First posted, December 22, 2008
This season just past was more than significant for a number of reasons that have long-term ramifications for the quality and changing nature of the circus in America. In the order of importance, here are the four most pivotal events:
* Paul Binder Exits Big Apple Circus
* Carson & Barnes says goodbye to three rings
* Guy Laliberte sells 20% of Cirque du Soleil to Dubai
* John Ringling North II completes second season as circus owner
Five years ago, could any of these happenings have been predicted? Five years ago seems so far away.
What about the prospects for a brighter future under the tents?
What good may come of the four above listed events?
Big Apple Circus under new direction has a chance to make a greater mark on the public’s imagination and to eventually spread its long-modest touring wings to other parts of the country.
Carson & Barnes, if it does reduce itself to one ring, will be forced to upgrade its overall artistic vision. When the audience's attention is confined to one ring, its focus naturally becomes more discriminating. Every moment is now more important. No looking to another ring for compensation. The one on display must deliver.
Laliberte’s future is gravely in doubt. By selling such a significant stake in the show to outside interests, in effect he lets go of the autonomy he has long demanded and opens the door for an eventual sale. And that’s a pity. A major question looms: how much money does he not now have that he needs in order to fulfill current contracts for new shows around the globe? And in the execution of his commitments, without ample funds will he produce inferior programs? His new Vegas offering, Believe, has left Cirque fans gasping in disbelief and angry.
John Ringling North II is by far the most potentially interesting story because we simply don’t know how far he can go in the producing realm. It takes the average circus owner at least a few seasons to reveal a distinctive artistic vision. North II, from reports, appears emotionally and artistically committed to his ownership of Kelly Miller Circus. Depending on the size of crowds he is able to draw (of greatest concern, he seems the weakest in the critical areas of promotion and publicity), he may be self-emboldened to do great things down the road.
Nothing yet indicates that any of the “major” shows on the road are going off the road, even though business appears to have been spotty for a number of them. On the plus side, gas prices have plummeted, and a new administration in the White House will likely favor the resumption of a more liberal policy on the visas needed to import the willing brown hands from Mexico who move our wagons down the road.
Circus Vargas has a lot going for it, but it, too, must learn how to frame a much more consistently dynamic program capable of generating stronger word of mouth. John Pugh, the way he talks to the press, seems as happy as ever to be touring his New Cole Circus, even in a dramatically scaled down version.
The future, as always, is in the hands of these precious few mortals who have the savvy and crust to keep our battered big tops — somehow — in the air.