Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Boyi’s Big Top Stars: Icons Rise, Icons Fall ...
I like to talk about the circus to people from outside the circus. To people from other places and other backgrounds. Through their eyes, I see things I might not see through my own. Through their eyes, sometimes I gain fresh appreciation for elements I may have overlooked or simply taken for granted.
My friend Boyi, who was raised on a farm in the Chang Dong province of China and is now a college student, never saw a real circus in his country (other than side show-type stunt men working in the open air), and he has seen only one show here — Circus Chimera. The words "Cirque du Soleil" do not ring a bell with him.
But Boyi has a natural appreciation for many elements of circus, he is aware of the Chinese acrobatic traditions, and he has strong independent views of his own, as you shall see, and this I find refreshing.
While Boyi was looking at photographs of circus performers in my book, Fall of the Big Top, I asked him if he would score each on a scale of from 1 to 10. Since some of the photos, like the one of Miguel Vazquez sitting on a trapeze bar, are passive, I tried to give Boyi an idea of what these performers accomplished. But it is important to note, as Boyi himself would tell you, he is reacting only to the images themselves.
Here are Boyi's marks:
Alfredo Codona holding trap bar, body extended upward: Score 8
Barbette’s Bird Cage Girls: Score: 5
Svetlana Shamsheeva and dog . Score: 10. “I love dogs!”
Gunther Gebel Williams straddling tiger atop an elephant. Score: 5 “All he is doing is sitting.”
Bird Millman wire walking high over New York. Score: 10
Clyde Beatty in chair and whip face off with a snarling tiger: Score: 5. “Tiger is not doing anything. I want to see the tiger do a trick.”
Clyde Beatty pecking away over a typewriter: "I'll give him a 10.”
Con Colleano in a dancerly jump over the wire. Score: 6
Unus one finger stand: Boyi studied the photo closely. I explained it to him. He asked, “Is that a globe he is balancing on?” Yes, I replied. Exclaimed he, “that is absolutely amazing!” Score: 10. This was his most enthusiastic response, and I did not want to break the illusion. Should I tell him the truth about Unus? I did. Said Boyi, unphased, “Still a 10.” Why, I asked? “The line.”
Ballet of the Elephants. Score: 10. Most impressed by so many elephants working smoothly together.
Francis Brunn juggling a multitude of objects: Score: 7. Boyi seemed under impressed by so many objects in motion and by, it seemed, a sense of formlessness. If only he could have seen Brunn in action.
John Strong with little dog jumping through a hoop. Score: 7 “for the dog, not the man.”
Soviet teeterboard act . Score: 10
Ring full of dancers posturing at a Soviet circus. Score: 6
Miguel Vazquez sitting on a trap bar. Score: 8. “I see people in the Olympics turning many somersaults.”
Cirque du Soleil teeterboard act from Dralion. Score: 8
Pinito Dell Oro in a free standing forward swing. Score: 6.
Gui Ming Meng with vase on head. Score: 1. “I can do it.”
The Cristianis . Score: 10. Great appreciation for the complexity of animals and humans working together.
Chris Lashua, German Wheel: Score: 5
Lou Jacobs walking a floppy dog. Score: 5
The four Asia Boys in contortion formation. Score: 9. Strong admiration for the intricate coordination displayed.
La Norma, one hand to trap bar, legs extended. Score: 7
Christian Atayde in one hand stand while dog does hind-leg stand on his back. Score: 8
Bonus Comment: Where to see a circus? Perhaps because of the enchantment he felt over a 1954 photo by Ted Sato of the Ringling big top in the nation's capital, framed by trees, Boyi later told me that he is against a circus performing in an arena "where you see movies or other things.” He knows of the technical advantages that are available for circuses indoors, but prefers a tent. “I want to see a circus in a special place, a place I’ve never been before.” He also likes the light streaming in through the peaks of the tent.
Now, what do I take away from Boyi's comments and marks?
First, I have long regarded Unus as something of a scared cow, mainly because his act was so ill-structured, with the big item (one finger stand) coming first, making the rest seem somewhat anti-climactic. However, I can't think of a circus poster/litho that totally astonished me upon first sight as much as the one of Unus, when it appeared in Santa Rosa advertising the Big Show's appearance in San Francisco. Merle Evans once told me that Unus was “the best man performer I ever played for.”
Another of Boyi’s likes — the intricate coordination in group gymnastics — gave me pause to consider why the two and three person contortion acts, which to me are on the slow side, are so appreciated in general by the American public.
As for Boyi’s strong endorsement of the Cristianis, there again, from fresh eyes I am inspired to reconsider how I view such an act. I have long focused on the humans, not giving so much thought to the horse. My belated Kudos, horse.
Thank you, Boyi!
[photos, from the top: Bird Millman, circa the 1920s; Svetlana Shamsheeva, courtesy of Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus; Ballet of the Elephants, 1942; the Doveico teeterboard troupe, Soviet Union, 1970s; the Cristianis, circa 1940; Unus, photo by Ted Sato -- None of the photos on the sidebar to your right are from my book.]
originally published 5/26/09