Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Out of the Classroom and Into the Big Top? A New American Circus Movement Still Fails to Produce. Why It May Never Change.

Once more, savoring the afterglow of another glorious Monte Carlo International Circus Festival (from photos and YouTubes), my heart takes flight, as well, in the emerging power of other such festivals around the globe. And, again, I ponder the idea of the U.S. ever bringing off one itself; I promise not to giggle.


Blame it on American culture.  And why did it take me decades to land upon that two-word conclusion -- American culture?  To the basics, Kids:

Over There, in other less credentialed worlds, they produce the acts.

Over Here, we — mostly in the private sector — produce the shows.  

Over there, they still love animals.  They still love great circus tricks, simple as that.  (American audiences do, too.)

Enter Circus Now

Over here, in public classrooms of tenured theory and private workshops, a new breed of all-human circus arts advocate, largely unknown to the public, works out “issues” on static trapezes, draws paychecks teaching acrobatics as self-esteem therapy.  Lectures against sexism in the ring reaching back to the barbaric days of Barnum and Bailey.  Most of these barely veiled reformers, who call themselves Circus Now, champion in earnest — hear them out  —  a virtual separation from the older order (tricks, animals) to more theatrically expressive modes.  There is only one problem in the equation: so far, they have yet to produce any ring stars of note.

Pretentiously Spreading
And what, you may wonder, is Circus Now?  It is a network of academic and trendy experimental  groups, with ties to the American Youth Circus Association, bent on overturning convention. said to be growing in number throughout the U.S. They foster acrobatic and aerial arts in advanced forms drawing significantly from theatre and ballet.  (Animals need not apply).   Among Circus Now’s member affiliates, there is Aerial Yoga San Antonio; Albuquerque Aerial Collective; Girl Circus;  Iluminar Aerial,  above.  No kidding.  Perhaps an artsy collective somewhere here in Oakland, reported periodically to be the driving force behind this New Circus scene, is itself a member, too.

Bogus Big Apple Festival

As defined by the group,  “Circus is a vehicle for beauty, meaning, self-expression, and social commentary.”  Earlier this month under the Big Apple Circus tent in New York, Circus Now hosted the "first ever" American Circus Awards, in concert with Big Apple Circus and the Montreal-based troupe 7 Fingers (the latter with distant roots in San Francisco’s old Pickle Family Circus).

Awards were handed out in three categories: 

 * Evolving Circus Award
*  Elevating Circus Award
* Community Impact Award.

Two of the three honors were bestowed upon two of the three sponsoring organizations, making the event a shameless vanity salute.  Is this the best this country can do?  I would LOVE to see an OPEN annual circus arts competition, somewhere, someplace, somehow.  We are so low on the totem pole of tanbark tournaments, I say, let ANYBODY enter.  (Okay, no more than a thousand hula hoop acts).

Are you still with me?

Getting Back to the Glorious Basics

A few weeks later, leaving New York aside, back on Planet Earth in a place called Monaco, The 39th Monte Carlo International Circus Festival handed out Gold, Silver and Bronze Clowns to ring stars from far and wide who sustain the primal power of big top glories.

Five Somersaults -- Pyongyang to Monaco

So keen is the festival on honoring the most accomplished and compelling ring wizards out there, no matter their origin, that an eleven-member troupe of North Korean flyers took a Gold Clown for, by all accounts, a sensationally inventive display of non-stop gymnastics aloft. As covered in Spectacle on-line, the troupe lands unannounced quads -- and even, in some form, a quintuplet!  Caught on the first try at the second performance, as witnessed by Ernest Albrecht,  writes he, it "brought the house down with a cheering, standing ovation."  Now that, Circus Now, is Circus WOW. 

I say – Bravo to Princess Stephanie, the festival’s shining star, for her great work!  For not just the glamor she brings to the event, but to her fearless embracement of circus art, no matter where it may be found on this war-torn globe.  By advancing the festival that her late father, Prince Rainer, originated, Princess Stephanie is making it, it seems, even a greater force, and more valued an indicator of the state of world circus arts.  It is televised in over 30 European countries. Not in the UK.  Not in the US.  PBS (Pledge Break Society) should be ashamed of itself for not airing a few hours of Monte Carlo Gold.

Some call it “The Circus Oscars.”  To listen to Bello Nock, interviewed during the festival, expressing his great joy over its power to inspire younger generations, is to feel the same depth of gratitude for Princess Stephanie’s wonderful showcase.  Is to feel the excitement of the people inside the tent, packed with pride and a shared joy in serving what Ernest Hemingway called "the ageless delight."

I have a discretely framed question for Circus Now, and for all academics at large: If students at colleges study drama hoping to land on Broadway, or cinema hoping to direct or star in Hollywood films, might it also be fair to expect of your burgeoning classrooms, collectives and workshops ring stars of the highest order?

I’m still waiting, I think.

Next stop on this ramble:  Big Apple Circus’s journey from promising teacher in its own classroom — to a flop at the movie house    What went wrong?

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