"But Circus Isn't Dead ... We're Coming"

"But Circus Isn't Dead ... We're Coming"
John Ringling North II, Keeping Proudly Alive the House of Ringling

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Big Apple Circus Dizzy – “Play On!” Gets Lost in the Music

Originally posted 6/30/09

Circus Review: Big Apple Circus
Eisenhower Park, East Meadow, Long Island
June 18


Somewhere near the end of this year’s offering, I felt a strange sense of disorientation. I had just endured an acid rock drumming exhibition (which roused the crowd and struck me as oddly out of place) and was about to witness the Rodion Troupe, a group of pole vaulters from Russia, decked out in flowing white. Talk about musical whiplash and time warp — as if suddenly you are whisked back into the old Soviet Union at the circus watching a preciously choreographed number -- after being dragged through the loud seedy sixties. And I wondered as I sat there, where have I just been — and where am I going under this tent?

Alternately co-starring the audience, this year’s fizzy effort contains the usual good-natured elements of a typical BAC program: Grandmas’s charming intrusions; the safer animal acts by PC standards — horses and dogs – that tend to escape PETA’s wrath; and a general spirit of touchy feely audience engagement that borders in my skeptical view on pandering. But then again, I prefer the “virtuosity” of the individual artist, to which outdoing founder/artistic direct Paul Binder has long passionately alluded.

Here is the problem, I think: Of all the production elements at a circus, none has quite the same power to unify a dispirit assemblage of acts into a seemingly unified format as does music. So, how disappointingly ironic that Play On!, in its deference to music in many of its forms, should reap the unintended consequence of disunifying the action. I could never quite get a grip on the show. For example, that gratuitous rock number is made even more annoyingly irrelevant by the failure of the directors to link it to any real circus act, which might have been revelatory.

Or was it all the rain outside? Perhaps I needed a libretto, although I did not detect any trenchant underlying message. The clowning cut-ups were amusing for the most part, and the individual acts, though surprisingly slender in number, held their own fairly well, one by one. Overall, however, this was that moment when somehow the whole feels less than the sum of the parts.


Indisputably top of the class are the terrifically disciplined juggling LaSalle Brothers, who put out a tight, fast moving display of acrobatic maneuvers while keeping the clubs in motion. These guys are easily the show’s highpoint. Almost as notable, though in a softer vein, are a surprising entry from China, the Nanjing Duo. A beautiful young girl in toe shoes executes exquisite positions and on-pointe work on the shoulders of her steady male partner, all of it with a shimmering composure. And what a perfectly polished finish. During exit, they walk backwards out of the tent in a graciously posturing manner as finely crafted as their routine.

For me, the band was at its best riding jazz charts, as when it matched the idiosyncratic movements of low wire dancer and contortionist Sarah Schwarz. She is a cool creative figure, but, like the show itself, short on the bigger items that can seal the deal.

A pair of new funny faces belonging to Glen Heroy and Mark Gindick pack enough facetious punch to keep us interested in their returns, although I could have used less audience — or shill — intervention.

The Cortez flyers flew. As seems to be a troubling trend these tepid days, the triple specialist missed, fell, and did not try again.

I went hoping-expecting to see Grandma dancing in the rain, which she didn’t. And I want my money back. And, while on the subject, considering how much inexplicable power Barry Lubin wields over the show from directorial input as production consultant to marketing to performance time, his Grandma strikes me still as both an asset (she can be very funny — loved the portable ventilator she pulled out for an oxygen fix during a hokey dance contest) and a liability. Grandma, also played by Matthew Pauli when Lubin is out vacationing or fund raising, epitomizes a company perhaps too settled in its ingrown rituals. There is a staid air here of adherence to a particular mind-set.

Ringmistress Carrie Harvey, who appears now and then, is a bright shining presence who needs to be better placed in the show as a focal point.

In summation, by Big Apple standards, Play On!, directed more in the form of a variety show by Steve Smith with a deference to clowning and finding ways to engage the audience in silly ring play, is a small apple.

Overall Rating (out of 4 stars max): * * 1/2

6.30.09

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pop Icon to Freak Show ... A Jacksonian Death Self-Destined ...


Who was Michael Jackson? Talented boy singer lucky to connect with the right songs at the right time?

Pop music icon who turned himself into post-stardom side show to sustain the public’s attention?

Even I am amazed at the adulation given his death, a death that hardly surprised me, for I could see it coming for years. But when you look at people the world over mourning Jackson's passing at the age of 50, you have to admire his powerhouse talents as singer and dancer to craft a music that would encircle the globe and give it a shared beat. Perhaps this is his greatest legacy.

I recall, silly as it seems in recall, the L.A. disco scene in the 1980s, dancing to some of Jackson's best tunes. And the best ones electrified us all. Billy Jean. I still have my only and favorite Jackson album, Off the Wall, which lifted disco to art. Maybe better than Thriller – an album more rock than disco, that I never purchased. Jackson was then wisely changing with the times, but he could not keep up forever. Few artists can. Moreover, every new album is more about the strength of the new songs than the established singer. Had Jackson lived, perhaps, like the unlikely Rod Stewart, he might have prolonged his recording magic by touring the Great American songbook.

In years too soon, the Gary, Indiana native would begin a bizarre Barnumesque decent into a willfully destructive transformation from young cute kid to androgynous cross-cultural charmer –- to creepy cosmetic transsexual.

And finally -- the side show never ended -- to what struck me as a creature from outer space trying to look like an earth-version of a female. We gawked at the face. Some said the nose was detachable. In a sense, the soul somewhere underneath it all was detachable too. What a gruesome spectacle of Twilight Zone plastic surgery. I had to turn my eyes away. Did anybody ever have the guts to tell him the truth?

Was he a child molester? I am not at all convinced. Under those bed sheets, affection may never have crossed the line, but the untoward imagery he fostered, sleeping with young boys, was incredibly stupid. I don’t think he cared. He was lost in his own celebrity.

Most of the Jackson defenders forget about the great songwriters, without whom Jackson would never have reached epic performance levels. Singers do not hit the heights without the songs. Jackson landed his fair share, and they sent him into orbit. So did his phenomenally creative choreography.

On a radio program here in the Bay Area, a local pop music critic surprised me by asserting that Jackson had not really enjoyed commercial star power for over 20 years. And yet, his name had never died. He managed to keep it on the tabloids by all of his weird pranks -- the child he dangled out a window; his marriage to Elvis Presley’s daughter; his flaky no-shows and his increasingly freaky face. And, finally, his headline-grabbing appearances in courtrooms pitting litigious American greed against depraved American celebrity.

The kinky allegations thrown against Jackson over his intimate relationships with young boys turned out to seem as flaky as the defendant himself. On trial, Jackson the showman mined America's insatiable appetite for the perverse. Illicit touching of his male teenage buddies? It was just about sharing a "warm glass of milk," he maintained. And maybe it was. Whatever happened in Never Never Land, be prepared for a barrage of tell-all books, fiction or fact. The post mortem circus of rumors and innuendos has just begun. What surprises me the most is how shocked shocked shocked the American public acts over his death.

Michael Jackson alone was responsible for his self-indulgent life style. Oh, what fame can do to the delicate. Elvis Presley, a bloated Vegas curiosity propped up by pharmaceutical pimps, finally fell apart and checked out at 42.

And now, Jackson’s inevitable death brings to the streets millions of tearful fans. Perhaps they all lived in the hope of a triumphal return in London. Somehow, I can't quite feel their sadness, maybe because I can't imagine the artistic redemption I suppose they dreamed of for one of the most eccentrically flamboyant pop artists who ever lived. His sudden passing allows him at least to exit the world minus the tainted legacy of a failed -- or aborted -- comeback.

Time has long since passed over Michael Jackson. But our memories have not let him go. Or, I should say theirs. Oh, Michael, so many years ago, when you looked like a real human being still, you were a thriller.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Call it “Greatest” Again – Ringling-Barnum Rebounds on Rich, Robust Return to the Big Top


From a far more promising past, this review was first posted on June 24, 2009

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Boom A Ring!Brooklyn, New York, June 18.
Tickets: $10 to $65 – Now through September 7


What a difference a tent makes. And a live band. And the right acts. And the right direction. And the absence of so many things that never should have been there. What a giant difference, indeed. Somehow, Ringling in the mode of simple looks better than it has in years.

In fact, one ring under a tent may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to circus chief Kenneth Feld.

One ring is apparently forcing (or inspiring) him to narrow his focus down to the essentials, down to a taut deference to the acts at hand, and the acts at hand in Boom a Ring! merit the sleek, no-nonsense format they have been given. Mr. Feld has devised a program of remarkable depth, diversity and luster – a program free of the extraneous production gimmicks and frills that have grown oppressive over the years.

Gone, at last, are so many tired old artifacts of ritual: that creaky rolling platform from which the ringmaster boomed “Children of all ages!”; kiddies pulled out of the audience onto rumbling floats, waving at us during pedestrian specs; cutesy video screen irritants, opening parades as thinly veiled promos for the circus, half-baked "story" lines, audience participation ad nauseum, and, well — I will politely refrain from naming everything. You fill in the blanks. Miracle of miracles, they are all GONE.

Seen opening night in its Coney Island premiere, Ringling’s Gold Unit proved to be a fine-tuned circus machine, endowed with a host of top-drawer talents full of inventive sparkle, wisely directed to move forward and to keep moving forward. This is the most professionally produced circus I have seen in years, and what a treat that alone is. Thrillingly to the point, skillfully paced, with crisp clean transitions, and an outstanding musical score that hits the mark. Opening and closing ensemble splashes are picture perfect.

The live music is produced by but six or seven musicians. The band has been liberated out from under that morose cage-like covering, out where it can be seen. These young players prove once more that nothing can replace a living breathing source of music at the circus.

Acts? At least five of them are tops in their respective fields, and one of the performers, if he does not already hold Monte Carlo Gold, should. The big contributors include a captivating juggling threesome, unnamed in the program or on the website (the Safargalins), who work around and over a table; Diana Vedyashkina’s absolutely delightful little Daschund Dogs (a natural tie-in for Nathan’s up the street); dancing elephants who can even shake their booties; the exhilarating Negrey Troupe of ground acrobatics; and a comedy cyclist, woven through the performance, who gives the program tremendous sophistication.

His name is Justine Case, a character from Australia who courts a French accent and a need to vent his amusingly messed up life in the mode of a stand-up comic. Case is, indeed, about the greatest circus comedian-performer I’ve ever seen. He enters on a bike with suitcase in hand, immediately grabbing our attention. And he works wonders on a wild variety of wheeled configurations while monologuing on. “Maybe the French can help the Americans a little,” he quips early in the party, wryly referencing the overpowering reach of that Montreal monster. Case’s quirky humor is adult without being inappropriate for the younger set. I say to Monte Carlo: Just send this genius the Gold, no appearances necessary.

Has Feld erred in any way? To be sure, there are arguable missteps that fall short of the overall excellence in motion, weak segments that might prevent Boom A Ring! from reaching its full potential as a hot word-of-mouth must see. Most critically, opening night went on without the high wire services of Los Scalos. This turn, still featured in a video teaser on the Ringling website, looks amply exciting, just the sort of an episode to deliver a degree of air power to match all of the terrific clowning, acrobats, and animal antics on the ground. And this show needs more in the air.

Liina Aunola, who cuts a recklessly expressive figure, makes the biggest impression aloft on a cloud swing, if only she were not tethered to lifelines. Many of our so-called “aerialists” today don’t even try to hide their marionette strings, in full view snapping on the wires as if to be getting ready to go to work and clock in. What a shame. “What are those wires for,” I heard somebody whispering behind me, as is always the case. Still, Aunova’s tempestuous persona, even with her pretending, reminded me of the older bolder era when sawdust divas made perilous poetry swinging high and wide – and free.

A belabored perch act by Valentin Dinov and Borislava Vaneva involving one of them peddling a small bike up and down in a half-moon shaped track was so anchored to wires as to make it pointless. And one might ask if the tediously drawn out crossbow exploits of Martti Peltonen are worth a couple of audience pleasing payoffs.

More questionable is another aerialist, the curvaceous Vicenta Pages, who follows her perky stint directing a gorgeous class of white tigers with a commute skyward for an arduous work out on the roman rings. For my eyes, this more ethereal type of act is better suited to lighter wings.

Boom a Ring! also offers the wheel of death as well as three motor bikes whirling inside a cage while a woman stands perfectly still in the middle of it all. Another rich discovery are the gifted comedy duo of Stanislav Knyazkov and Vasily Trifonov, who add more fresh seasoning to the comedy mix. And the show soars down the finish line with a fabulous exhibition of ground tumbling by the Negrey Troupe. What a sendoff! Then comes a quick and concise last splash by the company, as perfectly precise and sleek as, overall, the show itself. Director Philip William McKinley (or Mr. Feld directing Mr. McKinely – whomever) deserves high marks for merging the elements with taste, brevity, and buoyancy.

Will Boom-a-Ring! turn the corner on Coney, helping to revive an aging seaside park while making a strong mark of its own at the ticket windows? I’d say they have an uphill battle on their hands. Other then Cirque du Soleil, American shows have rarely if ever done well across extended engagements, and I’m not sure that all the vital signs are in place here to win over healthy houses from a very fickle iPublic.

Nonetheless, Kenneth Feld may find the inspiration he needs to forge ahead in the same robust direction, with a resolve that I am convinced he never felt while straddled to his short-lived artsy, Cirque du Soleil-envious Barnum's Kaleidoscape. Here he is on the populist ground that he is at his best working. So, indeed, he may hatch a brilliant new concept for tented Ringling tours. And how ironic it would be were the Feld family, who falsely claim to have “saved” Ringling by moving it from the tents to arenas in 1957, compelled to move it back from whence it came.

How long has it been since we have witnessed such top-flight showmanship under canvas? In a single ring, the Big Show struck a powerful note of authortiy, looking, acting, and feeling whole again. And the word “greatest” seemed more fitting than it has in too many seasons. Better still, the Felds are offering the customer a decent chair at Boom A Ring! for as little as ten dollars. Now that must count as the best damn live entertainment bargain on the planet.

The Ringling brothers should be smiling up on the big lot. It’s a circus through and through.

Welcome back, Big Bertha.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars max) * * * ½

[photos, from top: Ensemble number; Stanislav Knyazkov; Justin Case; Liina Aunola; the Negrey Troupe -- all photos from Boom A Ring program magazine]

6.24.09

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Happy 25th, Cirque du Soleil!

June 16, 1984 -- June 16, 2009: You are 25-years old this year. You went from an upstart kid eating fire, walking on stilts, juggling clubs and clowning your way into a global giant. You took the world. You have thrilled, challenged, confused, let us down and lifted us back up many times over.

Here are some photos of you in your precocious youth. Such sweet images of a troupe of Canadian street performers turning their talents and vision into one of the most remarkable circus empires the world has ever known ...

The first Cirque du Soleil logo, above, designed by Josee Belanger, 1984. The images in black and white are of La Fete Foraine in 1983, the precursor to CDS, described by CDS as a gathering of street performers "inspired by the communal spirit of the 1960s."











The first Cirque du Soleil tent, 1984.

Director Franco Dragone in rehearsals, 1993.

25 Cheers to Guy Laliberte, fearless founder and Cirque King!

[all photos from the Cirque du Soleil website]

6/23/09

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lawn Bowling’s “The Family” Deserve Their Own Reality Show


Given all the years I have sat in the sun and watched the older set move their bowls (never call them “balls) back and forth across the green, the little white ball being the goal, not until today did I almost laugh out loud.

You see, and I must be discrete about this (the game is so generally discrete), there is a fanatic of a middle aged man who lives nearby with three sons, all of them now lawn bowling. The youngest, who just popped up, might be around eight or nine. The older one, Jonathan, now about in his mid teens, is developing a sense of humor. I’ve watched him over the last maybe seven years grow up, for when the local clubs get together on the Oakland greens, there comes “the family.” I think they hail from Berkeley. The boys are absolutely remarkable. Bowl on with me, please ...

“You are Jesus, Matt!” cried Jonathan across the green to his wee little brother, whose “bowl” (not ball) had just reached the white mark by a kiss. “I bow to you!”

Meanwhile, earlier the father, whom I call the John McEnroe of the sport, nearly threw a fit, or so it seemed, I guess by not being part of a winning end. He has a reputation for — how to put this in discrete lawn bowl speak — untoward behavior. And today, that is what had me laughing inside. His sons seem so much more cool and mature. In fact, I've never seen a trace of the father's temperament surface in any of them. Which makes me wonder if they ever find his as amusing as I do.

“Oh, God!” sighed the father another time, openly out loud, after another bad end. I wonder on the off hours if he practices up and down a long green carpeted hall way in his home, with side rooms for grief counseling, rebirthing and video study playback.

The boys are a delight, especially now that Jonathan and the middle brother, Joshua, have developed a nice camaraderie. The mother sits on the sidelines, now with a little girl, and I wonder if the little girl will too be lured onto the green. I’ve been told by the mother and others that the boys play because they love being with their dad, and when daddy and sons are competing against each other, thankfully the father conducts himself as an equal, no tantrums against his sons, who themselves are often the superior athletes. This I saw for the first time today, when the father was getting coached from across the green by Jonathan, and took it like a perfect lawn bowling player. And the welcome display of etiquette gave me a better feeling about him, and I am happy for him that he now, with his three sons in action, can launch a game whenever the foursome agree.

At a recent regional tournament, Joshua won the whole thing bowling against dozens of not so very young codgers, including his slightly older brother. The Dad, I could see, was staying away and proud; perhaps it’s unbowling like for anybody but the caddie (if that’s what he would be called) to bark out suggested moves. It’s all in the nuances.

Maybe they should be called the sport’s first family. Nobody knows of their equal anywhere else, nor have the boys inspired other kids their age to take up a game long played by the grey set.

“That’s surgery!” sighed Johnathan with a flair, after knocking his bowl into an opponent’s and lessening the score against he and his team mates on that precarious end.

“You are Jesus, Josh!” cried Jonathan. Only seconds later, he was forced to recant. “No, you aren’t.” Josh’s bowl did not go where it appeared to be going.

And why don’t I play?. Many of them have wondered, I know. Years back, I nearly took a sign with me to erect above my bench --- “Do not disturbed, spectator only.” They are perhaps more intrigued by me than I am by them. This is a sport I like to savor in a relaxed, semi-meditative mode. This is a sport of gracious manners, even if The Family departs from them now and then. They have the making of a very good and even funny reality show, now that Jonathan has found a public voice.

“You are Jesus, Josh. I bow to you!”

Gosh, maybe I should join up. I’d like to enjoy such a sacred status on occasion, being bowed to, and all under the promised summer sun.

[photos, 2003, of Jonathan in action]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In a Krishnamurti Mood: The Circus Judge I Might Have Been

Top of the heap. Number one. What a Voice! Where is SHE from? Destined to win, assumed the suddenly discovered Scottish Sunday school teacher who claimed never to have been kissed. Far from tabloid pretty. In fact, homely. Just one Susan Boyle, who moved Simon nearly to tears. Across the finish line on a British TV show called "Britain's Got Talent" she flew. Not so fast! Shockingly, a group of kids getting the win stole her spotlight away, driving her over the cliff and into a local nut house for same day repair.

Ego. Ego. Ego. We all have one. Well, I do. Do you?

Last year, I was called and pitched to be a judge for "Celebrity Circus" by a Hollywood casting agent working for NBC. "You are a circus critic," he said, having done some homework. I was impressed.

"This opportunity may never come along again," he said.

My ego lifted off. I saw shooting stars. There I was, issuing pronouncements, Simon Cowell of the Big Top. Overnight, famous face all over the cables. America's suddenly disoovered big top expert.

Hold on. Not so easy. First, I'd have to be test interviewed at my phone while somebody came by and video taped me. In-home screen test. So who was going to do the filming, I wondered.

"You must have a friend with a mini recorder," said the agent.

No I did not. Nor did I jump. One thing life has taught me is not to grovel.

After the initial euphoria, I regained consciousness. Wait a moment. Think this over. Back and forth between here and there six weeks in a row. In front of an audience. Lights in my face. Possibly too nervous to be Simon Cowell. Possibly a crack-up or wimp-out in the making.

And, anyway, if I did get called to serve, would I end up tagged for life as one of the reasons for a big television turkey?

I did not say "no." Neither did I fall onto my knees, ready to do just whatever they wanted. It dawned on me -- "this may never come around again" -- did the Hollywood agent tell that line to a lot of potential game show contestants? Even then, I e-mailed him that I'd be at Union Station passing through L.A. in a couple of weeks if he wanted to give me his K-Mark screen test. No reply. Chance of a lifetime slipping away. By then, his Rolodex was no doubt rolling out of my life, onto other names to call ...

Then I had an epiphany: Yes, I have an ego. A big ego, I suppose. But, no, my ego is only a part of who I am. There are many other parts. The ego started feeling too heavy, too much in control. So much that I feared toppling under the weight of my shrill expectations. Endangering my good health. I'm glad I never heard another word from Hollywood. When I watched a little of Celebrity Circus, however, there was this overly emotional "judge" who raved on over almost everything he saw, leading me to wonder if he was adjudicating on Viagra; how I would have loved pitting my opinions against his. We might have clicked. He Curly, me Moe at the Monte Carlo Second Chance Circus Festival.

That is, had we not been carted off for refusing to play to script. I think I can understand why the rejected Ms. Boyle boyled over.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

John Ringling North II Three Years Later -- Might the Party Soon Be Over?


Showbiz David Speculates

Nobody that I know of has put out more positive prose heralding the return of the House of Ringling to the big top than myself. Three years later, I am looking at things a little differently.

Now, I must warn you in advance, this is NOT a review. These are only impressions of the current show gleaned from blogs, You Tube clips, photos, e-mails, and a close look at the actual lineup of acts supplied to me by show manager James Royal. I have learned that not until you actually watch a performance from start to finish can you really know what to think of it.

I also know how long it took Cliff Vargas to achieve near-greatness for a few fleeting seasons in the mid 1980s. It took him about 10 years. Perhaps Mr. North is in his early Vargas years, in which case, incredible patience is in order. Jim Royal e-mailed me that they did not expect to become the Ringling circus of the early 1950s overnight. So maybe they have some promising dreams up their sleeves.

But North II may not have ten years to make a mark while the unique envelope he holds is open. When the nephew of John Ringling North entered the circus world in 2006 by virtue of purchasing the Kelly -Miller title, the most valuable asset he brought with him was his name: Ringling. Still a magic word to many Americans. And he was shrewd enough, working with evidently savvy legal counsel, to take on a lawsuit by the Felds and at least end up with the right to post his name in certain places, altering “produced by” with “proprietor.” This impressed me.

Is he linking that magic name with a performance that compliments it? Indeed, one that lives up to it? Very doubtful. My impressions of this year's edition being mediocre, at best, are gleaned from the following:

1. The “vaulting” act as promised did not materialize. Royal tells me it was dropped "due to time restraints." Why drop so potentially exciting a number? Why not drop the hula hoops? Can anybody out there tell me that an audience would not be wildly more responsive to vaulting than to hoops???????????????????

2. The family riding act as promised sounds from all accounts like an earnest work in progress, with performers coming and going.

3. The flying trapeze skips some dates over asphalt. This I learned from reading Steve Copeland’s blog. Royal explained in an e-mail to me earlier in the season that this happens only when a contract prohibits the driving of stakes into cement.

4. The flying trapeze “triple” by Renato Fernandes is only an announcement gimmick, as I suspected when I saw it attempted on Carson & Barnes last year. Royal confirmed this by writing to me that Renato "is extremely close to catching the tripe, but has not as yet."

Also:

5. The inclusion of low-end generic acts., motor bike up inclined wire, hula hoops.

6. A troubling turnover in performance personnel. Early in the season, the Fusco brothers, jugglers highly regarded, were booked for a few weeks pending the arrival of others from Mexico. And the "Kelly Miller Festival circus" that fans see in Milwaukee in July will be a completely different show, only an hour long (I assume this means they will miss watching the great pony rides) while the regular "touring unit" makes dates on the east coast. We can only wonder what sort of a show North II will mount. I find this very strange. It raises many questions.

7. The inclusion of peanut pitches and coloring book sales by the clowns. By any measure, sub-Ringling standards.

8 The carnie aspect, pony rides during intermission, etc. Again, sub-Ringling all the way.

9. You Tube Revelations: Except for the wonderfully accomplished three-tiger hind leg walks in Casey McCoy's act, the You Tube footage in which I discovered this also included brief portions of a few of the other acts in the show that left me, sorry to report, distinctly unimpressed.

10. A misleading website. At last, they have updated it (a marked improvement in the right direction), but the baffling incompleteness does not flatter the show. Half a program is listed, and is highly misleading. What about the other half? There have been photos of acts or names (like juggler Brett Michael) that no longer appear. JRN II strikes me as very weak in the most critical area -- the advance promotion.

Sorry, but altogether these items do not add up, in my speculative opinion, to a memorable circus experience. This sort of a show might work fine for the niche public it serves down the road. Claims Royal, predictably, it is "going over well with our audiences and we are getting excellent feedback from our local sponsors." What else would a good circus man say? But North II risks losing the luster and good will of his name power if he continues offering pedestrian fare.

Of course I could be dead wrong. It is possible on the other hand, that altogether these modest elements jell into a delight. I know that Casey McCoy and the clowns Copeland and Combs, from video clips I have seen, both offer high quality acts, which is a credit to Mr. North. But the image of them, early season, peddling coloring books makes me want to cry.

Is this what a real Ringling stands for? I'm already waiting for next year. I'm waiting to see how far Mr. North might push himself into a more artistically significant direction -- if he can. And I'm not holding my breath. More and more, I'm wondering if the spectacle of a tent full of cell phonies jabbering away while the show was on, as complained about by Steve Copeland, is not a more telling portrait of an under performing circus. Methinks that a lot more of the "Ringling magic" proprietor North promised to insert into the performance when he took over might be woefully over due. If John Ringling North II is really serious, he needs to complete the triple.

[photos, from above: John Ringling North II and James Royal; juggler Raul Oliveras; Ryan Combs and Steve Copeland]

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ding! Ding! Cho! Cho! I'm Railing Off ...

You’ve no doubt heard of 48-year-young Susan Boyle, Scottish teacher who claims never to have been kissed, but boy can this amateur (if that’s what she really is), sing. She took her voice to the television show Britain's Got Talent. Then the world kissed her. Even Simon You Know Who got all teary-eyed. Judges sure she’d ride all the way to triumph, but, at the finish line, some young upstarts stole away her glory, causing Boyle to Boyle over, all the way into what once was called the nuthouse ... Now she’s out, and maybe regrouping ... Fame that lasts only fifteen minutes can leave burns that linger a lifetime ...

Meanwhile, destined to blast off big time is one Guy Laliberte, he of Cirque du Soleil, said to be Canada’s first space passenger and only the 7th private citizen with a ticket to ride. At only 49, and for a cool $35 million, the 2.5 billionaire will buckle down and rocket up, from Russia to the International Space Station with a proper Cirque theme, in his words "the first social/humanitarian mission in space." How's that? Up there in latitude Laliberte, the daring young impresario wishes to raise public awareness of world wide water issues: "We need to provide access to clean water where it is needed." ... Or might he really be keen on an out-of-body circus? On maybe inking just another contract? ... Acrobats seeking Cirque work, bone up on your gravity-free tricks so you’ll be ready for Montreal moon auditions! ... Oh that was fun ...

What’s going on over in the Big Apple Circus suites? A vet inside source expressing a touch of gleeful apprehension over a “blood bath” red lighting “4 office types” escorted out by security. A pair of butchers debuthered, too. E-mail implications — I’m going easy here — that exec. director Gary Dunning might be just a little overly power pushy. Am I minding my syntax? Already, wonders Mr. Inside Source, is it time to rebinder the book before it breaks apart and the pages loose continuity? Premature melodrama that I, a practicing melodramatist, should know. Okay, so I’m going tabloid on you again. I was reminded of this in the current issue of Bandwagon, by editor Fred Pfening, Jr, who in laying out last season, noted my ominous forecast of possible doom and gloom come 2008, reminding us tactfully that all the shows made it back to the barn “in contrast to the possible dire situation” of, well, yours unruly ... Oh, heck, blame it on 1001 Arabian Nights tea. I feel like a traitor here at L'Amyx drinking something grown in Germany ...

Back into ersatz reality, where were we? Oh, yes, Mr. Laliberte, ever active (how I’d love to pin him to a question or two), announced he intends to carry a poem he co-wrote with a friend and “read it in space.” Are you getting a better handle on the brains behind all the cirque mist down there on earth? ... Those Russians, who will power the cirque king up and away (and we, trust, back this way too) “really put you through some tough tests,” says astronaut Laliberte. “My main concern is to make sure that I am ready and I will not have to be babysat by my crew.” Go, Guy, go! One small bromo for space. One giant promo for CDS.

End ringing it on a graver note, those lovely fabrics (dubbed by retired clown Ken Dodd "the bed sheets") to which today’s aerialists gravitate can be deceptively safe. Yet another performer falling to the ground, and thankfully, she's okay, having suffered "no serious injuries." She, an unnamed 22-year-old performing up in Richmond, BC, for Circus Gatti. Seems I’ve heard of two or three other fabric flyers taking similar descents. Could it be a dangerous immersion in the choreography into which they seem to lose themselves?

Circus Historical Society gearing up for its annual bash in Milwaukee, when Kelly-Miller Circus rolls out the royal mud for a John Ringling North II spread. (There's the talented Casey McCoy. Gotta tell you, though, I get the feeling this is not North II's best opus so far...) CHS calling it a "trifecta," this meaning that you get the parade, the K-M show [*] and, perhaps best of all, a chance to see Mr. North himself address you at one of the CHS events. I hope that notes are taken and published, please, Mr. Fred and Mr. Fred. I'd prefer that over somebody's rhapsody about a long circus train ride. I’ll have to rejoin the Copeland and Combs blogging odyssey in July, just to sneak under and look ... How I'd love to be there. But, I'll be in prep for my own space flight into Sin City. It's high or low time I check out all those Cirque shows, while the owner negotiates first performing rights to the space station ... Besides, the Witness Protection Program rejected me, so I'm staying out of the spangled shadows ...

Oh, yes, the Tonys! -- this very Sunday, here on earth, if anybody cares. Sorry, Jack, I hate all awards shows that go on beyond one hour. Even the Second Coming would have to be 60 minutes max, including commercials ...

And that’s a moon struck wrap ...

[*Update: At Milwaukee, you will not see the touring K-M show, but a special one hour "Kelly Miller Festival Circus."]

Monday, June 01, 2009

Circus Bella Beguiles with Wry Shennanigans, Relevant Music

Out of the past: From June 1, 2009


Circus Review: Circus Bella
San Francisco, May 31, 2009, 12 p.m.
Admission free, at Yerba Buena Gardens

Going to a new circus founded by ambitions young performers is always an adventure loaded with a mixture of apprehension and hope. New could mean theatre circus. Could mean ballet circus. Could mean kinky “performance art.” Or the Aussie self-annihilation angle. Could also mean a bright new future. Remember, it was out of such a situation that Cirque du Soleil was born. Indeed, tomorrow belongs to the young.

The good news out of one-year-old Circus Bella, based in Oakland, is that some of the best musical scoring you will come across on any lot is on this lot. Moreover, there’s a cool tilt to the company's camaraderie, a playful approach to taking on standard circus skills. For example, Bronkar Lee begins as a drummer, then drums himself into a stirring ball juggling workout.

Show's biggest single asset are are five hard-working musicians. What a refreshing departure from the abysmally electronic norm. Throw away your CDs. Ditch your dreary disco dreams. With a few more acts, some honing and tightening, this perky outfit might find a string of civic sponsorships out there, something like what the Pickle Family Circus did in its day.

The funky band starts out, pre show, jamming it up, Dixieland style, like a group of black musicians in front of an old midway side show. And you might wonder if that's all you're gonna get. Well, no. Once the circus begins, these windjammers surprise, do they ever, riding charts composed and arranged by accordionist Rob Reich, by answering each entree with just the right tempo and tone. What Reich gives us is an ersatz Cirque sound, yet with a generous deference to each act.

The one hour romp sags in spots. Jan Damm’s suspenders routine takes too long to get snapping. A comedic presence not always well served by the scripting is Jeni Johnson (seen in the two photos above), eccentrically uniformed musical conductor sometimes with baton in hand. She is just plain funny to look at. Her officious air kept me smiling. How does she shtick it to us? Well, for one, she stops the show capriciously to walk over to the ring curb, upon which is parked her big soda cup, there to favor herself with a sip. While we wait. A facetious time out at our expense. It works. Other times she flops out trying to get into the act and has to be carried off. All fun to watch.

But a running band-leading gag (casting Johnson as a conductor getting no cooperation from her musicians) runs on too long like a predictable cliche and doesn’t quite produce. She is an amusing presence I would welcome back.

Invention adds nuance to the generally mid-level routines on display here, giving each a certain wry counterpoint. Nimble contortionist Ember Bria and rola-bola performer Jan Damm deliver the essentials. On the slack rope, David Hunt takes a summer afternoon holiday, making it all look perhaps a little too easy. On a higher level, polished Abigail Munn turns in a skilled single trap routine full of sharp drops and defined positions. Her pro turn only lacks a big swing arc pay off.

To its credit, the program spares us the bed sheets (aka: “fabric”), spares us the hula hoop and the dime-a-dozen motor bike up the inclined wire. Circus Bella, co-directed by Munn and Hunt, avoids the obvious.

Company joins together into a zesty group juggling bash to finish off the party. It makes for a fizzy finale, giving the end frame a celebratory lift.

One last qualm: When did circuses forget how to simply, START? I'd vote for a first burst into the ring free of Scotty the Bunny talking to us. (Scotty's nebulous role throughout the show strikes me as a tad gratuitous.) There is a silent movie feel about this circus that needs to remain silent. Before a responsive crowd on the admission-free grass of Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco under cloudy skies, they made a promising mark. Go, little Bella!



6/1/09