ICK goes to the circus
Date: Fri, 7 Apr 2000 10:20:11 -0400
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls...
"The Journal Of Heartfelt Ideas For Those Who Already Disagree"
Issue # 4 - "The circus is coming! Everybody hide!!"
Under attack this month:
The 130th Annual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
~Warning: Contains displays of open hatred for nationalistic political behavior and/or the suffocating dignity of adulthood, whichever comes first.~
Aidan got free tickets to the circus that bills itself as "The Greatest Show On Earth", and we finally decided we had nothing better to do than go, despite the god-awful clowns-and-kids poster ads that push the thing on the public like it's not a delight for thoughtful showgoers but a mandatory rite of infant passage, apparently useless to adults, in which kiddies take great delight in donning stupid plastic noses and frolicking with suspicious-looking men wearing makeup and oversized clothes filled with mysterious bulges. It's ads like these that bake the rising imaginations of said kids into the chalky bricks that most adults carry around in their heads, but that's another article.
A crowd of modern circusgoers closing in on the big top looks like an army ant police action in which small tribes of children hustle their outnumbered grown-up victims toward the underground lair where the big ones will meet their fate. And that was just out in the street, where the sidewalks filled with waves of attendees for blocks around, closing in on Madison Square Garden for the one hundred thirtieth annual Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus; inside, the surreal spectacle broke away from the pedestrian reality of the street like the surgical tape tearing away from the skin of a burn victim. The army of strollers and waist-level heads stagnated around every pillar and cart in the hall where coloring books and t-shirts and snack food and videos and programs were noisily sold, the obstacle course of makeshift merchandise stands never once interrupted by five empty paces between the outside steps of the event hall and the tower of escalators that rose toward our distant free seats.
Outside the venue, the crowd had first parted around costumed people handing out flyers at the end of the block - "Here's some information about the circus" - with their signs multiplying in the coming steps: "The Circus tortures animals", "Stop animal torture", pictures of an elephant leg clenched in a chain with captions quoting a former circus animal trainer with assurances that the animals were abused terribly. Would anyone reach the outside of the venue and then turn away in support of animal rights? Very unlikely. Would the demonstrators' slogans remind the audience that this circus' traditions had changed very little since the era of the American Civil War, when slavery of humans was still a painful political issue and cruelty to animals was considered theraputic self-expression? Could happen.
Inside, the clean-cut Ringmaster wore a sequined tuxedo and throughout the evening sang a bouncy song that repeated "Everybody say 'CIRCUS'!", the eerily familiar three-ring ritual re-staking its claim on the term that had in recent years been so aggressively redefined by Cirque Du Soleil and other companies that reveal The Greatest Show On Earth to be more of a history lesson than a seductive display of amazements. And the competetive influence of these innovative troupes clearly showed: frequently the music became electrified and almost adventurous, the lighting eerie and moody, and the acts...well, the acts, for the most part, hadn't changed. Except for the hair ladies.
The hair ladies were two small women with long, dark, thick hair bound into loops atop their heads. The circus had already charged through thirty minutes of tumblers and clowns; three trick horse riders had even re-enacted Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - the same show that had so fascinated a ten-year-old Joseph Campbell at this very same location eighty years before. But when the ropes were lowered from the ceiling and the women were swung forty feet into the air, white leotards glowing in the dim light as they juggled flaming torches, their bodies suspended BY THEIR HAIR like eerie human-sized butterflies in a cartoon fairy tale...well, something had changed. Either the old circus had struggled to innovate like the new-age circuses, or the new shows had dug so deep in their explorations that they had uncovered some secrets even the old circus had long since forgotten were buried deep inside their traditions of spectacle and astonishment. In their search for dreamlike imagery, the new circuses had prodded the old one to wake up.
Some of the new acts had just been stolen outright, of course, as part of the waking-up process. In the center ring, between the two hair ladies, a muscleman flew through the air, his arms wrapped into thick cloth ribbons that carried him toward the ceiling - a performance Cirque Du Soleil had presented eight years before. Tumblers took their leaps from giant playground swings that catapulted them into the air one at a time, using equipment that might have been purchased from Cirque Du Soleil's "Saltimbanco" show. But in many respects, the two circuses were still polar opposites.
I first saw Cirque Du Soleil on its second tour, the "Nouvelle Experience" show, and I came away with an understanding of what church and drugs were supposed to accomplish that they very rarely did. With no spoken words in English, a hallucination of music and lighting and colorful flying bodies plunged straight past any rational understanding of what an evening at the theater - or an evening on Earth - was supposed to be about. The result was the exhilaration of absolute freedom - freedom from language, freedom from gravity, freedom from conventions and limitations. That three percent of my brain that carries me through the deep ruts of everyday life was left in the parking lot and the train felt like it would never turn back.
Subsequent tours of Cirque Du Soleil alternately flew and collapsed under increasingly ambitious and forgetful plans that, typically, repeated many of the same mistakes they'd set out to eliminate years before. Still, the shows' appeal lay in their ability to disarm the expectations and present a vision of human behavior that was at once beautiful and totally unpredictable. The job of a circus, and particularly of a clown, is to remind the audience that everyday behavior is not the only human behavior; we are each a million times more complex than our everyday lives suggest. To reduce this noble task to a mere strategy for babysitting kiddies the same ones who watched the videotape of The Power Rangers Movie eight times last week, the same ones that get frightened by the lady down the block with the weird hair - is to give the medicine to exactly those patients who don't yet need it, watering down the formula so that it won't actually help those who are sick.
Yet while Cirque Du Soleil had, at its best, crept past the conscious mind of language and logic and everyday circumstance, the RBB&B circus charged in exactly the opposite direction - the language was English, the motif was Americana, and the "statement" was oddly political. The national anthem played at the start of the proceedings and the familiar stunts were launched like a series of morality plays in which the victor over gravity and every human limitation was America itself, triumphant like a brand name in an advertisement, until the stars and stripes finally unfurled from the ceiling, a star spangled banner thirty feet long, hung vertically like a giant UPC symbol presiding over the crazy parade of animals and tumblers and human cannonballs. America, The Greatest Show On Earth, would go on forever, triumphantly returning every year since the civil war. Stadiums full of children would cheer as an ark full of trained beasts re-enacted the story. And tonight, like every night, the elephants formed an eerie conga line of slow-moving monsters, spinning and sitting up to beg like the damned souls of giants in a noisy hell eternally disguised as a celebration of the magesty that had brought the massive creatures so far from home in the first place. And it was a wonderful spectacle, the magical pets of the gods lazily dancing, as if for our amusement.
In the next ICK:
"Chicken Shit For The Soul: Television with a moral purpose"
Copyright 2000 Martin Azevedo