Tuesday, November 02, 2010

You just have to watch this..............

By NEIL GENZLINGER


Don’t think of it as spending six hours at the circus, a brain-numbing prospect for some grown-ups. Think of it as investing six hours in an elegant eavesdrop-on-our-family reality show that puts all the noisy, obnoxious examples of that genre to shame.

“Circus,” a six-part study of the Big Apple Circus that begins on Wednesday on PBS, has its share of aerialists, jugglers and clowns, of course, all beautifully filmed. But this quietly addictive program isn’t really about what goes on inside the Big Apple’s single ring. It’s about the people, both under the lights and behind them, who make those performances possible. And, to PBS’s credit, “Circus,” filmed over the 2008-9 season, isn’t a mere highlight reel; it takes the time to let you get to know this unusual collection of misfits and perfectionists, making their triumphs and especially their setbacks truly affecting.

For much of the first hour “Circus” doesn’t seem as if it would be worth the commitment. The initial encounters with the principal players include an awful lot of predictable, overblown blather about the wonders of the circus life. It’s every youngster’s dream to join the circus, assorted people repeat in one way or another, a cliché that hasn’t been true for a few generations. We’re all one big family, everyone says, another cliché, though more accurate.

“Six hours of this?” you’re thinking, but just then Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre, the directors, throw in a jolting combination: a nasty accident during training and an incident involving a ring-crew worker that brings the police. It’s suddenly evident that these filmmakers have been given a level of access that will get them well beyond the platitudes.

And sure enough, the subsequent hours bring romance, firings, laughs, injuries, even death. Each episode has something unexpected in it, as well as moments of honesty that make up for the overly romanticized stretches (which are many, with Part 6 getting especially drippy).

It may be news to some viewers that the Big Apple Circus, whose current incarnation in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center is the 33rd, essentially starts from scratch each year. Though some performers return — Barry Lubin, for instance, seems to have been the clown Grandma forever — others are new, and their various routines must be whipped into shape and blended into a coherent whole. The supporting crew also has to be trained.

The opening episode, “First of May,” records the beginning of this process, in Walden, N.Y., where Steve Smith, the director for the 2008-9 season, and Paul Binder, the circus’s longtime artistic director, assess what they’ve got and try to form it into a quality show. There is trouble in the ring — it’s a good thing that the horse-riding acrobats wear safety tethers and that the trapeze has a net under it — and some discomfort outside of it, as people get to know one another.

Once the circus hits the road, a couple of big-picture stories emerge. One is Mr. Binder’s announcement that the season will be his last as artistic director. Another is the economy.  “Here we are on the 29th of September 2008,” Mr. Smith is heard to say as the camera pans the tent during a performance, revealing that at least half the seats are empty. “The Dow Jones dropped 777 points today. Money is tight.”

But the real beauty of this program is in the smaller stories and in the openness with which they’re told, from Mr. Binder — his ambivalence about leaving the job couldn’t be clearer — down to the low-wage grunts who set up the tents and clean up after the animals.

“There’s a woman, prison, babies and courts, and that explains it all,” one tent rigger says by way of describing how someone comes to be doing what he’s doing. “Most people who know those four things know you end up in jobs like this.”



By season’s end, this man has gone through quite a journey, and so have the juggling brothers who barely talk to each other, the clown who takes mood-stabilizing medication, the wire walker who wants to have a baby, and just about everyone else in this well-conceived program. You probably won’t be inspired to run off and join the circus after watching “Circus”; heck, you might be left with the suspicion that economics and other forces are going to kill off this art form before too much longer. But you’ll be glad that there were people who did, and that these filmmakers captured them before time marched on.

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