Baraboo on Parade!

Baraboo on Parade!
Down Fourth Street on Saurday, the fifth annual circus celebration and big top parade. Photo by Todd Krysiak, Baraboo News Republic

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Snapshots from China: Trains


A little background first: China's fastest-in-the-world new high speed trains, seen here in a photo off the internet, will eventually span out into 17 nations.

First, drum rolls and trumpets for Candy Wei and the agency for whom she works with such imperial competence, China Highlights. She ended up handling all of our train reservations. She was simply wonderful, with us every step of the way securing first class accommodations (tickets never go on sale until a few days before the train's departure). Tickets were delivered to our hotels, so convenient. And she laid tracks for us at a most difficult time -- during the Canton Fair in Guangzhou and the imminent Shanghai Expo opening just around the corner. I'm giving you contact info for Candy below.


I know some of you will automatically be interested. You who like the circus probably like trains, and I promise not to bash Amtrak. You will soon find out why.




Here is our waiting day train, D32, Shanghai to Beijing, fastest train we rode. It rarely reached, as I vaguely recall, around 154 miles per hour; hard to believe, train was so smooth. On average, (a digital sign continuously displayed KM speed), much closer to a little over 100 mph.




Super clean. Super modern. Super quiet. And yet, it too arrived --- yes, late! I think under an hour.


What I liked the most about all three trains we rode was the feeling of relentless movement forward, with very few station stops and extremely rare delays for freights, unlike Amtrak. All of the trains, however, arrived by an hour or two late. I counted 17 or 18 cars on one train, all but the diner for passengers.


By far the most fun ride was on the T170, Guangzhou to Shanghai. I've already blogged about these friendly guys, two of whom shared our 4-person "soft sleeper" compartment, the guys who wondered if I knew the song "Hotel California." It was a pleasure to see Boyi, down right in the photo, so happily engaged in lively conversation, in his native tongue of course, with his compatriots.

Not anywhere near "super clean" was this train, though its more traditional if somewhat worn decor fairly charmed the eye. You're told not to take the diner, bring your own snacks. You're told to bring your own toilet paper, too; wish we had. Boyi returned following a visit to the in-house astonished to tell me what a totally horrible smell had attacked him. I was so prepared for an outhouse Tsunami, that once I arrived, what a delightful relief. Just a mildly innocuous scent of you-know-what ruling the captive air.




From a train, the scenery out the window does not lie. You see the old and the new, but then again, that's not really so different from any train ride, right?


Are those solar panels?


I wish we'd taken more photos. I am shy about snapping group shots impromptu, and all the trains were packed full, with people standing in the coaches, and "hard sleeper" passengers spilling out into the corridors for lively socializing and game playing.


Waking up above, a mate in our compartment.


I wondered what Boyi was thinking, gazing out upon a vast landscape he'd never seen until now in the country that raised him.

The high speed train up north sounds very exciting. Still, I think I would bring my own toilet paper and noodles.

I've only ever once before used a travel agent, Thomas Cook when I went to Russia thirty years ago. Candy is the Thomas Cook of China.

Candy Wei
Travel Adviser at China Highlights
Tel: (86-773)-2885331; Mob: 13471281685
Toll free: (call from USA and Canada ) 800-2682918 ext 5331
(call in China ) 800-8793007
Fax: (86-773)-2827424/2885308
Email: candy@chinahighlights.com
Website: www.chinahighlights.com

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Circus Rising in China: Star Acrobats Add Aerial Exploits, Novel Twists, Dazzling Direction and Music; Privately Funded-Produced Another Big Boon


Take a look at the photo above. Grainy, yes — a still from a video I took, but this was the real thing. THE moment. THE reason we go to circuses.

Exotically charismatic young rolla bolla fellow, nameless per tradition, working over another rolla bolla, from tip of extended board flips cups and saucers onto his head. Called "bowl kicking," the display is set to music I would buy right now if I could, composed by one of China’s leading pop icons, Guo Feng. Possibly nothing better exemplifies the remarkable artistic revelations pouring down upon a new generation of Chinese Acrobats, long associated with preserving staid traditions, than this one crowing moment. Look what they’ve combined.

Point made already? Should I now take my leave?

Absolutely astonishing. Nothing can match the thrill for me of seeing for the first time something this good and so dramatically staged and scored.

Well, I’m too excited to take my leave, so here goes ...

You’ve likely seen a typical touring Chinese acrobatic troupe. On a stage. To recorded music. Scare scenery. Finely craft acts steeped in tradition from plate spinning to hoop diving.

After hundreds of years preserving strict traditions with impeccable fidelity, a modern Chinese style circus is now emerging. You’ve got to go there to see it. In Beijing. In Shanghai. In Guangzhou. In the major capitols, directors, choreographers and A-List song writers are crafting some brilliant shows. One even performs in a circle. And one even uses a live band. Another throws open the back doors to animal acts. All animals. Many of them feature a wheel of destiny and the motor bike globe of death. Better yet, some are inventing brand new aerial routines. Remember the Yunnan Flyers with Ringling in ‘06? They came from here, from one of the hundred or so acrobatic troupes that dot this mysteriously vast land.


“At the moment, we are in a very sensitive transitional period in time,” said Tian Run Min when we spoke at length over tea in the lobby of Hotel Kapok Wangfujing where I was staying, only a couple of blocks from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Mr. Tian graciously agreed to take my questions while a tape recorder ran. A most valuable source, he has been active in the acrobatic scene since 1985; he is a member of the China Acrobatic Artistes Association; he serves as artistic adviser to the Chinese State Circus in the U.K, for whom he supplies scholarly notes in its program magazines, and is a contributing editor to China Acrobatics & Magic. He also offers input to directors and choreographers and has co-scripted a few shows himself.

The subject of greatest interest to me were the surprisingly inventive shows I’d already seen during my visit. Great acts, I'd expected to see, yes. But shows? Mr. Tian acknowledged a creative ferment in the air. “There are very many influences with the Chinese acrobats,” he said. “from tradition to a new way. You can’t find an authority opinion.”

A major point of discussion among leading Chinese directors concerns how much Cirque du Soleil influence should be allowed into the mix. “Some people say you can’t copy that. Some go to Cirque du Soleil and they try to learn everything. Other people say ‘doesn’t make sense, we should make something new and for yourself, and from China and from our traditions.’”

In fact, rare CDS visits to China have not fared anywhere near as well as they do in other markets.

Quite obliviously, the Cirque phenomenon has emboldened and/or challenged the countries world famous acrobats to think well beyond the act, into the realm of the entire show, and the results can be stunning. Nor are they slavishly imitative to my eyes. They are slyly adaptive. Think Bill Gates appropriating Steve Jobs.

Another force driving these dramatic changes are a slowly growing number of private as opposed to state funded troupes. The entrepreneurial spirit is on the rise here. Mr. Tian listed four companies, believing there may be several more. The government funds at least one troupe in each of the 22 provinces, sometimes two, and some city-based troupes as well. Yet no single agency in Beijing actively controls any of the troupes. Neither does the powerless Chinese Acrobatics Association. Explained Mr. Tian, there are only expectations from on high. “The government is officially saying you should present more shows for the people. You should make the new acts. You should train the talents, you should win more medals.”



Go to Shanghai, and you’ll see over two nights the stark differences between a stolidly traditional troupe in a recital-like format so threadbare and stale you can almost smell the mildew. That would be the Charming Shanghai Acrobatic Show, above, at a very old and fraying theatre; the other would be the ultra contemporary ERA Intersection of Time, presented on a three-quarter round circular stage. With outside direction and scoring from Canadians (among them, long-time CDS choreographer Debra Brown), this high-tech ERA production builds masterfully on Chinese staples, linking them with live mood music, body movement interludes and a central recurring character in the form of an astonishingly gifted aging bowl balancer, another of the nameless wonders from a country that still can’t bring itself to name names. Somehow for me, though not for my friend Boyi Yuan (who preferred Charming Shanghai), ERA sustained itself in a mystical abstract realm. And somehow, eight motorcyclists inside the globe of death for a finale — an apt metaphor for this show’s name? — proved not tacky but almost hypnotic.


An even better ticket, on which both Boyi and I agreed, was the Flying Acrobatics Show in Beijing at the Chaoyang Theater, created and directed exclusively by Chinese, and another private venture if my notes are correct. They perform everyday at 5:15 and 7:15. The one hour and fifteen minute program, including a brief intermission, is terrifically paced and casts a powerful Chinese spell, achieved through Guo Feng’s original score and fantastic laser lighting effects. Thick makeup masks worn by the cast do not much please Mr. Tian, who views them as something of a sell out to Cirque showmanship.


Think what he may, thanks, I’d say, to the Montreal monster, at last the Chinese have found artistic liberation that one could argue they have long needed, a liberation they never got from watching U.S. shows. But still, I was curious and so I couldn’t help but ask Mr. Tian, “What do you think the Chinese directors in general think of the American circus?”

“We appreciate American circus use of production,” he replied. “The first, their production; The second is American circus use of the clown, very famous. Very impressive. Also, the presentation of the American circus artists.” My sharing guest surprised me with a personal definition of circus bordering on passionate advocacy:

“For me, the concept of circus: there are three: animals, clowns and the big top. there must be animals, also, it must be performed under the big top.”


Why the recent introduction of aerial acts into some programs? In fact, Mr. Tian told me there have been trapeze displays in years gone by, that some troupes performed under a tent, and a few of them featured animals.

I talked up the bowl kicking routine, and vented my frustration over discovering an outstanding artist whose name I could not find in the program. Why do they refuse to build up anybody’s personal identity, I wanted to scream. No, David, take another sip of tea.

“They don’t,” answered Mr. Tian ruefully, seeming to share my implicit aggravation. “No. They pay much attention to the whole group. They don’t like to train the single act. They don’t build up just one or two artists to become more famous.”

Is that a policy?

“I can’t understand,” he said. “For the other disciplines of the performing arts, like the Peking Opera, that’s the tradition. They build up the name.”

The directors, he suspects, are the culprits. “I am the boss. I must be more important than the artist.”

Another prime motivator for these impressive artistic developments can be directly attributed, Mr. Tian asserts, to “the international market and the international circus festivals, especially Monte Carlo and Salon Mondial du Cirque in Paris”

By far the most un-Chinese circus in China that I have glimpsed, only in YouTube clips, is the Chimelong Circus in Guangzhou, which also hosts foreign companies, among them visits by Russian performers. Its spectacular scenic and lighting effects give off a phantasmagorical atmosphere. Here there are many animal acts. I’m not sure what to make of it, having missed it during my recent trip.

I’ll end with the program photo of the bowl kicker. I like to play the movie I made of this feat, not just for the action but for the music. Somebody in the states should hire its composer Guo Feng to create an entire new circus score — if Guy Laliberte does not get to him first.

Want to see the future? Want to hear the future? Go to China.



[Photos, from the top: bowl kicker, figures at finale, contortionists from Flying Acrobatics Show; man pulling cart, vase juggler, aerial duo from ERA Intersection of Time; hat jugglers from Charming Shanghai Acrobatic Show.]

5.27.10

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Banana Shpeel in New York Escapes Chicago's Dreadful Reception; Earns Mostly Negative Notices

UPDATE, 5/24, 4 PM PST: I've now included excerpts from the NYT notice.

Among the first notices out on Cirque du Soleil's new stage show at the Beacon Theatre, slated to run through August and then hit the touring circuit, only does Variety (an early supporter, also, of Wintuk) give this attempt at a new vaudeville bash a fairly solid thumbs up. Others range from nasty to pleasantly mediocre. Here are a sampling of excerpts:

From NewJerseyNewsRoom.Com: "That loud thud resonating from the Upper West Side last night was the opening performance of "Banana Shpeel," a dud new event from Cirque du Soleil that bowed at the Beacon Theatre on Wednesday. ... Aiming for a summer-long run, "Banana Shpeel" is a disappointing misfire of tedious comedy, generally thrill-free acrobatic acts and lots of mediocre tap dancing."

From Variety: "... the delays and the Cirque/MSG bankroll have allowed writer/director David Shiner to turn this fruit salad into a veritable banana split of a show, with three creamy scoops topped by gloppy fudge and plenty of nuts ...has you laughing from both sides of your seat ... a boisterously winning funfest."

From the Associated Press: "The new, lighthearted variety show "Banana Shpeel" features a visually brilliant but disappointingly spotty program of acrobatics, juggling, dance and mostly tiresome slapstick."

From The New York Times: ..."clown eradication is something that would benefit all of humanity and would certainly benefit this show, which is not as entertaining as something that lasts almost two and a half hours ought to be ...You know your show has a bad book when the audience spends its time wishing the lady with the juggling feet would come back."

The NYT has posted four consumer reviews, three of them scathing, one a rave. Here are a couple:

The Bad:

"This was so bad, really, really bad. There were three maybe four good acts, but the concept "shpeel" was so completely unfunny, and so overworked, as to make one shake one's head. It seemed to be a Las Vegas version of a corny vaudeville show, but when you then open that in New York City it is just asking for trouble. David Shiner, the original main clown of Cirque and a prominent pioneer of the New Vaudeville, should have known better, but I am guessing he is seeing levels of irony that are just deadened by anesthetizing boredom. I feel bad for the few real acts that were sandwiched in here. There are two reasons, I see for this coming to pass. One, a long debt to one of Cirque's original talents. Two, by stretching themselves far too thin, the corporate behemoth that is Cirque Du Soleil just needs to get product out there, and standards are a casualty." -- Dennis, NY

The Good:
"Opening night of this show was well worth the delays! Cirque wisely postponed and reworked and the result is an incredibly entertaining show featuring the old adage 'go big or go home'. No other show features so much in the space of two hours. To begin with, costumes, set, lighting in this incredible theatre were both exciting and magical, and then the throw-back story line of a bygone era - blustery Broadway producer being foiled by idiots - somehow Cirque reinvented the wheel - again. The characters were broad, the clowning was inspired - the entire audience was exploding with laughter. Then there was the dancing - its been a while since I've witnessed this kind of talent on a Broadway stage. The choreography makes other productions look like high school. The tap routines are thrilling - and one piece, looked like eccentric dance on a three-piece stage which moved up and down while the dancers moved across it - all the while in black-out glow costumes. This show is what entertainment used to be. Thanks Cirque, for taking the time to get it right!
– ebw, NY

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thurs. Tweets: John Ringling North II Drops One "P" Word for Another ... Big Apple Circus Acts to Abdu Dhabi


Give the man spiffy high marks for flexing his new circus muscles. Senior big top graduate, John Ringling North II, now in his fourth season operating, shepherding, creating, nurturing and, yes, "producing" Kelly-Miller Circus, is now calling himself just that -- a PRODUCER. Okay to be p-precisely exact, the word now put into ink [actually, last year, I belatedly discover after posting this] is "produced," as in, on the front cover of the new program magazine, words that spell out "Owned and produced" by him, p-period. Up 'till 2009, blame it on a legal challenge from the House of Feld to the House of Ringling-North over trademark issues, resulting in Mr. North agreeing not to use the P word at all. They were tossed a p-alternative: "proprietor," which made Kelly-Miller's neophyte proprietor look more like a country vendor of tractors, bale rings, and coffins.

Congrats, producer North! ... I'm not sure whether dueling legal departments compromised, or if on his own daring-do, North decided to. heck, let the world know it is he who is producing Kelly Miller. And evidently feeling p-professional. I think his dad, Henry, would be p-proud as p-punch, cause Henry's son grew up charmed by visions of his one day taking the Ringling reigns. Even his Uncle John in a program made direct references to such a plan in the works. Then came the p-persuasive Irvin Feld, and the rest was history.

Further advancing a new-found confidence, credit all the mud through which he's triumphantly trudged, on the inside cover of this year's program magazine, North the Sequel issues a pugnaciously pithy preamble to producing pride:

"Welcome to America's One Ring Wonder! This Kelly Miller performance is the result of a team effort. After you have seen it, I hope you will agree that we are the A team." ... Go, team, go!

Big Apple Circus testing foreign markets? They're press dept., no, make that the Abu Dhabi Press Office, in a release, making a big to-do about the show's first middle east appearance, to happen at Abdu Dhabi City in the United Arab Emirates this summer in connection with a family festival. Package will feature, according to a general release, "a stellar cast of international stars from Europe and Russia." Don Covington tells me this will not be the stateside show now on tour, but a second unit. Yet to be known: whether it will be a complete show or a sampler of world circus. Why, oh why, does absolutely nothing about this mid- east invasion jump out at me from their website? ... Meanwhile, in BAC land, it feels like they're floating uneasily in transitional limbo, waiting to see what the new man artfully in charge, Guillaume Dufresnoy, will reap. The names Binder and Christensen still stand tall near the top of the masthead, (topped only by exec director Gary Dunning) and they're not being called "Emeritus" anything. The key I think is to watch what happens to Grandma, she recently playing for a Shrine temple ... A house cleaning war in the works??

Big Top Bits: Spain's famed lion trainer, Angel Cristo, dead on May 7 at 65 of a heart attack in Madrid. Married to a showgirl, Cristo's stylish life was the center of gossip. And here comes the voice of another icon, still thankfully with us: "He was a great artist and one of the best tamers across Europe," said Cristina Segura, a Spanish trapeze artist known as Pinito del Oro. "I met him at the circus when he was eight years old. Ángel was hanging around with tigers even then." Gave me a little thrill when Pinito's name appeared! Does anybody have her phone number, twit-link, tweeter-code? I'd love to call her. She was to me the Mystic Goddess of surreal aerial thrillers ... Sarasota's decades-old Sailor Circus, fondly known as "The Greatest Little Show on Earth, strikes its tent for a metal roof, promised to simulate in design billowing canvas. For sure, they are going against the wind ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sunday Out of the Past: Snapshots From a China Luckily Shared ...

This first appeared on May 11, 2010











How do you describe a land as vast and varied as China? The contrasts are so great as to leave you stranded, straining for a hook, a theme, an easy summing up. There are lovely green farms so painterly perfect. Miles and miles of earth and river darkened by industrial indifference. Brilliant new architecture under the Shanghai sun. Faceless old stone high-rise apartment buildings one after another after another that rise and fall at artless intervals with depressing repetition out the window of a passing train. Are they the grim handiwork of communism? Or merely another variation on the human condition stacked in concrete shelves? If there is toxic waste here, and there appears to be plenty, yet this, "the oldest continuous major world civilization" according to the U.S. State Department, is now investing more money in green technology than the United States. And, indeed, is predicted by the experts to surprass the U.S. as the world leader within fifty to one hundred years. Do not take your eyes off China.

Shanghai is the promised land here; just as my friend Boyi Yuan had described it: Look one way, old city; look the other, new city. There I am, a few photos up, in front of a new skyscraper that took my breath and heart away, a radiant sliver of soft blue floating skyward. Love at first sight. In my book of constructed wonders on planet earth, there is the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, the Frank Gehry Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and now this transcendent marvel in Shanghai. And take a look at the cosmetics store above, it felt like floating through -- what? I groped for words. Suggested Boyi, "crystal." The photo hardly captures the sparkle. It makes Macy's San Francisco look rather average. High sophistication is on the rise in the Middle Kingdom.


You'll discover small things of large significance, like the subway above, without the imprisoning doors between cars, granting a wonderful sense of open-ended freedom from one to the next. (try enlarging the photo on your monitor to get the full impact.) Safe city, too. Maybe something to be said for social harmony? I was shocked to discover, however, under a crumpled blanket in a doorway, an actual homeless person. I am told the country is rife with a homeless population reaching into the millions, although millions more have been in recent years lifted out of poverty.


Taxi rides are as exciting as carnival rides, the way these fearless cabbies dart in and out and around all manner of humanity on foot or wheel at schizophrenic intersections. Must be in their DNA. Dining is a delight, the food so fresh and rich, and more than enough for two people for as little as from six to ten dollars! So good that only once did I defect to an American option, and only for the novelty -- fries and a chicken burger at MacDonald’s -- very good facsimile.

With Boyi, who launched the idea of our taking this trip over a year ago, every footstep is a photo op. He is a sort of camera-ready actor, improvising as he goes: This was surely the two most photographed weeks of my life ever.





Here we are at the ERA Intersection of Time in Shanghai, ready to take in our first of three acrobatic shows. This production cast the artists in a circular setting, unlike most Chinese troupes that perform on a stage. In its surreal reach, spiritually akin to the Cavalia horse show, I found it fairly mesmerizing. Indeed, it was more a creative manifestation of the Cirque du Soleil way than an outright imitation. But Boyi was left unmoved by a venture evidently too artistically heavy for his tastes, much favoring the next two shows we saw -- one, the totally unimaginative, very old fashioned Charming Shanghai Acrobatic Show in a rundown theatre (he thought the performers did more with their routines); the other, in Beijing, a fantastically compelling performance of primal exotic energy, tautly paced, called the Flying Acrobatics Show. We agreed that it was the best of the three. What a marvelous original score by Guo Feng, and what stunning production values. More about this in a future post.


As was our custom, we paid for the cheapest tickets to see the Flying Acrobatics Show, and landed VIP seats!


Riding overnight rails: The trains we rode were pleasantly oldish and a little folksy (except for the sleek semi-high speed D32 from Shanghai to Beijing). Following widespread advice, we took snacks aboard and avoided the diner, a big disappointment for me because I love this aspect of rail journeys. A relaxed sense of community prevailed throughout the train. Generally, I found the Chinese people to be very warm and unpretentious. Inside a coach car ahead, I glimpsed the entire aisle crowded with people who had paid to stand and maintained their respective positions with polite decorum. Something about that scene touched me.


In our four person sleeper from Guangzhou (Canton) to Shanghai, remarkably, everybody easily settled into respecting each others' space, and you can meet interesting people. For all I knew, two of these guys (Boyi is second from right) could have been college students.

Such natural camaraderie unfolded among us. They wondered if I knew the song "Hotel California." I tried humming it, and failed, a failed hippie. As it turned out, these guys were all businessmen returning from the Canton Fair! Wong King, left, manages a factory; "Eagle" finds factory labor for outside businessmen; and Jordan, who dreams of visiting America, is a Sales Rep for Shanghai Jiatai Machinery & Electrical Equipment Co. What a difference the lack of a suit and tie can make.


Here we are on train T15, Beijing to Guangzhou, co-inventors of a new board game called Can't Stop Shopping, playing it for the very fist time! So you could say we opened in China.


A poetic highlight of our journey was ending up, back in time, at Boyi's old house in the farming village where he was raised outside Taishan in the Guangdong province. To get there, we rode this bounce-happy two seater box powered by a motor bike, then continued on via a serene walk from the village where Boyi went to school -- now a cow barn -- to his own village at the grand arch under which, several photos below, he exultingly stands. So soft and lyrical a place and a walk, as if time stood still. Now and then, a figure quietly at work, along a stream, through a field unchanged. And how reassuring a contrast to other parts of the country apparently molested by the expedient forces of modern production.











Boyi's house, built by his great great grandfather. He hoped to find some toys he had left behind in a desk drawer when his family immigrated to New York in 1998. They were still there! He took most of them back to the states. And here are some of his neighbors stepping in for a visit. In all the time I was in China, I never felt like I were looking at the Chinese people, never felt overwhelmed by another ethnicity. With Boyi, I felt more like I was one with them, even though I do not speak their language.


A land both ancient and modern at the same time ...








Of the hundreds of photos snapped by our respective cameras, these are a few of my favorites.


5.11.10