Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Can’t American Circus Schools Produce Outstanding Acts?

Once again, this time from Don Covington, I am challenged to rethink my skeptical position on the productivity of our American circus schools, such as they are.

Their number, to be sure and optimistic, is gradually increasing, though in total, they fall woefully short of the overwhelming number of drama departments to be found in most high schools and at virtually all colleges and universities.

When you go to a Broadway show, chances are that the actors you admire spent some time on a high school stage singing the songs from Oklahoma! or Evita, or playing dramatic roles created by world dramatists.

When you go to an American circus — be it Ringling, Big Apple, Vargas or Kelly Miller, for examples — chances are you will not see a performer who learned juggling, tumbling, or flying trapeze in any U.S. classroom.

This is a fact, not a fiction created by myself to advance any sort of a personal agenda. It concedes a reality that even Paul Binder would ruefully recognize. When he and Michael Christensen created the Big Apple Circus, part of their dream was to establish a viable circus school in New York City. That dream lasted but a few seasons.

Yes, great circus acts do come out of America, including some of the best animal trainers — individuals who either taught themselves or were luckily taken under the wings of established pros — likely the performers imported from abroad by the Ringlings. Why is true-blue third generation American born animal trainer Jenny Vidbel now flourishing in her second season with Big Apple Circus? And why, before that, did she appear with Ringling? Because she is one phenomenal trainer, that’s why. And why did the self-taught LaSalle brothers, believed to be the only jugglers among Columbia University's alumni, get booked by Big Apple Circus? Not because Columbia offered a circus curriculum. No, because they were a terrific juggling duo, independently coached along the way by Benji Hill, who could have held their own at Monte Carlo. That’s why.

The closest this country ever came to operating a world class circus school was when the community of Bloomington, Illinois, during the first half of the last century, turned out some of the best aerialists in the world, and most of the trapeze acts. Among dozens of youngsters who learned at the local YMCA, or were taught by circus pros off the road wintering in the town, there is Art Concello.

So, again a question that will not be welcome by a few who seem to believe I am down on American circus schools. Why so meager their output ? Nobody has ever been able to answer the question persuasively.

There are some good performers, and quite a few working clowns out there, who began in a schoolroom of some sort. Don Covington sent me a respectable list of some of the alumni from Fern Street Circus in San Diego. The point is not that there are school-taught artists landing jobs, be it under a tent, on a cruise ship or, rarely, in a Cirque du Soleil show. The point is, why do I rarely if ever see these individuals when I buy tickets to watch a regularly touring circus? And why is this country so glaringly missing under the klieg lights of Monte Carlo? This is the reality that underpins my central position. Might the reason have nothing to do with talent? Might the typical graduate, harboring more theatre-like sensibilities, simply refuse to tolerate traditional trouping conditions over American sawdust? Might it be that they want too much money, or because they lack a second act that many circus owners look for?

Take the relatively new Oakland-based Circus Bella, a charming little student-plus show with a welcome creative flair and a cracking good little band. It enjoys only a handful of dates in the Bay Area. Some of its artists show solid promise. Some may have studied at the nearby well-known San Francisco Circus Center, which may well be more famous for being well known than for producing talent that can land contracts with our mainstay circuses and enjoy productive careers.

In his review of Circus Vargas in the current issue of Circus Report, Chuck Burnes gave prime attention to a take-note juggler: “Keep your teenage daughter by your side as she swoons over young juggling sensation, Michale Ferreri, whose making his American debut.”

American debut. Oh, yes. Once again, somebody from some other country showing us how it’s done.

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