Oakland to DC: Strike up the Bella Band!

Oakland to DC:  Strike up the Bella Band!
One of the best scored circuses in America. Scroll down to see the full story.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spider-Man Co-Star Deserts Problem-Plagued Musical on Broadway: How Many Other Imperiled Performers May Follow?

News today, out of the Wall Street Journal, that Spider-Man co-star Natalie Mendoza will be leaving the musical, long in trouble. She is still recovering from a concussion she sustained after a fall during the first preview performance at the Foxwoods Theatre. Show's opening was set back a month, to February 7. Three other performers have been injured. Stunt man Christopher Tierney, a close friend of Natalie's, was taken to hospital after a fall, and underwent back surgery. He is now in recovery mode.

Mendoza is not talking. Lawyers said to be hammering out an exit package. This was to have been Mendoza's first appearance in a Broadway house.

It's a a sad sad story from many angles. Cast was reported "demoralized" over injuries, resentful of director Julie Taymor, deemed coldly indifferent to safety issues.

Comments left on one website are in hissing lockstep uniformly negative, either asking how many more actors will suffer injuries or worse and/or claiming that a big turkey is clucking the boards, and it's time to apply the knife.

But not all patrons are grousing, and the troubled tuner has been drawing near full houses. Some patrons have expressed great pleasure in the production.

Will Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark actually reach an opening night panel of NY critics -- perhaps the ultimate peril it faces?
[Photo of Natlie Mendoza with her Spider-Man co-star Reeve Carney. by Bruce Gilkas/FilmMagic]

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Big Top Bits: Oz Flashes Flesh: Feld Folds Coney Canvas for Brooklyn’s Barclays ... Vargas Lands Prod.Placement in Water for Elephants Tease

If all else fails, Strip! Here comes yet a more "nude, rude and lewd" edition of that robustly risque little indoor trick I can live without, Circus Oz, from Down Under. And I do mean under. Show touting a "dropped" costume budget resulting in rising hemlines. Wonder if their horny little robot dog is still around, hoping and groping, jumping and humping. You can read up on that critter right here on the previous post (a look-back item slotted here by sheer coincidence before this Oz release vamped my way, thanks to cyber courier Don Covington ... Actually, you might have to fly Over There to see the scantly clad half-talented acrobats who make up this in-your-face cabaret of cross-dressers, doped-out S&M-ers and every other what-not under the fading sun. Laughing while she spoke, said director Anni Davey "We've said to the performers they can only have one costume and you can wear as much or as little of it as you like." Oh, they are soooo cutting edge. Might they be a tad desperate for more action at the ticket window? And the tent for this one, called the Blue Show, seats only 250. Yeah, you're correct, nudity sells. Even the great sentimentalist Oscar Hammerstein II once said, "the only thing people are really interested in is sex."

And then there was Cirque Berzerk, down there in Tinseltown, pitching on a website that nearly set my smoke alarm off. This year, offering a "darker, sexier" show. Guess they, too, can't make it on whatever talents they have. Just when I was ready to catch another troupe of modern-thinking sleazoids under a real tent, they have apparently ditched the canvas -- or plastic -- for Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles. I saw tickets priced over $300. Wonder if that comes with a little Club Nooky on the side? Remember when, once upon a season, women who dared to appear in sawdust rings were lumped together with ladies who lived in shady hotel rooms over brawling bars? Full circle we may have come. Now if you have a problem with my blogging, blame Don up there. (All kidding aside, I have Don of Covington to thank for so many interesting items he sends my way.)

Feld folds Canvas over Coney? That seems the likely story line to be. Big splash about Ringling-Barnum already booked to perform in the new 18,000 seat Barclays Center, now rising over Brooklyn down by Atlantic Yards in Prospect Heights. Performances then "expected to rival similar Ringling" shows seen at the Garden. To be "much more extravagant than the circus's popular one-ring tent show that performed the past two summers" by the boardwalk. Why does that sound like an ignorant insult to me, and why do I already feel deserted by a higher grade of Feld-produced circus entertainment? The best things in life might not last. I'm so worn out by the relentless sledgehammer showmanship of Feld Entertainment, I may skip the Big Show's visit out here next summer. And take in a Dick Garden production instead.

Big Promo Break for Circus Vargas: Call this the Cream of Covington: Video of a Water for Elephants movie trailer now sending promising sparks onto computer screens. In this particular tease (there are others not so on-point or arresting), you see the Vargas front door, wagons and signage. Clearly. Good going, Vargas! An older gent appears (wonder how many summers before I'm him?), in a reminiscent mood, perhaps about to share the story of his life. Says he was with Benzini Bros. Circus in 1931. That's when "the most famous circus disaster of all time" occurred. OK, I'm tentatively hooked on what I saw, just hoping we are not about to witness another circus disaster in the making. Other Water teasers I cruised got stranded off the lot in fancy ballrooms and back of the track hotel rooms, with woozy ballads hardly from the thirties mucking up the must. Oh, let's go somewhere else, it was looking and feeling so authentically good for a while. Woody Allen, that's who, should direct a circus flick, one as rich and good as his masterful flick, Radio Days ...

God Bless the Pope, I suppose: He was recently feted by acrobats from Fratelli Pelligrini, who "took off their shirts." Well aware of certain scandals surrounding this beleaguered church of a thousand illicit confessions, I'd better leave that alone and be on my way ...

Finally, Doc Bob Dewel of Baraboo chirping in to tell me that Circus World Museum's fformidable library now has a new librarian, he being Pete Shrake, a one-time "head mojo" at the Sauk County Historical Society, with a particular fondness for Civil War re-enactments. Let's see, what type of circus wagon came out of that era. Drats! Not the Thimble Theatre fun house.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Warmest Christmas Greetings to All ... Holiday Lights from My Own Backyard

Images I snapped of the Fourth Annual Holiday Circle of Lights at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, and easy stroll from where I live (not in the cemetery).

















Thursday, December 23, 2010

On the Spider-Man Watch: Under New Safety Rules, Actors Can Arbitrarily Stop Show If they Feel Endangered; NYT Questions Show's Circus Push ...

From reports today in The New York Times, stunt aerial actors using harnesses (mechanics, I assume) must first be vocally certified as being properly rigged and attached to the lifelines by two or three stage staffers, and they themselves must give a thumbs up before the stage manager can authorize each flight.

They have also been given the authority to arbitrarily and suddenly stop the show if they sense rigging problems or danger in the air.

In a two-hour cast meeting at which director Julie Taymor took questions, a "demoralized" company questioned why they had not been give more tech rehearsals.

A Times editorial questioned the unconventionally complex production, expressing a degree of apprehension that it may not be suitable for the stage. "....this production may represent the point at which legitimate theater lumbers into terrain that belongs to the circus."

Show was reported ready to resume performances as of tonight.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dangerous Nights on Broadway: "Accident Prone" Spider-Man Musical Should Mandate Hard Hats for Orchestra Seats -- And That's No Joke


"If Spider-Man makes it out of previews," cracked TV personality David Holmes, "it will be the leading cause of death in the state of New York."

"Please pray with me for my friend, Chris, " said one of the show's stars, Natalie Mendoza, referring to stunt double Christopher Tierney, who during a Monday night show, fell 30 feet to the stage when a rope attached to his sailing body suddenly malfunctioned.

When Tierney went down, "you started to hear people screaming in the pit," recounted Christine Bord, a balcony ticket holder.

The seriously injured actor was ambulanced off. Shortly after, customers were sent home.

Taken to Bellvue Hospital, Tierney was reported to have suffered only minor injuries. But a report in The New York Times had the hospital listing him in serious condition.

Producers conferred this morning with various labor officials and Actor's Equity reps to rethink safety measures for immediate implementation.

"It is clear that we need to give the team more time to fully execute their vision," conceded lead producer Michale Cohl.

Commenting on the problem plagued previews that have caused at least three other injuries so far, including a brain concussion, actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson shared his own fears: "I'm torn between wanting to see 'Spiderman" on Broadway and not wanting to see someone literally die doing musical theatre."

TV hosts have been making hay with Spider-Man jokes.

And what had the mayor of New York city to say about all this? "Hopefully, they'll get all the bugs out, sighed an apparently unphased Michael Bloomberg. "I'm told it's phenomenally complex, which is one of the reason's that it's going to be such a great show. We do have certain laws to make things safe, and we will certainly enforce the laws."

The production has been under skeptical radar for weeks by the federal Occupational and Health Administration. Their monitoring will only intensify, said OSHA spokesman John Chavez. Among actions being taken by the agency are employee interviews, examination of equipment and records kept to determine if fed safety laws are being flouted.

There are those thrill seekers who will no doubt flock to this eerie extravaganza. How many of them, however, will relish sitting directly under all of the action? Were I to go, I'd sit way up in there in the Gods; no way would I put myself in harm's way, out in the priciest seats where I could get dumped up by unscripted mishaps.

Will Spider-Man even make it to opening night, February 7? Can it ever be a safe work of art? I once built a model roller coaster, and am still every few years trying to make it a perfect operation; it never has been and likely never will. The troubling travails of this Julie Taymor-conceived work, ominously overloaded with impractical stunts requiring the rigging of a three-ring big top, remind me of my own reliably imperfect creation. One audience member injured and this show is off the boards.

In order to make back its $65 million investment, the company will have to play to sold-out crowds for several years. I'll make my own chancy prediction: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will be in the dark within 7-8 months, all of its money wasted.

Perhaps there should be a license to practice circus on Broadway. Clearly, Spider-Man's staff would flunk out.

[Material for this post was drawn from the AP report by John Carucci and Tom McElroy]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spider-Man, Oh Spider-Man! RU Stuck and Sinking in Cobwebs of Catastrophic Confusion? ... Show Delays Opening by a Month for Frantic Revamps ...

Sony Pictures Imageworks/AP/AP
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, now in previews at the Foxwoods Theatre, guaranteed at least to set one new all-time record -- most number of previews before opening night, assuming new opening night on February 7 actually happens.

Book writers Julie Taymor, who also directs, and Glen Berger, said to be grasping all tweeters and twits and Yelps! from every which source, desperate to understand how to fix a problem-plagued second act. Daily dialogue rewrites in the works. Seems that Ms. Taymor veered seriously off course in her after-intermission scripting fantasies, concocting her own plots not convincingly connected to Spider-Man lore, causing grave audience discontent.

As of this moment, to nobody's knowledge has a script doctor yet been called in. Script doctors on occasion have been credited for turning sick song and dancers into at least half-way functioning song and dancers, some of them surprising hits. It's all in the cobwebs.

Incredibly, according to a reports gleaned from Bloomberg and The New York Times, the composing team of U2's Bono and The Edge, currently on tour outside the States (possibly to escape Gotham embarrassments) has not yet even seen the show in previews. They are expected to join the company in a week or so, huddle in consultations, and "perhaps" compose some additional tunes.

Are they rearranging the chairs on the Titanic? Have we here another Banana Shpeel?

Spider-Man is said to contain spectacular aerial work never before seen in a Broadway musical. As of late November, there were reported to be "35 aerial flights in the production."

Cutting edge and injury-causing, too. Natalie Mendoza back on the boards last Wednesday night, having recovered during a two week absence from a concussion she suffered backstage during the kick-off preview.

Previous holder of the most previews was Nick & Norah, the monumental flop of 1991, which ran a total of 71 try-out performances before it officially opened while robust revisions were interpolated by the show's Tony Award-winning director, Arthur Laurents. All for naught. Nick & Norah finally uncorked on December 8, 1991, was pelted on by a slew of nasty reviews, and was history a week later.

Cirque du Soleil failed to capture the stage. Can Spider-Man capture the circus?

Ah, Broadway! You rarely let us down, whether producing blockbusters -- or bombs.

Reeve Carney as Peter Parker and ensemble rehearsing a number in the show. Photo by Jacob Cohl, from culture.wnyc.org

Saturday, December 11, 2010

OUT OF THE PAST: Some "Made Nut," Others Went Nuts... Jackpots & Juice, Rumors & Rackets & Rickety Revivals Under Tents And Barns

Originally published December 11, 2010


In the land of Bottom Feeder Big Tops : What a place to start, but you want the fun stuff, right? ... OK, I had almost forgot the names Dick Garden and Gopher Davenport (or maybe I wanted to forget) until Sir Harry of Kingston dropped both, apprising me of two sorta new shows aiming to join the perilous parade in '11: One to be called Piccadilly Circus, fronted by Canada's ill-distinguished tanbark hack, Dick Garden, our man who comps in moppets by the thousands, then sells $30-plus mandatory ducats to the parents they must bring along ... The other, yet another return or revival or re-booting of --- drum roll, please! --- Clyde Beatty Circus. Latter title been a bust ever since Johnny Pugh went with Cole Bros. only. A Davenport played with the name for a time in Texas; then came Mr. Garden to the ghost of Clyde's rescue, that short-lived; "If Clyde was alive," says Harry, "he would turn over in his grave." Now the hapless task of thrilling or re-killing Clyde falls to Ned Tooth, proudly touting everything he learned from his uncle, one-time Ringling manager, then Beatty-Cole co-owner Frank McClosky. Mr. Tooth evidently striving to make happen in 2011 what hardly happened for him during a very short Tooth Tour last season. His shiny website offering a show for tents or arenas, sponsors or buy-outs. Forty-Four weeks said to be projected for the coming season. Yes, we must project, which comes before reject, or eject ... And may all your days be circus dayz, Mr. Tooth!

Naughty Backyard Bed Bouncing: Rumors bolt my way concerning a not-very discrete tryst causing aggrieved party to explode and possibly an act or acts not to return to show at which the fire burned out of control. All I'm saying at this point is, the scandalous tale of daringly intimate infidelity only emboldens my belief, to wit: Those PBS cameras that earnestly dug for dirt on the Big Apple Circus scene would have found a heap more drama on the road had they freely panned this particular show. Most juicy tidbit here: Nasty marital fall out led to one party taking critical props needed by the other ... OK, how Billy Barton did that sound?

Kink, be gone! ... In with a bright morning smile comes the Circus Historical Society's cheerful new monthly newsletter, News & Views, briskly brief, brightly wrapped and graced with graceful nuggets: Among which, we learn that Kelly-Miller manager, James Royal, as a young man started out in the biz with Kelly Miller on their Menasha, Wisconsin lot in 1966, only two days after graduating from high school. So nice it is to learn of a young Jim having leaped to the top of the tent, playing Art Concello to North II's John Ringling North I. Other tidbits: That Antoinette Concello once partnered with Gracie Genders on the Roman Rings in the 1930s; that the old Heidelberg Raceway outside Pittsburgh, PA, where the mighty Ringling-Barnum delivered its very last big top show to the world, is now only just another blah shopping center, Raceway Plaza. Nobody going there other than a die-hard fan would know this. (A local group are trying to raise money to make of the old Heidelberg an historic signpost , promising a plaque or sign honoring that last fateful Big Show stand under canvas in 1956.) And that CHS will hold its annual convention next year In Cincinnati, where at the Cincinnati Art Museum, they will glimpse The Amazing American Circus Poster exhibition, featuring 80 posters put out between 1878 and 1939. This perky little newsletter, edited by Bob Cline, is but another reason why any hopeless circusphile should be a Bandwagon subscriber if he/she not already is. Bob (he did not ask me for this pitch) can be reached at 2707 Zoar Rd., Cheraw, SC 29520.

Big and/or Little Top Bits: Engrossed in a fine read, The World of Entertainment (about the MGM musicals), I learned that legendary film director Vincente Minnelli was born to circus parents. Sir Harry, of above, seeming sure that Kelly Miller "made nut" in 2010. Other sources telling me that advance agents already tracing out a path farther north through New England for Kelly Miller next season, one reason being to capitalize on Big Apple Circus giving up some long-held dates up that way ... Agent A slipping this my way, about Big Apple: Current performance is not viewed as able to jump-start sagging ticket sales into the next season, and in the works, under grim consideration, a more drastic shakeup of entire operation.

A Circus to the Cow Palace This Way Comes! That poor neglected old barn of a once iconic arena in San Francisco, where Ringling, when it first appeared there in 1948, turned 'em away by the thousands, finally hosting a circus show after several dark years -- not counting Carson & Barnes under canvas on one of its parking lots in 2008-09. Here comes the INDOOR version of Cirque du Soleil's very long-running-in-some-form-or-another Quidam. Wonder if CDS knows it might be playing on a jinked spot? I might make the trek just to see how how Cirque comes off in a huge arena, that is, if Dick Garden will comp me in ...

From December 11, 2010

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Neon Flowers in a Desert: Circus du Soleil Gives Away Whole Chunks of its Vegas Shows on PBS ...

Late breaking! Kodak, which has held naming rights to the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, currently home to Cirque's Iris show, has filed for bankruptcy. The theatre will use a different name for the Oscar telecast tonight, and Kodak reportedly wants out of its contract with the city, for which it pays $4 million a year for the theatre on Hollywood and Highland to bear its name. How this setback will affect the CDS run is yet to be known. The run was originally slated to be open-ended, and projected to last for 10 years. The curiously crass intersection, where tourists pass through, rarely staying very long, is once again plagued by failing imagery. I have no idea what sort of business Cirque has been doing at the "Kodak."


TV Review: Flowers in the Desert


Bottom Line: It made me wonder, who is more desperate for patronage and loot, PBS or CDS?

This totally caught me off guard, and was I surprised. CDS allowing much more than a midway tease on Pledge Break Society (PBS-TV), but large sections of most of its long-running Vegas productions.

Depending on your CDS attitudes and/or particular artistic tastes, you might be left swept away, or a little dizzy, numb and dumb with a blitzing overload of special effects, flying and floating props, and endless variations on the trampoline, most of it darkly lit. At last, a show to render a typical Feld fireworks display about as simple and harmless as the kid kit of sparklers and firecrackers I'd light off at home on the Fourth of July.

Of course, company's sterling acrobatics come through in spectacular fashion in the water show, O. On the other hand, KA struck me as the least engaging; to fans of opera, it might have been the most engaging.

Since I do not move to the beat of Elvis, the stage show about him seemed OK, containing a welcome more lighthearted spirit.

The Beatles? A rather interesting concept, featuring at the center a figure I took for Sergent Pepper. But I sensed a dour deference to John Lennon, whose darker reaches possibly suited creators of Montreal. I'd have liked a lot more melodic McCartney.

Audience reactions to the various shows, revealed now and then by long-shots, seemed more muted than ecstatic. Perhaps these are the Vegas crowds who seek mindless escape amidst the neon and slots. First broadcast in late November, PBS here in the Bay Area ran it last night for at least the second time in prime time, within less than a week.

No one can deny the monumental achievements of CDS on its own terms. Program made clear the technical and artistic dominance of Cirque du Soleil. But a certain cold machine-driven perfectionism that can feel not so faceless under a tent -- on this extended PBS please-give-us-your-money platform felt a little too redundant too soon.

I'm sticking to their touring shows.

[Originally posted December 9, 2010]

Monday, December 06, 2010

Spider Spite: New York Post Review Calls Spider-Man Musical "Epic Flop" Before it Even Opens; Will Vicious Hit Piece Provoke Law Suit?

Reeve Carney, opening night before the chaos struck; Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - the musical

Possibly, New York Post theatre critic Michael Riedel was lusting after a cheap chance to pan a new musical before it could even officially declare itself stage-ready for legit reviewing. Before it was hardly out of the womb. So he pounced like a vulture onto a show in its very first preview performance.

We are talking the $65 million dollar Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which just opened for a month-plus of previews, and seems to be already in deep dark trouble. That is, if Mr. Riedel's gleefully implicit advance postmortem is to be taken seriously.

In the old dayz, new tuners angling for NY acclaim would test their wares out on junior stages up in Boston and New Haven. Now the "producers" (who can number in the thousands for a single show) move into Broadway houses and conduct "previews" to accomplish the same shake-down process and save money.

Strange that a mainstream New York newspaper would unleash its flop-happy critic on a show hardly on its feet. Was once, not long ago I think, considered very unprofessional. In fact, opening night for this new musical, that comes limping into town with a troubled history, occurs, as of this precarious moment, not until January 11, 2011.

"Stunned audience members were left scratching their heads over the confusing plot -- when they weren't ducking for cover from failing equipment and dangling actors at the Foxwood Theatre on West 42nd street,' sang Riedel in full gloom and doom chirp. Ah, the thrill of watching another turkey cluck, buck and suck before our very eyes. That's Broadway too. A leading spectator sport among New York's theatre pros is watching their rivals (and their friends when so engaged) flailing about in big beautiful bombs over the Great White Way.

We might ponder Riedel's perverse behavior, asking ourselves if he has a personal grudge against somebody connected to this company. For instance, if somebody turned him down for an interview-date combo at a trendy Gotham dive. Or maybe the Post merely sent him out for blood, allowing him to craft an ersatz opening night disaster notice. This act strikes me as bordering on journalistic malpractice, to which the offending producers might file a lawsuit alleging a totally inappropriate and unfair pre-judgment of a new product still in the developmental and testing stages. Would Steve Jobs tolerate so reckless a premeditated smear?

Some fun Spider specs: Highest cost in NY stage history: $65 million. Score by U2's Bono and The Edge. Orchestra seats up to $275. Come wearing a hard hat -- lots of apparently unplanned aerial dynamics (currently tech-deficient) over pricey orchestra chairs. Sainted director Julie Taymor (Lion King) offering another larger-than-life puppet, the 8 legged Arachene.

Snags stopped the show cold four times during first act. Running time by final curtain: 3-1/2 hours. Nothing unusual, really. Out-of-town audiences often sat through long problem-plagued first performances in Philly and New Haven.

Actress Mary Jane, waiting in the wings to be rescued atop the Chrysler building, got lost in the upper grids; so, too, a part of the Chrysler building. But Spider Man (Reeve Carney) flew into sight lines, cradling Mary Jane in his arms for a safe stage landing.

Dangling wires fell over a stunned audience. When the show's heroine, after singing her big number "Rise Above," was seen flailing about in mid air over the orchestra seats for about eight minutes of unscripted action, the stage manager could not resist improvisational relief with mike in hand: "Give it up for Natalie Mendoza, who's hanging in the air!"

More embarrassing yet was the invincible Spider Man himself spinning out of control in space, swinging back and forth over the audience while anxious company hands leaped up to grab hold of his legs and reposition him on the stage.

Here's my favorite: While the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) was at the piano playing on and on to cover for unexpected tech crew mired in malfunctioning props, he vamped into a riff on a grand old standby, "I'll Take Manhattan," giving the thunderstruck crowd, I assume, a little sobriety amidst the chaos. "The best part of the show," declared one patron.

Riedel's obvious glee in giving a blow-by-blow of what might go down in history as one of Broadway's most hilariously inept first preview performances before an audience tells me virtually nothing. Nobody will know what this musical's actual prospects are until it can fix its flaws, maybe overhaul a lousy libretto (taking Riedel on his word), cut and paste, reboot and rewire, tighten and polish.

Contrary to Riedel's dire account, other reports refer to many first nighters calling it "a sure-fire hit." But the show is already haunted by is own troubled history. And director Taymor's reported desire to turn her special-effects-gadgets-galore monster into a long-running "installation show" are deemed by the cynical to mean -- Cirque du Soleil on a stage.

Which sounds to me like another Banana Shpeel in the making. Cirque failed to conquer Broadway. In Spiderman, Broadway may fail to conquer Cirque.

I'm waiting for the paying customers to decide. And for Spider-Man to get even with one very spiteful critic. Which sounds like maybe a hit musical in the making.

I'll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too .... It's lovely going through the zoo ...

11.29.10

Friday, December 03, 2010

Spidertacular Dangers: New Spider-Man Musical in Perilous Previews Fells Three Actors so Far

Natalie Mendoza & understudy America Olivo
Top photo by Jacob Cohl, off the website gotham1st

One blog, gotham1st, is calling Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (the new $65 million musical now perilously previewing in NY) "a great show for understudies." In fact, who knows, when Opening Night finally occurs next Jan. 11, audience may witness a parade of lucky understudies strutting their stuff (perhaps by then more securely attached to safety cables, etc.)

And that's also assuming the show by then has not been de-Spidered by increasingly nervous NY city safety and health inspectors.

Latest to take a tumble is one of the stars, Natalie Mendoza, who is reported to have suffered a concussion the result of being hit on the head by a "safety rope." And this is not trivial news. And I am not laughing. Before the show even uncorked its aerial-intense choreography, two other actors had suffered serious injuries. One was described as an aerialist who broke both of his wrists last month performing a promo presentation for ticket agents.

Maybe it's high time for the producers to call in some circus-savvy pros to take a look at the ethereal executions and supply safer rigging precautions.

This apparently hazardous Julie Taymor-directed production may well end up generating more pre-opening publicity than any other show in Broadway history.

For a while, I was laughing over the incredibly problem-plagued first preview performance last Sunday. I'm now feeling grounded, concerned, and not a little apprehensively sad.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday Slide Bys: Laliberte Lands Hollywood Star ... Shrine Evansville Exits Roberts Stadium ... Media Critics Tackle Listless PBS Circus


Guy Laliberte, right, with James L. Cameron at the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. Photo by Todd Duffey/PR Photos.
First Draft Reckless: Cirque du Soleil's creative-marketing genius Guy Laliberte landing his own Walk of Fame Star along famed Hollywood Boulevard last Monday, his enshrined sparkle marking the 2,424th time a celeb from some avenue in showbiz has been honored. Event neatly combined with (possibly inspired by) local ceremony in front of Kodak Theatre, near Highland Boulevard, where Cirque's Iris show is slated to begin courting audiences (it better appeal to the Japanese) next July 21 ... Appearing with the Cirque King was Oscar-winning director James Cameron ... Iris being billed "a lyrical, fanciful, kinetic foray into cinema, combing dance, acrobatics, live video, filmed sequences and animation." Now if they can make it a living version of That's Entertainment (the blockbuster MGM film), they might have a huge hit on their hands rather than a long embarrassing banana shpeel slide off ... This one I'm watching, so easy to get to L.A. from here. My precocious prediction? In their favor, virtually no live entertainment competition in the neighborhood save for the Pantages Theatre, constant tourist traffic in and around the Kodak. It feels like they've got a cornered market all to themselves,. Now, all they need is the right show. Since they are not dropping the word "clowns" in their advance teasers, and wisely so, they already are looking up. I'm predicting a Big Yes on this one ...

A Little No: As I've moaned and equivoacted here, it was hard even feeling a clear reaction to the recent semi-sleeper on PBS, Circus, that Big Apple Circus saga that went on and on, yet had its moments. Many okay to very good reviews, and a couple from big respected newspapers that were anything but. So, here, count this a post mortem. Briefly excerpted, from The Boston Globe: "There's just not much in the way of drama here ... When there's sadness when an act gets fired, it's quickly hugged away ... Maybe in the age of '30 Rock' and TMA.com and 'Celebreity Rehab,' we're conditioned to demand more high-volumne drama from our backstage tales. Or maybe the filmmakers just didn't get lucky. But for all its well-meaing, diligent focus, 'Circus' seems unlikely to inspire the roar of the crowd." Still not convinced? Here's the Washington Post (overall score, 60): "One keeps looking for an overall theme -- what are we saying here, in this documentary, about any of life's essentials? Is there some deeper comment on community, diversity, our need to perform? ... Sometimes, 'Circus,' for all its mesmerizing imagery, feels likes it grasping too." Let's grasp onto a different topic ...

From out of the past, still in the present: Crews get the show ready for the 77th annual Hadi Shrine Circus at Roberts Stadium. JASON CLARK / Courier & Press

The Shriners of Evansville say farewell to Roberts Stadium. They've been putting on circues there since 1957 (trivia question: What huge historical event in American circus history occured the same year??? my answer near the end, so you gotta keep reading). Last Shrine Circus at Roberts fanfares out this very weekend. Story in Evansville Press notes that nearly 3 million patrons have sat around rings at Roberts when the Shriners produced. Next year, they move into arena downtown, size not given, but with, "yes, still plenty of head and trunk room to march a parade of ponderous pachyderms through a tunnel into the Big Top." ... Story's also lots of fun, posing more trivia questions, to which I shamelessly provide the answers up front: Evansville's first Shrine circus, what year? 1934. Where? the Coliseum at Fourth and Court Streets. Admission? 20 cents. From where came most of the acts? The Chicago World's Fair, stupid! What year, their top attendance? (oh, those good old days, fading fading, maybe this is when it all began): 1969. 77,000 people turned out, and what big name celebrity added as a "special attraction" from another avenue of showbiz helped fill the seats? OK, hint, this group bore a name similar to that of a famous circus that recently flopped big time in NY. STOP ... Think, think! Yes, a group from a Saturday morning TV show, "The Banana Splits," beginning with Drooper, which I've never heard of and am already bored typing about. BTW, thank you, Don Covington, for routing this yarn my way, it's fun. OK, final question: What did the Shriners of Evansville do years ago to boost atendance? A: Staged Perfect Baby, Clown-for-a-Day and Best Baton Twiler contests. B: Hinted the hugely popular Michael Landon was coming back. C: Had a bakeoff between Julia Child and a chimpanzee. I'm laughing! Are you? Are you still there? Okay, DON'T ANSWER OR LOOK AHEAD YET!!! how to hint, here. I Hate to admit, but answer is all too obvious: Child and Chimp! ... JUST KIDDING. Yes, A is correct. ...

Know what? Those Shriners of Evansville sound like crack promoters to me. I can think of a few shows they might rent themselves out to. Back in 1956, had they worked the front end for Ringling-Barnum, that next year (answer to my question above), 1957, when the Big Show first played indoor arenas coast to coast, might not have happened. Maybe they might have signed Julia Child and Chimp for a center ring bake out ...

Friday, November 26, 2010

When Circus Flyers Flew High Over Bloomington, A Town Itself Was a Great Circus School

The Flying Wards, circa 1920. Illinois State University, Milner Library Special Collections.

Finally, yet another revelation (or belated realization if I sound too melodramatic) has hit me in the face. There is a legitimately productive circus school in the United States of America (as opposed to Russia or China, Peru or ...) that turns out top flying trapeze acts. A real school that fills American circus rings with thrilling twisters and twirlers, spinners and somersaulting daredevils high over the sawdust circles.

Ooops -- make that past tense. Rewind back by a few decades when it was actually in operation. And I suppose we're really taking a town and its circus-friendly culture more than one particular school. The town is Bloomington, as in Illinois, home to the Illinois State University. So there.

It hit me all at once. I've long known of the Art Concello flying acts that trained somewhere in the area. And I've long harbored rich memories of the fabulous Nine Ward-Bell Flyers (three troupes flying simultaneously next to each other) with the great Polack Bros Circus. From where or whence they flew, I knew not.

Many circus acts, mostly aerialists, wintered in Bloomington. Many of them appeared in the annual Y Circus, up until 1955. Flyers who started out or wintered or inspired other young flyers in the town at one time counted for 90% of all flying acts in the country. There, dozens of young acrobats wishing to add their names to the list first tested their baby wings, then flew higher, and eventually tossed aside mechanics for a net below.

In the current issue of Bandwagon, that's where this hit me in the face. There's a 1956 essay by the late James Monathan about Bloomington and the aerialists. He interviewed a number of those who practiced out and perfected up in various locations around town. For one, there was Eddie Ward's training barn.

A very young Art and Antoinette Concello with Eddie Ward, Jr., right, from a Ringling-Barnum photo, 1936. Pfening Archives.

About the legendary Art Concello, he was said to be "the most famous graduate of the Bloomington YMCA." And he, of course, who would one day train and book top-flight flying acts on U.S. shows, among them, the mighty Ringling-Barnum that he later managed for John Ringling North. "Art had been considered a 'devil' around the Y,'' said the Y coach who discovered him, C.D. Curtis. "It was believed that he would either go to the circus or St. Charles reformatory." (Perhaps he went to both. )

And Bloomington gave us another legend, Tony Steele, the first flyer to turn the three-and-a-half up there, a seminal event that inspired others to aim for the quad. Go, America, Go!

Cutting to the chase, here's a sentence that jumped out, challenging the skeptic in me to react. "In the circus profession, it [Bloomington] is known all over the world as the city that turns out more big-time aerial acts than any other place in the world."

An even more bullish Bloomington boast appears in the same issue of Bandwagon by managing editor Fred D. Pfening III, in another article, calling the city a "the birth place of the modern flying trapeze." I'd like to feel like a proud American circus fan and cheer the claim. Not sold yet.

Here's a brief history of the evolution of the high-flying trapeze, drawn from Australia's The Outdoor Showman, October-November, 1982:

1859, Paris, France: Jules Leotard, first somersault from bar to bar.

1879, Paris, France: Eddie Silbon, first double somersault with catcher. Would this not mark the modern trapeze?

1897: Are you ready for a big surprise? Sydney, Australia: first flyer to execute the triple -- a woman! Lena Jordan. (Judy Finelli, hope this makes your day.)

1909, Havana, Cuba: First male flyer to execute the triple -- Ernest Clarke.

1962, Durango, Mexico: First 3-1/2 somersaults -- Tony Steele.

1982, Tuscon, Arizona, USA: first quad -- Miguel Vasquez.

If somebody out there wishes to challenge these claims, please step up and post your stats.

Wrapping up back in bonny Bloomington: "Anyone who is not too heavy, is well developed muscularly and will work hard should make a good aerialist if started young enough," said flyer Bert Doss. "Most of the professionals develop from the youngsters. That is one reason for the number of acts coming out of Bloomington. The young fellows hang around when the acts are training, get a chance to try it, and are developed, if they show promise. Schools and colleges with well equipped gymnasiums also provide a great deal of material these days."

Make that those days.


Agnes Doss on the single trapeze with Sells-Floto, 1930. Pfening Archives.

Monday, November 22, 2010

PBS at the Big Apple Circus, Last Rueful Impressions

Not a happy trouper: Glen Heroy felt "invisible" and ignored by management

Perhaps that I should actually see the entire show was not meant to be. About six minutes ago, 9:52 PST, the first hour of tonight's repeat went dead. So did all the other channels, owing to Comcast having a problem. Last week, KQED was to blame.

I'm still not sure what to write. My late good friend Mike used to talk about, I think, the three emotions, any of which could keep the customer hooked on a movie or play: make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, or scare them to death. He might have added, if you can't deliver on any of those fundamentals, simply try to charm and delight 'em. On rare occasions, that's about the best Circus could do.

Here are some random thoughts on high and low lights:

* I loved the ever-so-brief coverage of Paul Binder and Gulliame Dufresnoy at Monte Carlo scouting for acts. The brief footage we saw of Monte Carlo action in the ring was terrifically tantalizing.

* Glen Heroy, such a sad lonely man, unable to feel comfortable in his trailer on a lot that at any time could turn noisy from kids at play or crying, adults socializing. A clown feeling "invisible," and ignored by management, as we were witnesses to. He ended up in the hospital with an injured leg and was on sick-leave for around a month.

* The predictably unhappy juggling LaSalle brothers, who wanted to resign but were talked out of it, and who dared to drop a part of their act from the performance (once out of NY), apparently without seeking approval from the director. By now, I've had enough of these feuding ungratefuls. The one on his way to medical school, and the other, seething over his brother's desertion, they ended up in two separate trailers. In a curiously apt way, they epitomize the failure of the U.S. to produce many enduring big top stars.

Old-guard pro Luciano Anastasini brought the true joy of circus comedy and magic to this overly troubled big top

* Compared to which (the above), a wonderful professional contrast in Luciano Anastasini, his wife, a former flying Espana (a very high class act on the old and better Circus Vargas), and their hard-working kids. A circus family from generations likely to stay in the biz for a long time. What a marvel that, following a terrible fall from the wheel of death that grounded Luciano for a couple of years, once back on his feet, he managed in a pair of fast-moving months to round up some stray dogs, craft a wonderfully amusing number of coordinated mayhem, and be back in the ring. His son, sensing it still needed more, suggested coming on in a little cho cho train. We got to see natural-born pros in action. Watching the act tonight, I felt a rare delight -- no, make that joy -- an emotion I wish I'd gotten more of here. Total professionals, from whose natural gifts the true magic of circus is renewed.

* A circus performer at Monte Carolo, on the subject of landing a contract with the most prestigious U.S. company: "It used to be Ringling; now it's Big Apple Circus." I'm not sure I would go that far, but still Ringling-Barnum has lost much of the luster it once enjoyed abroad. In fact, the Ringling named once commanded arguably the greatest reputation around the world.

* Paul and Guillaume at Monte Carlo conferring over act choices for possible contract offers, the two casually acknowledging how the balance of power between them has changed, now that Guilllaume has the final say.

* Guest clown for the season Mark Gindrick taking over the audience-participation band-leading gag (a hit and miss yawner) for the recuperating Heroy. I wonder how impressed or unimpressed TV audiences were left by the mixed results?

* A lingering sense of nothing much at all happening too much of the time. The producers did find a certain moody lyricism in those down moments in the backyard between shows. I'm not sure exactly what they were after. Maybe neither were they. If it's true that even reality shows are scripted, this one could have used better scripting.

* A stormy night in Atlanta, perfect cue for the vocal "Rainy Night in Georgia." One of the old-guard circus performers talked about cherry pie, about the natural readiness to help the show when the tent was in peril, and about how those "outsiders," including some gymnasts, fled for their trailers.

That great circus "family" frequently alluded to, in the end, still alluded me.

Vivacious ringmistress Carrie Harvey, one of several performers and staffers who declined to sign release forms allowing the PBS producers to film or interview them, might have added so much sparkle to the proceedings.

The long six-hour slog might make a fine show if the total running time was sliced in half. Fifty minutes later, my television is still not working. I know one thing. The LaSalles are headed for divorce. Glen Heroy may go back on his meds (he swore them off for a while after cheered by warm Atlanta audeinces), and the new show now up and showing in NY, Defresnoy's first, is not exactly the talk of the town.

I doubt that this particular PBS Circus will boost ticket sales much.

Yes, Peggy, I guess that's all there was, my friend.

[for my take on the ramifications of Paul Binder's retirement, type "momentous big top transfer" in the blogger search box above]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Snapshots from China: Shanghai New

Out of the Past: From November 21, 2010

I fell in love with the building on the right. It floats skyward. It feels transcendental

We're in the new section of the city across the Huangpu river



Boyi's angular photography intrigues me





Inside this store on Nanjing Road, I could not believe I was in China





Around People's Park near Nanjing Road in old Shanghai

Even the old town, here on the Nanjing Road pedestrian mall, feels refreshingly modern. A clean prosperous buzz in the air reminded me of Times Square NY -- minus a hundred million people just getting off of the train.





The Huangpu river separates old from new


My friend Boyi Yuan and I took these pictures last April [2010]. For the best documentary I've seen on modern China, try to locate the film, China Revealed, produced by Lion Television for the Discovery Channel, with James Spader narrating in English, Cassian Harrison producing, made around 2006 as the country was preparing for the Olympics. A searing film of promise, but also of deep and troubling honesty. Very sad in places, the country is so hopelessly overpopulated.

11.21.10

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday Slide Bys: UniverSoul Circus Not So Black Anymore; Cirque Cusine for the Lucky; Money Woes for Big Tops Big and Little ...

First Draft Random: Big difference between "traditional" circuses and UniverSoul, says the show's director of operations Ben Johnson, "is its target audience." And that's not me. And that's why it may never be a breeze to catch this show, unless I'm in the mood for risking getting mugged. I'd love to see what the show's up to these days, for one, less black acts from the U.S., more from abroad. Owner Cedric Walker, talking to a reporter in Memphis, TN, last August, conceded what most of us already know, favoring the superior "quality of acts that come from foreign countries." ... Paul Binder, after birthing his Big Apple Circus in 1977, vowing to present local acts trained in his circus school, soon came to grips with the same reality, deferring to those super stars from Over There ...

KLS Dad on the NY scene, e-mailing me a big surprise, that Ringling-Barnum won't play Madison Square Garden for a couple of years. Reason being, the Garden is being renovated, and will not re-open till 2013. Which also means that Cirque du Soleil's Wintuk ends its run this season, over which, I'm certain, a certain other annual NY circus is not shedding any tears. Seems that Wintuk was originally slated for a five-year pact; this may be their fourth try at the Big Apple market ... KLS noting Cirque ads for its ZAARKANA opus, being readied to hit the boards of Radio City Music Hall next summer, and, drats! -- I'll likely be there too soon to catch it. I'm fearlessly predicting it will NOT be another Banana Shpeel, assuming King Laliberte has learned some lessons from his Big Gotham Floporama. Whatever we get, it's likely to be something better defined.

A Giving Heart from Ringling: The Big Show, joining compassion with Amway Center in Orlando and Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. In only two hours during a drive-through, hundreds of Floridians dropped off food donations, in exchange for which, they were given vouchers to Ringling's new show, Fully Charged ... And, finally, an easy-to-pronounce, easy to remember, and fun to say title from the Feld of Felds! Say it again: Fully Charged! ... And how easy was the charitable exercise. The givers only had to drive onto the parking lot, stay seated in their cars, and wait for volunteers to receive their unexpired food items for passes to the Big Show ... Ah, there's one circus with a very efficient heart ...

Those pampered Cirque du Soleil Stars: Two hot meals served them daily, and the food is not from any old tent show gut foundry. Cirque's Park Avenue cuisine generously sensitive to the varied nationalities it serves and must sustain for perfect executions in the ring. On the Chinese-populated Dralion, Asian meals are a routine, with "a cooker of steamed rice" always at hand ... A blender stands by for smoothies and the like. On a recent opening night, staff feasted on lobster and Steak Diana. Maybe the old Ringling-Barnum cookhouse on occasion came close. Not the one on the Wallace Bros. Circus I clowned for one summer, which kept my stomach in a near-constant state of unrest ...

Money Problems, They All Have: Big story in the New York Post, crammed with numbers, about harsh cutbacks made by Big Apple Circus in its staff and budget in recent bleak seasons. Slumping ticket sales and corporate handouts noted in the lead. Slashing of administrative jobs, a first in 20 years. 325 performances three years ago; this season: they're "hoping" to present 285 in "just five cities." Boy, does that sound like a familiar theme --- will we play the full season, Brad?!? --- in DeMille's film The Greatest Show on Earth ... Even Cirque du Soleil, though hardly suffering, is out there scouting for more loot to help fund its new shows planned for Radio City Music Hall and the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Laliberte hiring a London firm to seek possible investors. The Dubai partners, who bought a 20% stake in the show, might be hurting, their landscape doted with huge skyrises yet to rise. I still wonder if CDS is not falling deeper into a dangerous game of over-expansion dominoes ...

Reviews That Make Me Wonder: Big Apple Circus not so lucky away from the rosy notice it got, as per usual, out of The New York Times. Here's a different take on Dance On! from another source, New Jersey News Room.Com You've got to read between the lines and count the "buts" dropped by a gently questioning Michael Sommers. After discussing things he seems to have wanted to like, says he, "Dance On! appears somewhat underpowered. High above the crowd, Russian aerialist Regina Dubrovitskaya satisfactorily swings on ropes, but perhaps substituting more dynamic episodes -- say a trampoline or a trapeze act -- in place of the program's able but relatively static jugglers and contortionists might generate a livelier overall occasion." The way he uses that word "satisfactorily" makes it sound like a high school lab assignment being graded. Now, if that isn't the essence of a tactful critique, I don't know what is.

A Second Look at PBS Circus: The long 6-hour series garnered, overall, far more media coverage and, on balance I suppose, better reviews than Dance On! Certainly, more reviews. I'll be watching a repeat of the last two hours on Monday night; here in the Bay Area, last Wednesday's broadcast was ("technical difficulties") botched up and slashed down to a mere 45 minutes. I'm looking forward to the Paul Binder goes to Monte Carlo segment. Please, bomb kid and the other young restless staffers who text and sext in the backyard, don't be there. Go clubbing. Go slumming. You can't compete with what this show should have been more thoroughly about ...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

PBS Leaves Big Apple Tent Before the Show is Over: Strange Disjointed End to a Scattered Take on Circus Life

[Update: I called the local PBS station; they say technical difficulties caused the second hour not to be shown. It is being repeated next week on another of their channels. I'm going to watch the Monte Carlo episode]

Was that all there was my friend? -- as Peggy Lee would sing. Then let's keep dancing. Let's hope for a better season.

I don't know how to begin this. Such a strange fragmented evening that almost didn't happen. For the first fifteen minutes here in the S.F. Bay Area of tonight's last scheduled two hours of Circus, I sat munching on popcorn while gazing at a notice on my TV: Please Stand By; We Are Having Technical Difficulties.

When finally they got the show rolling, we were, I think, in the backyard. No, make that somewhere around one of the LaSalle brothers, ruing the death of his juggling partnership with the brother headed for medical school.

The sadness I felt last week only elaborated upon itself during this anti-climactic evening. It made me feel like I felt years ago, after looking back at my brief six-week run with Wallace Bros, allegedly clowning, and realizing that "circus" life wasn't for me, that I much preferred sitting out in the seats and watching the show, thank you.

So many early departures on this Big Apple tour. The non-communicating LaSalles, and to think how they thrilled me and I suspected not a thing -- safe illusion out in the seats.

Young Christian Atayde Stoinev, a fine performer, ready to take a crack at college, in effect departing the family tradition.

Big Apple founder Paul Binder wrapping up his last season, his appearances this evening gracious, kind, humble.

Even was Barry Lubin a more sympathetic figure this time out, admitting how "scared to death" he felt contemplating the very idea that in this business, you can be gone tomorrow. His contract, said he, runs through 2012. He knows that new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy may have another idea in mind.

We saw a lot of likable Glen Heroy, the new but soon-to-be-gone clown who, according to Lubin, along with Mark Gindick were "invited" guests for only one season, which made me wonder why Binder told Heroy, early in the game, with the delight of discovery, "we have found in you a new character." Who really runs this show, or ever did? Perhaps it's been years since Binder held a firm "yes and no." The producers, I wish, had asked a few more pressing questions. They might have asked to speak with the musical director. They might have introduced us to vibrantly engaging ringmistress Carrie Harvey, who actually announced Play On! They confused viewers, instead, by showing the audition for a new ringmaster that went no where. Did I say "fragmented"?

They might have sent to the cutting room floor some of the dull back-of-the-tent stuff about kids and their romantic and/or sexual escapades. So utterly common.

What else? Before a premature ending, my mouth dropped open wide as that guy Tavis appeared at ten o'clock when I was expecting Circus to roll out its final hour! This I might have seen:

"Big Apple Circus founder Paul Binder embarks on his annual trip to scout new talent at the renowned Monte Carlo circus festival. Not only is this one of the glitziest social events of the year, but it's also an opportunity to stay connected with the international circus community, the extended family if you will. Here, we learn about the long tradition of circus, and how those in this community are working to ensure that circus survives."
But I didn't. Perhaps others will feel much differently than I. The whole thing left me with an empty feeling. I was so taken at first. until they reached a New York opening night that seemed missing in action. I ended up wanting to run away from this circus.

Perhaps the show started an hour earlier than is clearly listed on the local PBS website.

Sorry for this scattered report. OK, I got to see Grandma dance in the rain. I didn't get to see Paul Binder in operation at Monte Carlo. I guess it was just too much circus for the producers of Circus.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Who's Show is the Truest? The Most Hip? The Purest? The Most Unpretentious? Bring on the Circus Cultural Wars

Traces from 7 Fingers, at the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago
Oh, the scourge of commercial circuses compared to those more enlightened ones publicly funded. Oh, may I ad, the folly of such self-serving illusions. The evil of animal acts! The insulting overkill of three rings, gone at last! The absence of a direct through-line into the soul of the artist as living breathing human being! And, now, horror of horrors, that you should ever be tagged as being "corporate." Yet another new nagging trend may be on the horizon: the substitution of that one remaining ring for the stage.

Luckily for me, a circus agnostic, I was raised amidst two durable forms -- the exemplary one-ring Polack Bros. Circus, which played Santa Rosa two days in the late winter/early spring, and virtually all the other shows, three ring behemoths, some of which actually more than once managed to fill up three rings with action. The best of all was THE Big One, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which I only once saw under the big top. Ah, that mighty spread of deep blue canvas! Those three imperial circles, hardly an affront to my younger sensibilities. The suavely attired usherettes (North Starlets doing pre-show cherry pie); the magnificence of the show itself, opulently costumed by Miles White, rambunctiously scored by twenty five-plus musicians daring to play common ordinary pop hits of the day under the determined direction of fanfariffic Merle Evans.

And all the while, great acts appeared. I never once spent an anxious circus-searching moment asking myself; which is superior, one ring or three? Never had to undergo psycho analysis over an issue that is still to me a non issue. I know the arguments against three; I have my own in favor.

So, as of two years ago, down in Arizona when even Carson & Barnes played out its final performance in three circles, came a bitter sweet end to an epoch in world circus born of American gigantism and all the other we-are-biggest-and-bestisms that justified a scale of circus not seems since, well, should we factor in our rebelliously violent forebears who held court over bloody Roman Coliseum sawdust?

The younger kids tossing clubs in the 1970s smugly dismissed those three ring monsters as not worthy of the high ring arts they delivered. A young Paul Binder, speaking for many, maybe not so smugly, used the word "seedy." In its early more innocent days, the easy breezy Pickle Family Circus out of "City-That-Knows-How" San Francisco steered clear of dismissive rhetoric, simply struggling to turn a few pennies off an egalitarianism operation, not just almost ring-less, but for sure tentless. Co-founder Peggy Snider had a daughter, Gypsy, destined in years ahead to relocate to Montreal and join the moderns harboring their chic disdain for the heathen status quo. She found the perfect partner in aerialist Shana Carroll.

You could argue the little Pickle troupe was revolutionary, in a manner not exactly felt world-wide. What set them dramatically apart was a global first of sorts, as far as my research has taken me: the first to put on a circus without a single animal in it. Even the Chinese, despite a popular impression, in times past now and then included animals in some of their shows.

But not until the advent, really, of Cirque du Soleil did the world that resided in the United States finally come to grips with an emerging paradigm: three rings were doomed. Animal acts might better be left back in the barn. American circuses, including Ringling-Barnum, are still foundering and floundering in the shadows of a ground-breaking new circus theology turned into a commercial phenomenon by Cirque du Soleil. A paradigm tricky to duplicate that fosters an ultra elitist approach to circus art. You've got to, first of all, give Jumbo and Gargantua, the seals and the dancing poodles their walking papers. You then, of course, get rid of those extra rings. And from there you "reinvent." Good luck.

Their creative energy has been spectacular. Even has China, no less, been smitten by the example of CDS, where private (read: corporate) funding has given rise to exciting new modes of showcasing ancient Chinese acrobatic arts, in both Shanghai (Intersection of Time) and Beijing (Flying Acrobats show). Go to the Middle Kingdom. my friends. See both and believe.

Live long and you'll observe a lot. I witnessed the historic rise of Cirque du Soleil in 1984, when it gambled its small cookie jar on making a date in the City of Angels, and overnight redefined circus art. Actually, Cirque had taken its deepest cues from what the Russians (who love animals acts of all ilk) had been doing for decades, and doing it well in a single circle. And with lavish funding from the state government. But CDS followed a path of funding that should be adopted in this country. Let the government dole out seed money and see if the young troupe can make it on its own in a few years; each year, give the upstarts less. In three or four seasons they are on their own in the private sector (sorry for dropping a term so repellent to some), or back to their day jobs.

Putting down your rivals is hardly new. The Ringling brothers took out full page ads brazenly laced with inflated claims cleverly assailing their competitors as being pitifully out of touch, behind the times. Around a century later, Cirque's head honchos did essentially the same thing, aiming their sniping barbs to the press at that Ringling thing, in effect denouncing the entire American circus playground. The box office does not lie, kids; the Montreal monster, within a few years totally off government support, today has 22 shows in operation around the world, and more on the horizon. Ruefully I suppose, someday, their star, too, will fade.

Now comes Traces, from another Montreal-based company named 7 Fingers, and with it a few traces of elitist efforts to deconstruct old circus traditions that began in San Francisco when the Pickles, heady into their better years (mid 1980s), published a virtual manifesto condemning major old-circus traditions: the demeaning inclusion of women in flashy tights to serve as flesh props for the men doing tricks and taking applause; the abused animals, so alleged, in feathers and high heels. And, not to be overlooked, exploited roustabouts deserving proper egalitarian respect.

But the cultural wars over whose circus is the purest and most deserving are never quite as simple as that. Among the new generation of circus producers out of the 1970s, Paul Binder, for one, never intended to remove the animals altogether. Big Apple Circus still features dogs and horses. Circus Flora for a time featured elephants. And Cirque du Soleil never advertised a no-animals mantra. In fact, in the beginning it had a duck on the bill, and it toured Europe with a famed circus troupe that featured its own animal acts. Cirque's Vegas illusion show, Believe, employs a live elephant.

Even as I write this, audiences continue delighting in the charming, dare I say instructive, interactions between beast and human. At the Chimelong circus in Guangzhou, China, they are presenting animal acts. Mainstream circuses that shun the menagerie do not do very well. The Pickles are gone, and so is Circus Chimera. This contentious issue, kept alive by a very small but hysterically vocal and media-savvy circle of activists, both paid and volunteer, is far from a settled issue.

Might the next Big Epoch end up, like it or not, without a single animal on a stage? The innovative spirit of the long-gone Pickles may be said to live on in Traces, the show crafted by Pickle descendants, Snider and Carroll, who are not hesitant to dis old circus traditions. Apparently taking their cues from a cheerfully communal new theatrical form developed by the Italian director Daniele Pasca (Rain), their Traces in its San Francisco premiere not quite five years ago, impressed me to a degree with a gracefully hip experimental spirit. The next dominant format (and the operative word here is dominant) to deliver tomorrow's tumblers, jugglers, and buffoons? I doubt it. But it does give me pause to wonder, as here I do for the very first time, if the stage will, indeed, eventually replace the ring. That's how it always was in China.

Traces is currently the hit of Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse, claims one-time Pickle Family Circus director Judy Finelli, e-mailing me her elation over its success in the Windy City. The Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones gave Traces a dream review; I'd have to reach back, maybe to the Brooks Atkinson Sunday piece in The New York Times, essaying his joys over the 1942 Ringling-Barnum opus, to find its equal. Perhaps Traces really is as good as it appears to both Finelli and to Jones. Both sources suggest the talent is simply tops, evidently superior to the original infectious cast of five whom I saw; the replacement performers are mostly from Over There, and when we talk about Over There, we are talking usually beyond U.S. borders.

Boasts Finelli, and I'll take her for the moment on her word, Traces is "mopping up the floor with the bomb of Cirque's Banana shpeel. It is the hottest ticket in Chicago right now. They have improved the show immeasurably, gotten an out-of-sight cast who can do top-level skills, and Traces is reaching a young, hip audience."

Compared to which, adds Finelli, obviously still longing for the San Francisco Circus Century that never arrived, "Seven Fingers [the producing company run by Snider and Carroll] is what Cirque used to be but isn't anymore. Cirque used to be oh so experimental. Now Cirque is corporate, corporate, corporate - a carbon copy of itself ad [naseum]."

Funny, nothing about Cirque's thrilling OVO or Ringling's thrilling Boom-A-Ring felt at all to me "corporate." The acts were terrific, the music wonderful, which is why, my best assumption, people are still drawn to circus. Which is why Jones, in his rave review, made clear the presence of an imperative: "Of course, none of this conceptual packaging would have much impact if the skills on display -- this is, after all, a circus show -- were not extraordinary. But they are."

When interviewed about Traces by Chris Jones (very possibly the finest U.S. newspaper critic writing about circus today), argues Shana Carroll, "In the Cirque-style shows, the circus acts are decorations inside the structure. We want the acts themselves to be the core of what is being expressed."

Decorations? Such an inexplicably snide insult brings the art of transparent professional envy to breathless new heights. Tell that to juggler Anthony Gatto, or to any number of other world class circus artists who appear in any number of CDS shows on tour.

Circus without a ring? As adjunct to theatre? I'll continue betting my money on the private sector, be it Carson and Barnes or Cirque du Soleil. And expecting more. The youthful experimenters will always be with us, as they should. A precious few will succeed. And they will put the others down, until the time comes for them to be put down. Most will have their brief stay in the sun and either, short of ticket sales to pay the nut, resort to corporate welfare or the boiler rooms.

Perhaps I got an early head start on these cultural wars, thanks to the great Barbette. For one of the Polack shows he directed, in between the Zoppe family riding act and the nine Ward-Bell Flyers, he inserted a mystically enchanting little roll-on ballet, "Carnival in Spangleland." And by so doing, he was teaching me at about the age of 12 not to be fixed in my expectations, but to be open to the anticipation of many surprises in the rings. And he was more than right: They keep on coming.

Enjoy yours, Judy! ...

11.14.10