The Circus and le Cirque

7 08 2009

Over the long weekend, my wife and I took L to see the Shrine Circus at the Centre Point Mall in North York.

Looking at the kids on the back of this elephant was a trip down the memory lane:

Despite all the controversy around the use of animals – a Twitter search for that event will return at least as many protests as praises – I have to admit that one of my earliest and fondest memories as a kid is playing with a lion cub in some anonymous circus, duly recorded in a badly preserved picture (I’m the one on my father’s lap):

The last time I’ve been to a traditional circus – i.e., excluding the Cirque du Soleil – I was a 9-year-old living in the same city I was born at. I vividly recall my friend Drausio petting a camel and getting sprayed with drool all over his face – no picture of that, unfortunately 😛 , and no relationship with the delicious camel drool Portuguese dessert, or “baba de camelo”.

Back then, having a circus coming to our city was a big deal, as the only other mass entertainment available for kids was to watch old movies on Sunday’s matinées. Old is an understatement: I actually remember going to a black-and-white Tarzan movie featuring Johnny Weissmuller. Most Disney cartoons didn’t get distributed beyond the large cities, but you don’t miss what you never had, so I have no complaints there. The pluses of growing up on the countryside outweigh by far the constraints – in my naturally biased view, of course.

Not much changed since: the Shrine Circus 2009 show was not very different from the ones I used to see so many years ago: no high-tech involved, just the artist, the act and the public, all frozen in time and space. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong here, but I think I just saw the last few breaths of a dying art. I quoted Evan Solomon (CBC) a few months ago saying that “when a new technology comes, the incumbent never dies: it simply goes after deeper efficiencies”. The innovation pipeline does not always work like that, as typewritters and the telegraph can attest. Radio, TV, movies, games and the Internet all fragmented the entertainment space in formats that are more easily consummable, forcing live performances to go after deeper efficiencies.Thus, circus performances will live on through the several forms of Cirque Nouveau, but somehow the amateur spirit is gone as shown in this Wikipedia excerpt:

Cirque expanded rapidly through the 1990s and 2000s, going from one show to approximately 3,500 employees from over 40 countries producing 15 shows over every continent except Africa and Antarctica, with an estimated annual revenue exceeding US$ 600 million. The multiple permanent Las Vegas shows alone play to more than 9,000 people a night, 5% of the city’s visitors, adding to the 70+ million people who have experienced Cirque. In 2000, Laliberté bought out Gauthier, and with 95% ownership, has continued to expand the brand. Several more shows are in development around the world, along with a television deal, women’s clothing line and the possible venture into other mediums such as spas, restaurants and nightclubs.

I used “amateur”, but the precise word is “mambembe” – no idea on how to translate that from Brazilian Portuguese. So, in the mambembe spirit, I’d like to conclude this post with this very amateurish video with my favourite circus song:

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