Saturday, May 31, 2008

Big Top Bits: Circus in the Eye of the Beholder...

Circus, a word denoting many things ... Today, we cringe at the phrase “Circus Maximus,” yet, so say the history books, multitudes of sadistic voyeurs once thrilled to the gory spectacles staged in the Roman Coliseum when those two words were infamously linked ....Today, “circus” to some still means snarling animals and daring wire walkers, but ... tomorrow? Give the world another fifty or a hundred seasons, and what they call “circus” might be far more ethereal, far less real... You’ve seen statically choreographed aerial workouts on the "bed sheets" (credit Sarasota Central for that phrase). You’ve seen the hula hoops ... Dream on, those of the circus ballet class, your era may yet dawn ...

Circus in Petaluma under a small colorful tent meant affordable amusement to grateful parents, I assume, their amused moppets on free tickets in toe. On the plank in front of mine, a young woman was telling her son, “Mommy had to pay eighteen dollars to get into the circus. That’s a lot of money.” The boy listened, but still wanted popcorn. Said the one controlling the purse strings, “I’ll make you some popcorn when we get home.” I was very touched by those words, perhaps recalling my own mother struggling to make ends meet in her time, and I studied the faces of the audience, seeing people who get up every day and do hard grim jobs and do the best they can to give their kids the things that other kids get ... The mother and son pair did not return to their seats following intermission. Perhaps the boy longed for popcorn more than for more of the show at hand ...

Latitude Laliberte. Up there, circus is far reaching, visionary, ultra produced, and even sometimes a little flat and boring. How long, wonder even Cirque's admiring fans, before it too may seem old hat? How long before a new force trumps Montreal? Or will Mr. Guy reinvent himself through another epoch or two? From Alan Cabal, on my ill fated attempts to reach Cirque du Out There (the interviews they promised that went sssss into the Montreal mist), “Guy Laliberte cannot descend from the empyrean to dialogue with a mere mortal! He has planets to tend to and worlds to create! He is, after all, no mere CEO, but The GUIDE ... I tried talking to God once, but I couldn’t get past voicemail.”

Little Top Bits, down here on earth: New Cole Circus reportedly landed a 7-day gusher out on Coney Island last July, and might for all I know repeat the drilling again. According to the Bandwagon’s take on the season just past, twas a great date with long anxious lines forming towards weekend shows (“packed houses Thursday through Sunday"), staged near the famed Stillwell Avenue station. I can see smiles all over Johnny Pugh’s face. For him “circus” is life ... Carson and Barnes, the new and perhaps last “Big One,” is taking on some bigger cities this year, as in Rome and Auburn and Reading and Jamestown, and, hey, they’re shuffling up to Buffalo, too, for a two dayer ... Gotta admire the bird in Barbara Byrd, a wide ranging show lady hoisting her tents this year from coast to coast... About Circus Osario, profiled above, sometimes a circus review would seem insensitively irrelevant (as if none of my others have). A mere chance discovery for me, spotting their tent from a bus en route to Santa Rosa, enough to get me off the return bus and into their tent... Circus to me: I always wonder, what might happen under that tent, in those rings.... On this occasion (basic skills basically on parade), it was the audience that moved me the most. Speaking of which, let’s give credit to Big Apple Circus for handing out around 50,000 tickets a year to school kids...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Circus in Games, Gossip and Teenage Rage...

BigTopolis Rocks the Rails. Youngest person, so far, to play my new board game. Name’s Ryan. Top of his class, he told me. Child prodigy I’d say. Sauntered up my way on the train, looked at my pc and told me I should spell check. Kept leaving and coming back. Saw my game board (I was working on changes after playing BigTopolis over the rails three times between CA and NY), and ended up nearly begging me to play him a game. No table around, I said. So, we can play it right here, he protested. And we played ... BTW: when you “invent” a game, try it out on as many people as you can. That’s how you learn. That’s how the game is changed and gets better.... Asked this crafty Ryan, “Can you steal a city from another circus owner?” Well, there is now a fortune card that kind of allows you to be that ruthless... Oh, his age? "I've only been alive for eight years," he told me. Exact quote.

Carson & Barnes Trouping into Trouble? From a solid inside source passing along “rumors,” Carson and Barnes down in the Florida area where alligators dare to tread is a “train wreck.” Ooops, and gosh, and I hope not. “As of midweek, the show hadn’t had a good day the entire month.” Might be routing or ticket prices or chasing after New Cole. Or weakness on the advance ... Pray I, they gotta get out to California so I can see ‘em first before they careen off the tracks. Please, Barbara Byrd, while you’re out here, pitch your big tents at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds where Clyde Beatty once pitched his. I’d even book a hotel room up there so I could rise at the crack of dawn ... Kid willing to seat up seats for a ticket...

This a strangely happy season -- maybe. According to my source out there, some of the smaller tops are holding their own despite gas pump rapes and labor shortage blues....How I miss the old Billboard that each week headlined big top biz, i.e, “Straw houses follow King Bros. Big Bertha spotty in Chicago...”

New voices commenting in: Sam Graff agrees with my ecstatic assessment of Anthony Gatto: “Gatto is pretty much unanimously considered to be the best juggler in the world ... and I say that being a sport juggler myself. I personally know many of the world’s greatest jugglers, and Gatto by far exceeds everyone else. Period.” Yeah, Sam, after watching Gatto at Kooza, I was left dumbfounded. Woman next to me expressed similar elation. “He’s the best.” Those miraculous moments of discovery only come around a few times in a lifetime ... Which is why I do not read programs or bios until after I have forced myself to take a stand on each and every act. That’s my kind of a high wire walk.... And Ryan (not the 8-year-old BigTopolis player) syncs in with my argument about circus story telling: “When will someone return from an evening at the circus and say, ‘What a great story! You gotta see it!”?? Yeah, Ryan, when.

Narcissistically yours: Reading myself, (new feature, before I’m shouted off this lot) ONLY because, I’m going back to the year 1957 when I was in high school, when less than a year earlier John Ringling North had struck the tents for good in Pittsburgh and I was still hating him for doing it. I lost all perspective, yet somehow a rant I self published off a high school mimeograph machine, called 1957 Sawdust, found its way into the Billy Rose collection at the NY Public Library. So, it’s on their exalted authority that I shamelessly self-quote (spelling abominations and all), rereading what I wrote in my mid-teens for the first time since probably I typed it out on long stencil sheets and felt such a heady thrill.

Mr. North: “Glamourized Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey to the point where the channel #5 on the chorus girls and the tint job on the elephants could no longer mix ... It has been drizzling Mr. North ever since that fateful day in July [1956, Pittsburgh].

The outdoor-indoor Ringling 1957 tour: “Performers will engage in this cross-country tango overland in a fleet of house trailers, between “jumps” - and when they are not jumping, they will be “halting.”

Polack, 1957:

“The last half of the show, dressed up in a handsome aerial turn, plus some excellent comedy and aerial acts, is a sigh of relief to the sluggishness that haunts the first half.”

“The show has again been directed and designed by Barbette, the greatest creator of circus specs alive. Barbette has contrived a number of weirdly exciting rapurizations, among them: 'Carnival in Spangleland,' 'Beauty on the Wing.'”

The Wallendas on TV:

"A circus act must be seen in its entirety. Watching the Wallendas or any other thriller perform only part of their act is like catching a fish without casting for it.”

Trying to imagine the Wallendas under a Ringling big top in the 1920s: “I can see the masses of tightly set eyes all focused upon one object — the Wallendas. I can even imagine the vendors utterly speechless as they never are, silent, oh so silent under the fallout of this electrifying, never-wracking shocktacular.”

Some people used to say I couldn’t spell. I said no, I just made up another word...

In praise of Pinito: "Miss Galla Schwan has been slotted to replace the extremely gifted Pinito Del Oro [whom by the way, the showman I was trashing, JRN, imported, along with scores of the best acts in the world]

Loved the baby Besalou bulls: “Featured somewhat this season with the act, is a ambitious poodle that strutters and romps atop the backs of elephants, staying mainly on the plain.”

Riding a Bandwagon High. What a grown-up thrill, feeling like a high school kid discovering in the latest issue of the Bandwagon that editor Fred Pfening, in his roundup of the tanbark season just completed, reprinted my entire reviews of both Circus Vargas and Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Thanx Fred, for the high high honor. Maybe I have matriculated since my messy 1957 Sawdust days...

Next time we meet: the Real Richard Barstow...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Star Turns Transcend Big Apple’s Choppy “Celebrate!"

Circus review: Big Apple Circus

Cunningham Park, Queens, May 16, 11 a.m.

The reason, I believe, that Paul Binder and Michael Christensen have been able stay in the biz for a commendable thirty year run is due to their respect for the best acts available. That is the one consistent I have noticed, having only seen four editions over the three decades. So my impressions that follow may be deemed by the skeptical as too sketchy.

What Binder and Christensen, I regretfully find myself thinking once more, are not so smart at doing is production. Then again, Binder’s passion is a European thing — it’s all about the act, period — and old Europe, which may still linger on in his mind, was never much about the sort of presentational showmanship that has thrived both in the U.S. and Russia, and now, dominantly in Montreal.. While I watched “Celebration,” I could not help but compare it to Big Apple’s near-masterpiece of 2005, Pictueresque.

Ironically, this edition may contain on balance, a slightly higher grade of talent overall, but it’s in the “writing” (that being the work of Christensen and director Michel Barette) where things fail to jell. Where Old Europe returns to the tent. They start out with a wide-ranging mix of components from gold to ersatz gold minus virtually anything in the air (Binder, it would appear, continues down a pc road by shunning exotic animals and aerial daredevils, perhaps unduly influenced by Cirque du Soleil trends): There is the bright engaging English ringmistress Carrie Harvey who, oddly, never quite seems to realize a consistent role. Indeed, in a sense she must compete for ring space with two other recurring characters — a problem of focus not solved by the producers.

One of those figures is star guest clown Fumagalli. The other is, of course, Barry Lubin’s Grandma, for whom — in service to another Paul Binder article of faith — spots must be found. Lubin, who also draws a credit line as creative consultant, enjoys a privilege like no other I can think of under the big top. In fact, it may be unprecedented: He gets to take many many days off, during which time his character is essayed by a stand in — likely the case when I saw the show. Given Lubin’s extraordinary contract, this enterprise might be more aptly titled Grandma’s Big Apple Circus. Producers enslave themselves to such dubious addictions at their own artistic peril. Among the reasons -- they deprive themselves of the necessary freedom to create from scratch, on a blank slate, totally new work.

Production and story touches sprinkled throughout a disjointed program (performed to original music that favors a fiddle-string sound) fail to establish a central aesthetic force such of the sort that made Pictueresque so enchanting and complete. Here, the incidental posturing and sight enhancements come off as ambling, even gratuitous, rather than propulsive. For instance, during a pleasant liberty horse routine hosted by Yasmine Smart, Fumagalli makes a cameo, but without a comedy hook or payoff, which thus makes no sense whatsoever. Grandma does add a touch of holiday charm by wiping off the frost from a Macy’s store window, behind which, a delightful troupe of Irina Markova's dogs emerge. Inspired intro to an animal turn of astonishing dexterity and amusement. I see Monte Carlo gold. One of those dogs, by the way, twirled a hula hoop! -- finally, a hoopster I can believe in.

And Markova's act alone is worth the price of admission, and worth even the inexcusably long wait under rain and in mud behind long lines of school children. Why was there nobody out there to tell us, what I learned ten minutes later, of another very fast entrance for single ticket holders? I’ve never seen such a botched up front door operation, so oblivious to basic customer service. The BAC program magazine lists a multitude of staff names, surely somebody could make the front door a less disorganized place. And might they not recruit more than two people to sell concessions after the show? Thinking back to tenters less funded, less talented and less lucky, both Circus Vargas and Circus Chimera’s front doors are managed with proactive, exemplary ease and dispatch. I suggest that BAC hire Jim Judkins.

By far, for me, the biggest — indeed, major — disappointment was the band and the original score. Both unmemorable. Same conductor — Rob Slowik — different mix of composers. Yes, the music is functionally alive, but hardly distinguished. Rarely was I inspired as I was through almost the entirety of Picturesque. How true it is, I say over and over to myself, that a circus can change drastically from one season to the next..

Okay, enough complaining. Costumes are festive. Pacing is okay to maybe okay. And when the best acts are in motion (I placed six of them as outstanding), nothing else matters, and they give this show undeniable luster and force. I’m thinking a remarkably inventive group jump roping number devised by Kovgar and his whirling acrobats, who are back in dazzling form; also, of course, their terrific tent raising springboard exploits that bring the show to an exhilarating finish.

And let’s bring back Markova’s doggies for an encore. Miraculous training and showmanship! Other turns in the world class category: Kris Kremo breaks the mold with a persona closer to the cool magician than to that of agile juggler. He manipulates a number of blocks through incredibly fluid and complex patterns, though, surprisingly, I found him weak on stage presence.

Cong Tiam delivers the finest slack-wire routine I think I’ve ever seen, executing a variety of moves and tricks with the sort of polish and finesse that in and of itself supplies impeccable satisfaction. What a delight to see more Asians advancing to aerial art, for they bring such welcome perfection to the sawdust.

Among the secondary pleasures, the Huesca Brothers draw sharp excitement from a clean workout on the risley.

And then there’s this compelling character named Fumagalli. Great circus clowns are characters, not pretty faces alone, and here is a great working clown. Starkly defined, full of self-assumed authority. Commanding. From the moment Fumagalli enters the tent, broom in hand and a brazen penchant for selectively sweeping heads of hair, he establishes himself in no uncertain terms, and it’s this robust air of ownership — like that of the late Otto Griebling or the Russian jester Karandash — that sets him apart. Oh, what fun he and audiences would have had back in a Ringling three-ring heyday. He is what he is emphatically, and to that, I say, Bravo!

Now, Fumagalli has a partner named Daris, and what a team they make. Perfect compliments. Daris, we can tell, is just as amused by his partner — just as desirous of setting him off into comedy chaos — as we are. In a first half bit, “Someone Please Set the Table,” they specialize in slapstick, each trying to best the other in body whacks, etc. Somehow, timing and all, it is a simple, well choreographed joy to watch them at work. Especially to see Fumagalli getting whacked by one of his own backfiring props. And never to know when next fate will pelt him one in the kisser. There is wonderful bravado here. Not so in the second half, when they return in an overly talky skit in which Fumagalli showers half the front row with fountains of water from his mouth. I found this repetitive and tiring. But make no mistake, we are in the presence of a major big top personality. And I hope that somebody in immigration will refuse to let him leave the country. And that a circus that plays the west coast will nab him so that I can see him again.

Circus seasons come and go. I won’t forget some of these excellent artists. Kudos to Binder and Christensen for thirty dedicated years!

Overall marks: * * *

[photos from Big Apple Circus program magazine]


(Special note: Evidently responding to a reference I made to Big Apple Circus in the post below, company manager Don Covington e-mailed his concern, implying that the performance I saw was inferior -- "the dynamic in the big top is completely different than it is for other performances" -- because these morning shows are shortened for school kids. I did not know this, nor does the BAC website point this out. My review as written before Don e-mailed me stands, for I am reviewing the show I actually saw. This is the same thing I do with all circuses, anonymously purchasing my ticket. I've seen Ringling a few times on Saturday mornings. If the Big Apple Circus believes its morning shows are not up to its higher standards, then I believe the organization bears an ethical responsiblity to asterisk such performances with a footnote to the effect -- "Special shortened version for school kids." Of course, had I known this, I would have booked tickets to another performance. I saw BAC's Picturesque on a Saturday at noon.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Raves and Rants Along Forty Second Street

Showbiz David Out of the Past
originally posted 5/18/08

Penn Station, New York

“Another hundred people just got off of the train,” wrote Stephen Sondheim in his ground breaking musical Company. It felt more like a hundred million when I got off of the train on Wednesday at 5:07 p.m — and had to fight my way through a human version of freeway gridlock at rush hour. Try figuring out Penn Station — or the subways by night when track repair is under way — when even the locals don’t get it. And then it’s a city from hell.

My first goal was the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th. Nice people. Super rates. Only one cockroach so far (last visit). Maybe it forgot to check out before I checked in. Walls on every cool floor covered with art from the Warhol-Studio 54 era. Beautiful faces; how could we live without. And what a suave new lounge, where I began this post. Module furniture pieces across a spare landscape of black carpeting enlivened with abstract burgundy shapes. Piano standing by for jazz. Large head shot of Walt Disney in his extreme youth. He too was once cutting edge. .

Café 28, another golden Gotham find, just around the corner. Don’t let anybody tell you that New York dining is too expensive. Dine at a Deli and live.

After my Gershwin check in, I subway it up to half-price tickets. New York Theatre is an addiction, and I’ve got to see Broadway’s latest naughty darling , 2007 Tony winner Spring Awakening. Another ground breaker, raved the critics. Everything here has to be ground breaking. Here, the high culture snow job is a bunch of late 18th century German students railing against beastly societal repression and shouting to follow their hormones — all in the key of rock. And some of these songs do rock, no doubt about it. Among the audience pandering highlights: A wildly simulated act of man pleasuring himself; a dude and his S&M galpal going regular and so realistically, for all I know she is now on maternity leave. Somehow, the oddball premise, a bit forced and contrived and wrapped in pc trimmings, left me a bit unmoved.

What I love most about this great big metropolis that never lets me down are its rattletrap subways. Thrashing metal music to my soul. When I first came here in 1961 to visit my grandmother in Brooklyn, it took me three hours on a variety of ill-chosen lines before I found the Decalb Avenue stop.. What a ride! So ear shattering, so defiantly anti-digital.

Since then, I’ve learned the easy art of asking the helpful locals, who all speak English (how unlike L.A.). Chasing after an 8 pm. curtain in the Village for another “ground breaking” musical called Adding Machine, the young man who helped me figure out where I was going encouraged me to try seeing another new musical, In the Heights. “The guy who wrote it was a friend of mine in high school.” I was already intrigued..

After Adding Machine (starts out fiercely dramatic — woman hates accountant husband —then falls apart into woozy allegorical mush), Village life on a non ground-breaking summery evening offers more pleasure. Men playing card games in a small street corner park under real trees. People slipping into hip night spots. I take a touristly peek into Café Wa? where Ginsberg held court. You drop down a steep narrow staircase that feels like a psychedelic funhouse and enter a funky underworld of night.

South Pacific in revival: Glorious; everything the critics said it is. Not one vacant seat in the house.

If only ever-dying Coney Island could be revived like South Pacific. I take a ride out to check on its health. Now, school kids are bussed out to ride the Tilt A Whirl and its like behind barbed wire fences. And when the Cyclone opens, they all run across the street to line up for the thrill of a lifetime.

The Wonder Wheel, which once I rode, was not turning, nor the parachute dropping. I bought a Nathan’s original — bare dog on bare roll served in a box. Was that all there ever was? And along a bleak block of closed concession stands, there sat one lone concessionaire in his Bust a Balloon booth. Would love to have snapped him. I asked. He turned his head away and signaled me to leave him alone.

Queens is another world, so unlike the New York city feel. That’s where I take in the Big Apple Circus on a rainy Friday morning. Another average pleasure hailed by overactive critics? I left wowed by the artists, unthrilled by the show.

God bless the NY Public Library. With an hour to kill before In The Heights on Saturday afternoon, I drop by the performing arts wing to merely inquire for future reference about the Richard Barstow papers. Olive and staff favor me by pulling out a sample box, and what finds it contains — things about Barbette in the eyes of Barstow, and of John Ringling North very much alive and creatively active at a production meeting. More on these revealing fascinations later.

And then THIS: Among the old 3x5 cards Olive encourages me to peruse, I find a reference to something I self published in high school off a mimeograph machine titled Sawdust 1957 — one of my youthful rants. Incredible! I gotta go back. They have things there that you might not find in Baraboo or Sarasota..

Onto In the Heights: Jackpot! Truly affecting. Red hot salsa score. This is the one. This will sweep the Tonys.

Last stop: Saturday night at the Helen Hayes to see the funky and half-funny Xanadu, nights in roller rinks luring me there. Wonderful for maybe thirty minutes. After that, too much campy shop talk among the Gods grows tiresome and flat. Not even 90 minutes long, and it’s on Broadway. Were it not for the disco-era hits that this silly silly silly show rides high on, an instant turkey surely it would have been

And how like a tired turkey I feel. Miles of subway steps. Dozens of high powered Broadway songs. Amtrak, take me back to California.

Now let another hundred people have at you, New York

Sunday out of the Past: Circus on the Couch -- To Trick or Not To Trick?

This first appeared on May 8, 2008

His face aglow, his simple words surprisingly to the point: The essence of circus, he said, is about stunts. Is about “tricks.” What a refreshing declaration from Lu YI, who teaches ancient Chinese acrobatics at, ironically, the ultra-elitist San Francisco Circus Center. He also serves as the institution’s Master Teacher and Artistic Director. “I love circus,” says he.

He showed up on local television last night in a rerun of a feature piece on the school, originally aired over three years ago. And for the first time, I got to see him speak.

Another voice on the same program, a much younger voice, enthused about good circus having “a theatre aspect to it.” Implicitly earnest was he to make clear his dedication to something much deeper than mere tricks. That’s our younger, woefully misguided generation paying lip service to a dwindling circus movement perhaps more avidly preached in San Francisco than anywhere else. After all, this is Bohemia Central, and this is where the once functioning Pickle Family Circus was born and entertained — before it lost its way trying to equal the Montreal monster.

Why am I so smugly taking aim at “theatre” under the big top? Using a stage director to pace and shape a show can be a very good thing. But allowing the theatre to eat your magic alive is a futile exercise in abstract self-anialation. When, may I ask, have you ever heard somebody tell you after having just returned from a circus, “What a great story! You gotta see it!” When, World? These drama-obsessed pretenders fail to supply the character and conflict essential to their vague dramatic claims.

The once-promising Pickles lost their way when Cirque du Soleil bolted onto the scene in 1987. I remember well Judy Finelli’s “Luna Sea” in 2000 having Cirque envy all over it. And I knew then that the Pickles were in trouble, for they had neither the money nor the capitalistic savvy to duplicate a complex commercial phenomena. Years later, at best, they might put up a theatre-circus piece during the Holidays in San Francisco. “Circumstance” in 2002 was hip and cynical and ultimately so gloomy that I wanted to run. Chris Lashua’s theoretically brilliant “Birdhouse” in 2004 felt strangely still born. You get neither satisfying theatre nor compelling circus in the grip of these egghead experimentations. Of course, friends and kin of the cast and school toss kudos, the local rag, critical acclaim. And the show does not go on -- not, that is, beyond the city that cradles it with subsidies and cheer.

Now essentially an educational operation, the Pickles offer instruction for nearly nine thousand bucks a year, which strikes me as a form of the capitalism they shunned when they produced actual circus shows that actually toured. And what do they produce for those hefty tuition fees? From what I can tell, a graduate grounded in some fundamentals and full of dramatic aspirations, ready, I suppose, to advance to another circus school or land a real job under a real tent. Some have found employment. Circus Chimera hired a pair of matriculating clowns who showed a degree of promise. Outstanding acts from the Circus Center? I'm not aware of any.

A band of intellectuals, among them Finelli, Peggy Snider, and Dominique Jando, may passionately believe in the artistically impotent results you produce when you place circus in a trenchant theatre vice. What might they have done with a young Miguel Vasquez? “Well, Miguel, yes, your quads on the flying trapeze are technically impressive, but, we need more, such as, how can we help you realize a deeper emotional connection to some dynamic drama in the sky?” Is not a great circus act enough?

This dubious movement, however seductive to some, is not a classroom prescription for success under the bigger tops. Stranded somewhere between Shakespeare and Barnum, the young student with brains is well advised to pay more attention to a Chinese taskmaster than to the associate dramaturg.

“Tricks.” Yes, Mr. Lu Yi. I’ll smile to that.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Ways of Cirque du Soleil ... My "Interview" That Went ssssss Into the Montreal Mist

Reader advistory: For all I know, they operate on another planet, and have their mail routed by space ship.

At the outset, let me put this into global context, kids: I am on record as naming three seminal forces in circus performance art during the last century: Anatoly Lunacharsky, a close friend of Lenin’s who, following the Russian revolution of 1917, elevated Soviet circus art to new heights; John Ringling North, who did the same for three rings in 1938; and Guy Laliberte of Quebec (when he is visiting earth), the ultimate mastermind behind the modern-day phenomenon known as Cirque du Soleil. So ...

November 25, 2004: I send both a letter and e-mail to Mr. Laliberte , seeking an interview and offering a number of options including meeting him in Los Angeles at a future time when he might be there.

Guy Laliberte does not reply.

March 22, 2005: I e-mail him once again, this time asking if he might respond to a few questions, one being “Have you EVER seen a circus without animals before starting up your own show or during your first formative years in operation?” I am hoping, without putting the words in his mouth, that he might mention the time, circa 1986, when, according to Larry Pisoni, he saw Pisoni’s Pickle Family Circus in the Los Angeles area and after the show went back to compliment the company. This would have drawn a strong aesthetic connection between the Pickles and Cirque. I also raise the option of his having a spokesperson speak with me.

April 7, 2005: I send an e-mail to vice president of Creation Giles Ste-Croix, essentially requesting the interview that I am so far unable to secure from his boss. I express a strong interest in at least speaking with him by telephone for 10-15 minutes.

No reply.

May 28, 2005: I e-mail Mr. Laliberte a third time. Here I am afraid, rhetorically speaking, I throw caution to the wind, resorting to both praise and satire in a futile effort to capture his attention (Sometimes, this approach works; so far, it has not landed me in jail). No luck.

Still not a peep from planet Cirque.

June 15, 2005: I write a letter to Mr. Ste-Croix, referencing my e-mail. I suggest a tape-recorded telephone interview or my e-mailing him a set of questions, believing this would be the easiest way for him to reply.

June 27, 2005: THEY RESPOND. Lyne DesRoches, Marketing Project Manager, e-mails me six questions, one being “how big will be Cirque du Soleil part in the book (10% 20%)?” Not since my efforts to quote some Stephen Sondheim lyrics in my earlier book, Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History, have I been asked for such intrusive, potentially controlling information. Even then, I reply as best that I can without in any way promising them any amount of a percentage of coverage. Nobody other than publishers and editors have any say in the development of my work.

November 3, 2005, one year after first approaching them and when my manuscript is now nearly ready to be sent out, I receive an e-mail from Karine Hachey, Office of the Vice President of Marketing:

“My colleague Lyne DesRoches has transferred your request to me. In regards to your interview request, I am pleased to inform you that Mr. Giles Ste-Croix, Vice President, Creation, will be available to answer your questions. Chantal Cote, our senior publicist, will contact you in order to arrange the interview.”

November 29, 2005: Needing to move things along, I send Ms. Hachey a thank you reply (via NASA), seeking either to meet with Mr. Ste-Croix in S.F. or L.A, at the same time including 10 questions for an easy reply. I have just seen the less than exhilarating Corteo, and so I take the opportunity to shape some of my questions around it. For example: “In Corteo, you are moving into a more theatrical-fantasia direction where circus acts are even more secondary in importance. Was this a conscious decision on the part of Mr. Laliberte and/or his Italian director?”

In the positive, I ask, “What are the chances, in your opinion, that the Cirque form of circus will, in years to come, be duplicated by more and more American circuses, in essence becoming a new standard by which all circuses are judged?”

I hasten to end with, “In closing, with all due respect, I must tell you that if you are unable to address these questions in weeks rather than months, your response might be too late for any interpolations into my evolving text.”

December 6, 2005: Only seven days later, Chantal Cole, Corporate Public Relations, e-mails me:

“My colleague Karine Hachey forwarded your email to me. Thank you for sending some questions intended for Giles Ste-Croix. I’m afriad Mr. Ste-Croix will not be in a position to answer your questions. When you first approached us back in June this summer (not so, it was back in November, 2004), you requested an interview with Giles Ste-Croix to discuss the modern-day circus scene and have his perspective on how circus arts evolved in general over the years. (Again, wrong – also, about his “days with Cirque du Soleil”) In those questions below, we see more a focus on Corteo and your personal appreciation of its content, which we evaluate as a review of the show and not as an overall interest in circus arts which is legitimate but does not reflect the initial proposal.”

My “personal appreciation”? ONLY could Cirque du Soleil have resorted to such euphemistic blather. Perhaps they had help from the Vice President of Creation on that one.

End of Story.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

New Book Due Proclaims American Circus Heyday "Largest Showbiz Industry the World Has Ever Seen" --- Go, USA!

My, does that make me feel good, especially since it's coming from outsiders looking back at our three-ring extravaganzas. I kind of all along felt that without ever trying to confirm my hunches. (Okay, we'll overlook Hollywood in the forties luring into movie houses 90 million people every week.)

The book, due out in June, is so clinically titled -- The Circus: 1870-1950 -- that considering its touted sweep, I would have called it The Circus: 1871-1956, but then I quibble. It bears the work of one (only one?) editor, two authors -- outsiders named Dominique Jando (now a San Francisco resident) and Canadian Linda Granfield -- and a "contributing author," fact checker extraordinaire Fred Dahlinger,Jr., once of the Circus World Museum library.

Pages? 670. Photos? count 'em -- 900, many by the legendary shutter masters.

Price: $200.00. This looks like a monumental. In fact, like a museum. Books of this daunting visualality tend to render me weak and helpless in their presence, and for sheer survival I settle by default for the photos. And what visuals these promise to be! Hard to imagine, in the discriminating vain, 900 top-notch images, although history needs mediocre photography, too.

But, once I can get my hands on a library copy, I will be most eager to see what "they" say, looking back at "us." I wonder if they will understand how we on this side of the Atlantic took all those great acts they sent our way and cast them so innovatively in such spectacular shows ... Europe had the talent, but little presentational pizazz. We never had nearly the talent, but we had showmanship of all angles and spangles --- from Coup-Barnum-Costello to John Ringling North.

[photo above, from Taschen books website: The glory that was Ringling: On the midway, circa 1955, during the John Ringling North era. Do I see Henry Ringling North -- the man with the tie?]