Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review of "The Ordinary Acrobat" by Duncan Wall - a Fulbright Scholar Learns Circus Arts and Circus History

This title jumped out at me when I first read it: "The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present."  I have recently been immersed in the world of acrobats by coming to know some members of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, Gypsy Snider's Montreal-based troupe of performers. Several members of that company, along with a few additional circus veterans have been wonderfully integrated into the cast of the current Broadway production of Pippin.  Getting to know them and their artistry made me eager to read Duncan Wall's memoir of his year in Paris as a Fulbright Scholar studying circus arts and the history of circus.

When I saw Pippin in its production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, I was intrigued by what I found to be a unique blend of theater and circus.  Wall's book provides some wonderful historical perspective that made me realize that Diane Paulus and Gypsy Snider were re-imagining a blending of arts that hark back to the beginning of the 19th century:

"The beginning of the nineteenth century also marked a time of unparalleled openness and creativity, because the circus was still defining itself as a theatrical form.  On the road, circus owners adopted local traditions to woo audiences.  In Turkey, Soullier rebranded his show the Cirque Imperial and adopted a Turkish colonel's uniform.  In 1854, he packed off to Asia, where he discovered Chinese acrobats - plate-spinners, hoop-divers, and perch-pole balancers.  In Europe, circus moguls experimented with form.  They constructed building featuring both rings and stages.  They hired writers to pen circus scripts with characters and plots.  There was almost no distinction between genres.  Equestrians graced royal stages.  Ropewalkers recited soliloquies on the cords.  Almost a century later, the great Russian theater director, Vsevolod Meyerhold would proclaim that there was 'no true dividing line between the circus and the theatre,' and for a brief time, this was true." (Page 135)

It is true again, as audience will experience beginning in a few weeks at Broadway's Music Box theater.  When the curtain rises on Pippin, the company will be writing a new chapter in Duncan Wall's history of circus.

This is a book that will be enjoyed by "children of all ages"!



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