First posted December 8, 2011
"It's a new era," declared Wall Street Journal guest critic of the Big Apple Circus, Sarah East Johnson, moved by the reality of female performers demonstrating male strength and agility at a circus.
Considering a rich legacy of women who have dazzled the sawdust -- among them, Leitzel and Zerbini, Millman and Herbert and Berosini, La Norma, and Gold and so many countless others -- I was awed by the breadth and depth of Ms. Johnson's self-delusional epiphany, not to mention its breathtaking disconnect to history.
She's the artistic director for LAVA, an all-female NY based dance and theatre company. She spent some time with Circus Amok, which pushed the gender-bending envelope. "Pretty radical, queer, feminist with lefty politics," she says.
I smelled a trail leading clear across the country to the boiler room of cultural rethink by the Golden Gate. There, during the modest heyday of the Pickle Family Circus, a bold manifesto denounced, among a slate of No-Nos in modern circus art, the very thought a woman dressing up seductively to assist a male performer with his props. (Never mind that every time Pinito Del Oro swung fearlessly on the single trapeze, her husband stood below, just in case to break a fall.)
As it turns out, call me an amateur clairvoyant, yes, Ms. Johnson did spend some time out and around the San Francisco Circus Center. Around 1996. I can only imagine the extent to which she was properly apprised by post PFC people on their mythical views.
Among Ms. Johnson's comments while watching a performance of Dream Big! with the Wall Street Journal's Lizzie Simon, her "biggest complaint" about circus in general are those rigid gender roles under the big top; they are, she asserts, "really traditional." The female performer's skill is "typically masked, whereas a man's is acknowledged."
At Big Apple, she was delighted to witness the hand-balancer Melanie Chy, who, typical of other women on the show, according to Ms. Johnson, displayed "strength and skill rather than flexibility or sexuality."
Hmmm. How to rethink this. Might it be that all those great female big top divas were really men in drag? I'm now wondering when they will adapt The Vagina Monologues into a circus spec. Starring Grandma.