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! ...



Wade G. Burck said...

Explain to me how a circus fan's mind works, please. When Ringing went to one ring, they wanted to lynch Kenneth Feld for trying to destroy the American circus. Even the illustrious Col. John Milton and Capt. Buckles got a big stick and took some powerful whack's so it isn't just a fan deal I guess. Yet years ago, Polack Bros. Circus used a one-ring format and I have heard nothing but world class paper for Louie Stern. How's that work that one producer can have a one ring show and get applauded, and another can produce a one ring show and get spit on for having the nerve.
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

In all fairness, I must plead guilty, as well, to being possibly overly critical when Ringling went to one ring; actually, only literally half a ring. A jolting change, with the videos and a weak lineup.

Such a radical change takes adjusting to sometimes. I have come to appreciate what the Felds are at least trying to do in making changes to keep the show viable in contemporary times. Their one-ring Boom-Ring at Coney was the best American circus I’ve seen in years, an opinion I’ve expressed here more than once.

But I do agree with your drift, as it comes across. I have long observed a double standard among the fans: it is quite OK to criticize and gang up on the Felds and Ringling, but not on any other show. That’s simply unfair and short sighted.