Legit Circus, Kicking A.


One doesn't hear that phrase all-too often, even when one is (at least marginally) in the circus-performing world. You hear it about theatre, I think, because everyone and their cousin has committed an act he or she would categorize as "theatre" in the course of his or her life, and those of us who have committed just a bit more time and energy to theatre want to make a distinction between our showcase of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and the local community theatre's recent staging of "The Cherry Orchard." Circus, on the other hand, is not necessarily a common community (redundant by root?) activity, and even those of us who have taken some workshops and used the skills in performance are a little loathe to claim the status of "circus performer."

I suppose the closest thing to "legit circus" in the broad American vernacular would be something like Cirque du Soleil, which I (thanks to an extremely thoughtful pre-Christmas Christmas gift from Sister Virginia) saw live for the very first time last night. It was their production Wintuk, ongoing on the WaMu stage at Madison Square Garden. The show itself was rather geared toward children, with plenty of spectacular acts and production values, but also the through-line of a boy just wanting to see it snow, and puppet dogs with their own song. "We know these dogs, we know these dogs..." The lyrics left me wondering if the beautiful vocals of previous Soleil shows aren't simply elongated French words like, "I did my laundry, now buy me some baguette..." By the way, CdS now owes Slava's Snowshow royalties, big time. The level of surprise in the audience when paper "snowflakes" blew out of the vents all over us was perhaps a comment on just how far twenty street-blocks may seem to the typical tourist.
Sorry if I just ruined the ending for you.

And I digress like a nor'easter. Here's what I love about circus (as in, the following -- I'm afraid I can't make it twenty-five words or less [which should come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading this 'blog {hi mom!}]). It is live surreality. Consider that a moment. There's not much of that in the world, in the true sense (of my fictional word). "Surreal" things happen to us, like running into a long-lost friend at the DMV, or finding a hundred dollar bill in a laundromat, but generally speaking and notable exceptions aside no one we know turns into a monkey and starts hopping around in a trashcan. Further, circus creates a sense of disbelief, threat and relief all at once, and it actually happens. Right there, right then. Further still, circus is brilliantly human; admirably physical and, when its good, artistically inspired. Feeling awe about a fellow human being is an incomparable experience.

Here's what I don't like about circus: I'm not better at it and people don't make enough of the kind that tells a story.

Look: We love this stuff. We love watching other humans achieve amazing things, particularly physical feats, and especially when we can appreciate it in the context of a story. If you accept that we love this, why then, oh why, would you settle for a movie that is largely computer-generated cartoons? Or a play in which the actors never use their bodies in their acting?

My frustration comes of personal feelings, I confess. I haven't had a convenient or easy outlet for my circus tendencies for some time, and there's always so much more to worry over, but it's about time I got on that. There's just too little of it in the world. I've found two film genres that fulfill the need vicariously, somewhat. The first is the classic Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd flicks. Perhaps they were working from necessity. The beginnings of film in America was a little like the beginning of the Internet. Anyone who could afford to and was interested had a clear playing field, and these guys (not so much Lloyd; he was second generation) played it hard. Chaplin had a hard-knock life from poverty, Keaton from vaudeville. Lloyd didn't lack for toughness, though, either. He got half of his right hand blown off in a photo shoot, and still made movies. That one you always see where he's hanging off a clock arm? All with just nine fingers and one thumb. So those guys, they were circus performers, plain and simple.

The other, dear Reader, is kung fu movies. Yes. Kung fu movies.

Kung fu movies have a bad rep. True, in recent years folks like Jackie Chan and Ang Lee have made the genre more palatable to the common tongue (interesting image), but it's difficult to get away from the fact that kung fu movies are usually made with a budget of about $10 and are located in the most abundance in the same stores in which one finds films like Saving Ryan's Privates. Add to that the minor detail of the scripts for almost all "action" films seeming to have been written by a heroin-addicted five-year-old, and kung fu hardly has a fighting chance to stand as anything legitimate. And I'll admit it: Most kung fu movies, in terms of story, dialogue, and in many cases production values, demonstrate the worst of what film making has to offer as a medium of artistic expression. Hell, now-a-days you can't even trust the kung fu. Wires can be digitally removed (or not, in some exceptional cases) and skinny ladies are magically endowed with the mass index of the same amount of lead. (To be fair, it appears Kerri Hoskins did indeed work out for the role. Look at those nautilus machines...fly? Well, oscillate mildly, at any rate.)

Ah, but when you get a to watch a real martial artist at work? That's thrilling. That's inspiring. There are so many daily reminders about of the limitations of our existence, physical, mental, even spiritual. It really is a special thing to be able to demonstrate--just for an instant, in some cases--just how wrong all our "nos" and assumptions can be.
 
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