Thursday, November 04, 2010

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: PBS Under the Big Top -- Accidental Revelations Add Fits of Fire to Underwhelming Big Apple Circus Reality Show ...

This first appeared on November 4, 2010

It grows on you in its own ersatz reality show way. It held my attention, despite a feeling that this story could have been as effectively told in half the time.

There is little of the drama here we expect of such an entity. Don't think the intensely emotional making of Cirque du Solei's Varekai on HBO several years back. Don't think even those contrived circus competition shows on TV. And certainly don't think The Greatest Show on Earth.

Circus is pleasant and agreeable. And not a little informative. Guest director that season, Steve Smith (left) is a winning asset, a likable spark plug, full of zest -- a nuts and bolts man for a show whose theme and its manifestations throughout are never adequately explained. These first two hours end with the company being told, they show has a new name: "Change on." They ended up calling it "Play On."

Luckily for the producers, who take a visitor's approach, aiming their cameras all over the lot in search of whatever human interest sparks may fly over the sawdust, they caught a few. Here are some sparks, as well as some surprises:

* A young prop hand intimating that he might plant a bomb in the big top and getting hauled off to jail.

* Paul Binder throwing a temper tantrum with the horse riders. Overall, the portrait of Binder here is a refreshingly unexpected one, showing him firmly in charge, though a curiously tepid impresario. Read on.

* Paul Binder's odd aversion to danger under the tent. Somebody needs to introduce the man to the real world of circus. One of his comments to an artist: "Don't do anything more than is absolutely safe." Another comment, stresses "simple and safe."

* Barry Lubin's intrusive ego. He nags new clown Glen Heroy in questionable ways, much in the vein of an insecure stage director blocking out an actor's every move, every gesture. I only hope that new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy (did I spell the name right?) loves the Grandma character, for if he doesn't I can see an epic a clash of egos.

* A contract for a flying act stipulating a triple -- signed by an act obviously ill prepared to deliver. (They did not catch it when I saw the show.) Interesting to see Smith making clear his feeling that no way should these flyers, a mix of pros and rank amateurs, end the performance; they are moved up near the beginning of the second half, though that too will change by the time the show reaches New York.

For these reasons -- wondering what next I might discover (the human interest stories are fairly lame) -- Circus held my attention. I also observed a natural team compatibility reminding me of a well-worn marriage between Binder and Christensen, who often appear sitting together in the seats monitoring rehearsals and making notes. Their body language speaks millions.

Most bothersome is the time given to one performer made to appear as if at any moment he could be axed from the company, an unrealistic story line that feels gratuitous. That would be the new clown, Glen, revealing at intervals all of his fears that the gig will fail. When finally he faces an audience, he holds his own, proving a natural flair for circus buffoonery. Binder is pleased, telling him, "We have found a new character for the show."

To my knowledge, he is no longer around.

This PBS entry treats circus in softer moods, absent the older fashioned hyperbole of tent show bombast and drama. Which probably suits BAC -- its finest opus that I've seen by far was the enchantingly surreal 2004-2005 Picturesque. In its weaker frames, Circus calls to mind, for me, how lackluster I found the book Mud Show to be, because it spent too much time doodling in dull backyard details.

It's good that BAC co-founders Binder and Christensen will have this television documentary as a record of their admirable achievement keeping their show on a higher road for thirty-plus years.

Bomb or no bomb, I'm waiting for the second of the three part series next Wednesday.



Harry Kingston said...

I watched the 2 hour well photographed tv show and they probably will benefit in the box office from it.
Binder's rave and rant session I wonder if it was real or for drama for tv. Might not go over well with the public.
And I cannot see Barbara Byrd, Johnny Pugh and John Ringling North II doing a rant and rave in front of a tv camera.
Mr. Smith is a great asset for BAC as he gets the job done with no drama.
I also see that bac is not immune to the problems of other tent shows with help etc.
Like you said before I would have liked to have seen Kelly Miller or Carson and Barnes used for this show.

Showbiz David said...

Harry, I was fairly shocked by Binder's blowing up, and like you wondered if it was staged, or, rather, a trait of Binder's purposely demonstrated to show that side of his personality. I'm waiting for the next acts.

Anonymous said...

Binders blow-up is definatly part of his character. Sources on the BAC also say that the TV audience only saw a snip of the actual, ugly fit he threw.

The closest I've ever seen to this public display was in a documentary on the Hanneford Circus which aired a few years back. It showed Tommy Hanneford in a very nasty verbal argument with Struppi.

But for anyone who's ever worked the BAC or Hanneford show, these rants are part and parcel of working under Binder & Tommy.

Bob, rigger to the stars

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Bob. That is what draws me to this series, and makes me think the producers are for real. And why I'm waiting for next week. Any TV program that can give us the truth is well worth respecting. We've had enough traditional "circus is coming!" hoopla.

David Carlyon said...


Fascinating thoughts on the Big Apple Circus TV show. I only got a chance to watch the second hour so I appreciated your perspective.

Your observation about Barry Lubin’s “intrusive ego” especially caught my eye. Having clowned with him in the ’78 season and his pal since then, it’s not surprising that I saw that sequence differently. But it’s more than my respect and fondness for Barry. (And more than the TV folks controlling what we see to maximize the drama.)

That sequence gives a taste of the detail required for good clowning. All the world loves to repeat that “Clowning is hard” but few really know or care what that means. Even many clowns confuse having a hard time, which happens to every clown, good or bad, for the hard WORK that the good ones invest. That includes a focus on detail that many clowns resist, and that other people would see as picky or “intrusive.”

As an actor and director, I agree that a director should not block every move of the actor. However, as a clown and movement consultant, I know that clowning is different. Stop-&-wave can convey a totally different meaning than wave-&-stop, as different as “To be or not to be” done in fierce anger or weary whisper.

Clowning is not simply transferring personal high spirits to the ring, or transforming sadness into clowny rainbows-&-lollipops, and it’s DEFINITELY not “just being free.” Those are popular stories. So is the angst-ridden soul behind the scenes, hiding tears behind the mask. But what good clowns actually do to prepare doesn’t fit any of those stories.

God is in the details. So is clowning.

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, David. I hope the show stays under the BAC hood, for it's giving us a chance to observe and study the interrelationships and how one kind of circus is shaped. Other then CDS on HBO (Varakei), we get to little of this in the standard circus program, either veiled promos for Feld Entertainment or recycled historical footage.

Clowning is a HUGE complex topic, perhaps to be addressed here in some future post.