well, Miguel, yes, your quads on the flying trapeze are technically impressive, but, we need more, such as, how can we help you realize a deeper emotional connection to some dynamic drama in the sky?” Is not a great circus act enough?
This dubious movement, however seductive to some, is not a classroom prescription for success under the bigger tops. Stranded somewhere between Shakespeare and Barnum, the young student with brains is well advised to pay more attention to a Chinese taskmaster than to the associate dramaturg.
“Tricks.” Yes, Mr. Lu Yi. I’ll smile to that.