Baraboo on Parade!

Baraboo on Parade!
Down Fourth Street on Saurday, the fifth annual circus celebration and big top parade. Photo by Todd Krysiak, Baraboo News Republic

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Big Apple Circus in Meltdown? The Paul Binder Equation May Not be Sustainable – Without Paul Binder

Given the urgency of the moment, I am bringing the one back.

Part 2 in a Series
 
Bottom Line, from the top:  Paul Binder lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the entire company and its many supporters could cohere.

 The proposed circus school, in the beginning.
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The most oft-visited reality of circus -- forever on the brink of disaster -- is once again threatening to put another show off the road.  Now, it is the theoretically formidable Big Apple Circus of New York --  not for the first time, but once more comes news of severe cutbacks and shake ups at Big Apple.   These are dire reports.   And so, direly I speculate:

Circuses by and large rest and move on the strong shoulders of one person -- the owner (or a figure virtually occupying that position) at the top.  They by and large do not work well as non-profit performing arts entities, which have a way of self-expanding into payroll-crushing monsters, not to speak of constant internal battles over who gets to run the show. Circus Vargas may call itself non-profit, but it hardly fits the profile.  Is it thriving?  I can’t say it is.  Please understand, one of the factors I look at is audience size.   I’ve seen mostly good crowds at Big Apple, mostly meager turnouts at Vargas, including, most recently in my own backyard, in Hayward.


THE BINDER EQUATION

At the foundation of Big Apple circus, founder Paul Binder, wanting it to be non-profit from the outset, built up a complex arts organization, to which his multiple talents seem to have been effectively applied.   Back slapping to fund raising -- big bucks in better times from corporate NY; discriminating trips abroad to scout some of the best acts in the world; a warm personal connection with the audience in his ringmaster red -- I fondly recall, during a performance in Brooklyn back in the 1980s, Binder taking some time, not overdone, to insert bits of historical information about some of the acts. A touch pastoral. 

 The Dusov Troupe: Big Apple books world  class acts.

There are many things of which I am uncertain, but here goes my best long-held impressions -- key components of the Paul Binder Equation -- primarily in the positive.

* An infections pied piper:  Great at fund raising, from the man on the street to the CEO in a glass tower. I can picture him talking the City of New York into giving him space at Lincoln Center, if not free, at dirt cheap prices.  Through the worst of times, he found ways to muddle through.

* The bogus (as I see it) repertory type troupe he commandeered — don’t think it ever produced first rate acts, but it added to the elitist imagery surely designed to impress arts-conscious New Yorkers.  This they could believe was their own circus.

* The Clown Care Unit, a noble venture, has helped sell BAC to corporate sponsors.  To this I see they have just added an Autism wing.   Charity has been used in many ways by circuses as a survival tool — pardon my pragmatism — but it can’t, I don’t think, save a show from irresponsible budgeting and top heavy management, or temporizing showmanship.


* Binder’s adoration of Bary Lubin’s Grandma, seen above in Dance On!, was,  I will concede, arguably well placed.  From on the ground experience, talking to a few Gotham locals around the Queens lot, while I do not believe that Grandma could solve all the problems,  I’ll be the first to admit, there are lot of New Yorkers out there who took this classic clown to heart, and were none to happy when he was let go.  Comedy is the trickiest thing to bring off, they say, even more so perhaps in a sawdust ring.  There are some great clowns and comics out there; BAC should do a better job at finding them.  In other words, Give the French their walking papers. 

* Binder paid great attention to the concerns and feelings of each and every member of the board, I can only infer, from his having, during our one interview, spoken highly of somebody who had just joined the Board, wanting to be sure I wrote down that person’s name.  A master diplomat in my distant view.


* Animals.  Genuinely sensitive to changing public sensibilities, Binder steered a wise course, safely in sway with domestic animals.  In recent years, Jenny Vidbel, above, has delivered delightful originality to the ring bordering on pure genius.  Photo by Bertrand Guay.

* Bureaucratic bloat:  On the downside, Binder's biggest shortcoming and  miscalculation, as I see it, was to foster too complex and far too costly an operating bureaucracy at the top.  Only he seems to have been able to sustain it through thick and thin.  The Great Recession took a terrible toll on the lush corporate funding that had given Paul & Company a free ride.  Much of that funding has dried up, and has evidently yet to return.   Barring a big box office turnaround --- in other words, evidence of showmanship that fills the tent day after day, I can't see it ever returning.

* Altogether, these attributes composed the Paul Binder equation.  There were, of course,  other more minor counterproductive policies and traits. He could not make his founding base, the circus school, work.   And he has been said by more than one source to have treated the lower working class ranks  with a cavalier disregard bordering on disdain.
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**** Summing up, given the man's multi-faceted gifts, I have to believe they lent an aura of command — real or subliminal — around which the company could cohere.  Since his retirement, an increasingly ominous succession of short-lived CEO’s has left a clear impression of disarray and chaos at the top.  Can you imagine Apple or Goggle or Facebook — or even Ringling — being run in so slapdash a fashion?  I can’t.

And that’s the way it seems to be from my perch here in Oakland.

First posed September 27, 2015

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Creative Shanghai Acrobats Sizzle and Soar in Plodding Circus Ballet



Circus Review
Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China
Shanghai Nights at Berkeley, CA
September 10, 2016


The richly talented Shanghai Nights, from one of the country’s leading troops, offers yet another one of those tortured patch works combining  ballet, theatre, opera, and circus.  But the circus parts are well worth the patience it may take for you to sit through the story-alluding segments. If I got it right, two fated lovers get torn apart, until they are reunited, and a clown is murdered.

How Novel: A Chinese Clown

The clown is played by the gifted Nia Jian, a charming asset to the troupe and to the story telling, such as it is, or may have been; I don't pay much attention to those things, and I don't think anybody else does, either.  Jian has comedic flair and charisma, agility and deft dancing skills.   A star jester, I'd guess, and in so unexpected a setting!

Show starts sluggish and slow, opening sequence needing to set up the story.  But once the best acts hit the stage, you will be amply rewarded.  The inventive genius of this troupe is stunning to behold. They employ clever new props, twists and turns to most of the familiar staples, ball juggling and bouncing, hat exchanges while dancing, diablo and teeterboard and the hoops, among the standout displays.

For example, when Nie Jian takes time out from his clowning for some serious work on the rolla bolla, he places cups on the tip of his balanced board, and flips them up onto his head. First one cup, then two, all the way up to five.  Five.  Get this: They are all flipped together, though separately, into the air and manage to land, each in succession, one after the other into the preceding cup! Jaw dropping.  

Collectively Dazzling

Much of the circus in this show is like that.  At delicious intervals, ensembles blossom into mesmerizing charivari action, banners flaring, people jumping off springboards in one direction, flying up in another, yet others dancing or juggling in a front line, the hyperactive juxtapositions a work of great joy.  So many tricksters doing so many wonderful things at the same time!  The hand of Buzby Berkeley comes to mind.  Yes, sit there through the big top broccoli servings and take it -- if you want to get to the good stuff -- the cotton candy thrills.  Oh, the sacrificial drudgery (pretending to be following a plot) of circus-going these days.

Imprisoned in Darkness

But don’t count on the first half stream of pure circus to be as abundant after intermission.  In fact,  the second half grows darker and more dramatic with the invasion of “evil forces.” The ballet crowd may go for some luminous stage pictures.  And those who favor Bach on solo violin may feel placated.  Yes, Cirque du Soleil’s fetish for opera comes annoyingly to mind.  Some of the recorded scoring, to be fair, is strong and relevant.


The Shanghai Acrobats have performed  with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and, lately, in concert halls to the music of the masters.  I think I would much prefer the symphony showcase to this.  But then again, I suppose they have their eye on patrons of the higher arts who want their circus free of all the things with which they have their "issues."  The perfect show for this crowd, which filled the Zellerbach.       

Were Shanghai Nights true, with every frame, to its acrobatic brilliance and compelling creative genius. I’d gladly give it at least 3-1/2 stars

But, it has all the other stuff that can feel stifling, however well intended or execuited.  Sorry, something about the weakest links in a chain, you know.  So, I'm giving it a decent 2-1/2 stars.
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After the show talk: Shanghai Acrobats appeared at the ERA Intersection of Time, In Shanghai, in 2010-2012.  When I was there in 2010, I saw another very creative show, but with no where near the same problematic story line as this one.   I discuss it in my book, Inside the Changing Circus ... I'd love to have a photo of Nie Jian, but can't find any in my searches. Were I to contact the management, I am almost sure they would not favor me. I think they have a thing against giving any individual artist a shred of individual attention ... Was every act a gem? No, there were a few so-so routines.  The lady plate spinners, this time on stilts, did nothing but keep the plates spinning while walking around and around during one of the most boring narrative sequences.   I saw few flubs at the show I caught, doubly remarkable among the populous ensembles when so many things were in motion.  Much of the group work manipulating  similar objects was outstanding. As you know, it is not always that way.

Monday, September 05, 2016

San Francisco and the Circus on Labor Day

 
For over half a century Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey came to the city by the bay every year without fail, and on almost every Labor Day weekend.

They played the Cow Palace, where they had turned crowds away by the thousands in 1948, above,  the year the building was built.  I saw the circus there in 1955, during a labor strike when more than half the seats were empty

 The Ringling side show, in front of the Cow Palace, 1955

The show returned in 1957, and would play the Cow Palace every year without fail, up until a few seasons ago, when the modern scene with its many issues coming into conflict with circus made it near impossible to pull decent crowds without animal rights protestors spoiling circus day.

In San Francisco, the city of my birth, I saw my first circus, Polack Bros, at the Civic Auditorium.  Three images would stay with me: the flying trapeze net, elephants  entering the arena, and a clown gag that made me laugh: They lit off a cannon, which only made a squeak, then a small firecracker which produced a huge cannon blast.


The San Francisco I was born into was a real city.  Working class families.  Factories and produce, and all the ships of commerce that came in and docked, were off loaded and on loaded,  and sailed back across the sea.   After graduating from high school in another town - Santa Rosa, I went down to live in San Francisco, still enamored of the city.  I worked as a bus boy in Foster’s restaurants and as a clerk typist at Planters Peanuts in the warehouse.  The SF stint lasted less than a year.  I would never live there again.


Because a thriving middle class once lived there, it had a great amusement park that entertained the masses.


Today, Playland-at-the-Beach is long gone, which may tell you something.  Most American cities have retained their amusement parks.  But San Francisco has dehumanized itself into a cold and heartless, elitist and greedy metropolis for the one percent crowd.  Here, the rich make an art of it. And here over precarious landfill by the bay, buildings continue to rise.  Nauseating.  Now the developers are reaping engineering nightmares:  One of the new towers is leaning, believe it or not, and owners of million dollar condos are beside themselves, filing lawsuits, fearing the unthinkable.  I feel little sympathy for these high rise hedonists.  

All over town, renters, some up in years, are being callously evicted or run off by steep rental hikes, the owners lusting after the new crowd willing to pay anything to live here, or the tourist trade. 

I have little feeling for this city.  They can’t destroy its natural beauty, but they can and are destroying its character and spirit.

What remains is a freak show of in-your-face liberation fanatics.  A smug “sanctuary city,” driven by white guilt.  A navel-gazing playground for digital airheads.

San Francisco has a circus school, Static Trapeze among its studies, and some in places of higher leaning point to it as one of America’s best.   The roster of teachers is so long, I wonder if there are more instructors than students.  I have yet to come across an artist or act at a real circus that came out of the school.  No surprise, for that is the state of the States.  This country simply does not produce world class acts.  Too long a story to substantiate here.

I thought that Ringling might play the Cow Palace to show off their new circus without elephants.  But they did not.  That's right, the show still flaunts wild animals in the big cage. For this reason alone, not exactly a surprise that Out of This World was panned by the S.F. Chronicle.

I suppose the Felds have had their fill of this place.  I can’t blame them.

My mother once saw Sells-Floto Circus in San Francisco. And once upon a season, every labor day, I went to see Ringling Bros. at the great and glorious old cement barn, the Cow Palace.