Circus ringmaster in front of circus acrobats under a travelling big top

Reaching Back Across Half A Life

August 20, 2001.  Three weeks before the Twin Towers came tumbling down.  I wrote a 563 word journal entry entitled “Free Training” marking my first awkward and tentative steps into the world of circus.

For the last two days I have been transcribing this and subsequent journal entries into this publicly accessible blog – this is equal parts self-discovery, art project, and entrepreneurial venture.

5834 days; 833 weeks; 194 months; 16 years.  Half my lifetime ago.

I was so focused back then on the girls in my class – if people liked me – on showing how strong I was – on being part of “the gang” – on obsessively training at the expense of developing real friendships with the very people that have since become as close to me as brothers and sisters – people I would die for.

I write about meeting my first classmate that morning – “The Contortionist.”  Only 17 years old that day.  Two years later she would be my first circus girlfriend.  Two years after that she would be my first circus breakup and two years after that we would almost start things up again.  Two years after that I would be in a relationship with her best friend and ten years after that we are still be going strong and setting the stage for our circus family.  All blinks of an eye.  Really.

But on that Monday 16 years ago, I just griped that she had beaten me to the gym on the first day of open training.  Not once thinking that, having arrived from Germany just days earlier, she had probably woken up alone on a sofa in an empty apartment at 5am, known no one in town, and counted down the hours to 8am as an antidote to boredom.

For all my (frankly embarassing) self-centeredness in those early writings (on the day the World Trade Center collapsed, I lamented being “good at many things” and therefore “unable to focus.”) there is a hunger for life, a mission to accomplish, and a desire to seize upon every opportunity.

Back then, the circus world represented a romantic ideal to me, and, 16 years later I can happily confirm that of all the romantic ideals I’ve had in my life, this is the only one that has lived fully up to its promise.  There is nothing better than circus.  Every venture I’ve undertaken outside of this sphere has felt cold and empty.  I sought out meaning in great principles but found it all lacking at their core.

I write about the clever trick of lugging home bags of wet laundry to save $3.50 at the laundromat.

The world I lived in back then was so tangible, yet spiritual, blue-collar, yet philosophical.  Pain, hunger, yearning – these are the ostinato themes of a 23-year-old circus student.  Somewhere, somehow, it all went off the rails – good intentions every step of the way, of course, but I’m in a process of recentering right now and there’s no better starting point than the past.

Artistic Insulation: Premature Nostalgia

To follow up on that last post – Jacky plays the chorus vocals’ of “Smooth Criminal” in haunting perfect-pitch on his shakuhachi: “Annie are you ok, are you ok, are you ok, Annie?”  It makes bugs crawl in my veins.

Christian and Catherine came to our rehearsal last Wednesday.  It was a stressful time.  We are under a strict deadline for the National Theater who is sending representatives to see our show in rehearsal this Wednesday – a show that did not exist as of last Tuesday.

They are two artists that I am coming to love dearly.  I try to spend at least a little time with them every night no matter how tired I am.  Christian saves some risotto or steamed pork rolls for me, and Catherine makes a little extra pasta.  Wine and beer magically appear next to my hand whenever we sit together under the eves of their apartment studios.

They brought their eyes with them: for Catherine it was a 35mm camera and for Christian it was a mini 3-CCD HD video camera.

I thought nothing of it, but they sat quite patiently through three hours of rehearsal.  They watched it almost exclusively though their viewfinders, but I thought nothing of it.  I admire visual artists and visual art because I don’t understand the process – I know if I like the final piece or not, but I have no idea why.  Seeing a show for me is a totally different experience.

I imagine that once a woman has given birth, she never looks at a newborn the same way.

When I met up with them at home, we talked about rehearsal and multimedia performances and acrobatics and martial arts and dance and choreography and art and family and the avant-garde and movements – dada, beat, cubist, punk, cirque nouveau…

I had two beers and went to bed and thought nothing of it.

Three days later, on Saturday, I had another beer and wine and ginseng liqueur with Catherine and Christian and a few other artists from the building.  In between topics, Christian nonchalantly mentions to me that he has edited the footage of my rehearsal into a short film and would I like to see it.

“Yes,” I say, “no, but yes.”

We go into his studio and he starts the film.

“This has been my project non-stop for the last three days,” he tells me.

What follows is overwhelming.  Legs.  Movement.  Subsonic lounge soundtrack.  Time is dilated, contracted.  I see peoples eyes, their mouths, the sweat running down their back, turning their hair into curled spiked of blackness.  There is a weary dedication to the cause of putting our work in order.  I am there too – stressed, mind whirling, ideas flying.  I try to communicate in Chinese – they strain to understand me.  We hit the floor; we run in unison; we catch each other.  We wait.  We are concentrated.  We support each other.

It is perhaps 10 minutes that captures the atmosphere of rehearsal.  What stays with me forever, though, is how it captured the spirit of comrades seven.  Premature nostalgia: the taste of future loss.

Thank you truly, Mr. Rizzo.

My New Friends: Sweet, Black Pig, and Jacky

Last night had all the makings of a great night out in Asia – a good mix of foreigners and locals, a cheery, dingy bar, and the vague promise of crashing a penthouse party later at the Hyatt.  I daresay that if we had been in Tokyo we would have managed enough audacity to pull it off but somehow, in Taipei, we didn’t quite manage enough momentum to make it past the small platoon of hospitality staff.  Everything fizzled.  We satisfied ourselves with lukewarm 7-11 beers in the lobby and then called it a night.

Quick question: if terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center on 11 July, what would we call america’s favorite 24-hour convenience-store franchise today?

There was some confusion today about music rehearsal.  I had heard that the Taiwanese musicians performing in our show were rehearsing tonight so I figured that I would stop by to introduce myself and hear some of their music.  They greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and then sat down, wide-eyed and attentive.  They asked me what instrument I played in a mix of Chinese, English, and Japanese.

“Guitar,” I replied in Chinese.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Well, just hold your rehearsal like normal; I want to hear the music you normally play.”

They exchanged some confused glances and discuss matters in difficult Chinese that I did’t understand.  What followed is a cursory exhibition of Taiwanese taiko drumming and three-piece arrangements for shakuhachi, guzheng, and yangquin and more expectant wide-eyed, attentive sitting.  I filled the blossoming awkward silence with applause, but it’s difficult to muster a lengthy ovation when you are the only audience member in the room.

Finally they ask me, “So why did you ask us for this rehearsal?”

Evidently, they thought that I was going to be running their rehearsal.  I was shocked to find out that they had cancelled their normal troupe rehearsal for the night just so that they could work on the music of the new production.  A miscommunication had occurred, and after a flurry of useless phone calls and discomfort, I went to my room to fetch my ipod and started playing them the music from the show.


It is a phenomenon that I am starting to recognize as an attribute of Taiwanese artists.  It is a sort of silent genius that builds up some steam and eventually swallows you whole.

I was talking with Christian about it last night – I proposed that since the performing arts are held in such low regard here, Taiwanese performers never build up that patina of showiness and affectation that plagues Western artists (myself included).  I was reminded of the night that I helped audition a seventeen-year-old hip-hop dancer for a role in our show.  I asked her to dance hip-hop in slow motion like she was playing angry in order to hide how sad she was.  “Impossible,” she replied.  “Try,” I said.  She shrugged.  I pressed play.  She danced.  It was beautiful and honest and it made want to die.  She stopped abruptly: “Like that?” she asks.  I shrug dismissively and twist my mouth into a half-frown.  “You need to work at changing up dynamics and working at multiple levels,” I say.  Inside, though, she made me cry.  Now she is the leading personnage.

I have worked years to try and get back to a sort of honesty on stage that these Taiwanese geniuses have never lost.  The tragedy is that most of them have accepted that there is no future for them in their art – that they have to leave it behind with other trappings of their abandoned youth.

Today, classical Chinese instruments played with complete mastery and abandon that gave me goosebumps.  We rehearsed each song for about 15 minutes.  They would listen to it for about 30 seconds and then jump in altogether, alternating between reproducing the original note-for-note and off-the-cuff riffing.  Any commentary I gave them after a first run-though (we need to follow the dynamic range of the piece a little more so that we don’t blow everything we have before the climax; hit the accents more; let’s be a little sparser in the chorus; can you try to switch into a higher resister when the distorted guitars enter?) were flawlessly integrated into the second.  “OK,” they tell me: “Next song, please.”

We’re not asking for easy things.  Improvisation is not the rule in Chinese classical musical training.  To complicate matters, we are asking them to cover Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Michael Jackson; to simulate a tribal beat with monochromatic taiko drums; to write a hard-rock guzheng solo; to reproduce an industrial sonic landscape with traditional acoustic instruments.

They are reluctant – worried that their Chinese instruments will ruin the rock feel.  Perhaps they are a shy, too.  Ultimately they abandon their concerns and improvise freely.  The result is covers that, in my opinion, are vastly superior to the originals.

We are done with rehearsal, but before they go they want to play me some more of their music.  I am treated to two short taiko duos that put a Taiwanese spin on the steps towards the Japanese theatrical taiko style.  I would call it sexy and aggressive and animal.  It is even more effective that it is played by a man and a woman in a sort of alternating synchronicity.  When the duo finished, she extinguished the internal fire that was blazing inside her, puts on her glasses, and transforms back into an unassuming and timid philosophy student.

I can never look at her the same way again.

The duo is a perfect transition to the final scene that we worked on last week – I propose it to the director tomorrow.

Rehearsal finished.  I now know that when Taiwanese artists are excited about a project they will mill around nonchalantly after the first rehearsal to chat.  Today, they invited me to go training with them at the gym where we are, coincidentally, all members.  I learn that Jacky, who is the leader of the taiko group, requires all his musicians to stay in shape with daily strength training.  After two and a half years of dealing with the complacent attitudes of Japanese twenty-somethings I find this sort of passion and initiative refreshing.

Black Pig (the philosophy student) confides in me that she is happy to work this way.  “This freedom.  It is a great way to work.  I’m very happy to play music this way.  I hope to be able to perform in all ways, not just as a musician.”

And people ask me why I believe that Taipei is the future of artistic innovation in Asia.

“This is your chance,” I tell her.  “Pig’s music is one thing, but in this show we want to see everything everything that makes Pig Pig.”

One more bite of beef fried rice and we head off to the gym together.

Taipei Confidential

Less and less of my daily affairs are suitable for discussion in an open forum.  Helping to organize a festival, direct a show, and plan for the future necessarily requires discretion to turn mountains into confidential little molehills.

From time to time I get a chance to see the city.  In the month since I arrived, I have taken one day off and gone out three times.  Yesterday, I went out to see U Theater’s production at the National Theater with the artistic director of our festival and director of our show.  We are using the U Theater’s rehearsal space do create our show, so it was valuable to see the sort of work that they create.

The overarching aesthetic was one of clear and clean simplicity enforced by an extraordinary synchronicity of movement.  The group is made up primarily of taiko drummers who foray into dance and theater.  Last nights production also employed a multi-generational troupe of 65 extras.

I can’t help it: I project every show I see in Taiwan onto the island’s cultural and political psyche as a sort of model of interpretation.  I live two streets down from one of the major sites of the 20-day 24-hour sit-in protests calling for the deposition of the Taiwanese president.  I fall asleep to their chanting.

Seeing the children and seniors performing the same simple choreographies with military precision was an echo of the realities just a few blocks away.

For two weeks in December I am to help direct an acrobatic performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Thailand.  Last week’s news of the military coup set me on edge and the international travel advisories for the region made me a little nervous – but then again how can I even consider backing down?  Being on the creation team for A Midsummer Night’s Dream under martial law in Asia is the sort of mix of art, politics, and internationalism that I have dreamt about for years.

Side note: I love Taiwanese ravergirl short-shorts.

Jungle Bowl

Taipei feels like a modern city carved out of a jungle.  Vines, weeds, and trees grow out of the sides of brick buildings like a first step towards complete reclamation.  Taiwanese geckos scream at you from third-story windowpanes like miniature banshees.  In my room this evening another goddamned giant spider leaped out of my closet and stared at me until I trapped it in a purple trash can and escorted it outside.  Palm trees and ferns take over tin-roofed shacks and vacant lots while abandoned tobacco plantations adorn the city center like fenced-in tropical rain forests.  We are surrounded by green mountains and humid, sinuous, mist hangs over damp streets.

The weather has cooled drastically the last couple of days; it feels like autumn in the tropics.  Strange to feel like I need a long-sleeved shirt when the temperature dips below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Political Scientist Asks: Why do you Always Say You Are So Tired?

I preface by saying that I love my job:

  • 7:00AM – Wake up to the alarm, but my body is too broken to get out of bed, jog, and lift weights, so I take an ibuprofen and go back to sleep.
  • 8:30AM – Wake up, eat, shower, and get ready for work.
  • 10:00AM – Arrive at the office.
  • 11:00AM – Production meeting, things are great / there are problems – we solve them.
  • 1:00 PM – Run to Taiwanese Italian place for lunch.  I don’t eat.
  • 1:40 PM – Rush to car to get to 2PM meeting at National Theater
  • 2:05 PM – Walk into meeting room at national theater.
  • 2:05PM to 4:00PM – Act like I understand Mandarin; take good notes on what my translator is telling me people are talking about; draw juvenile sketches of toilets in the margins to make translator laugh.
  • 4:00PM to 5:00PM – Go to rehearsal space with the director.
  • 5:00PM to 9:00PM – Rehearse and perform and teach acrobatic moves.  Try to say interesting things to the journalist who has come to interview the director and watch the rehearsal.
  • 9:00PM-10:00PM – Travel home with director and journalist.
  • 10:00PM-11:30PM – Train handstand number.
  • 11:30PM-12:00AM – Lift weights.
  • 12:00AM – 12:30AM – Emails and chats.
  • 12:30AM – 1:00AM – Shower and remeber to eat for the first time in the day.
  • 1:00AM – 1:30AM – Chinese Tapes
  • 1:30AM – 2:00AM – Read so I can fall asleep.
  • 2:00AM – 7:00AM – Blissful (if painful) sleep.
  • 7:00AM – Wake up to the alarm, but my body is too broken to get out of bed, jog, and lift weights, so I take an ibuprofen and go back to sleep.