Big Top with Small Spin

Every year, the spacious acreage on the side of the world-famous Lincoln Center sets up a large Big Top, usually featuring a slew of attractions that have, since the dawn of circuses in 1768 -- by Philip Astley -- been substantial drawing cards for enthusiasts young and old.

As a point of information, circuses, ‘way back in the latter half of the 18th century, used to be open-air and in a set venue, with no covering for audiences, and always sited in a wooden structure. That changed as circuses evolved into touring companies of performers that included some or all of the favored: clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, hoopers, tight-ropists, jugglers, unicyclists, various-object manipulators and stunt-artists. While the skills these communities of performers demo’ed were often awe inspiring, until recently, circus acts were considered lesser feats and accorded slight reverence -- though its practitioners mastered staggering feats that took years of practice to perform smoothly.

As the acts became more specialized, the circus people became separate enough that children entertained, and pursued “running away to join the circus” in much the way dejected lovers or societal rejects once joined the French Foreign Legion . Because circuses were also often the repository for the deformed, ill-born irregulars who were in some way peculiar and shunned from normal communal integration -- hirsute ladies, extremely small or large people, or something for the Ripley’s enthusiast, circuses often housed special  attractions of “freaks.” Such people at least earned a living, and had a family of sorts among others of their ilk. In our time, the nomenclature has been rejected as unPC.  For the past 100 years or so, circuses have been covered by large tents with center rings 13 meters across (the minimum needed to let an equestrian  stand upright while the horse circles the ring).

Whatever the circus was and developed into, its current incarnation at Lincoln Center has offered a pallid example in its recent awards ceremony for two comic “clowns,” in the non-red nose, non-made up variety.

One of the night’s honorees, the justly celebrated Bill Irwin, harkened back to his European parents and their attitude toward such events as the visiting Big Tops that used to overnight in the backwards hamlets dotting Pre-WWI and II Europe. David shiner was the other of the night’s honorees.

“Circus, Shmerkus!” His mother used to say. That of course, in the hallowed Yiddish tradition, is a dismissive coinage. But Bill Irwin, instead, uses it as a badge of identification in which to glory.

The evening was meant to commemorate the contributions of the circus as an art form during the past century, as well as the two honorees, Bill Irwin and David Shiner. But the evening turned out not to hold the racing horses, manes flying back, or scantily-clad acrobats  trapezing soaring overhead, eliciting gasps from the enthralled groundlings.

Instead, interspersed between speeches thanking this one and that, there were jugglers and spinning-device duos with flexible cloth bands that caught gourds in expansive flexible bands and exchanged  them midair. Then more speeches. Then a few comic turns on the sandy ground of the middle ring, too hard to see from the seats we had been given, evidently behind Brobdingnaggians native to the NBA. I was like one of those perpetual-motion dipping duckies that never stop putting their orange rubber beaks into that glass of water. I bobbed from one side of a me-frontal giant to the other, hoping for the glimpse of the flexible Hungarian “sisters” who have evidently had their spines removed, so flexy were they as they bent backwards over and through each others’ limbs, legs, necks and shoulders.

The speeches were so many and relatively unentertaining (with few exceptions) that several children erroneously brought to the event started screaming at the top of their vocal range and our eardrum capacity.

Then more speeches, followed by a Russian acrobat who swung around so dizzingly near the top of the tent viewers could be forgiven feeling carsick, just watching. Then he alit from the cordon and walked calmly behind us, not a myelin-sheath nerve-bundle out of place.

Following the speeches and the attractions, we were invited to the “VIP Reception.” We were directed to wait for a few moments to let the staff “set up.”

When, in the event, we wandered along the canvas and oilcloth vestibules, we discover the reception was a reedy table with drinks for  from $10 to $15 dollars apiece. Wandering back to our original locus, there were popcorn and candy stands, again, for $5 to $20 for carb-loading, cheesy chazzerai.

Guests milled about, hoping against hope that there would indeed appear, at last, something, anything, resembling a “reception” for “VIP”s. No such luck.

We schmoozed people we met and knew, and the performers, majordomos and street-clothes clowns mixed in the no drinking-no eating crowd.

Circuses operate on two levels since their creation: One, as a catch-all entertainment medium for hoi-polloi (Greek term including the word “the”) in outposts where individuating entertainments broken out into “acrobat” or “concert” or “juggler” may not be readily available due to logistics, distance or demand. Secondly, as a metaphor as powerful or more so than the first definitional usage. Our politics is frequently referred to as “a circus.” Policies spin in the air. Magicians make promises disappear. Healthcare does a delicate balancing act on the wet nose of a pol as it then slides to the netherworld of no-can-do in front of clamoring crowds of citizens. Sleight of hand features strong in many campaign ads and public fora.  Clowns are often stand-ins for nightmare grotesques and cinema covers for nefarious ugliness, masked by the supposedly happy paint or faux tears.

To experience a circus “entertainment,” therefore, chocked with desultory speechifying and few auspicious expectable circus acts defeats the point. Kids had nothing, really, to celebrate or recall when later they would revisit the evening. Adults -- other than those who are already circus vets or entertainers in the juggler/acrobat/clownish mode, of which there were more than a few in that crowd -- could be excused for being perplexed. The metaphor took, as we used to say in the UK, a hiding when it presented such a wanting mish-mash.

And so it ended. Gossiping about the world at large, not fressing or filling our faces. Obstructed view, as they say in the theatre. A circus in the political sense. A Big Top for those who live the ascetic life…on the bottom.