Time to pay attention to the circus scene

The cast of "Pippin" at Music Box Theatre

The cast of "Pippin" at Music Box Theatre in Manhattan. (March 2013) (Credit: Joan Marcus)

If you say circus, I think big-top Ringling (and sad elephants). If you say circus again, I think Cirque du Soleil, global aerial spectacle (and glitz Vegas). If you repeat the word once more, my thoughts go to Diane Paulus' Tony-winning revival of "Pippin," where astounding circus performers do enough impossible feats on Broadway that, for long stretches, I can ignore the sappiness of the 1972 musical.

And that, apart from the flying-

circus title of Monty Python's delirious TV series, pretty much covers the mental and emotional effort I have devoted to the popular and historic entertainment through my life.

I'm exaggerating, of course -- but probably not enough to make up for all the cliché-challenging ideas I encountered late last month at a daylong seminar (and consciousness-raising session) called "Speaking Circus."

The subject was contemporary circus, also referred to that illuminating day as new circus and physical theater. The lectures, plus two evening programs at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, were co-produced by a 6-month-old American advocacy group called Circus Now, plus the wonderful circus-friendly, family-oriented New Victory Theater on West 42nd Street and the City Parks Foundation SummerStage.

What was I doing there? Basically, I thought experts were going to explain the proliferation of circus -- or at least circuslike acrobatics -- in Broadway musicals. "Pippin" is the most conspicuous example, but certainly "Spider-Man" has plenty of aerial gymnastics, such as they are, and so, as I understand it, will the upcoming mega-musical, "King Kong." Even "Chaplin" had a tightwire walk and "Bring It On," last season's bright little show about cheerleaders, required daunting piles of human pyramids.

But I was the only one who even mentioned "Pippin," even though its circus was -- what's the word? -- choreographed? by Gypsy Snider, a founder of the Montreal company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand) and creator of "Traces," an Off-Broadway acrobatic hit that I never saw because, well, I didn't know better.

Snider is the daughter of the founders of the Pickle Family Circus, the formative San Francisco troupe I do recognize because it was once the home of Bill Irwin. And Bill Irwin is the wizard who made New Yorkers pay attention to a clown style he was calling new vaudeville.

New circus, as I understand it, would encompass new vaudeville. But contemporary circus is much more -- the melding of traditional techniques by barrier-breaking artists to, according to a handout, "emotionally, intellectually and viscerally engage audiences." In other words, it's new dance and/or new theater mutated with an astonishingly high-risk base, and the energy around it reminds me of the probing curiosity around the start of the dance boom in the '70s.

I'm trying not to feel too stunted about knowing so little about this or, more precisely, for caring so little about finding out more. New circus hasn't caught on much in this country. As Joseph Melillo, executive producer of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), put it, "The epicenter is in Europe. It pulses there with such vibrancy. I've seen circus in places you don't even think about."

The growth statistics are impressive. Duncan Wall, national director of Circus Now and teacher of circus history and criticism at the National Circus School in Montreal, says there were no circus schools in Europe in 1973. "Now there are more than 600 in France alone. . . ." France has more than 450 contemporary circus troupes. Canada, Belgium, Australia and Scandinavia are other, no kidding, circus hotbeds.

This country has no professional new-circus schools. Yes, clown schools don't count. Three years ago, a former dancer named Suzi Winson co-founded the city's only private teaching center. It is in Long Island City and has 30-foot ceilings and a professional program. Interest is coming from all over, including, as she puts it, "the young punky aerial New York scene."

The form has long had its place in BAM's Next Wave festivals. For example, Robert Lepage, the Canadian innovator behind several editions of Cirque du Soleil and director-designer of the Met's wildly derided productions of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, will bring his "Blue Dragon" to BAM this fall. Melillo hastens to add, "This is not Robert Lepage being done in the enormous barn called the Metropolitan Opera."

Even places with serious circus scenes are grappling with definitions and questioning the potential for storytelling. Karen Fricker, a former New York and Dublin theater critic, Lepage scholar and assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, asks, "How do we as theater and dance people respond" to new circus? As a guilt-inducing handout says, "You're fluent in theater and dance. You speak Beckett, Pinter, Graham and Ailey. But what about circus? Is the only circus-ease in your vocabulary 'clown' and 'three-ring'?"

She is not alone in lamenting the lack of "dedicated circus critics," though, obviously, she understands the improbability in these dire journalistic days.

"What is circus dramaturgy?" she asks. "Who are the authors? How is it written down? Is there a notation?" And, most provocatively, "who are the rock stars, who are the circus artists rocking the world?"

Clearly, three of them comprise the Race Horse Company, the Finnish troupe that made its American debut at SummerStage with a piece called "Petit Mal." I didn't see the performance, but video showed it to be a playful, then increasingly dark and scary work that finds new ways to combine virtuosity, gym balls and a trampoline. In what seems like raw, pure, circus-power defiance, they insist on calling their amazing feats "tricks."

Earlier in the day, Wall, who will talk about contemporary circus Oct. 24 at BAM, could almost have been talking to me when he asked, "Does circus as a word work for you or against you?" Ask me later.