I believe the elements in each circus act are expressive in and of themselves, that the poetry of each act is where the value of the circus lies. To impose a plot and character on the circus is like trying to turn a piece of sculpture into a symphony."
-- Larry Pisoni, interviewed for my book, Fall of the Big Top
Ever since the artistic explosion of Cirque Du Soleil came to town, ever since the animal rights crowd gained law-enacting force, circus has been driven into near-oblivion. Across deserted midways now, a new class of academic artists bent on bringing valid theatre to the big top are flexing their elitist views with ever greater voice --- if not force.
Can they help revive our withering big tops? The free market place will decide. So far, there is little evidence of widespread public elation over the sawdust-stage combo.
The meeting ground and launching pad for their hectoring notices seems to be the on-line Circus Talk, in whose upscale pages you can behold their most audacious expectations. This is a journal highly esteemed by such people as Don Covington, calling it “the new Billboard, the single most important trade paper for the circus world internationally ... Its staff of critics and reviewers provide some of the most insightful coverage of contemporary circus anywhere”
I have no doubt that Don is right about the sweep. One may feel intimidated by the websites towering presence.
When I first took a ride on the glossy and glorious Circus Talk, perhaps too much in haste, I got the impression of an upscale, mutual back-slapping celebration designed to host a chic marketplace for artists, agents, and owners. And so I could not quite imagine the editors going full tilt on objective circus reviewing that might offend anyone in the choir.
Paranoia or perception?
Don sent me Circus Talk’s review of the Big Apple Circus of 2018, a very long, very thoughtful notice by Madeline Hoak, one of the highly credentialed theatre-circus advocates. In a critical mood, she makes no bones about her unease and irritation over lapses in human disclosure, character arc fulfillment, thematic cohesion, diversity and "strong dramaturgy." No room here for those corny old words Pep and Pace. I suspect these eggheads are mainly trying to impress and outdo each other.
More Human Condition, Please!
To wit, a few Hoak nuggets:
“A small cast of incredibly peppy and youthful actors” Actors?
Adam Kuchler’s “character has no substantial arc. This type of disjointed artistic direction was an unfortunate constant in the show”
“Were it not for the emotionally laden music it would be a flat demonstration of highly impressive and technical aerial work”
“Ringmaster Monseu’s script was disappointingly simple, and her delivery was molded into the hollow, affected tones I associate with previous ringmaster John Kennedy Kane.” Actually, I rather liked the ringmasterly role played by Kane, although I can’t recall him shedding tears for the fall of Adam.
‘Of all the performers, I got to know Adam Kuchler the best.”
“I found myself asking, where was the tragic? Where was the sadness? Where was the commentary on the failures life hands us.”
On the failures life hands us? Are you kidding? Let me repeat:
“WHERE WAS THE TRAGIC? WHERE WAS THE SADNESS? WHERE WAS THE COMMENTARY ON THE FAILURES LIFE HANDS US?
Yes, at a circus! In other words, where was Shakespeare?
But What About the Acts?
Now, okay, so it sounds like a real review. But is it? Aside from Ms. Hoak’s misgivings over flimsy, ill-wrought narrative, what did she have to say for the acts themselves? Nary a bad word. “Two cheery hours of circus success.” And there you have about the same thing you will get from Circus Report or White Tops.
I recall looking through reviews of the same Big Apple Circus opus from other sources, one from The New York Times, whose critic down on street level, Alexis Soloski, found the show quite a pleasure, albeit it “high flying, but also more low key ..... The marquee acts are fewer ... The horizontal juggling: visually ravishing --- but un-astounding. ... Upright ladders: astounding discipline, but isn’t much to look at until he adds a soccer ball.”
Most New York notices found the clowning weak. Some welcomed the lack of a story angle mucking things up.
In fact, it was the same Times critic, Ms. Soloski. whose tepid review of the previous edition drew a firestorm of outrage from the learned ones, some arguing that any one of them would have been better qualified to pass judgement for the Times. Mutual back-slapping? I would love to see how they might have reviewed the show.
For my money, I would any day place greater trust in a notice by Alexis Soloski.
There are maybe four reasons why Ms. Hoak gave all the acts a glowing pass:
1. She has seen few circuses, or is new to circus history.
2. She wants to avoid coming off as critical of old circus. She does express genuine affection for Big Apple Circus.
3. She was too focused on character and plot to give much attention to such trivial matters as number of clubs in motion, difficulty of tricks -- or aerialists slipping out of harnesses and heading south.
4. She had been dating the company dramaturg, and got dumped
5. She wanted to be the company dramaturg.
Circus Talk and its disciples may actually be able to invent theatre-circus in a way that, may untimely bring about a whole new genre. Don’t count them out. What they are really doing, as I see it, is using circus candy as a tease, a seduction, a way to lure in people who can’t stand circus, but desire its more appealing elements in a non-circus package. Are there enough of these people out there?
What next on their wish list: Primal scream on the fabrics? Suicide over sawdust?
Give me a seat near the circus and let me hear stirring fanfare and let the great parade of wonders begin — and I am young again in heart and spirit. Give me a boy and girl close enough to share it with and to hear all the exclamations of wonder, bewilderment, surprise, and let the laughter ring out.
Gabriel Heater, 1943
Where was the tragic? Where was the sadness? Where was the commentary on the failures life hands us.”