Sunday, May 29, 2011
My thing for the circus
Joe and I went to the circus last night, a little tiny mom-and-pop-type circus, a fundraiser by a local Lions club. We last went to see such a circus in 2005, when The Kid was still a junior in high school, and I loved it. That little circus blew me away completely, in fact. I so hadn't expected to see trapeze artists, bicycles on high-wires, motorcycles in the aptly named Ball of Death. It was a family affair, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, all working together. And so low-key. The performers worked the ticket booth, did their number, said good-bye to you at the exits. It seemed like a piece of another time, really, so homegrown and a little bit funky. Also, there were no tigers, lions, elephants, or monkeys -- phew -- so no worries or thoughts about their treatment. Wait, there was an elephant, the smallest elephant in the world in fact, something so adorable that I was willing to check out a totally unknown and nowhere-near-as-good circus last night on the off-chance that I'd see that number again.
And fortunately, I did.
Which is a really good thing because last night's was the worst circus I have ever seen. Now, I haven't seen a HUGE number of circuses, but as a child, before we moved into the Castro in San Francisco, we lived in Daly City perched above the Cow Palace. On at least one occasion, we watched the pachyderm parade, a Ringling Brothers tradition when they arrive in a town and something which made a huge impression on me. I remember not being comfortable at the circus itself with the elephant act -- something just so wrong about such a huge animal standing on its head, but it was such a thrill to see those great creatures just walking down the middle of the street, linked trunk-to-tail-to-trunk. It still makes me happy to think about it.
It's funny that The Kid has a circus thing, too (or maybe not that surprising). We were both stoked one Sunday about a year ago to find ourselves at a booth at the Alameda Flea Market that was just packed with circus memorabilia, vintage photos of performers and elephants and circus life. Any book that comes out about circus, I'll consume. Any show on tv, same.
Naturally, nowadays the whole subject of circus is much more difficult. When Ringling Brothers was performing in Oakland recently, I didn't go -- even though I really, really wanted to go, because I love the circus. But I also love animals, and the thought of elephants or big cats being mistreated just makes me ill. I can't be a part of it. But because I knew this little circus couldn't possibly get a permit if there was any question of animal abuse (thanks to the rigorous standards of the Marin Humane Society), off we went.
And even though it was truly the worst circus ever, I had a great time. There were still some moments of absolute delight, even from a very bad clown who over-used the whistle in his mouth. Children around us were beside themselves, laughing uncontrollably, swept up even in the terrible magic act. Even if the tricks were lame, the magic was still happening, judging from the children's reactions. It was priceless. There was one boy in a red jacket sitting near us, who was just absolutely killing me with his reactions -- just so cute I could barely stand it. One performer at least, Luigi the Clown, was head and shoulders above the rest in the troupe. Truly a professional. He did one bit where he was trying to move a suitcase which remained immovable in mid-air, that was just perfect.
How could I love it so much when it was just so bad? Since last night, I've been pondering this, and where this love of circus comes from, and I think I've got it. The best circuses have this, and apparently the worst have it, too, in smaller quantities.
Circus acts all seem to say, "Look what I can do!" And by extension, to everyone in the audience, "look what YOU can do." Whether it's the trapeze, the high wire, the clown, yes, even the lion tamer, there's a switch that takes place. When the aerialist climbs up to that tiny platform in her fishnets and waves to the crowd before jumping into the air, leaping for the bar, my palms are sweating because it's ME I see up there. When the acrobat is on the wire, I hold my breath, feeling every motion as if I were the one traveling gracefully through thin air, a long thin bar or a parasol in my hand. Circus seems to demonstrate all of the crazy potential we have to defy gravity, fear, self-consciousness and bust out in spectacular ways. When I see circus, even when it's not so good, I am still delighted with the demonstration, however imperfect, of how far we can stretch and reach and express. Of what a treat it is to be embodied, to have these limbs and hearts and laughs.
I'll try not to miss these little circuses when they pass through ever again. I get a kick out of these performances that I honestly don't get from anything else -- this high feeling of wow, check that out, look at what we're capable of! And honestly, who doesn't sometimes need to laugh like a kid at something really silly, or fall in love again with a tiny, tiny elephant.