Editor’s Fanfare Vol. II, No. 5

 Are We Being Punked?

I recently attended a dance competition in which my ten year old granddaughter participated.  I was mildly shocked to see what pre-teen girls are up to these days, or rather I should say their dance instructors and choreographers.  So what’s going on here that I would bring this up in a magazine dedicated to the circus arts.

The fact is that much of what I saw reminded me of what I see these days in many of the circuses that are striving to look, sound and give the impression of being contemporary.  Many of the costumes were black, often in shredded rags and the movement, so strongly based on sado/masochism, were designed to make one think he or she was watching a show put on by Brittany Spears, little of which was appropriate, it seemed to me, to pre-pubescent girls and the smattering of boys who stuck to doing hip-hop and break dancing.

The reason for all this manufactured anger and violence was made clear recently by a fashion show that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is called “Punk: Chaos to Couture.”  “Punk,” Roberta Smith’s review of the show in the New York Times began,”Didn’t play nice.  Whether in music or attire [and I might add circus] it wanted to provoke and offend, disrupt and incite.  Good manners, good taste and marketable skills were considered the kiss of death.”  I can’t think of a more apt definition of so much of the new circus acts I was seeing at the Paris Festival or the circuses the graduates of French circus schools  tend to create thanks to the largesse of the French Ministry of Culture which will, apparently, fund anything with pretentions to art, even if that art is anti-establishment.

The irony of all this, which is pointed out in the Times review is that “despite attempts to be as unpalatable as possible, punk was absorbed by the culture around it, not the least by the blue-chip fashion designers…At once trashy and sexy, punk provided excellent slumming opportunities.”

And so it may be said of much of contemporary circus.  In its eagerness to be main stream, these enterprises have picked up all the trashiness of pop culture and brought it up to a level of self-conscious artiness.  This approach to circus, it seems to me, detracts from the beauty and truthfulness of the circus skills.  You can’t fake a triple salto, but it is surely possible to fake importance and profundity.  That sort of thing used to be called B.S.  and if it was really impressive the practitioner was called a B.S. artist.  At least he was being taken for an artist.

This also sounds a lot like a description of the future of American circus imagery put forth in a recent publication of The American Youth Circus Organization.  It read in part, “There are, however, circus organizations that have chosen to push against these traditional circus aesthetics….it makes sense given the central artistic tenet of the contemporary circus: unlike a bearded lady or a sword-throwing act, a circus act is a vehicle for deeper meaning rather than an end in itself.”    The tip off to the possibility of B.S. here is the phrase “deeper meaning.”

Throughout  its discussion of contemporary circus this article by Charline Roberts  points to French circuses as models of contemporary “artistry.”

But it is possible to be contemporary in look, content and feeling without being pretentious or French.  Les 7 Doigts de la Main (despite its French name which translates to 7 Fingers) and Cirque Mechanic  still employ a high level of circus skills as the underlying foundation of their work, and it is this that first impresses the audience and it is the style of presentation, rather than some deeper meaning  that is  carried away.  Two very successful youth circuses Smirkus and Juventas present very contemporary styled performances that are heavy on skills with  no superficial attempt at appearing to be up to the minute with extraneous elements of punk.

So it seems foolish to propose the French contemporary circus as a model to which the American circus should aspire.  It will never be as popular as the more traditional circus even in France, and the possibility of achieving that level of funding from government sources is illusionary.