Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Real Risk: Coin of the Authentic Circus

From the first year of posting ...

A Golden Dragon Equilibrist Versus a Coreto High Wire Walker.

At the Golden Dragon Acrobats, who appeared last week on the stage of Berkeley’s Zellerbach, a very showmanly young hand balancer working the old chair-stacking routine gave us reason to feel fear, respect, hope and admiration. As he added, first one, then another and yet another chair to up his eerie elevation, we were treated to something we once took for granted under our now-emasculated big tops. (Who is he? The producer, whom I e-mailed, refused to provide a name.)

Just when you thought he had gone as high as he could go, there came that look on his playfully taunting face —— should I add just one more chair? Increase the danger and prolong your state of suspense and dread? From his perch on high, this slyly humorous entertainer smiled down upon our mounting sense of unease. We were on edge; not he. A circus owner somewhere should grab him fast by a contract.

What charges our emotions during such a performance is a feeling that only though skill, careful calculation, courage and resolve, can the performer stay on course and avoid the unthinkable. Every moment is in the balance as the stakes grow higher. A metaphor for life?

Now ask yourself: would you feel the same drama were the young man strapped to a mechanic? With a mechanic, it is impossible for the artist to succeed purely on skill. In fact, the artist does not have to succeed at all, because a lifeline will be there to save any tragic errors.

In contrast, at Cirque du Soleil’s latest under-canvas opus Corteo -- a fantasy sampler of many things that may you leave you with a new-found appreciation for the artistic brevity of the Three Stooges -- you can glance up at a young ballerina walking a "high wire," tethered, every antiseptic step of the way, to a thick white rope. You might wonder if Cirque intended to mock the dangers inherent in real circus as old hat. If, indeed, they are determined to deconstruct your appetite for the real thing by coercing you into buying the image without the reality?

Gradually, these insipid interludes will self-destruct. Audiences will tire of synthetic courage and go elsewhere for the real thing in other forums. Have you heard of extreme sports? Once at the circus, that's what you got.

Once at the circus, on her own, the extremely real Josephine Berosini, Circa 1955. Photo by Ted Sato.

First posted May 24, 2007