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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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday Slide Bys: A Covington Cameo on PBS & Other Misc. Goodies Randomly Down the Runs ,,, Well, Have You Anything Better to Do?

Cyber Courier Don Covington, a Mighty Contributor to this here blog in the form of captured news stories about circus lore from far and wide that he e-dispatches my way, landing his 15 seconds of fame in Circus, the PBS doc slowly fizzling out before our eyes. We spot him answering a complaint by clown Glen Heroy about frozen water in his trailer. Notes Don about his brief cameo, one reason he may not have reaped more air time is because he was "shadowing the PBS crews." And a good giving shadow was Don, evidently letting see-all cameras poke revealingly about the premises; my, what filthy restroom conditions are the crews stuck with over there! Did you see? And here I wondered about the leaky Kelly-Miller clown alley truck ...

About Circus, Paul Binder's soft humble honesty moved me. After announcing his retirement, noted the BAC founder with a twinge of regret, "The response has been subdued." About as subdued as was the treatment of opening night in NY, an opening that seemed never to have happened, I might add, Mr. Paul ... Another reason why I believe that behind and around this cumbersome, staff-heavy organization overseen by 33 -- count 'em, 33 -- board of directors, Binder was likely pressured to hang up his ringmaster's hat and step aside. The mystery of this exit, however, is worthy of a Sherlock Holmes examination. Does anybody have Doc Watson's address? Okay, I'll move on, to another obsession. But what should that be?

So silent out there, over still-surviving sawdust, even if the seats are ominously blank. One sturdy source opined earlier that Carson & Barnes came close to heading back to the barn early. A check of their website shows Texas dates a-go, and we are are almost in Christmas Tree buying time. That old circus-as-holiday theme, I guess, still at least pulls in a few hundred, enough to keep the old pony ride in motion ... Also still up and tenting is Johnny Pugh's redoubtable Cole Bros Circus, the new or old or starred version, name keeps changing. ... And what else?

Why so silent? Blame it on the Kelly-Miller bloggers, who spread accounts of what's up day by day. They've conditioned us to a new form of intimate reporting. So quiet over on Steve and Ryan's blog. Last posting, up in the air like an ambivalent flyer frozen in space: October 27. Is Steve still stewing about having to keep up a blog he originally had fun with? He has far more "followers" than my humble stand; oh, I just can't give out a number; even I may have to start peddling Peterson Peanuts ... Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, Steve, the clown, who once so zealously shared his daily Kelly Miller rituals with us, is now hiding somewhere in the early winter. He left without a sign-off salutation to his many followers. Not a happy trouper, I'm left thinking ... Those K-M blogs, and I've questioned the savvy of telling so much for one who wants to stay active under big tops, do give us a real sense of a show out there on the road. Compared to which, Cole Circus of Stars feels so anonymous to the point of virtual non-existence. Ditto the Byrd big top. Perhaps the most snidely, purposely anonymous show is Mr. Walker's Its-A-Black-Thing-Thank-You-Not UniverSoul Circus. So we can maybe thank John Ringling North II for casually tolerating all those keyboard pushers who flourish on his lot ...Yes, okay, let's get back to legit bits:

And where are there any? ... Lot's of stuff from across the pond, and stuff about Tuffy Nicholas, son of late ringmaster Count Nicholas, touring a Hawaiian circus round the Islands. And I've run out of oomph; Anyway, Gotta get back to the runs. Show is leaving another burned-up town early. Where did Sid Kellner go?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Big Apple Circus on PBS: Paul Binder's Retirement Highlights An Evening of Sad Stories Beneath and Behind an Unspectacular Big Top


Maybe circus is not as much a family as my niece, Lisa, feels good thinking it is after having discovered, last week, the first of three installments of the PBS series, Circus. She called me this afternoon from Virginia, and we talked about the show we were both high on.

This evening, I didn't feel so high. For a show about the circus, there was an awful lot of sadness. So many little stories, both personal and professional, more troubling than triumphal. Saddest and most disappointing of all, the lack of a splashy opening night in New York with reviews, etc. Not the drama I expected. They got to NY, and on the way, the tent was full of empty seats, shockingly empty. Mime Les Feres Taquin, in a surprising fit of candor, stated "the show could be much better than it is. It is just one act after another act."

One of the juggling LaSalle Brothers spoke of the tension and conflicts with his brother, over the latter's plans to go off to medical school, and of how it felt like a kind of divorce in the making. Barry Lubin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, although, luckily, he seemed by show's end to be out of the woods, and was happily back in makeup as Grandma. The Neves flying trap act were fired on opening day in the second stand, a radical event for any circus; Paul Binder said this was the first time they had ever terminated a major act go into the season.

We never heard a word from music director Rob Slowik, particularly odd given that the show was titled "Play On," the theme crafted around a diversity of musical styles. However, viewers would not know this, for as of this point, it still goes by the name "Change On."

Paul Binder's decision to retire was made known. We saw Binder discussing how to break the news with his long-time associate and the man who would replace him, Guillaume Dufresnoy.

At one point, three potential ringmasters were auditioned, and five BAC top guns adjourned to a trailer to compare reactions: Binder, Christen, Dufresnoy, Lubin and director Steve Smith. Lubin was the first to proffer his opinion. And here things got very interesting, inviting all sorts of between-the-lines speculation.

After the meeting let out, Steve and Michael contacted Dufresonl, asking to meet with him. The three alone readdressed the issue of discussing respective reactions to the announcer tryouts -- without Paul, without Barry.

For me, the most revealing moment of these two hours was a poignant position firmly expressed by Steve Smith both before and after the segment focusing on Binder's retirement. Not once but twice did Smith assert essentially the same thing, as if Binder's exit was almost foreordained, and here I am almost quoting him word for word: "Paul has to step back so that BAC can have a future without him. It is hard for him to let go." I wonder what he may know that we don't. I wonder what pressures may have been placed on Paul behind the scenes leading up to this pivotal moment in his life.

In fact, Big Apple Circus perhaps has grown to staid in a ritualistic preparation process. I've more than once suggested that Barry Lubin, as talented as I believe he is (a legend, no doubt) is nonetheless symptomatic of an organization that may need to break free of staid traditions and a find bold new ways to refresh and reinvent itself. To blow up a few boxes. It also finds itself suffering an ominous decline in corporate funding and box office sales.

Most missing from tonight's show was a sense of a terrific performance. A number of worthy acts got air time and impressed, none outstandingly. We were not shown any of the tops turns from start to finish.

The producers wandered out of the tent many times, producing segments that felt listless and too far off the circus angle, to spend time with Lubin in hospital exam rooms, to listen to the kids discuss their personal lives. Very funny was an early segment lending the impression that three young women wanted to be known as lesbians in order to stave off the advances of the prop crew. And Heidi, earlier an item with the bomb kid, linked up with a member of the tent crew and the two left the show for Colorado. I predict it won't work out.

The Paul Binder I saw this evening matched the image I have always had of the man -- full of conviction and passion for his work, the producer in charge and a cheerful salesman for the circus in general. He also displayed humility and even not a little ambivalence about his decision to retire. He seemed genuinely conflicted -- like the LaSalle boy ruing the immanent loss of his brother as partner. Said Binder near the end, "Am I sad? Yes."

One of the few artistic high points: Lubin rehearsing an idea he and Mark Gindick came up with, needing something to replace a number not clicking with crowds. They called it "Singing in the Rain." Absolute brilliance. Finally, I got to see it; I did not when I saw the show on Long Island, and had I kept my ticket stub, I would have sent it in for a refund. False advertising. Another department that needs a refreshing makeover is marketing and promotion.

How could they have reached new york without an opening night?

Now, that makes me sad.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

PBS Returns to Circus Tonight: Will Binder Blow His Top Again? Can Lubin Control His Ego? Will the Bomb Kid Return? & How Will Steve Smith Cope?


Are you geared up for tonight's hours 2 and 3 of the 6-hour Big Apple Circus documentary, Circus, on PBS? I am for sure. Can't wait.

Last week's first two hours were sufficiently entertaining, mainly because the cameras rolled while familiar BAC figures revealed very-human personality traits I'd not known about. We got to see founder Paul Binder in anger meltdown. We watched Barry Lubin pushing around new clown Glen Heroy, trying to lock him into strait jacket direction. Look over there. Right hand move this way. Now turn. Pause. Look up! No, not right. Do it again!

And, in dubious retrospect, I asked myself: Hmmmm, yes, hmmmm. Let's see. Director Steve Smith ran the Ringling Clown College for ten years; in fact, he was a Ringling joey for six seasons, and on this show, he was, of record, the official "director." Of record, Lubin was a "production consultant." (says so in my copy of that year's program magazine), not the "Director of Clowning" for BAC that his Wikipedia profile claims him to be.

So I'll be watching to to see who directs Heroy the most, Smith or Lubin.

We got a prop kid getting tossed behind bars for allegedly wondering on his PC how one could plant a bomb under the big top. I saw somebody near the end of the program who looked like him, leading me to wonder if he's back.

Lots of tense plot threads that could explode into high drama. I'm taken by the premise, in which it appears the producers were given fine and full access to freely walk the lot and record whatever they found.

Last week I wondered if the unbecoming hissy fit thrown by Mr. Binder might have been staged for theatrical effect. Evidently not, comments posted here state clearly (as did a comment posted last year), that this is in fact the real Paul Binder. (For the record, Mr. Binder graciously granted me a long telephone interview five years ago; not once did this side of his personality surface.)

I'm not any where near as surprised with the Barry Lubin I am seeing for the first time. I've always had the impression that he lusted after as much power as he could grab. Among the perks he has extracted from management, getting long periods away while an understudy played his "Grandma" character, unheard of, to my knowledge, in big top history.

Binder's obvious fear of a performer so much as stubbing a toe has only added to my suspicions that he is one very cautious producer, perhaps too much so.

And then there's new artistic director G. Dufresnoy (I have HAD IT trying to spell this man's first name, and my exasperated spell checker is filing for divorce). In my first glimpses of G.D., I enjoyed yet another surprise and a favorable one. Mr. D. said almost nothing last week, but his few words struck me as strong and authoritative, and in his fleeting persona I could see an impresario in the making. I noticed him sitting a few rows above Binder & Christensen -- power play? I'm hoping to see more of him in action tomorrow night. Whether he will endure in his new post is far from a settled matter; Early luke warm reactions to his first fully controlled opus, Dance On!, do not bode so well. The show on TV is getting immense amounts of media attention, far more than it's getting for its new opus in Gotham.

So here they come -- explosive outgoing founder-artistic director. Clown Grandma who seems hungry for greater power and recognition. Bomb kid possibly just misunderstood. And the endearing director of record brimming with enthusiasm in the face of it all. I will be studying Steve Smith's subtle facial expressions, looking for deliciously telling hints he may be telegraphing our way. Oh, the fun of it all.

Big Apple Circus, bring it on!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

An American in Paris: In It's Ageless Magic, I Rue the Demise of Romanticism


Will the generation now growing up on hip hop power, or on Britney and her peers, ever in a future day, then wrapping their emotions around the songs and cinematic images they once embraced, feel anything close to what I embraced a few evenings ago watching the MGM musical, An American in Paris?

Or are we all doomed to the replay of feelings as distinctly different as were the entertainment forms that first engendered those feelings? The fifties was a romantic era. Few people resisted the artifice of "breaking into song" as they now do. Today’s younger set responds to sounds and images decidedly more smug, more cynical. Some would argue, more realistic. Perhaps they simply will never feel what I felt, nor what I still feel when confronted by The Bandwagon, Singing in the Rain, or Gigi, to name a few.

Still, I feel sorry for those who may never thrill to the dancing of Gene Kelly, the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, the artful cinematic genius of director Vincente Minnelli, the remarkable scripting of Alan Jay Lerner in his prime. Perhaps the best hope is the fresh inspiration that more recent pop stars, like Rod Stewart, are bringing to the Great American Songbook.

A few weeks ago, I re-watched Hairspray, a contemporary movie musical that lifted my spirits as high as a fifties MGM song and dancer when it first came out. I remember being mightily impressed. So what has happened since then? Somehow since, I’ve lost my taste for the film. I can still appreciate its high qualities, yes, and yet the second time around, for me the thrill was gone.

How strange, or might it be merely fateful?, that we each, in our own younger years, may acquire feelings unique to our time, feelings that possibly may never again be felt by others who succeed us. If that be the case, how glad I am that I was born when Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron were the stars. When we all sang and danced in the rain.

I have very few DVDs on my shelves. I think I'll add An American in Paris, and maybe send Hairspray to my sister -- younger then me by one significant year.

First published 11.10.10

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sunday Morning with Frank Braden: Rack Up Another Record Ringling Ramble ...


"Confounding big top strategists and its own high command, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last spring began topping its 1948 banner Manhattan business even before it opened the 1949 season in Madison Square Garden.

By April first, the advance mail orders for seats had reached a new high. Modest, but striking, display ads in the New York newspapers had precipitated the golden deluge of check-enclosed letters, for these ads alone annually inform the New York public of the when, where and how for ticket purchases by mail. Then, as the lines stormed the selling windows in the Garden, John Ringling North's 1949 edition of The Greatest Show on Earth, the best in 79 years, was in the bag before the band played opening night.

New York acclaimed the new performance, told the nation via newspapers, radio, magazines and word-of-mouth, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Minot to Miami . Capacity and turnaway business prevailed throughout the four-and-a-half weeks Garden run, and often one day's gross exceeded a week's abundant "take" for a two-train circus of former years, Of course, nowadays, there are no other circuses half as large, so there is no current comparison. The Big Show, railroading from Coast to Coast on its four long streamlined carriers of ninety 72-foot and 84-foot steel cars, is as conspicuously supreme as is the love of liberty in the heart of mankind."

-- from his route book summary of the season, 1949.

Oh, the talk of turnaway crowds, of Ringling exceptionalism by this exceptionally gifted press agent and writer, gives me the urge to watch my DVD of The Greatest Show on Earth tonight!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Open Memo to John Ringling North II: Please Hire Steve Smith To Direct Your Circus

Dear Mr. North,

In lieu of a cell call (I don't have your number) or a letter (time is of the essence), or a Twittergram (I've not yet taken up texting or tweeting or -- the latest -- micro-chanting) I am using this platform to reach you, optimistically assuming you will not deem my open memo pushy, but understandably urgent, trusting it will find its way to your attention. either in Oklahoma or Ireland.

I think I've found the perfect director for your show. His name is Steve Smith; you may observe this effervescent soul in action on the PBS series, Circus, about the making of a Big Apple Circus show. He strikes me as amply savvy to circus programing, a decisive figure yet armed with loads of lovely humanity for the job, not the type to traumatize your favored artists (or those you can afford, in default, to engage).

A nuts and bolts sort of guy, I can see Mr. Smith blending in well with your own more laid-back ways (not having seen you profiled on PBS, a la Paul Binder, I still assume you are laid back); a spark plug to jump start your visions into specific circus imagery.

Better yet, this Smith has extensive in-the-ring experience; he clowned six seasons for Ringling-Barnum (that other show that your uncles once ran) and he managed the Clown College for 10 years, 1985-1995. I feel sure Mr. Smith could lend guidance and emotional anchorage to your ambitiously dedicated clowns, Steve and Ryan, two guys who strike me as super consciousness, yet prone to intense introspective anguish whenever the audience looks the other way or fails to issue the expected guffaws.

Bottom line: I have a gut feeling you two would work well together. I realize, of course, this mere suggestion will ruffle some of your presently constituted staff. Blame it on me if you must. I can take the heat. I mean no harm to anybody in your employ, only a brighter future, possibly achievable through better or different direction. We here at Showbiz David (excuse the "we") just think you must advance to the next level of showmanship.

Smith is not permanently allied with Big Apple Circus, as you may know. Between you and me (all visitors, kindly advance to the next paragraph), since I imagine he would have more autonomy working with you than I assume he enjoys at Big Apple, he might well accept a modest compensation package, with or without mud-reflecting boots and a laptop for Kelly-Miller blogging thrown in.

Be assured I have no financial stake in this matter; I am not asking for a finder's fee or an agent's commission. I neither know the man, nor am I trying to establish myself (fun though it might be) as a talent clearing house for the circus industry, such as it is, in this country. Even were you to reward me with an under-the-table gratuity, like say a Ziplock wrapped package of those world famous peanuts you peddle so dramatically on your tenting tours, I would, a slave to my nutty archaic virtues, be forced to return them.

As you may or may not know, I've suggested right there that your show could benefit by sharper direction -- not necessarily a Dick Barstow ego-crusher, but a Mr. Smith -- assuming, (I must state in order to legally cover myself), that he is, indeed, the person I have so far witnessed him to be on the PBS program Circus. He seems to possess a rich range of attributes from diplomacy to cheer-leading, and this makes him the ideal candidate to help you produce a more finished and polished artistic attack on the audience.

Respectively yours,

Showbiz David
Unsolicited Mandatory Directives Division

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.

11.4.10

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"Banana Shpeel" (Remember, from Cirque du Soleil?) Slips Off Silenty, At Last, That Way to the Egress

Clowns Unwanted: From Banana Shpeel. Many disgruntled critics blamed them for mucking up an otherwise modest package of very good circus turns.

Cirque du Solei King Laliberte evidently was undaunted by the nasty reviews his stage vaudeville show suffered in Chicago, to a lesser degree in New York.

But he apparently is not up to dealing with insufficient crowds not swamping his box office ticket windows.

Following its aborted "limited" New York run at the Beacon Theatre, Banana Shpeel, to my awestruck surprise, looked to be hitting the road, first stop, city of my questionable birth: San Francisco. So I really wanted to take a look. Nothing like seeing for yourself -- how unfairly dissed it might have been, or what a colossal turkey it was. Gawking has its minor rewards.

Then I learned a few days ago, checking up on its earlier advertised Oct-Nov. date at the Golden Gate Theatre across the Bay in Navel Gazing Central, that the run had been shuttered in early October.

Nor does this well covered Broadway flop show its face on the Cirque du Soleil website, which lists 22 shows world wide, not a one of them flaunting fluffy Frenchy Fatuous banana shpeel looks. Director David Shiner seems to have escaped somewhere to Europe.

I am convinced (despite a curiously affirmative notice in Gotham from Variety hailing the clowning), that the clowning was the show's worst enemy. Number of critics recognized a few good circus acts. Public is still funny that way, looking for "circus acts."

Might this gigantic box office pratfall not cast ominous shadows over two upcoming other new stage shows from the Montreal Monster, one to spread its ambitious over Radio City Music Hall, the other in the seedy neon-coated center of Hollywood, CA, at the Kodak Theatre, a venue desperate ever since it was built for a viable attraction. A revamped Banana? (OK, I couldn't resist)

Fasten your seat belts, kid, with Cirque du Soleil, the admirable artistic courage is copious, capricious, relentless and redoubtable, the results often breath taking, though sometimes curiously still born, albeit, wrapped in exotic dazzlements and techno allurements fit for the fussiest of fickle culture vultures.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Monday Midway Misc: Big Apple Circus Comes to PBS, Generates Few NY Reviews for Dance On! ... PETA Proposes Pachyderm "Empathy Center" for Venice...


Performance Unrehearsed: Enter a PBS behind-the-scenes look this week at Big Apple Circus, and already I’m skeptical. Oh, heck, sorry to have rained on a parade yet to march. Producers of the show said to have looked at several circuses, and settled on Paul Binder’s big top because it’s such a respected troupe, even though performance quality was was not their primary goal.

“We wanted to be with a traveling circus. We wanted to be with a group who lived together, ate together, performed together and traveled,” says producer Maro Chermayeff. “And so I think those were the major factors, (and) the quality of the show itself.” In fact, if I may interject, BAC has a very soft route, each town many days and cushy days in between. That an arduous season? I think not ...

If the PBS producers had really wanted “the major factors,” here’s where they might have gone: Kelly Miller Circus. They’d have found much more activity in a respectable tent show that moves virtually every day, that is not adverse to mud, sleet, hail and snow, and they’d have had a star witness bearing rich American circus history to interview in the show's owner, John Ringling North II, his story being a big story too. Anyway, since New York's PBS affiliate WNET is sharing in pre-publicity, perhaps they had a hand in selecting the town's own circus and in possibly underwriting the three part, six hour series, Circus. Follow the money. Let's face it, kids, Manhattan has slightly more clout and connections than Hugo, as in Oklahoma. And when last I checked, BAC employs an active PR dept., K-M does not. So there.

Theoretical Tanbark Plus: In Paul Binder, they have a true sawdust scholar to draw from — if he’ll talk, which I doubt. His type tend to hold back, tend to puff their properties like good press agents. What does he really think of the “Greatest Show on Earth”? Of Cirque du Soleil? Of the pathetic lack of effective circus schools in this country? I’m not expecting much.

Big Apple Circus Dance On! Reviews: Any out there? So far, only dribbles to draw from, which seems strange given the well publicized transfer of artistic power from Binder to his heir successor, Guillaume Dufresnoy. (I could scream every time I try to spell this man's name!!!) One from a blogger named One Savvy Mom, very high on the show and offering $25 discounts on tickets if you’ll mention her Mommy code. Sounds like shrewd marketing. Then there’s the lone media Big Apple bulwark, The New York Times, from which, as per custom, comes annually a rosy notice, this year’s endorsement penned by Lawrence Van Gelder, who has never to my knowledge(in recent times) reviewed a circus that he did not like. Maybe The White Tops really has it right. Around the ring(s), people prefer happy talk. And what a critical scourge I feel writing this.

If Van Gelder is correct, good news for Dance On! (its set seen in the photo at top) and Dufresnoy. I’d like to think a fresh vision has emerged to give BAC a genuinely fresh and exciting makeover. Only could I track down one other consumer posting, the adoring fan yet stating that she found more to her liking after intermission when the animals came on. And that is in essence what we were told right here on this blog by Agent A.

Shilling for Sawdust & Spangles: Perhaps many shows at one time or another practice the art of extracting feel-good notices for various payoffs. At the end of a remarkably intelligent review in The New Yorker of Banana Shpeel, one of the comments posted noted that, according to the Chicago Tribune, CDS had hired a firm in India whose employees were all instructed to post affirmative reviews of Cirque shows on theatre blogs, and that likely they were doing the same thing for Shpeel. At least the ticket agency Goldstar, which puts out a glowing paragraph about Dance On!, honestly acknowledges up front that it was prepared by Goldstar editors.


PETA Promotes Elephant Empathy Center: They’d like to open one down in Venice, Florida, if they could convince the Venice city fathers and mommies to ditch their sympathy for Tito Gaona’s great Ringling museum dream, to be housed in the old Ringling-Barnum barn (above), and instead, allow PETA to set up interactive exhibits to educate the public about animal abuse. One device would shackle visitors to confinement to approximate how elephants are assumed to feel while on tour. But Venice Mayor Ed Martin is not falling for such folly. “I didn’t see that as a serious offer.’ When I told my wryly philosophical friend Boyi about PETA’s campaign against the use of animals in scientific and medical research, he replied, “So let those people who are protesting be used for the research.” He smiled. I laughed.