Thursday, February 15, 2018

Trapeze in Our Time: Beyond Elusive Quads -- Novel Riggings and Expanding Flight Patterns Deliver Fresh Thrills

Upon reading about  the Espana family being inducted into the Ring of Fame in Sarasota, I instantly thought –  Ramon Espana.   One of very few flyers whose names remain burnished in my brain.  He flew for Circus Vargas in the mid - eighties, and he flew with the greatest of pizazz.  I can picture him him up there on the pedestal, reaching out to grab the fly bar, as if to be be shouting — Give it to me!  I can’t wait any longer!  Gotta fly!

On, what a showman.  I think he even out-showaned  Tito Tito. Although I don’t recall his having as full a repertoire of tricks as did the Great Gaona, seen here, Ramon's zesty demeanor was infectious. He and the family reached the pedestal on high like attack flyers on a mission, burning to conquer the crowds below — their body language screaming, Okay, we’re here!  Now the real show begins!  When they were on, they were ON.  Ramon and his brother Noeh both turned triples, as did the Rodogels over the center ring.  The tent exploded with joy.

No doubt they were one of many reasons why I saw that wonderful edition of  Circus Vargas five times in three SoCal locations in 1985.  This was, for my eyes and ears,  Mr. V’s best ever. 

Once upon a season, circus-loving Americans banked on the biggest moment in the show --- when the nets went up, the fliers hit the rings with flaring capes and scampered up skinny rope ladders to daring-do and bravado at the top.   Once upon a season, whatever they did up there — remarkable or not  — spectators loved it.

I thrilled to  the Ward Bell Flyers on Polack Bros in its 1950s heyday, when three troupes of them worked side by side, their big climax being a simultaneous passing leap. Maybe they were ahead of their time.  Among the troupe’s  members were Harold and Eddie Ward, Jr., the later seen here, right, with Art and Antoinette Concello. The brothers  had grown up in Bloomington, Illinois — a veritable training ground through the first half of the twentieth century for many if not most of the best aerialists who flew over rings around the world.  America was once a major player.

Around that time, when the triple was still an elusive wonder, came an outstanding film on the subject  -- Trapeze.  In it, the character of  John Ringling North visits the famed Cirque d’Hiver in Paris,  to chart  the progress of a young flyer named Tino, struggling to master the triple.  Tino’s dream is to fly high at Madison Square Garden for The Greatest Show on Earth.

Once upon a time seems so long ago.

Ramon Espana surly realized his own dream through  the 1980s, in my view the last great American circus decade.  Another flyer with an advanced vision and more muscle yet, was the majestic Miguel Vazquez, who caught his first quadruple somersault  before a Tucson, Arizona audience while flying for Ringling-Barnum in 1982.  As the seasons flew by,  Miguel, seen below, had scarce competition, save for the Caballeros, whose quad career, from what I vaguely understand, was short lived.  In circus history, the lone figure of Miguel’s dazzling triumph still looms alone -- almost -- in its greatness.

Almost.  In 1991, the Russians included a quiet quad, executed by Vilen Golovko and  Pyotr Serdukov, in their celebrated aerial epic, The Flying Cranes, a tribute to fallen soldiers in WWII.  But ballyhoo the trick, they did not, fearing that the feat alone would detract from the sensitive story line. Which begs the question, with what frequency did Golovko and Serudkov succeed?

The Russians were already redesigning human flight patterns in circus space and time,  adding multiple riggings into novel configurations, to turn the standard daring-young-man appearance into a constellation of daring souls in motion at the same time.  I first beheld their thrilling vision at the Old Circus in Moscow, in 1979.  A stunning revelation of how and why the greatest  ring stars push to break new boundaries. 

After the 1980s, things began to slacken off in this country.  One shocking year at  Ringling in the 1990s, there was not a single trapeze act on the bill!.  I could hardly believe it.  Kenneth Feld, his own innovator, believed it. And the show went on.  Other countries were following the Soviet lead.  From Shanghai to America came the Shanghai Swingers, a sensational hyper ballet of complex aerial patterns, which I caught at UniverSoul Circus.  Other similarly inclined troupes landed prime time on Ringling. One always wanted more, and so more is what we got.

Today still, a number of ambitious young flyers take their turns at the elusive quad.  So far, they invariably fail to reach the golden altitudes with any degree of consistency.  Might this not possibly make the standard trapeze act, where a triple is no longer a notable exception, feel a tad, passe?

Ringling’s last show offered the crowd an exhilarating twist on a trapeze staple, thank you, Feld Family in fearless retreat, when two of the Tuniziani flyers, a fabulous troupe from Venezuela, turned triples simultaneously from separate riggings, flying in opposite directions past each. Spellbinding.  At least in the air, Ringling-Barnum went out in a blaze of glory.

Trumping the quad, something even more miraculous has come to flight: At Monte Carlo three festivals ago, one of the flyers in a troupe of eleven turned the quintuple  — yes, five somersaults.  The house was  ecstatic, on its feet, encoring.  Three or four minutes on its feet.   How I would love to have been there.  The judges sighed, GOLD.

From whence that monumental achievement? From Pyongyang, North Korea.

Some fans quibbled about the flyer, Ching Leong Chang*,  seen above, being given an unfair advantage, his takeoff catapulted from a small Russian swing type rig attached to the pedestal, with another flyer behind him helping to propel it.   The critics might be technically correct, but of greater import is what occurs as a result: The flyer is able to produce a more spectacular upward-reaching liftoff, and to trace a much wider arc on the ascent, as if to be literally flying through space  before falling into the hands of the catcher.  And thus, the trick is not only easier to watch, but it produces a longer lasting thrill.  Anything wrong in that?   You can see it here:

Back on earth, the standard trapeze turn may no longer dominate the bill as once it did.    And the fine young flyers failing to achieve the quad may not be  helping the cause any.  Latest is Ammed Tuniziani, claimed by Big Apple Circus to be "the ninth person in history to catch the quadruple somersault."  In her enthusiastic review of Big Apple for the Atlantic-Journal Constitution,Becca J. G. Godwin wrote:

 “Another seldom-attempted trick came from Ammed Tuniziani, who tried to complete a quadruple somersault on the trapeze. The effort failed when his hands didn’t connect with his partner’s after the midair tumbles, causing him to fall to the net. The crowd hollered anyway, perhaps feeling oddly reassured by the mistake.”

Were they — are we, too ? — “oddly reassured” over what might be considered a symbol of what is happening to the American circus  as, one by one, its core elements are seen as no longer working?   We are living through some kind of a very strange and uncertain time, the outcome for which is too hard and painful to predict.

One thing is certain, with kudos to some young North Koreans:  These rare mortals in lands far and near who hurl their spinning bodies through space like invincible birds of steel — they will  not go away.  They will not be denied.  Were John Ringling North alive today, I can’t imagine him not trying to get the Korean flyers over here.  Refusing to be denied.

Pray for North Korea to take a more civil road.  And, by the time that should happen, for there to be a circus owner still around with the drive and resources to book the Koreans for the First Time in America.

Jeff Bezos, are you available?


 *  Ching Leong Chang is what I hear the ringmaster announcing.   I have seen another video of what appears to be another Korean flyer turning the quin, whose name seems to be Han Ho Song,  but his takeoff is produced in a different manner, by his being capitulated from his feet by another flyer sharing the same swing.

Read about legendary flyer Miguel Vazquez and his phenomenal Gold Clown performance at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival, in Showbiz David's critically acclaimed new book, Big Top Typewriter: My Inside Adventures through The World of Circus.   Buy it now on Amazon at specially reduced Presidents Day prices.

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