When We Outlive the Dream

I am drinking vino de tavola (Melini Chianti, 2004 from a kitty mug) in the empty apartment of The Flamenca who is in Frankfurt right now waiting for a plane that will take her to Madrid.

My circus friends are the elite.  My three best friends from circus school are working at Cirque du Soleil.  My ex-girlfriend The Contortionist is with Cirque Theatrical, at least until October when they close the curtain on her show permanently.  A beautiful, sweet friend of mine just graduated from the National Circus School of Canada.  She started in 2003/2004, my last year at the school.  Generation shifts like that make me nostalgic.

In circus school, we believe that being swept up by  companies like Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Theatrical, Cirque Human or even Cirque Traditional somehow validates you.  It makes you a success.  A few of us even achieve that dream.

So you sign for two years and your horizons widen and your bank account swells and life is good.

But then the end of 2006 looms up and stares you in the face.  For the first time, you are looking into a great unknown.  Circus is a world of connections and two years of connection-building have passed you by.  Circus art as a whole has shifted and you have gone from cutting-edge to old school in just two years.  Two crops of upcoming hopefuls, ‘next-big-things’ have been harvested from the world’s best circus schools: Montreal, Chalons, Fratellini, Brussels and Kiev.

And what are we left with?

Optimistically, circus artists’ careers last 15 years depending on their specialty and natural charm.  More than 10% of your perfoming life has just passed you by, and the next 90% gets exponentially bleaker.  Few things depreciate in value like an aging acrobat.

The circus world is changing.  We wrote a check to the world in the late 90’s saying that we were going to combine circus with modern dance and theater in order to redefine performing arts for a new millennium.  In my opinion, this check bounced.  Cirque du Soleil juxtaposed those three elements, threw in a good amount of sex and marketing, and struck entertainment paydirt.  As it turned out, that’s all the public wanted.

Or was it?

The depth of circus talent was at a peak in the mid-90’s.  Acrobats from Eastern Europe were free to set up shop anywhere in the world at the same moment that Cirque du Soleil and the National Circus School of Montreal shifted the creative center of modern circus to Quebec.  Some of these acrobats spent their childhoods in Soviet-era national training centers.  Some were born into performing families whose stage histories spanned seven generations.

Circus consumerism and corporate creative greed decimated an old-growth resource now incapable of renewing itself.  The original stars of seminal circus works that redefined the circus genre -Quidam, Allegria, Mystere, Saltimbanco, and O – are now in their thirties and well into the twilight of their professional stage life if not officially retired.

These shows, however, are never retired, so that provides a huge field of talent that must be repopulated on an annual basis.  The logistics of training in an individual artist are overwhelming, so ‘implants’ are quickly trained in as carbon-copy imitations of the previous performer.  Two years later, if you can still perform at an acceptable level you are offered an extension.  Otherwise, you are weeded out and replaced like your predecessor before you.

I admit that this characterization is a little pessimistic – few people dream of a contract extension once their two years are up.  My friends in major circus companies are now in their second and third years of their contracts.  Without exception, they are restless and anxious for their contracts to expire so that they can escape the creative straitjacket of a show engineered for mass consumption.

There is an impending crisis in the circus world.

The talent is not renewing itself fast enough for the rate of production.  The age of fledgling circus performers grows younger and younger while the number of performers needed to fill the stages of Las Vegas and other entertainment capitals keeps growing.

Cirque du Soleil draws more and more talent from traditional sports, dance, martial arts, extreme sports, parkour, and physical theater – all the while pouring more resources into the set design and conceptual development of the performance – diluting the amount of circus in a hyper-modern ‘Cirque.’

What is the result?

Disillusionment on a grand scale.  Artists who had previously bought into the mystical faux-family atmosphere of circus gypsies and the cult-like adoration of the general public find themselves expelled from the system at the end of their two-year tenure.  Few of them are able to greet enthusiastically the idea of kowtowing and handshaking their way back into the same system for a second round of digestion.

Hardly any have the college education or perspective to find a new angle on their situation.

Sadly, a many of yesterdays circus wunderkinds end up tomorrows video store clerks or massage therapists.

I would never advise a graduating circus student to turn down the opportunity of working for Cirque du Soleil or any other lucrative performing contract.  I would caution them against the lifestyle, however.  The tendency is to spend money as quickly as you make it and to pass every evening at parties.  The real circus trick is to take advantage of the light work-load and the secure employment by enrolling in higher-education – continuing to better yourself in any way possible.

Major circus companies don’t care about their individual performers any more than Microsoft cares about its individual programmers.  It just wouldn’t make sense.

Perhaps the level of unemployed young, talented circus artists will reach a sort of critical mass slowing spontaneous generation of a new wave of quality cutting-edge popular performance – a sort of entertainment ‘silicon valley.’

Personally, I doubt it.  The average age of the new generation of circus artist (those graduating from major circus schools) has slipped from around 25 years old to 20 years old in the last 10 years.  They lack the artistic, professional, and personal maturity to take control and responsibility for the state of their art.  Thus, our media remains a producer-centric world – a buyer’s market of circus talent.

Our young, motivated artists are drawn up into the corporate machinery of modern circus and emerge tired, jaded, and looking for escape.

But things are changing according to my good friend who just graduated from the school.  She is in the midst of a bidding war between two casting departments of the same company for her services, but she isn’t even sure if she wants to be gobbled up by a circus corporation.  She tells me that next year’s graduation class will be different; that they are not nearly as concerned with Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Theatrical.  Perhaps it is true.  Maybe shows like ‘Traces,’ made up entirely of members of the 2005 graduating class from the National Circus School of Montreal, are going to become the norm.

Then again, I was optimistically saying the same thing back in 2004.

Change takes time, especially when everything stays the same.

Where will we all be next year, I wonder.

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