Sunday, August 22, 2021

Power. Agility. Perfection. The Face of the Chinese Acrobat, No Longer Welcome?

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. 

China’s most profound impact on the American circus scene was produced 14 years later by  Kenneth Feld in 1986, when he ingeniously integrated the various acts of the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe into the program.  East and West merged in a spectacular three ring smorgasbord0. The public took note.  So did Paul Binder, who checked in two years later with his own The Big Apple Circus Meets The Monkey King. Any good circus producer, and Binder was one of the best,  soon learns that to get your best acts, you must go abroad.

 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

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Sunday Morning Pics, From Piedmont Hills to Piedmont Avenue ...

Okay, Blogger, so you want these two pictures at the top?  You have a way of shifting things around behind my back.   I did not consciously put  them there! But why not.  I want to go to St.Leo's someday, for more than a brief sit down. I must admit, I love the rich atmosphere of being inside a Catholic chapel -- or is it cathedral? . I remember attending one on Christmas Eve in Glasgow, Scotland, many years ago. 

The border between Piedmont and Oakland, where I live,  crosses through my apartment building, it has been said. Which might mean that I sleep in Oakland and, up the hall, do my laundry in Piedmont.

Sometimes, above and below, with my Canon SD 780 1S, which I took to China in 2010. Sometimes, it seems in the right mood and I love the results. Other times I raise my iPhone SE to the view, forever suspicious that it is pixelating to dazzle me with something closer to a techno seduction than to a  more intimate connection with nature and art.

And yet, I can't tell you for sure, picture to picture, which camera took which one. I think my iPhone came in handy for this image, as it did for those along Piedmont Avenue.

We are, above and below, on Cambridge, my favorite street in Piedmont. It is hilly and cozy, winding and filled with a variety of homes, not all that spectacular except for this one, my favorite house in all of Piedmont (of those I have seen).



This corner house bears the most lavish new landscaping, it must have been sold. It is for me impossible to photograph, so here I have simply gone for a wide view through the iron gate.

If I may say, this is a keeper, which I came upon up above a stream below that winds its way under and along  a series of blocks. It's that little brown shape that makes it for me, whatever it is -- it looks alive.

The impromptu chairs. I love reading here, and often I have the spot all to myself as people and dogs amble by -- my current paper mate, a Hamish Macbeth mystery. You can hear the trickling stream down below.  Nobody knows how the chairs got there, at first there were only three greens. Sometimes they take a break and are gone and I fear they will never return. Happened a week ago, and I assumed they were gone for good. And then they came back!   So now,  to the Piedmont Avenue part of this post.  

The Piedmont Grocery went mask-free for two or three daring weeks.  Of course, it  couldn't have lasted.   The un-vaccinated are the problem -- sorry if you are and feel offended.  The two shot protection is so amazingly good (99.9% against hospitalization and death),  that  what really boggles my mind is how many health workers resist it, too. Which only goes to show that those who administer science-based treatment to others do not always accept the same treatment for themselves.. We are innately irrational creatures.  

I wondered who that was in the window. Oh, it was me!

I could cry,  Ninna's was my favorite Thai restaurant on Piedmont Avenue.

And Gaylords, still shuttered.

This was a total shock. Greetings. I thought it was invincible, I have bought so many things there over the years, mostly gifts.  The walls were lined with greeting cards, some blank, from the world over. They always had just the right thing.. So many small business owners got screwed by one of the most shamefully self-serving governors ever to rule the State of Insanity. A smug self-entitled despot who faces a recall.  And may have plenty of time, if he gets the royal boot, to wonder what all went wrong at the French Laundry.   

Goodbye, another our-town Piedmont Avenue luxury.  My last purchase a few days ago was a  colorful little child's book with blank pages, which I will give to my friend Boyi's son, Ethan, come Christmas.  You can see him up there, top right. playing a game of rescuing me (that's how it felt when I hid and made funny sounds and he came after me), during their visit a couple of weeks ago. He is such a cute kid, and now he can say name perfectly -- when he wants to. Oh, the joy a child can bring with just one word.


Sunday, August 01, 2021

U.S. Circuses in the Age of Virtual Reality: The Struggle to Placate Ambivalent Americans

The late Henry Edgar once posted a comment on this blog to the effect, What if you were to offer the customers what most of us would agree is the best circus possible and yet they still failed to fill up your seats ?  A very good question given shrinking crowd sizes over the last thirty years.  Maybe it's time to review not the show but the audience itself.  To continue Henry's thread, I have a question:

What is the circus owner to offer a jaded public turning fickle on big top staples?  

The Very Real Circus:  Not Virtual Enough?

Perhaps the force of circus being a live show no longer holds the same drawing power, as more people turn to virtual realities, albeit it everything from texting to eDating, video games to porno.  

I have long argued the compelling reality of circus.  More and more, I am starting to doubt the argument’s relevance in this new and rather frightening era of electronic interaction where, one day — people as smart as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have ventured — “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.”  Wozniak can see ourselves becoming the pets of our robots.   

Item: A group of friends sharing restaurant table space, but not each others company, preferring interaction with their smart phones over the people actually sitting next to them.

Item:  Check out the movie Her, in which a man forms a relationship with an advanced operating system named Samantha.  Frightening.  And very believable.

Enter the Ambivalent American Audience

Yes, Mr. Producer, I feel your frustration, even if you don’t.  You no longer enjoy the total attention of a crowd.  You now must complete with smart phones and tablets and other tweety distractions, ad nauseum.

You now must also compete for the respect of a crowd that arrives with issues about the contents of your show.  Oh, those weird looking clowns.  Don’t .. Come ... Near ... Me ... Look at that draggy tiger, think it's been mistreated?   Which reminds me, I've got to get some suppression pills for my pit bull. No, he can't attack anybody in the nose muzzle when we go out walking. ... Oh, no, look -- she's not wearing a safety wire, is she?   Sometimes they don't?  What if, oh God!  [Another day, another show]: Oh, look, she’s strapped to a wire!  Must be a beginner.  I could do that.

Even granting that a live show can still draw big crowds, then what next to question under the big top?  There's plenty according to the critics.  On parade, here come the most politically incorrect offenders.

Circus Staples Under Siege


This key element of circus  may be losing its luster to more spectacular acts of risk-taking on TV reality shows or aerial stunts in the great outdoors captured on film.  Compared to which, the sight of a mere human scaling a wire only thirty or forty feet above the ground may somehow seem, reverse affect here, old school.  Another trend that is emasculating the show are the solo and duo fabric aerialists who throw more focus onto slower balletic moves. I think this sort of action, some of it, to be sure, quite exciting, has nonetheless eroded the public’s taste for the more perilous tricks we associate with the single trapeze.   Would Pinito Del Oro, above, have settled for a silken web? For a static trapeze?

The protected aerialist: The presence of lifelines (mechanics) has done more than anything else to produce today’s ambivalent audience.  Courage or cowardice, which will it be today, Circus? With some performers flying under protection, others not, the vacillating impression does nothing to sustain a committed identity.  And the primal power of circus suffers.   


This old-time jester might today consider either less greasepaint or horror flicks

The heavily painted funny faces are not so welcome anymore.  Reports and images of creepy characters in grotesque clown makeup terrorizing citizens on city streets and in public places have produced a growing number of adults who fear taking their kids to a circus for this among the other reasons.  In Europe, there seems to be a trend towards less makeup, down to a red nose maybe and a few whimsical marks, sufficient to paint a face in mirth, but not one of implicit mayhem.  This is a viable route for today’s jesters.  After all, a clown is a character far more than a painted face.


The elephants may be on the way out. So, too, the big cage cats.  But there are still plenty of dogs, horses, camels and other critters — well, if  Jenny Vidbel can find and train them. I think that John Ringling North II made about as shrewd and sensitive a move as a circus man can make these days by featuring just one small elephant, Louise, on his Kelly Miller show last season.  The dancing of Louise, nothing like I have ever seen, was pure magic.

Encore for Elephants?  If the public’s skittishness over performing pachyderms is ever to be reversed, it may take one elephant at a time.  And it may take a far simpler approach like the one advocated by UK author and critic Douglas McPherson in his book, Circus Mania

“The elephants don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.  Just walking into the ring and marching, stopping and turning to command would be enough.” 

Indeed, a day may come when an audience new to such a spectacle as elephants on parade will thrill to that alone.  Certainly the children will.

Bring back the one-act show:  Circuses may help their cause by removing the intermission and running a shorter show straight through, as once they did.  Promise patrons less time away from their gadgets.  On their way out, happier, they may still be more inclined, maybe more so, to patronize the rides and concessions — the vain lure of selfies.

 Remember When Circus Day was Guilt Free?

Unlike their forebears, today's patrons enter the tent loaded with electronics and with overwrought minds buzzing with issues over whether to patronize a circus is even a good idea in the first place.
That long-gone circus day that enjoyed the total attention of an undistracted crowd not fraught with issues, that long ago world in which we once thrilled to a circus show feeling not a qualm, reveling in the honest and simple joy of it all --- that wondrous world, I am sadly afraid, no longer exits.

The Big Show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 23, 1953

Next: Can Kenneth Feld Rebuild The Greatest Show on Earth?

Photos above: On horseback, the Cristiians
On the high wire:  The Wallendas
On the single trap:   Pinito Del Oro
Clown Buzzy Potts.
Barnum & Bailey on parade, 1908
Under the big top At Gil Gray Circus (from the Circus Blog)
Ringling elephants on Parade, 1978, with Ana May in the lead, the Woodcocks in charge

First posted January 18, 2016