Whether scampering up and down poles, throwing up audacious human pyramids on rolling bicycles, or diving through stacked hoops, they win us over. Breathlessly. Emphatically. They are the essence of circus. The dazzling manifestation of its ancient roots giving rise to yet more ground-breaking wonder in the here and the now. But these days, the here and now may be leaving the lot.
It is, of course, a political question, given the rising tensions between the U.S. and China. Anti-Asian currents rattling pockets of Asian communities into fear and retreat are said to be on the rise. The tragic irony here in the Bay Area is that the older Asians being attacked are among the most civil and law-abiding and productive citizens anywhere, their young hoodlum attackers, the very opposite. The crippled agenda-driven media here in the state of insanity is too timid to clarify.
But those currents are felt elsewhere, too, and the question becomes: How detrimental will these anti-Asian hostilities be to Asian circus acts? Hardly an issue, really, considering the demise of the two shows that could afford to routinely import from China and other Asian capitals: Ringling and Big Apple.
Nixon’s Gift to the Big Top
When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, he established a cultural exchange program, which opened the tent to the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe the following December. Chicago welcomed them with raving receptions. Dates in Indianapolis, New York and Washing, DC followed. The ring had been set.
The British Validation
Over across the pond in the 1990s, Circus owners Carol and Phillip Gandey were awestruck by a group of Chinese acrobats they saw at one of Monte Carlo Festivals. They could envision a rebounding road to robust ticket sales, and thus they smartly established The Great Chinese Circus. The Brits responded with billfolds wide open. In the land where circus was invented, how could they not spot the brilliance? It has been written that for many years in the UK, Gandey’s Chinese unit drew the greatest patronage.
Sky Bound, Too
Traditionally preoccupied with ground acrobats, in the last 20 years Asian acrobats everywhere have expended their repertoire, onto wires and swings.. One of the best multiple rigging flying acts I have ever seen were the Shanghai Swingers, with UniverSoul some years back. You may have seen footage of the North Koreans at Monte Carlo, of the young star flyer who executed five somersaults over a long arc. YES, maybe not adhering to the traditional flying return set-up specs, but a hell of a trick on its own, and a longer lasting one to enjoy.
Now A Harder Sell?
Over here, we may be seeing less of the Middle Kingdom, I currently fear. On America’s Got Talent the other night, which I now and then scroll through, I was stopped by the sight of a group of acrobats already in progress. Of course, I was hoping to see Asian faces, for I knew the odds would favor something special. Close up, the faces were not Asian. The young men performed an ambitious routine of mediocre content, though a couple of the judges swooned, one of them conceding she loved a certain member's body. Somebody cracked that Simon had given them the buzzer. Simon knew best.
Does this mark the new normal? I hope not. Given the absence of Ringling and Big Apple, and worse yet, the ominous rumblings over Taiwan's precarious future (truly frightening), we may not have much of a chance in the years ahead to be thrilled by those fiercely driven wizards of wow-full invention.
But I do believe that American circus goers, who have long understood and appreciated the truly international nature of great circus, will respond as vividly as ever when offered the genius that comes our way from other lands, no matter the politics.
Above: The mesmerizing Ty Tojo on Big Apple Circus, 2013