Hovey Burgess is a circus performer, educator, and historian no doubt known to many of you. American performers mining the circus/commedia tradition who do not hail from traditional circus families can usually trace some portion of their training directly or indirectly to Hovey's classes, myself included. Author of the how-to guide, Circus Techniques, Hovey is also one of the top authorities on the history of the circus. He was an indispensable resource for me when I was writing Clowns back in the 70s, and has continued to be so today in the writing of this blog. It is therefore a great honor to have him share his erudition with my readers as an example of the kind of writing and research the art of circus truly deserves.
Back in November 2009, I wrote a blog post on Sweden's Cirkus Cirkör when they appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I tried to limit myself to covering some physical comedy elements that I thought worth reporting, but I could not help but take issue with a negative review of the show that had appeared in The New York Times. Because I found their critic to be uninformed and therefore unqualified, I wrote the following: "It's perfectly fine for someone not to have liked this show. I'm not at all opposed to the idea of serious circus criticism, but I think the "paper of record" might want to apply the same standards to all circuses, and find a writer with real expertise in the area. As my friend Dave Carlyon pointed out, if you're going to write about opera, it's not enough just to know about the performing arts, you actually have to know about music. Likewise... well, you get the point. Hmm... maybe the Times should hire Hovey as their circus reviewer."
Well, guess what? The Times still hasn't hired Hovey but Ernest Albrecht, editor of the excellent quarterly journal of circus, Spectacle, and author of The New American Circus, did get Hovey to review this very same show, and to me his review should serve as a model for well-informed circus criticism. My special thanks to Mr. Albrecht for his kind permission to reprint this article from the pages of Spectacle. — jt
But first some links:
Other posts to this blog involving Hovey
Hovey's commedia workshops with Stanley Allan Sherman
Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkör made its American début, in an edition entitled “Inside Out,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 12-15, 2009 (five performances). The cast consisted of eight circus performers: Anna Lagerkvist, André Farstad, Jens Engman, Jay Gillian, Mirja Jauhiainen, Sanna Kopra, Angela Wand and Fefe Deijfen, backed up by Irya’s Playground, a live rock band: Irya Gmeyner (vocals), Pange Öberg (bass), Erik Nilsson (drums), Ludvig Rylander (keyboard) and Jon Bergström (guitar). The show was directed by Tilde Björfors, who founded the company in 1995.
The meaning of Cirkus is fairly obvious. It means “Circus” in Swedish (and in Danish as well). The meaning of Cirkör is somewhat more obscure. It comes from the French word “Cirque”, which also means “Circus” and the French word “Coeur”, which means “Heart”. Through the miracle of elision then, “Cirk” (Cirque) plus “Kör” (Coeur) gives us “Cirkör”, which still means “Circus Heart” in French, but with Swedish orthography, and fewer letters. The Swedish word for “Heart” is “Hjärta”.
Before we return to issues of the “Heart”, there is another word that Swedish culture has given us: “smörgåsbord.” Smörgåsbord might well be used, metaphorically, to describe the multi-flavored Cirkus Cirkör. It puts so much on one’s plate that there could well be some things not to like.
One course has little to do, technically, with true traditional circus, but may appeal to five-year-olds. There is a bicycle that “generates” electricity to run the stage lighting, and a rocking horse that goes through the motions of a liberty horse. One sees the most rudimentary rolling globe and some single hula-hoop action that does not seem much of a challenge, but the presentation is done with the most positive energy and styling imaginable.
1) Another course is on the cutting edge of circus technique and seems calculated to appeal to the most diligent of circus aficionados and to be appreciated by the most exacting of circus connoisseurs. Three examples in this category could knock your socks off:1.) Swedish-born Anna Lagerkvist offers a delightfully amazing, and as far as I know unprecedented, female solo Chinese pole act. Her skills are of the highest order of magnitude that I have ever seen in this, usually male, genre.
2) Ohio-born Jay Gilligan has come up with a novel format of presenting some remarkable numbers juggling—manipulating as many as six (6) clubs; seven (7) balls or nine (9) rings. Backed up by a very vocal percussionist and two able male assistants, Jay is even more the master of the plan B approach than he is of juggling. He pushes the envelope to the maximum, and if he succeeds it is simply incredible, but it is also incredible if he should miss, because a miss can become, according to his whim and fate, a smooth transition into a new routine, a “this-is-so-difficult-it-takes-several-tries” trick, or a comedy of errors. The sequence of tricks is subject to change, and no two performances are the same.
3) There are a number of remarkable all-female double trapeze acts around these days, and one of them is decidedly the Finnish-born team of Mirja Tuulinkki Jauhiainen (Miku, for short) and Sanna Kopra. They have been working together for over a decade and their transitions are as smooth as can be. They finish (no pun intended) with a somersault (hands-to-hands).
In between is a middle-ground course of work that represents neither a send-up of circus nor a state-of-the-art stretch: Pagoda of Chairs, Cyr Wheel, Lyra, Pommel Hand-Balancing, and Teeterboard. Note, however, that some of the teeterboard work is in the Korean teeterboard tradition (swing-time somersaults at both ends) and is impressively done with a regulation–sized teeterboard, not the oversized teeterboard used by Cirque du Soleil a few years back.
So what are we to make of all this? Is it a show padded and peppered with dross and clap-trap? The great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) made two films that dealt with itinerant circus performers: Gycklarnas afton/Sawdust and Tinsel/The Naked Night (1953) and Det sjunde inseglet/The Seventh Seal (1957).
When asked the intention of his films, Bergman always endeavored to reply as evasively as possible. The name of one of the characters in Cirkus Cirkör is Julia P. It seems that Cirkus Cirkör exhibits the same adversity to spelling things out for us.
There are clues. The character Julia P. (played by Angela Wand) has a beard and is an accomplished dancer. That might point to Julia Pastrana (1834-1860), the most famous bearded woman in history. There are also red herrings. The character Julia P. is a hunchback, a sort of “Quasimoda of Notre Dame”, if you will, and adept at balancing on bottles. This is a skill rarely seen today, but it was a specialty of the clown Jean-Baptiste Auriol (ca. 1800-1881), who appeared at Franconi’s Cirque Olympique in Paris, and whose lifetime eclipsed that of Julia Pastrana.
In life, Julia Pastrana was exhibited throughout the United States and Europe. In the motion picture La donna scimmia/Le Mari de la femme á barbe/The Ape Woman (1964) the role of “Maria”, played by Annie Giradoux, is obviously based on the life of Julia Pastrana.
After her death in Moscow in 1860, Julia Pastrana was embalmed and mummified and continued to be exhibited, as in life. She was exhibited in the United States as late as 1971. She was exhibited, as a mummy, in Sweden (Yes, in Sweden.) as early as 1864, and as late as 1973, when authorities shut down the exhibit. Banned as an exhibit practically everywhere, she was put in storage in Norway, never to be seen in public again.
Julia Pastrana did, however, make scientific headline news in May of 2009, when Chinese medical researchers identified her extremely rare condition (congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis) as a genomic disorder and mapped the specific genes in the 17th human chromosome that are responsible.
Let us now return to the issues of the “Heart”. Julia Pastrana was of Native American Indian stock, born in Mexico, the land of the Aztecs, best known, perhaps, for their human sacrifices in which a priest would cut living hearts from the chests of the sacrificial victims, captured in war for that very purpose.
In the course of Cirkus Cirkör, Julia P. reaches inside the chest of the variously-named character (Saga, Stephanie, Stacey...) played by Anna Lagerkvist, and pulls out her heart. Somehow she survives the ordeal, and her heart becomes a considerable burden to her as it grows to mammoth proportions.
I must say that I find myself intrigued by these potentially off-putting constructs of allusion and symbol, much the way some people are drawn to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), or Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (1943). Cirkus Cirkör begins to take on some of the magical proportions of Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935). Cirkus Cirkör leaves so much to the imagination, to research, to be “smoked out”, that, if these intrigues be valid, it could be argued that Cirkus Cirkör has accomplished something that no other circus has ever done before.