Monday, October 20

The Circus: the fantastic and the freaks

Traditionally, the circus was a showcase of human oddities, in figure, form, farce, and talent. Although today we have fly systems and fog machines, safety nets and trampolines, microphones and air conditioning, the basic components and the stereotypical characters are still in place.

Cirque du Soliel's Alegria opens with a monologue by a boy I will refer to as "the circus Darling." In his pre-pubescent timbre, and his clear (though tinged with French) Korean, he endeared us to him and to his cast of fantastical characters. The aerialist, the singer, and the acrobats were punctuated with the clowns who muttered in French and crumpled each others' paper airplanes. When the fat one in overalls four sizes too big got particularly angry at the bald one with his bangs standing straight up off his forehead, the bald one pulled out a quick Korean platitude, "saranghae," I love you. There were fire twirlers in loincloths and a strong man who could hold his whole body parallel to the floor on one arm, a girl who could hula four hoops upside down, and two girls who could bend themselves just about inside-out. There were the trapeze artists, and acrobats on trampolines, and a man with lats the size of watermelons who hung from what might have been the world's largest rubber band. There was a clown in a snowstorm, and then there was the most terrifying moment of the show:

Two very large men supported either end of a flexible plank with their shoulders. Atop the plank, a marginally smaller man did backflips, successively higher and more impressive, until, to the horror of the audience, they lifted the Darling atop the plank, too. The boy wrapped his legs around the man's middle. Not a breath ruffled the silence in the tent. The man held the Darling's bottom with one hand and gathered balance with the other. He prepped, a couple of bends of the knees. The plank flexed. The man leapt into the air with the boy hugged to him. He flipped leg over leg over head. One foot back on the white plank--the next--and he not even wobbled but swayed--the holders of the plank stepped over, pushing more of the white stability into the air underneath them. Finally steady, the boy stepped down. The audience had to let out its breath before it could clap. I wondered, then, if the boy was the man's son. And, if not, how they ever got his mother to consent.

With the final bow, our fantastical creatures removed their wigs, revealing naught but ordinary hair in ordinary browns and blacks, caught up with ordinary pins. I almost wished they hadn't rent the illusion and left me wondering at the tedium of mastering such skills as simultaneous hula hooping, or the daunting memorization of a monologue in a new language for every foreign city. But, I understand that a performer needs a moment of humanity, of recognition within his own personhood for his accomplishment, or oddity.

I also wondered if they traveled with their own cerologist, as none of them had any body hair. Of course, the men passing torches under their bottoms and across their bellies probably singe it off themselves...

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