Friday, August 28, 2009

Whatever Became of the Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze?

Moody intermission at Circus Vargas. Not even two hundred people in the seats. Darkened moody tent, jazz riff through the sound system. Moody, too. Feels like sitting on the edge of spangled oblivion. This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but the last pony ride under the last big top during the last intermission.

But there over the ring is the net and the promise of artistic redemption, and all of us no doubt are banking on the flying trapeze, once the show resumes, to give us the thrill we expect at a circus.

What suckers we were that downbeat day. Don’t look over too many rings these days with much hope; the thrill may be gone.

The Vargas Flyers, they are really the Tabares, but not really the real Tabares whom the overactive ringmaster touts as having won Monte Carlo Gold in 2004 — these flyers are full of flash and style, and so woefully short at this show on substance. And this is not a morning show. This is a late afternoon show. Up there they posture and preen and send their flashy gestures down to us in the seats, and then, all too soon, they are floating downward into the net. Not even a passing exchange!

Item: At Carson & Barnes Circus, both during 2008 and 2009 shows, a flyer tried for a triple, failed and did not try again.

Item: Of the last three Circus Vargas performances I have attended, at only one did the Tabares try for the triple – they nailed it.

Item: This year at Big Apple Circus, a flyer tried for the triple, failed and did not try again.

Item: At this year’s Ringling Zing Zang Zoom, a Mexican high wire troupe ended by executing a not very thrilling three-person pyramid, not with the top mounter, a woman, attached to a mechanic.

Items without end: mechanics without end.

To be historically correct, you’d have to return to the Russian revolution of 1917. Shortly thereafter, Lenin asked his friend, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was minister of education, to step into the circus and upgrade it, and make it more proudly Russian. One of the eventual moves was a policy mandating that all aerialists wear life lines.

Advance forty years: John Ringling North, wanting to give American audiences a sample of the Soviet magic, began importing acts from behind the Iron Curtain. A few came with mechanics. Among the more prominent names were the outstanding Dobritsch Duo perch act.

When Irvin Feld took over, a trickle of tepid tricksters turned into an embarrassing parade of unfinished amateurs. Some horse riders even worked with mechanics. I recall a “high wire” act that should have been performed atop wheel chairs, so securely were all the members rigged to lifelines.

Now, in lieu of the single trap, we more often have the “fabric,” or, as Ken Dodd would say, “the bed sheets.” Which means that we are getting more choreography in the sky, and less big swing daredevilry. Whatever happened to the trick? In its place, we have women working out issues on the tissues.

When quad king Miguel Vazquez retired in the late 90s, perhaps that signaled the beginning of the end of a very daring era. The flying trapeze, invented in 1859 by a Frenchman named Leotard, over the years advanced in complexity (did you not know that the first flyer to land the triple was a woman?), culminating in the Vazquez quad breakthrough before Ringling Barnum audiences in 1982.

Why am I against mechanics? Sure, audiences may feel more secure; they also instinctively sense an advantage that brings into grave question the skill of the artist. And they whisper among themselves, “what are those wires for,” and they know. And they feel less. At the same time, it's possible that contemporary audiences no longer relish what passed for "circus" thirty or fifty years ago. Perhaps, sad to concede, the shows that take the safer road (i.e., Big Apple and Cirque du Soleil) are the ones that are prospering.

Trouble is, those wires encourage kids from other arenas — theatre and ballet — to show the circus world what a new form of aerial art should be -- in their opinions. Sometimes it works. More often, we are getting something nearly stillborn. Either you are circus or you are ballet. One must die for the other to live. Must assume shadow status for the other to shine.

Those wires, too, may be shrinking the talent pool of younger artists willing to take on the flying trapeze and other more authentic and far more difficult aerial maneuvers.

Down here, I’ll take a crack Chinese hoop diving troupe, or those sensational Russian acrobats I saw at Boom A Ring, any day, over the self-absorbed ballerinas lost in their flowing fabrics. Or those flash Vargas flyers who get paid (if they get paid) for doing next to nothing on too many dull days.

La Norma and the Ward Bell Flyers, Rose Gold and the Ayak Brothers and the Great (non flying) Wallendas. Tito and Miguel: you all seem so far far away ...

[photos, from the top: The Ward-Bell Flyers with Polack Bros. Circus in the '50s; Rose Gold; Les Geraldos; Miguel Vazquez]

First published on August 28, 2009


Margaret said...

....I totally agree with you on the subject of machanics..Growing up,way back when a machanic was used yes..But only for practicing a trick..Once the trick was perfected it was no longer needed..Only the stooge in the riding act used a machanic..LOL..I'm just thankful I was lucky enough to grow up watching performers like Mimi and Jackie Zerbini..La Norma..Fay Alexander..Vicky Unus..Wanda Ward..Betty Woods..ect.And watching them you never questioned their skill..

Jack Ryan said...


A circus-savvy friend came back from a large, well-known American show and I asked if he had enjoyed it.

"It was OK," he replied. "But they employed more mechanics than the Ford dealership."

Thought that well said it.

Rebecca Ostroff said...

oh yes..

I love it when dancers say to me, "oh I want to do fabric (silk)
it is so dancy" or something even less articulate

and they go to a "circus school"

and learn aerial fabric and groping around the trapeze tricks and wear dogleashes to work..and flex their feet, not like Martha Graham with substance and form follows function ,but because it is an artistic choice.. yuck

I will say those triple twisting flippy things are amazing BUT that safety cable thing.That safety cable gets rid of sweaty palms because unless that cable breaks we can marvel at their pirouettes not their daring.

It is a delight to watch a real aerialist..

Wade G. Burck said...

Just curious. Does the circus profession offer a great disability pension or death benefits, like say the Professional Bullriders Assoc. Although accidents do happen bull riders now wear flack jackets, teeth guards, and face masks, in an effort not to bankrupt the aforementioned wonderful pension/death benefits. Funny thing, more and more people buy a ticket each year, and the talent get's greater and greater as well. But would I be right in assuming, the incredibly large salaries that the circus offers for taking additional risks, affords an artist the opportunity to insure through the likes of Lloyds of London. Just curious, that's all. I will never be thankful I was lucky enough to see the likes of Cindy Dodge fall to their death.
Wade Burck

Rebecca Ostroff said...

I believe this is about aerial art.

I went to a rodeo last month.Most of the riders enjoyed their groceries.Athletes, if you say so.
How the heck can you compare the artisty of an aerialist to someone getting flung of a bull?

Margaret said...

....Yes Rebecca,it is about the art,the skill and the daring,the delight in watching a "real airialist." Money, hell I was 14 before I found out you actually got paid for working..LOL..

Margaret said...

....excuse me it's aerialist....

Wade G. Burck said...

Art. That is interesting. What art involves lifw or death, or at the least permanent disability. Don't let the cat out of the bag Margaret. There are a lot of show operating on that theory. This rodeo, was it a PBR sanctioned affair or a local endeavor? There is the GSOE and then there is a Culpepper. Yes I consider them athletes of the highest order like a Gaona, Vasques, or Bale (question Rebecca and Margaret Bale an incomplete artist/athlete) like a Montana, Farve, or Jordon. And no I don't consider Tiger Woods(who is hailed as an artist as well as an athlete) any more of an athlete then a Bass Pro fisherman.
Wade Burck

Casey McCoy Cainan said...

I will only add to Mr. Burck's statement. If they invented a bite and claw proof jacket and pants, I would feel no shame in wearing it. The times I have been "doctored" I always paid for it myself and paid cash (Blue Cross doesn't pay for thumbs being sown on after tigers rip them off) Now if I worked for some company that had say, great workers comp,,,and would fix,,say my nose or something,,,if I fell on it,,, I might think differently. But being a "private owned act" on mudshows,,,I would love to save some coin and play it safe. Also I have seen aerial work with a mechanic that was great and some was mediocre. I have seen just as bad without marionette lines as well. Fact is,,,,no one is getting paid enough to die now days, and that is how it can turn out. I push the envelope everyday motivated by ego and nothing more, surely not monetary gain because bad cat acts can make as much or more as good cat acts now. Same I am sure is true of aerialists. Just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Hi All: Very interesting discussion. I too have wondered where insurance fits into a performer's career, if at all. In looking at Dave's examples, one should note that Rose Gold fell in San Francisco and never was the same afterward, although she and her 2 partners continued performing once she "recovered". The Geraldo's fell together and were seriously injured and although they returned to performing they were never the same either (although RBBB re-employed them for spot dates only in a few large cities, to utilize their tragedy and "glorious return to the stratosphere" to fill more seats and sell more concessions...) Eventually, the Geraldo's turned to "easier"? acts such as a Wonder Wheel of Death and performed for 20+ more years. Mrs. Geraldo is still living, now in Sarasota, but for years La Norma Fox drove back and forth to Tampa to take care of her until she agreed to go into a facility. She never had any insurance. For all the shows I ever worked for, there was no insurance offered although I think some producer's paid for injuries out of their own pockets or much later started to pay for workman's comp insurance, just in case someone was seriously injured or killed. One thing for Cirque du Soleil, they offer good benefits packages, as well, at least I would hope- that RBBB does too. As for mechanics, I would prefer to see less thrilling feats done without them, but with more artistry and flare. As a current working juggler told me- "I don't need to juggle 11 objects, as long as I can present 5 with showmanship and pizzazz!" I would have to agree. As I believe in most performing arts- showmanship is everything! It's just like singers; some are only good at recording, while others are dynamite in person. They are the real performers! I remember seeing Linda Ronstadt on stage, she stood there like a post; great voice, horrible performer! But at least I can buy a CD and don't have to watch her. In circus, as a more visual art, seeing is everything! But can the average circus-goer tell a triple from a quad? I don't think so. But you are right on- a mechanic makes the average circus-goer question what they are seeing. Often, it seems to me at least, that mechanics get in the way of tricks and it's hard to look poised and beautiful when you're wrapped up in a bungee cord! Thanks for letting me muse and thanks to the real aerialists who don't have to hang by a toe nail with a mechanic to gain my appreciation!
Neil Cockerline

Anonymous said...

One last thought... When I was with Circus Chimera the first year out, (or Circus Shitmera as I call it) one of the young female aerialists on the show worked up a solo trapeze act under the direction of Guennadi Tregoub, the Performance Director and debuted it at an evening performance in Oakland, CA. Sorry, but I can't remember her name off the top of my head, but at the time her mom ran a trapeze school in Canada and I remember she had dual Canadian/US citizenship, not that it matters. She was and still is one of the nicest most wonderful young women that I have ever met. Anyway, she was wearing a mechanic for her act, which was designed into her routine. The act was nothing short of spectacular, but she slipped during the routine and went flying off of the trapeze. Even with the mechanic in place, she fell so fast that she hit the black top with both her hands, shattering both of her wrists among many other bones in her arms and hands. She was rushed to Oakland General, where she was operated on by their Chief Orthopedic Surgeon, who it turned out was also the Chief Orthopedic Surgeon for the San Francisco 49-er's, the Oakland Raiders, the Oakland Athletics and the San Franciso Giants. He put her arms and wrists back together with enough metal to build a small automobile and I clearly remember all of the nuts, bolts and screws sticking through her skin, so they could be manipulated as she mended. It had to have been horribly painful. Judkins had me go to the hospital daily to check on her and one day the Surgeon stopped me to talk. He said that she was pound for pound the strongest, most in shape person with the most highly developed musculature that he had ever seen, and he had worked on Montana and many of the top athletes of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. He concluded by saying that, "She puts professional athletes to shame!" His prognosis was that she would fully recover due mostly to her years of training and tremendous strength and flexibility. Last I heard, she was touring with the huge Cirque du Soleil arena show that was mostly a concert with acrobats and aerialists thrown in for effect. She was working as an aerialist. Having heard it from one of the top orthopedic surgeon's own lips and paraphrasing just a bit, "(Aerialists put) professional athletes to shame!"
Thanks again,
Neil Cockerline

Rebecca Ostroff said...

geewhiz.We haven't had this kind of chit chat in a while.

It is very nice to have workman's comp..yes

Not having insurance and getting busted up is not very good. However it never stopped me from getting broken parts fixed. I just negotiate with the hospitals.

The fabulous aerialist who broke her wrists is Ginger. Marska K's daughter.I remember hearing about her odyssey because I am great friends with her Aunt Christine.

I think of myself as an athlete. I think an aerialist is an athlete and an artist. So do all the medical professionals who have helped me stay in one piece.

We all make choices every day.
Some people train in flip flops.
I personally went thru a period where I skipped rope in flip flops on cement .

Oh yes, the rodeo was a real sanctioned event..with chunky monkies..

Wade G. Burck said...

Nobody has said that aerialists are not athletes. They all need different body musculature's, dependent on what they are participating in. I wonder how long she could have withstood 2 blitzing 285 lb. linebackers and a head hunting 210 lb. free safety driving her into the ground.
I think your story had a moral? If she had not had the mechanic, would she still be continuing her greatness today on Solei. She sounds like she had great "credentials" including her training. Some would suggest she was an amateur, given that she wore a safety, which saved her life.
Wade Burck

Rebecca Ostroff said...

How would one know the mechanic saved her life ?

Do you know how high she worked?
The trick she fell from?
If there was a person holding the lines ?

Could she have fallen so fast that there was nothing that could have been done ?

Did the mechanic fail?
Do you know her history and training ?

A friend of mine told me it is always good to know all the facts before coming to an uneducated conclusion.

Her mom is an American ex circus performer who started a circus school in Toronto a long time ago.

She is a creative talent whose hard work and perseverence paid off.

Wade G. Burck said...

The point was Rebecca, some would suggest she wasn't that good because she wore a mechanic/ and or went to a circus school, in fact read the first three post's on this thread which suggested it also, ie: "only for practicing a trick",
"circus school"
and learn aerial fabric and groping around the trapeze tricks and wear dogleashes to work"
"That safety cable gets rid of sweaty palms because unless that cable breaks we can marvel at their pirouettes not their daring.
It is a delight to watch a real aerialist.."

Negotiate with the doctors???? What kind of medical work have you been able to negotiate? I have usually been sedated before meeting the surgeon, and have found that afterwords, when he asks how you are doing, there are no do overs. In the off season, between dates, you fall practicing, how useful is that workmens comp.

The great thing about discussion's is that we can learn the "facts."
What are the "facts" Rebecca, that would disprove that the mechanic saved/aided in saving her life?"

1. How would one know the mechanic saved her life ?

2. Do you know how high she worked?
3. The trick she fell from?
4. If there was a person holding the lines ?
5. Could she have fallen so fast that there was nothing that could have been done ?
6. Did the mechanic fail?
7. Do you know her history and training ?

"Sanctioned?" Sanctioned by whom? The PRCA? The PBR? I have never heard of a "chunky monkey." Was it a specialty act, with a jockey baboon riding a border collie?

Wade Burck

Margaret said...

....Chunky Monkey..Isn't that a Ben&Jerry flavor,like Chubby Hubby..LOL..

Anonymous said...

Ok, now that I've started something, allow me to recall more details. Thank you, Rebecca for reminding me of Ginger's name. She is a credit to the circus in every way and if she ever reads this, I hope she is just WONDERFUL! At any rate, I do not recall the actual trick, so I apologize for that, but she was doing multiple twists and catching by her ankles both forward and backward in very rapid succession, not unlike Rebecca Perez's act when she was at the top of her game. I do remember whatever position she was in, she fell "forward" but facing the backdoor. She hit the ground toward the backdoor and then was thrown practically through the back curtain and then the mechanic threw her back into the center of the ring maybe some 30-40 feet, which I venture was due to Mr. Tregoub's reaction. The crowd was absolutely silent when she slipped and I remember hearing the cracks when she hit. It was chilling and I hope I never hear that sound again. She was working very high in the tent, I would estimate at least 30 to 35 feet above the ground from the tips of her toes when hanging fully extended by her hands holding the trap. Her mechanic was a single line belted around her waist and was being held by Mr Tregoub. Once again, she fell so fast that the mechanic prevented her body from hitting the ground I would suggest, but I wonder how the belt did not break her back in the process. Mr. Tregoub was from a Russian State Circus School (maybe Moscow??), so maybe he insisted on the mechanic, I can't say. I'm not sure what his credentials were for teaching aerial acts, as he was recognized primarily as a juggler, which he was fantastic. He had also instructed a young Austalian couple in a cradle act, that included some pretty scary leaps and catches as well, also done with a mechanic. I remember the girl slipped out of the guy's hands in Winslow, AZ, and the safety mechanic kept her from hitting the blacktop and allowed her to walk away with no injuries. She was very lucky, and though shook up a bit, she went on performing their act the next day. Did the mechanic save Ginger's life? Maybe, I don't know and I really don't care about any nitpicking, because she is alive today and still able to work at what she loves. That's ultimately what counts. Wade, I don't know about your football analogy, but falling 30+ feet from a high fastly swinging trapeze would make me think that being hit by an entire football front line wearing padding as they do, wouldn't begin to compare with hitting the blacktop over concrete like Ginger did. I sure as Hell wouldn't want to try either- BUT I think I'd take the football team over falling from a trapeze. But then again, I'm afraid of heights...
Neil Cockerline

Wade G. Burck said...

The analogy was in reference to taking that hit from the team, 5 or 6 times a game for 15 to twenty years.
I think the original thought was the necessity of a mechanic, and whether someone was good or not, because they had one.
Wade Burck

Rebecca Ostroff said...

what is one's obsession with comparing different arts and sports?

A 110 lb aerialist could not take being pummeled by a linebacker..duh

Why would anyone even compare the two ?

to me that is like comparing dachsunds to tigers

both adorable , yet totally different

Anonymous said...

Leaving aside the mechanic issue, I'll go along with you on the "self-absorbed" statement.
What is it with 'new' circus that the performers work with such an air of separation from the audience. Even traditional performers in arena shows look directly at the audience (though admittedly sometimes in a demand for undeserved applause).
Cirque is often like watching a sporting event where the athletes seldom acknowledge the spectators.
Or another comparison would be grand Prix dressage versus circus high school. Competition riders do their thing with stony, sour pusses - the skill is everything, whereas high school (if such a thing still exists on these shores) is a combination of skill, showmanship and beauty. Similar species, but entirely different contexts.
So, yes, I hate the pompous, self focus of modern performers, who come over as show-offs or olympic athetete rather than performers. The legions of circus greats have proven that it is not just technical skill that makes a star, and frankly, I'll take a stunning, sensuous aerialist, performing a less than mind blowing routine than an 'artiste' with an 'f-you' attitude.

PS, David, am I having deja-vue, or did you resurect this post?

Anonymous said...

I just got back from seeing Big Apple in Boston. The flying act must be one of the best in America right now. I'm not just talking about "did they do a triple", but a great variety of throws from a cradle above the rigging, and even a mini trampoline mounted above the catcher's swing to add some incredible distance leaps.
Picasso did an awesome act that outdid his dad's act. The horse act was aweful - I really miss the Katja days. Bello did numerous entrees including bungee and wheel of death and a quite funny audience participation bit that wasn't too long, as did Grandma. Other acts were a couple of Chinese guys doing handbalancing contortion, a hand balancing duo from Italy, the ever present silk act, a trampoline act by the flying act performers, a dance number with dogs.
Over-all, most of the acts were good, but the show had a different feel from what it used to. I did hear some very positive comments from audience members as they were leaving. The crowd was about a half house, but they're winding down a long run.

Juliana Martinez said...

As someone who is realated to nearly all of the original Ward-Bell flyers, I would first like to say that my grandmother, Mayme Ward always told me that my grandfather, Eddie Ward, invented the mechanic. If I had told her that one day it would become part of the act, she would be appalled. Does anyone besides me remember the term "arial ballet"? You wouldn't dance a ballet in your practice garb, it would detract from the eligance and symetry. My Grandparents, and parents had pride and dignity. They were flyers, but most importantly, they were trapeze "artists", and were proud of their daring, and also of doing it with style. If I had a lot of money, I would throw away all the strobes and laser lights and produce an old-fashioned circus with the kind of arial acts I remember. If you don't think a sway poll can still scare the pants off of people, you are wrong, it still scares me! Real acts with real risk and pride in artistry, wardrobe, and details. Put that together, and you might actually have a real circus. I just don't know if it could be done.