Editor’s Fanfare Vol I No. 4

 The Creative Act,

from Schools to Steampunk

In the previous issue of Spectacle the feature article and the Editor’s Fanfare raised the question of the difficulty of creating a truly national circus school in America.  In response I heard from the Smith twins, who have had an outstanding professional career as aerialists and have subsequently made a serious study of the training methods and safety measures involved in aerial work.  The sent an email reminding me of their school the ew England School for Circus Arts inVermont.  Their correspondence has been reproduced with their permission on the FYI/Letters page.

We are always happy to hear from readers at our email address circusarts@aol.com and in particular at this time would like to hear from other artists whose work is relevant to the issue of professional circus training.

Since the issue of professional training is obviously an ongoing concern for many circus artists, we solicited information about another proposed training center, this one  in St. Louis. Missouri where Alexander (Sasha) Nevidonski and his wife Katherine (nee Binder) have already formed a not-for-profit organization with a six member board of directors.  After a considerable search they found a suitable building and are in the midst of negotiating a lease.  If all that and the required renovations to the building continue moving forward they will soon be setting up a website and soliciting students, with a an opening this coming fall or winter.

Nevidonski has been a featured performer with the Big Apple Circus and more recently with Circus Flora for the past several years.  He is already working with a small group of adult students from the St. Louis area.   He is a graduate of the Moscow Circus School and is as a result well versed in all of the circus arts.  As a member of a Russian barre act he won a gold medal at theParisf estival in 1996.  This is a story we will continue to follow and report on as it develops, and we certainly hope to pay a personal visit to the Smith twins inVermont in the near future as well.

It has become something of an annual tradition to talk to Nicole and Alana Feld about the creative evolution of their current production, this year it being Dragons.

These discussions, I hope, provide further insight into what the creators were trying to accomplish, thereby satisfying Goethe’s first tenet of good criticism, which is determining what it is the artist is trying to do.  And it may help make my review in “The Passing Spectacle” more relevant as well.

During that conversation Nicole brought up a subject that is critical not only to the Ringling brand but to all circuses in general and that is the perceived popular theory that as long as there are children there will always be a circus.  Unfortunately that is not a truism circuses can rely on any longer.  The problem being, as Nicole Feld sees it, correctly I think, kids today have little connection with the circus.  When was the last time you heard a kid asks his parents to take him to the circus?  In another age the circus’ presence was almost inescapable.  Today it hardly dents their consciousness.

Ringling works hard to get parents interested in bringing their kids to the circus, but once there, if it doesn’t connect to what the kids are interested in both the parents and the kids will be disappointed lose interest.  Nicole has some interesting thoughts on how to deal with this which are revealed in this interesting interview.

This is an issue all circuses need to be cognizant of, for as she correctly points out, “the more people interested in circus, the better it is for the whole industry.  “We do it for the audience,” she reminds critics, “Its not what we like, but what the audience likes.  That’s what we keep in mind in everything we do.”

One other subject that I try to probe in these meetings, without asking direct questions, is the working relationship between the sisters.  Does Nicole, for instance, by virtue of being the first born and older child dominate the conversation and presumably, therefore, their professional relationship?  The answer, as it turns out is ‘Not at all.’  I was struck by the fact that in their conversation with me there is no sense of one taking the leadership role.  Instead, it is apparent, that that role is shared, one adding to the thoughts of the other as it would be in any true collaboration.

This relationship has the potential of being complicated by the addition of a third sister, Juliet, the youngest of the three.  That topic was also considered during our visit.  At the present time it seems unlikely that any of Feld Entertainment’s many productions will be produced by a trio instead of a duet in which the two voices blend together beautifully.

The term “steampunk” has been turning up in my conversations with artists rather consistently of late.  Bello Nock explained the concept to me in trying to describe the style of his then latest effort, The Bello Nock Circus.  Somewhat later the term came up again in Jessica Hentoff’s description of the style she had employed in her most recent full-scale production of Circus Harmony.  Here it is again in connection with Circus Oz’s production Steampowered, which is reviewed in “The Passing Spectacle.”

Wikipedia defines the term as  a genre which came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s and incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and speculative fiction  involves a setting where steam power is widely used—whether in an alternate history such as Victorian era Britain or “Wild West“-era United States, or in a post-apocalyptic time —that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy.

Mike Finch, Circus Oz’s artistic director, may be of more help.  He write in the show’s souvenir book, “What is Steampunk?  It is an imagined history/present that never existed.  An imagined alternate reality where coal-fired, traditional Victoriana is overlaid by current ideas and inventions.    A steampunk circus is a fully functioning contemporary circus that has borrowed bits and pieces from wherever we feel like.”

In other words, “Anything Goes,” and it goes together with a wink and a shrug caring not a fig for the incongruities and anachronisms inherent in the form.

“Australia today,” Finch observes by way of summing up, “is still powered by some of the dirtiest coal-fired power stations in the world.  In other words Australia is a living bit of steampunk.

Keep that in mind as you read my review.  It might help.