It’s tough keeping up with circuses these days. Are they American? Foreign? Ancient or new aged? Wasn’t there at least a time when the word “circus” meant one thing to most people: a Big-Top-style affair with bears on bicycles, clowns on acids, and children on cotton candy?
These days it seems your circus options, both here and abroad, are endless. This is not—I repeat, decidedly not—a good thing. But…my mother was in the circus and I owe the genre some allegiance, so here goes:
Circs Involving Soleil
This one was easy. Cirque de Soleil has not only taken over circuses, it seems well on its way to taking over the planet. Evidence of this lies in 1) its malignant spread across North America and Australasia, and 2) the fact thatsci-fi movies set way in the future tend to have people wearing tight one-piece outfits with built-in booties. So they’ve got the look down. And they’ve had the entire Las Vegas Strip for a while (which is concerning given that the Strip already housed five of the seven signs of the apocalypse. Coming Soon: Luxor’s Locust on Ice).
Cynicism aside, what Cirque does is amazing. I love nothing more than people hanging from wires and turning inside out for reasons not related to Guantanamo Bay. Cirque just needs to stop trying to do these amazing things in inappropriately novel ways. Cirque, like all circuses, should be on the land and in the air—not underwater, on IMAX, or set to Beatles music. I should also point out what my mother pointed out to me, which is that Cirque de Soleil performers are doing what aerial artists have been doing for time immemorial; they’re just doing it with bigger budgets and better insurance policies. (She also told me that it’s bad luck to wear green on Thursdays, but who’s counting.)
When it comes down to it, as nontraditionally circusy as some Cirque features may be (lack of smelly things and wooden bleachers) people actually like Cirque de Soleil for the same reason they’ve always liked the circus: because it’s trippy. People are doing things they shouldn’t be able to do, be allowed to do, be decent and still do, or be sober and still do. It’s one big sexy, surreal, freak-show…exactly as it should be.
Perhaps it’s only annoying because it’s French-Canadian.
Circs Involving Elephants
There are some people who just need to be shot, and these people are otherwise known as “Those Ringling Racketeers” and “Those Bailey Rat Bastards.” Your typical three-ring circus is, in fact, a full-on nightmare. This is true for the spectators, the bearded genetic abnormalities, and the animals who would be better off on an ark. Or on fire. Or kidnapped and hidden in my hall closet.
Let’s look at the history of these so-called Big Tops: In the late 19th century (the “Golden Age” of the American circus) Barnum tried to swindle Bailey. Then they got together and tried to swindle the London Zoo, which got confused and gave them an elephant named Jumbo (who would later morph into Dumbo, swing on its mother’s trunk through the cage bars, and totally scar me for life). Now Jumbo, at the time, was the largest pachyderm in captivity. Barnum and Bailey put this large Jumbo in a tiny hat and knickers, paraded him around on a chain for a while, then got him killed while crossing a set of train tracks. But the universe was watching and Bailey, or maybe Barnum, had a stroke and died shortly thereafter.
As for the present tense of these circuses, most humans with…humanity…are not into this stuff, except in Midwestern states (where people don’t watch PBS) and in South America, where Big Top circuses have such a poor reputation for the treatment of animals that even the South Americans are protesting (they’re usually napping, dancing, or having sex). The South Americans at least want to help the poor animals out by giving them hard drugs so they can get through the performances the way most of us got through high school: in a fugue-like state of semi-consciousness.
On a more positive note, polka dancing bears and seals bouncing balls on their noses are no longer part of South American three-ring circuses because they got really, really hot and unionized.
Circs Involving the Chinese
Technically it’s Chinese, not the Chinese. But when I use the definite article I suppose I’m referring to that cabal of perpetually 4’11” anachronisms known as contortionists. The Chinese aren’t the only contortionists, of course—I know this because my mother was a contortionist and I’m quite fully British-Australian. But the Chinese have been performing these feats of contortionfor far longer than anybody else and are therefore much better at it (at least according to the pamphlet a little man in funny slippers shoved at me in Chinatown).
The idea behind contortion is to enable a person to have a stable career despite being born with no spinal column. No wait, the idea is to dramatize the incredible strength and flexibility needed to bend and twist the human form into a stunning living sculpture. The rest of the acrobatic stuff was invented by bored farmhands who used to have competitions seeing who could keep the most Ming vases spinning on a bamboo pole, and to see if the tiniest guys on the rice paddy could get involuntarily tossed into the air and learn, on the fly, to land one-handed on someone else’s face. Whoever survived was hired.
For those planning on traveling the globe to take in these Far Eastern art forms, please note that the world famous New Shanghai Circus has a P.O. Box in Branson, Missouri…as its only mailing address. It is, in fact, a sure sign of China’s ever-burgeoning capitalism that the New Shanghai Circus was actually founded in Branson by a group called The Non-Stop Creativity Corporation. So you can see the Chinese circus in Missouri, sometimes on Broadway, and sometimes in China when they go home to stock up on really long teeter totters.
The only real problem with a Chinese circus is that fifteen minutes after seeing one you’re bored again.
So remember: Elephants are the third most intelligent creature on the planet, which is precisely why they sometimes snap and kill everybody, and if you’re sitting in the front row you deserve it. Also keep in mind that when your mother was a contortionist, it’s not overly helpful to announce to your entire 1st grade class that she was an extortionist. (Either way neither of you will be invited to many PTA meetings.) And finally, for the love of god, if you ever meet a contortionist please think of something more interesting to ask than, “Does it hurt?” Answer: If it hurts, it means you can’t do it. End of story.
Beware of clowns, avoid the cotton candy, and travel hard my friends.