Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Academics Want What the Circus Will Never Give Them

 What Will Have Been (that never was?), from Australia's Circa Ensemble
In the current issue of Bandwagon (very heavy, very very late, and very deep in detail), there's a talking thesis by a retired college professor, Robert Sugarman, arguing, I think, for a "rationale" approach to circus history. Or I might have missed the point.

In his earnest consideration of modern day examples of how the circus has evolved in size and content, Mr. Sugarman seems to have fallen prey to some easy assumptions about circus entertainment (let's put the word "art" aside for the moment) and in his descent, he has missed huge chunks of the contemporary panorama, including CHINA. In particular, the tricky relationship between the act (yes, "act" does sound like a crude word) and production (or should I say contextual stimuli?)

But, to get to my provisional impatience, here is where the professor goes off the track: In his view of Cirque du Soleil, he is prone, as some are, to see the triumph of spectacle over artistry. Not a new epiphany. Thinking types in previous generations complained along similar lines about Barnum & Bailey, about John Ringling North's "night club" productions.

Finding Cirque du Soleil showmanship analogous to a Busby Berkley musical of the 1930s, Mr. Sugarman argues, not to resolutely (he is, after all, an academic being more politely collegial than persuasive), that Cirque "exalts not the excellence of its performers so much as the awesomeness of is productions." Furthermore, "it is the effect, not individual performers, that is the point of it all."

 Cerebral Cessation between acts:  Seven Fingers - Sequence 8

And there is where he and his thesis derail. How tempting it is to underestimate not only the depth of the artistry inherent in many of Cirque's best touring shows (the very accomplished Russians compete to get in them), but in the splendor of the staging techniques that actually exalt world class performers.

Academics, because they need to be digging deep for meaning that is often not there, will in vain default to strained intellectual constructions. They must redeem the circus of the circus, must make of it more than it is to the common eye. Must discover and amplify deep meaningful reflections of societal dynamics and great historical shifts. Pardon me for sounding obtuse. The circus is not theatre. Is not cinema. Is not ballet. The circus is circus.

 The Zingaro Show:  That Way to Oblivion? 

Reading through Mr. Sugarman's paper, which he presented at the American Cultural Association in San Antonio last April, I ended up in a semi-daze, a little like the way I can feel trying to understand a Cirque du Soleil program magazine article describing the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the show I just sat through. The thunder of a great acrobatic troupe, the mesmerizing dexterity of a great juggler -- these moments generate a power that is universally understood and felt, without textbook, without an overwrought mind.

I am hoping to track down a copy at a local library of the book by Janet Davis, another professor, -- Circus Age: Culture and Society; Ms. Davis seems to be the most respected authority of the moment; I hope she does a better job lecturing under the big top than does Mr. Sugarman.

If not, I'll take an F and leave early.

First posted February 7, 2012

1 comment:

Arlee Bird said...

I've never had the pleasure of seeing a Cirque du Soleil production in person, but I've seen videos. They are excellent entertainment and I guess this form is part of the evolution of circus. I still think there is a place for the traditional sometimes disjointed presentation of a series of independent circus acts. Cirque is slick, but sawdust circus is the gritty dream of days gone by. There is a place for all of it--animals included.

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