I bring this up not because I want to talk about progressive rock (although it's a fascinating concept, and one which I should probably talk about eventually), but instead because I saw what probably counts as the beginning of artsy circus last weekend.
"Saltimbanco," by my love paramour Le Cirque du Soleil, is historically as important as all get out. As best as can be told from my Cirque boxset, Saltimbanco is the first Cirque show that we would today recognize as being *really* Cirque du Soleil: earlier shows didn't have nonsense vocals on all the songs (or even much vocals at all), didn't have lots of spandex-clad acrobats doing inexplicable-yet-wonderful acts (they were dressed in human clothes, just in weird colors and fits!), and didn't really have the standard of phenomenal acts. "Nouvelle Experience" was obviously a step in the "right" direction, but all the earlier Cirque shows really seem like Barnum & Bailey without the elephants. Tellingly, "Nouvelle Experience" was the first show that the uberphenomenal director Franco Dragone was given full artistic freedom on, and he started finding his path that led to a worldwide entertainment superstar with that one show...perfected on the next show (next being "Saltimbanco, of course).
Yes, I believe that "Saltimbanco" is very near perfection for a traveling Circus show--and was probably even more phenomenal when it first came out, against a background of successful circus involving cheesier music and barkers overemphasizing the dangers of various acts.
Before I even go into the wonders of the show, I do want to take an aside and vilify the video of the show. The video is, frankly, horrible. Whoever put it together took out entire acts (the pantomime act, which I've been informed has been in since the beginning, the opening sequence, the entire "evil" character, many transitions) and even worse, butchered some of the best acts in the show. For instance, in the Boleadoros act (a rare South American dance involving hitting balls on the end of a string against the floor) the entire focus is on the performers' faces and you hardly get to see their marvelous manipulations of the bolos...I even despaired on seeing the show that they'd replaced it with a drum act, until they put down the drum and started their rare and wonderful dance (and the drums certainly didn't make the video). As such, I can only say to avoid this video like the plague, and find a way of telling le Cirque that they really need to get a halfway-decent video of the show together.
Actually, Saltimbanco is a great show, despite its mediocre video. And what do you really expect? It was put on by the masterful director of "O" and "Alegria," and was his first real escapade into evoking pure wonder with his show.
I won't deny that it shows that it's his first real effort in the direction--the stage and costumes are very primitive, as though no one was quite sure what direction they wanted to go in. The music is in every style imaginable, which kind of points to not knowing where to go. And yet...the show itself is miraculous. It was apparently created as an antidote to "urban despair," and this is definitely a feeling I get from it.
Imagine, if you will, a show that doesn't resolve around doomed mythological characters like Icarus. Doesn't involve major heartstring-pulling concepts like countries at war and separated families. Instead, it's all about a silly little-boy character who's raised by a wonderfully-together family (the act "Adagio") who dreams of beauty and the wonder of the world. And imagine a director who can pull this all off. Make the boy a fantastic pantomime, who can convey stories with only his actions. Put in lots of great acts--including the single best trapeze act I (an avid trapeze student) have ever seen. And storytellers. And great music. And beautiful-even-though-abstract costumes. Put it all together, and with the genius of Franco Dragone supporting it, you have a show that takes all your worry and angst aside, and replaces it with a warm feeling in the possibilities inherent in humanity.
The show is, quite simply, amazing. I love it without reservation. Some of the acts were possibly recycled (I think the poles act and hand-to-hand were put into Mystere, while the trapeze act was majorly recycled for "O"), but they were here first and fit here perfectly. I got a relatively weak bicycle act instead of the amazing wirewalker act on the video...but didn't mind overly because of all the great acts I did see, and the tightroper was definitely less exciting than the Chinese Poles, or the trapeze, or the Russian Swing, or...well, many of the acts, come to think of it...heck, I even loved the bungee act, even though it's a lot of stuff I generally don't appreciate in Cirque shows (mostly choreography instead of impossible stunts, lots of stuff that "blends together" in the common eye, etc).
"Saltimbanco" is a great show: catch it if it comes to your city and you have any interest in the circus, and if you're disappointed then I have to conclude that the trapezists were sick, the Russian swing broke down, and the arena you're in won't physically support the Chinese poles. Oh, and that you have no appreciation for a good pantomime act (I actually bent over laughing during a Dragone show--call a priest, the Rapture is obviously imminent). Or even Adagio--one of the standout acts of the show, but which gets the shaft simply because it isn't quite as jawdropping as some of the others.
Hell, acts just seem more freakishly impossible in a Dragone show than technically harder ones do in a show by a lesser director like Champagne--perhaps Dragone simply does a better job of setting up tension? Certainly there are fewer "stunts" by direct count in a Dragone show, but it's still a hell of a lot better to watch even for an impossibility junkie like me...go figure.
Unfortunately, for all the memories of the great acts in the show, of the great unifying concepts that Dragone somehow injected into the show without distracting from the acts, I'm always going to see this show in my memory with mixed emotions. The fact is, a cast member was supposed to meet me after the show but didn't--in actual fact because he hurt his ankle doing Russian Swings (or so he claims--and I'm giving him benefit of the doubt). Regardless, my friends and I waited after the show for him to show up, and got increasingly skeptical queries from the stage crew as to what we were still doing in the theatre, until we were told that said cast member had left, so we really ought NOT TO BE THERE.
This was a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, while waiting for the prodigal diva, a group was brought onstage to be told about how the show was put together. Not knowing that the size of the group was strictly limited (and a special exception was even made for this specific group), I naively decided to join them, and got to stand on the stage for about a minute before I was recognized as being outside the group and thus asked to please leave so I didn't get the tour-director in trouble. While this may seem like a bad thing, being chased off the stage and all, I'm counting it as a fantastic even because I GOT TO STAND ON A CIRQUE STAGE FOR ABOUT A MINUTE! WOO-HOO!
And heck, I also got to hang out with two of my very best friends from Raleigh (Becky and Nick...a roommate and a friendly ex) and see a phenomenal show with them--and Becky gave me a beautiful oil painting as part of her ticket repayment. Really, if you can't enjoy a setup like that--regardless of the other possibilities of the night--what business do you have living?