For eight weeks, I’ve been immersed in the wonderful world of the circus past; though its historical grandiosity remains unmatched in the present day, I am aware of a few remnants which bear the particular flavor I favor. Though few and far between, they do exist–vestigial traits persist.
Evolutionary offshoots are lower-profile these days, often eschewing the three-ring style. Some are even outdoor performances unassociated with that nostalgic beacon of joy–the big top tent. They no longer send agents to plaster your town’s buildings with thousands of advertisements and they definitely forgo the morning parade, replete with menagerie…most don’t even have a menagerie. Circuses and their descendants crop up from time to time for those who pay attention, be it in the ads of alternative rags or those who are magically called to it pied piper style.
The circus shares many similarities with traveling carnivals, which feature similar types of acts, often in addition to an assortment of rides. It’s also related to vaudeville and has been since it was born–the same for burlesque; vaudeville acted as an outlet for performers of all types, including acrobats, burlesque dancers, animal acts and sideshow performers. These circus cousins have proliferated and seem to have picked up the entertainment slack in these modern times, all encrusted in Swarovski, humor and sexuality, making old tricks look new again amidst anachronistic affectations.
Burlesque has gained quite a following and is now accepted by more of mainstream culture than ever before–it is an empowering art, hoisted up jubilantly and thrust heavenward by thousands of sex-positive feminists, by body-positive people of all colors and genders, by doctors and lawyers and mothers and…well, you get the picture. I’m most familiar with the burlesque community in Seattle, which is rather rich and thriving. I attended last year’s Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce fundraising event which featured burlesque performances and at one point, the MC talked about how it was totally appropriate and in good taste for the fancy business owners and city government folks to be celebrating with and supporting these performers. There are many youtube videos that you can find of some of my favorite performers–Miss Indigo Blue (the reigning Queen of Burlesque), Shanghai Pearl, the Luminous Pariah, Waxie Moon, and so many other greats…or better yet, go see their shows! Many of them tour!
Speaking of Seattle, I’d like to tell you a story. Ahem: One fateful, late-summer evening in 2006, I was sitting on the porch with my roommate when a big van approached our curb. Out jumped a motley bunch who asked if it was alright if they parked there; we blinked our wide eyes (blinkblink) and managed to agree. I felt dumbstruck for some reason; I could feel an air of peculiarity swirling about them that I couldn’t quite lay my finger upon. Alas, they were very friendly and we engaged them long enough to receive an invitation to their performance at the New Belgium Brewery’s Tour de Fat the next afternoon. The next day came and off we went, our beers in hand to stand in the hot sunshine and witness an old-time revival of circusy, gypsyish vaudeville. I was mesmerized and so, so sold. That was the Yard Dog Road Show. They’re still out there kickin’ up dust and keeping the magic alive today, tickling the imagination, spreading wonder and a general sense of mayhem. They’ve made some videos and will soon release a documentary of sorts. See them being charming here:
Aerial dance has also become quite popular and many cities have a studio or performance space and local celebrities to fill it; everyone should go and marvel at their strength and grace. Here is the one that I go to:
I recently went and saw Cavalia. When I first saw the billboards for the show, I was kind of disgusted by how much the horse looked like an airbrushed lady with perfectly wavy tresses, meant to tempt something in consumers that I’m not quite comfortable with. It seemed to have a weirdly imposed sensuality to the image; maybe I was reading into it too much?! I later found out that they don’t have any mares and so it was a male on their billboard, which then shifted my perception and it suddenly seemed slightly more acceptable to me–I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m biased. I like recognizing the flexibility of gender and its many variations. I feel happiest when it is ambiguous or mysterious.
In any case, here’s a link to their website, where you can get a sense of the show:
It’s a production by Normand Latourelle, a Canadian known for his work in founding Cirque de Soileil. The show’s theme is the relationship between humans and horses, which hearkens back to the origin of the circus and its displays of horsemanship. In fact, there was much about traditional circus present, though it had a kind of new-agey, ethereal elegance to it with some modern flair. There was no ringmaster, only silent performers with horses and a live band (mostly hidden) led by an angelic-voiced lady that never sang in English. Lots of fancy trick-riding and moments of funny improvisation; I watched horses defecate on stage for the first time ever, so that was neat. They lifted their tails to do it, which I’d never observed…keeps the pony tail clean, you know!
I have never been to such an expensive performance and I guess I expected a bit more from it. Overall, it was cheesy, often visually interesting, even beautiful, though a bit overwrought with emotions that never quite landed for me (and I’m a rather susceptible empath). My biggest complaint is that it was uncomfortable to sit on the hard plastic chairs for so long and be practically on top of my neighbors with no extra leg room whatsoever.
Other contemporary circuses and similar troupes: