Friday, November 06, 2009
At the Circus
Hundreds of us were seated in banked rows around three sides of the big, bare stage, and dozens of others were filing into the auditorium a few minutes before show time when two clowns joined us in the audience. They were dressed as working men, and they carried a wooden platform loaded with a teetering stack of large, brightly colored boxes. As they walked among the patrons, with that tippy tower between them, the man in back couldn’t get the fellow in front to listen to him. It was a scene we recognize from our own lives, but now distilled to its comic essense: two workers with a job that is likely to defeat them, and one of them begins to get on the other’s nerves. And there was the lovely, palpable suspense: How long before the boxes fell? And how long before the bossy clown’s simmering frustration reached a boil?
In the crazy logic of a clown’s life, not so different from our own, somehow it became important that the boxes be taken down from the platform and reassembled there some better way. Because clowns, like us, make poor judgments, these two fellows chose in the meantime to stack those bright shapes in the lap of a patron sitting in her $100 seat near the aisle. Soon she was holding seven or eight big boxes, and her neighbors were helping her keep them steady, while the two clowns quibbled over how properly to stack them all back onto the platform. And when they finished quibbling, they were embarrassed to remember the poor women they left holding all the boxes. So there was to be an ostentatious thank you, a grand kiss of the woman’s hand. But the bossy clown, so distracted by the sweeping elegance of his showy gesture, kissed the back of his own hand instead. And now there was an unpleasant hair in his mouth, but he got hold of it between thumb and forefinger, inspected this invisible hair and flicked it aside just as a member of the audience passed by, a paying customer unaware that part of the joke was now on him.
The clowns were oblivious, self-centered, incompetent, grandiose, and ludicrous, all in a moment, and all before anyone had walked onto the stage below. There were many parts of the evening’s show that had this same beautiful distillation that we call art. But because this was a circus, there was also wave upon wave of daring carried out with the utter precision that transforms crazy danger into highly polished extravagance. It is not enough that someone walk across the tight rope high in the air; now he must walk back with a woman standing on his shoulders. It is not enough that the trick cyclist ride helter-skelter around the very edges of the stage; now he will ride his two-wheeler as if the front end were a unicycle, with most of the now useless bike circling around him like a wacky ornament. Gymnasts leaped out of windows onto trampolines and then rose back up and passed through those windows again; masters of aerial display swung across the highest reaches of the stage suspended by long flowing sheets of brilliant fabric they had merely wrapped once or twice around their arms; tiny child performers catapulted spinning disks into the air, executed two or even three back flips, and then casually caught the disks on a string again. When the circus isn’t showing us distillations and human essences, it pours out brave and gaudy extravaganzas that are richer than a single pair of eyes can hope to take in. This was Cirque de Soleil, and I notice that one of their troupes is visiting Chicago for an extended engagement. I say that it’s time to take the whole family to the circus.