Editor’s Fanfare, Vol. III, No. 2


 Circus Artists Can Be Their Own Worst Enemies

I recently saw a circus artist fall off his rigging, a tight wire, attempting a leap over a hurdle placed before him.  On the floor he rubbed his hand as though he had injured it.  After some time he pulled himself together, got back up on the wire and managed to leap over a hurdle higher than the one that had sent him to the ground.  I became rather suspicious and inquired of a friend who saw other performances, asking  if the “artist” did the same thing when he saw the show.  He did.

In no other art form does an artist fake a miss in order to try to raise the drama of the moment and ask for a do-over.   It is unheard of in theatre.  Imagine an actor playing Hamet, stopping in the middle of the “To be or not to be speech”and asking for the opportunity to do it again.  Tonya Harding became a laughing stock in the Olympics when she asked to start again even with the legitimate excuse that her laces had become untied.  Imagine a dancer beginning a movement, aborting it, asking the conductor to go back and letting him try again.  Or a musician faking a miss on a difficult passage,  or an opera singer trying a second and third time for a particularly difficult note that initially seems just out of  reach.   Their careers would be in shambles.

But circus performers have no compunction about this.  It has become almost a cliché in high wire acts, for a fake misstep.  To their credit I must say I never saw any of the Wallendas engage in such cheap theatrics, but almost every other one does.   I don’t think jugglers do it, mistakes are all to possible without faking any misses, although acrobats may.  Obviously the performer I saw didn’t  trust his own work to get the kind of reaction he would have liked for his finish trick, and so he inserted some melodrama to win sympathy from the audience.  I think a producer should disallow any such fraudulent behavior in an artist in order  to maintain the integrity of his production.

Another artist in the same show in which the incident described above  took place also had to do a repeat, but it seemed a legitimate miss that could, in fact, have had tragic consequences.   With his success came a tremendous ovation, a celebration of victory, justly earned.

If the circus has serious ambitions to be taken seriously as an art, it cannot tolerate anything that devalues its art, like faked misses or begging for applause either by putting their hands to their ears  or waving their arms, palms up to get the audience to give a louder, more vocal response, which cheapens the audience/performer  interaction.

On the other hand there is the exhibit “R. Luke DuBois—Now” at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.  For this installation DuBois filmed circus performers doing their acts in extreme high-definition video, which isolates moments of action undetectable with the naked eye—individual muscles of the aerialist or hand balancers twitching.   Seeing the circus from this perspective DuBois believes, “the sheer beautiful physicality of what they do completely annihilates any sense of cynicism you could have about the circus.”  That cynicism is inevitably the product  of what I have described here, and it must be fought against in every way possible.