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