The Human River

I had a Russian circus coach in his sixties, Alex, who could still do standing backflips.  He was able to pluck you out of the air one-handed if you were about to land on your head; it was like being caught by an oak tree.  He looked like a bear, he walked like a zombie, and his secret to maintaining his form was taking good care of his intestines.

People have strange ideas about how their bodies function.

It was a Russian coach fad at my school; fasting one day a week and fasting one week a month.  It was all part of a solemn ceremony which culminating in a glorious herbal enema to keep your colon clean, supple, and rubbery like a nubile squid.

I wasn’t ready to go that far, but he afforded me this advice:  Eat a grapefruit every morning; don’t eat anything cooked, never talk during a meal, always eat meat last, and enjoy a handful of organic peanuts before physical activity (softdrinks are poison, and processed food is good to make your stomach feel full, but it won’t do anything for your body).

He was my teacher, I listened, and it made sense, at least when training 12 hours a day like the good circus school students that we were.

This kind of ascetic eating regimen fit with his personality.  Even his sense of humor:

One day, the denizens of a small village awoke to a loud, rhythmic pounding.  Each pound was punctuated by a man’s screams of pain.  The villagers, shivering in the morning chill and dressed only in their nightclothes, left their huts to find the source of the screaming.  In the middle of the public square, a man was repeatedly striking his phallus [Alex always said phallus when he told this joke or any other joke that featured a penis.  He always lowered his voice and blushed a little when he said it.  Ever seen an embarrassed bear?] with a blacksmith’s hammer.  The patriarch approached the man to ask him why in the world he was punishing his member so.  “Doesn’t it hurt terribly?”  “Of course,” replied the stranger, “but nothing compares to blissful respite that comes between each strike.”

My Lithuanian roommates have explained that this is actually a very Eastern European kind of joke.  They tell another one that I like:

A wife walks out onto her porch where her husband is looking at the sky with a serene smile on his face.  “Why are you so happy?” she asks.  “Our neighbor’s house is burning down.”

I told this joke in Boston to a mixed audience of Canadians, Americans, and Bulgarians, and sure enough, the Bulgarians laughed while the North Americans waited for the punchline.

My point was that people have lots of different theories one how to best care for their body.  The FDA of America has a great one, which happens to be very different from that which is professed by their Japanese counterpart.  But I think that having your own cartoonish view of the human body is helpful, as long as it makes sense to you and it keeps you healthy.

For me, I believe that the key to everything is water.  Lots of water.  If I can keep a steady flow of water through my body, I find I can train harder without being sore the next day, I am more flexible, I have more energy, it is easier to maintain my weight (or lose weight when necessary), and I can drink alcohol with no ill effects in the morning.

For me, I see the body as a riverbed which is constantly polluted by our everyday actions (like every other riverbed you have ever seen).  If you can keep that river flowing at nearly flood levels, all those pollutants (lactic acid, alcohol, excess nutrients, etc) will be washed away.  I also see water as a sort of lubricant for cells, particularly muscle cells, that help them to work more efficiently.

I know that this is all a huge oversimplification and sounds a lot like a placebo (based strongly in sports medicine and common sense, of course), but it does serve as a nice little feather to hold onto when I force my body to do impossible things.

Seoul Man

I have not been writing much online lately as I had to finish up my article for the festival in Korea at the end of this month.  here, at least, is its final version:

The National Circus School of Canada and Canada’s Theatrical Cirque Nouveau

The National Circus School of Canada

The National Circus School of Canada (NCSC) is recognized as a global center of circus arts instruction.  Circuses and producers aggressively recruit graduates; over 90% find employment within a few months of leaving the school.  Graduates work at Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Cirque Monti, Circus Starlight, Les Sept Doigts de la Main, and win top awards at the Festival de Cirque de Demain, and Cirque d’Hiver, among others.

How does NCSC successfully train its students to enter the competitive international setting of the modern circus?  The answer lies in a dichotomy in the school’s pedagogical approach.  NCSC trains the student as acrobats as well as autonomous creators.  In other words, the school strives to find a balance between performer and artist.

Body

Circus is a physical discipline, and the acrobatic skills and manipulations of its performers test the limits of human potential.  The NCSC puts its students through three years of grueling physical training to maximize their strength, flexibility, dexterity, and balance.

Fundamental classes in strength training and flexibility accompany technical classes in handstands, trampoline, acrobatics, aerial techniques, juggling, and tightrope walking.  Additionally, students specialize in and receive individual training in a discipline of their choice.

A student masters all basic circus disciplines before graduating from NCSC.  A unique aspect of the school’s evaluation is that upon achieving baseline mastery, a student’s evaluation criteria are readjusted to accommodate more exigent goals.  Thus, while a student with natural math ability might have a considerable advantage over her peers in a science classroom, unusually skilled students at NCSC are at as much a risk of failure as their peers.  This highly competitive and stressful environment fosters both an extraordinary will to succeed and strong bonds within the student community.

Spirit

It is the level of artistic expression that distinguishes traditional circus from cirque nouveau, or ‘new circus.’  This does not mean that cirque nouveau has a higher level of artistic expression nor does it mean that traditional circus shows are lacking, but the latter focuses more on technique and spectacle than on artistic expression whereas the former might sacrifice technical bravado in order to communicate artistic ideas.  Exactly where one draws the line on this spectrum is beyond the scope of this article, but it can be said that arbitrarily adjusting the theme, costume, and choreography of a traditional circus act will not transform it into cirque nouveau.  Similarly, dressing a cirque nouveau number in a traditional costume, accompanying it with a live big-top band, and augmenting its technical difficulty will not guarantee success with a traditional circus audience.

NCSC develops the artistic potential of students in two main ways: through its dance and acting curriculum and through various workshop creations.

For the first two years, the acting curriculum is based in the principles of physical theater masters such as Jaques LeCoq and Phillipe Gaulier. Students explore neutrality, rhythm, masks, movement, simplicity, and improvisation with an emphasis on developing stage presence and rapport with the audience.  In the third year, the acting curriculum consists of master classes taught by experts in clowning, physical theater, and mime.  Thus, students sample different schools of thought and styles than can be found at NCSC itself.

Dance classes emphasize both technique and creation.  Students learn ballet and modern technique in traditional dance classes and practice choreographic theory by creating solo, partner, and group works presented before the entire school.  Dance and movement (its companion class in the first year), integrate a well-trained body and a creative mind by developing technique (in the case of dance) and instinct (in the case of movement).

There are numerous workshop creations in the three years at the school.  In the first semester of every year, NCSC divides the first- and second-year classes into two groups each whom create a total of four 20-minute shows.  The groups work on their own over the course of the semester with an artistic counselor and present their work to the entire school and its alumni in December.  In another workshop creation, three directors unaffiliated with the school direct one-third of the students each for a one-week period and present the three works before the entire school.  Later in the year, the creation process is repeated, but this time with the students choosing their own groups and acting as their own directors.

The largest and most public workshop creation is the school’s highly anticipated annual show.  Often, a visiting director or directors will be invited to direct the entire student body in a professional quality nouveau cirque show presented to the public for ten days every June.

For the individual student, however, the most important workshop creation is the development of his own professional circus number over the three-years at the school.  The technical exploration, choreographic, and thematic development all transpire between a student, his personal coach, and an artistic counselor.

Ultimately, what puts a graduate of NCSC in such high demand is the artistic sense from dance and theater classes integrated with superior technical ability and the creative sensibility stemming from involvement in several workshop creations.

Canadian Cirque Nouveau

The most amazing aspect of cirque nouveau in Canada is that it exists at all.  In the early 1980’s the only dominant circus presence in North America, the three-ring Barnum and Bailey Circus seemed comfortable with its image as a nineteenth century holdover from the circuses of the past. No one could have expected that the most revolutionary force in 20th century stage entertainment, Cirque du Soleil, was about to emerge in Canada, a country with no circus tradition whatsoever.

But it was exactly that lack of legacy that enabled this revolutionary troupe to work outside of conservative norms in the traditional circuses of Europe.  It was financial necessity (despite Guy Laliberte’s famous quotation, “I would rather pay five acrobats than feed one elephant for a day.”) that led the group to eschew animal acts.  And, finally, perhaps most importantly, all about them was the excitement that surrounds something unquestionably new, especially when it can somehow be identified as ours – in this case, Canadian, or more specifically, Quebecois.

Canadian cirque nouveau is geographically localized.  Unlike France, where government subsidies have aided in the formation of hundreds of circus companies throughout the country, cirque nouveau remains localized in the areas surrounding Montreal.  The major players Canadian circus companies can be counted on three fingers of the hand: Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, and Les Sept Doigts de la Main.

The reason for this localization has a lot to do with Montreal itself with its extraordinarily low cost of living and a disproportionately large artistic population.  It is home to at least three of North America’s most well-known summer festivals: Just For Laughs, The Montreal Jazz Festival, and Francofolies.  It is also a liberal college town hosting, among others, the University of Quebec at Montreal, McGill University, the National Theater School, the National Circus School, and the National School of Dance.  As a French-speaking city with a large Anglophone population and a transient international student community, it is a breeding ground for cultural and artistic exchange and innovation.  On a given night in the Montreal one can find a number of artists performing studio presentations and works-in-progress in black-box theaters, cabarets, and bars in addition to the many circus shows that premiere or pass through the city regularly.  Indeed, this is a city that puts a premium on the promotion of artistic expression and creation, and is now reaping the benefits as home to one of the largest live entertainment companies in the world.

Montreal in the post-Cirque world presents a challenge to performing artists.  A New York City performer skilled in singing, dancing, and acting is honorifically termed a ‘triple threat,’ but these talents alone are barely sufficient for the vibrant and multidisciplinary Montreal scene.  A fictional Montreal ‘multi-threat’ artist would need skills in modern dance, jazz dance, hip-hop, pop-and-lock, breakdancing, ballet, Tuvan throat-singing, Quebecois folk singing, opera, rap, acrobatics, juggling, guitar, clarinet, sousaphone, accordion, cello, violin,  (in a variety of musical styles), kung fu, tae kwon do, capoeira (or any other martial arts), multilingualism, swimming, highdiving, etc, etc… and have no fear of heights!

Theatricality of Canadian Cirque Nouveau

So with this vibrant city as a backdrop, how can one characterize the theatricality of Canadian circus?  The answer is found in the sheer variety of shows that are presented in Montreal: ‘Experimental Circus/Theater,’ ‘Dance/Circus Collaborations,’ ‘Industrial Music and Live Acrobats,’ ‘Multimedia, Interactive Acrobatic Event,’ and ‘Cinematic Circus.’  The threads that unify Canadian nouveau cirque are multi-disciplinary collaboration and high entertainment standards.

One could go mad trying to count the number of influences present in a Canadian nouveau cirque show – from the most expensive Cirque du Soleil production to the lyrical romanticism of Cirque Eloize to the intimate urban spectacle of Les Sept Doigts de la Main.  In Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ka,’ for example, the French underground urban performance art/dance ‘parcour’ is prominently featured, as well as a number of martial arts styles.  Inline skating, BMX biking, and other extreme sports take the stage in Soleil’s new show ‘Love,’ based on the music of the Beatles.  In Cirque Eloize, we see Italian film, African music, tango dance, gypsy celebrations, and Vaudeville influences.  Les Sept Doigts have a live DJ, an old-school Broadway-style production number, and tip their collective hats to traditional circus, all in the framework of a show that also happens to seamlessly integrate multimedia and live-camera feeds.

This chaos is held together by Canadian circus’ high entertainment standards and production values.  The work ethic of the unbearably demanding NCSC and other arts conservatories in Montreal and the discerning tastes of their graduates have resulted in disciplined collaborations.  In Montreal, a performer’s job is first and foremost to entertain the audience. Thus, artists have set aside grand notions of politics or personal importance which can result in navel-gazing self-indulgent work and focus instead on the performance aspect of their art.  Paradoxically, this approach does not seem to dilute the subversive potential or political nature of the performance in the least.  On the contrary, an artist’s generous humanity and honesty can amplify and illuminate themes that might have been smothered by a more heavy-handed approach.  Critics are as likely to praise a show for its entertainment value as for its political content, as was the case in “Les Anges de l’Orage,” a multidisciplinary 2004 collaboration with NCSC and TOHU.

Cirque nouveau is in a perpetual state of flux.  In the course of a year, innovations become discarded clichés that are rediscovered, reinvented, embraced briefly, and then discarded again.  Artists in Canadian circus push existing boundaries, explore new artistic territory, and strive to continually reinvent the face of their unique art form.

The Future

What of the future?  New graduates of the NCSC and the international popularity of the Cirque du Soleil brand guarantee that Canadian cirque nouveau will continue to thrive, but cirque nouveau with its protean nature will change in unpredictable ways and an evolution into a sort of post-modern circus could take root anywhere.  The main lesson of the birth of cirque nouveau its subsequent growth in Canada is that just like living beings, a new form of art needs a fertile place to grow.  Montreal provided a fertile environment for cirque nouveau with a diverse international culture and a willingness to foster artistic experimentation, but unlike living creatures, new art forms have spontaneously generated in the most unlikely environments.  The voices rising from the newest generation of Asian performing artists are of great interest to me since it is my belief that Montreal-like conditions for artistic innovation exist right here in Asia.

Dieting and the Aging Acrobat

 

I am on a diet.  It is not the most natural or fun thing for me; but I guess I must be getting older.  This aging manifests itself in strange ways; for example:

Strength: I still gain strength very quickly, but the retention of that strength is much attenuated.  I used to be able to maintain form for roughly a month after heavy training, but now, a week or so off and I weaken noticeably.

Flexibility: Flexibility, on the other hand, is much more difficult to develop as well as maintain.  I used to feel like if I took one week off of flexibility training, it would take me two weeks to get back to my previous level.  Now, one week off can translate to a month or two of dedicated training to get back up to speed.

Technique: Strangely enough, my handstand technique is the one aspect of training that seems to be improving with age.  It is easier for me to maintain stable handstand positions for longer periods.  Before, a shaky 10 seconds at 80% success rate in the classical one-armed position (see picture) was great.   Now, a stable 20 seconds is the norm.  It seems to support my theory that this particular acrobatic discipline is largely mental in nature.

Weight:  I have always been able to eat as much of whatever I want without gaining appreciable weight.  This is still true, but I find as though my equilibrium point has shifted a bit.  I used to settle in at around 58 kilos (128 lbs), but now my natural state seems to be at around 62 kilos (136 lbs).

So that is it.  I have not been able to exclude the possibility that some of these shifts are due to being two years out of circus school rather than being two years older as the lifestyle difference are obvious:

Circus School:

  • Average of 10 hours a day, 6 days a week of intense physical training.
  • Home-made, meager, low-fat meals.
  • Drinking only on weekends, maybe once a month.
  • Nearly insurmountable stress (external and internal).

Developing Projects in Asia:

  • Average of 2 hours a day, 5 days a week of intense physical training.
  • Restaurant food picked up on the run from meeting to meeting.
  • Drinking with friends whenever we have a free moment to meet, maybe 3 times a week.
  • Nearly insurmountable stress (only internal).

But the fact that my handstands themselves are improving is still a little mysterious to me.  Perhaps it is like riding a bike, only there is infinite room for improvement.  Perhaps it is just the different levels of stress; these two hours a day are often pure meditative joy, as compared to the often tortuous feel of my hours spent in training in Montreal.

I should also mention that after only four days of moderate dieting, I am well on my way to my goal of 58 kilos.

Diet Rules:

  • Weekends, I can eat whatever I want.
  • Weekdays, I can eat whatever I want for one meal, but:
  • No snacks at all
  • Only drink water or tea (alcohol is especially verboten, dame, interdit).
  • Moderate hunger and grumpiness at all times is a good sign.
  • The other two meals, no meat, minimal carbohydrates.
  • Weekends, I can eat whatever I want.

One I get back down to 58, I am going to forget all rules, increase my training regimen (July promises to be full time training for four weeks; no outside distractions – I must promise myself!), and switch to monitoring mode.

Anyways, all submitted for your approval.  All theories are welcome.

And on to Korea

As The Rocker says, “Apply for things and forget about them.  You’ve lost nothing if they never happen, but when something does come through, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

And so we wait for confirmation on project after project: a 1-hour made-to-order multi-media/acrobatic show at an international film festival in Taipei, various residencies in Japan, the budget for an international new circus festival in Taiwan, the possibility of performing or creating a new show in Singapore.

I also wait for responses from several proposals I have sent out on my own: residency at MIT, working with my former dance company in Boston, even applying for a Data Analysis Specialist position at Mauna Kea Observatory in the naive hopes that this life of show production and promotion might someday provide me with an easy exit ramp back to the life of a responsible, financially-secure scientist.

Last night, after returning from a limited Golden Week roadtrip with The Political Scientist and her friend, I received word that the Chuncheon International Mime Festival was indeed counting on me to present at the end of May as a graduate of the National Circus School of Canada, a former freelance performer for the Canadian circus company Cirque Theatrical at the 2005 World Expo in Nagoya, and assistant director/new project coordinator for the National Theater of Taiwan.  All this despite their notice in April that due to budgetary constraints, they would not be able to sponsor me after all.

It was a last-minute change, the kind that I have had to learn to accept in my profession.  The only way around it is to maintain flexibility in your commitments at all costs.  Luckily, on the particular week in question, I was able to reschedule all commitments except for one, so on to Seoul.

It has been a long time since I was last in South Korea.  The las time was in 1991 as an incredibly awkward 14-year old travelling with my family.  I remember nothing of the language, except for “thank you,” and nine of the numbers from one to ten (I have no idea which number I am missing).

Whenever I travel to a country, I like to learn enough of the language to order a local specialty in a bar or make a request of a DJ.  I think that if you know that much of a language, you are well on your way to fluency.

“Excuse me, a drink please.”

“……………..”

“What do you recommend?”

“……………..”

“One of those, then.”

“……………..”

“Thank You!”

or,

“Excuse me, do you have ‘Dirty Water’ by the Standells?”

“…………….(negative)”

“It’s ok.  Sorry to bother you, but do you have ‘Kids in America’ by Kim Wilde?”

“…………….(affirmative)”

“Excellent!  Thank you!”

By living abroad in non-Anglophone countries for the last 6 years, I have learned that I had been far too anxious when it came to learning foreign languages.  It took me about one week to learn ‘bar Mandarin.’  I didn’t understand responses word-for-word, but body language clears up a lot of ambiguity.  The only problem was that I had no idea what they brought me that night and was unable to order it again.  I just asked for recommendations everywhere I went.

So for Korea, I am supposed to talk about my studies at the National Circus School, what the “theatrification of Circus” involves, and what it is that characterizes the Canadian thrust of the movement.  I have 24 hours to get my mind straight about this subject, compose an article and lecture and then send it to the festival for translation into Korean.

I will also probably have to provide a technical demonstration, though I am not really sure what that might entail, as theatrification is not a real word.

Whirlwind Tour Part 3 – Montreal

Yesterday I woke up early to get to Montreal…  got there exactly on time for my lunch meeting with the guy from Circus Theatrical, my former boss at the Expo.  Now he gave me so much advice and tells me that he is about to quit his job, but no one knows it yet.  Strange to be changing levels like this.

Then, I go to school, and am surprized that everyone there really still remembers me and my number; even people I have never talked to.  They talk me into coming to school at 6 to see their Evaluation Concept shows, and I change my meeting schedule to make it work.

Meet with my friend from the SAT, talk a lot of stuff about Taiwan…  I feel I have a big responsibility, but don’t know how to take it on.

Go to school see the Evaluation Concepts, mostly the same shit that we used to do, but also some good stuff, see all my favorite teachers and a really good friend from a long time ago, and then meet my ex-girlfriend The Gymnast which is weird, of course.

To dinner now with my friend again to finish our business…  talked, laughed, then on to the house of one of my friends, a younger clown from school, where I stayed up til 4 talking about clowning and old times and changes…

Wake up at 8:50 to drive her to work and move out of Montreal, meet my SAT friend for dimsum at 12:00 and then my best and favorite teacher for two hour lunch at Club Sandwich, the old hang out, finish moving out, give away half my stuff to charity, and now trying to find one last friend before I leave… then 20 hours of driving straight to Minnesota to have a drink with my sister!

Auto Accident

Did I ever tell you about the time last year that I totaled my rental car on a deep-winter run between Boston and Montreal?  it was an all-night drive through a snowstorm after a one-day recording session with my former bandmate. I was in a hurry because I was driving to pick up The Contortionist, my brand-new girlfriend, from a party for an early morning tryst.  Black ice and poor visibility compounded by a few inches of drifting snow (the coarse kind; the stinging icy kind that hisses when it hits your windshield) led to a dead spin at about 60 mph.

I remember trying to right the vehicle as best as I could; turning into the skid and all that, before throwing my hands up in surrender; there was nothing I could do to avoid the inevitable that night.

I was on a bridge, which was cause for some alarm, and I was slowly drifting towards the railing.  Luckily for me, I went over the edge just at the end of the bridge, falling just a foot or two landing in a small tree at an angle of about 45 degrees to the ground.

The car was fucked up, and just trying to open the car door at that angle was a mind-altering experience.  After a tow truck and ambulance came (no injuries, but no longer tired) I was able to make it back to Montreal at a max speed of about 35 mph.  it really did look like I was driving a corpse of a car; all beat up and humming in a hiccupy way with a jerky sort of handling that pulled me so far to the right such that I had to constantly steer a hard left.  it felt like I was driving in circles, but I made it to Montreal at about 8 in the morning, three hours later than planned.

I was sure that there were to be repercussions of some sort when I returned the car, but they just asked me to fill in damaged areas with a ball point pen on a little pictogram of a car (“est-ce-que vous avez un felt-tip marker?” I asked before blacking out the entire car), and that was it.  The damage waiver of 20$ Canadian covered the whole thing.  There was no record of it at all.

The next time I rented from Hertz, they made no mention of it, I had no increase in insurance premiums… fuck!

The great thing was, it happened at a shitty time in my life; my teacher of three years had been deported, my new little circus company was falling apart before we had even managed to secure a big premiere, I was on academic suspension from my school, the plunging US dollar was causing me to lose about 100 dollars a week, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to graduate on time.

But shit, spinning around on a winter’s night on a suspension bridge put shit in perspective, and the satisfying crunch of landing in a tree and smashing the fuck out of a luxury automobile was a great purge of negativity.

And it only cost me 15 bucks US.

Circus acrobat in a one armed handstand

Killing The Creative Impulse

Is there something about training in a physical art like handstands that kills the creative impulse?

Since returning to intensive training, I feel no creative drive. 

I remember that when i was in circus school, it was similar; I was really motivated to train handstands and acrobatics, but couldn’t focus on strictly creative pursuits; even reading was a chore…

It seems so strange that after one of the most creatively stimulating summers of my life, it has been so abruptly truncated by something as important to me as handstand training!