If you look through the circus sub-category on this blog you will find much kveching over the years about the art of modern circus, and some praise for Coles Bros.’ and Ringling Bros.‘ Coney Island iterations. Absent are any reviews of Big Apple Circus, an outfit which I have seen six or eight editions of since 1994, when I first started working there in the back office. This is because I haven’t attended in at least four years (I started this blog in 2008).
Why haven’t I been? I got tired of being disappointed. The aesthetics of every artistic choice never spoke to me. I’m talking about every single element. On occasion, as they do, certain of the artists they presented would dazzle me, but first they had to transcend music and scenic and costume design that, to me, were like fingernails on chalkboard. For me personally, an American circus ought to be defined by its Americana. At least, that’s what I am looking for. The only foreign circus I have seen was the Moscow Circus. There, I was looking for a Russian experience, and I got one. At a Yankee circus, I want to feel like Toby Tyler. I want to be transported to 1880. Why? Because that’s where the wonder is. And at Big Apple, it was always a half-assed modern, European trip. I always felt transported…to Belgium. It may have engaged other circus professionals, and it may have been okay for children (hardly to be sneezed at) but it never spoke to me at ALL.
As if by magic, the current edition seems calculated to address that precise issue. Legendarium is by far the most enjoyable time I have had at the BAC — I was with them from Alpha to Omega, and the show flew by, which never happens to me at the circus. Whether the improvements are chiefly the work of show director West Hyler or artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy, who stepped up to that role since I’d last seen the show, or whether it was a combination of the two I cannot say.
And frankly I can’t tell if the tricks were better or if they just seemed better because I was so much more approving of the show’s theme and artistic setting. The whole thing is presented as a sort of history lesson (at the Sesame Street level — don’t get worried) of the circus’s early days. Thus, every artistic choice springs from that decision, and with a degree of integrity and trust in the concept the show has never shown before. In the past, they have done shows with similar themes, but always hedging, always compromising, always second guessing and backing away from the Americana. You could see the artistic leadership not trusting the concept, and adulterating it with all sorts of crap it plainly thought the audience wanted or needed: usually a rock-jazz fusion soundtrack that invariably made me want to throw rotten cabbages at the band platform, and costumes that looked like they were lifted from Doug Henning’s wardrobe room. This time out, I found the sets (by John Lee Beatty) and costumes (Mirena Rada) unspeakably gorgeous. I literally found myself admiring the ringmaster’s vest at one point. (There’s a full photo spread at BAC’s web site here). And the music is a quilt of tradional American tunes larded with associations: Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, etc etc. I knew we were off to the right start at the top of the show, when Andrey Matchev, dressed as Uncle Sam did his trapeze routine to the tune of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”. That’s the song I ALWAYS want to hear during a trapeze act. In the old days, I’m certain the artistic leadership would have said, “You CAN’T do that song. It’s a cliche.” And this is what I’m forever trying to get across to people. We are now SEVERAL generations into an audience, the vast majority of which knows nothing but television (and now the internet). Most of them know nothing but contemporary popular culture. Hence, anything traditional you give them will be NEW, not old.
Other stand-outs in the show included international circus legend Daniel Cyr, inventor of the cyr wheel, an innovation that’s Hudsucker Proxy simple, and thus all the more ingenious; equestrienne Jenny Vidbel (see more here on her illustrious family’s circus); the hilarious masked-clown duo Acrobuffo; contortionist Elayne Kramer, who BEGAN her act on a note so impressive I kept wondering how she was going to top it (and then she did…by shooting a bow and arrow at a target with her feet); and Emily and Menno Van Dyke, who juggle and perform a tango at the same time. Plus, many, many more. I thought ringmaster John Kennedy Kane’s line of patter aimed a little too low in terms of audience mentality. It’s perfect for the under-seven crowd, but I think there’d be no harm in throwing in the odd remark that goes over the kiddie’s heads in order to tickle or edify the adults. But that didn’t stop me from having the best time I’ve ever had at Big Apple Circus. Tix and info at http://bigapplecircus.org/