Thursday, August 16, 2012

Children of all ages

Is there anyone whose heart doesn't beat a little faster upon hearing the classic circus ringmaster greeting -- "Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages!"

Circus is perhaps the most distinctive form of theater, where story lies at the service of movement and the outcome is always known but always fresh - an uplifting sense of wonder and delight. Circus resembles the non-narrative drama of a magic act, exploring danger and the fear of death but - one hopes - brings us all home safely with a huge sigh of relief.

Circus Renaissance travels the Netherlands and recently pitched its one-ring red tent, trailers and animals in a neighborhood of Amsterdam for a week. One of the performers, 15-year-old Michael Betrian is a friend of a friend of my daughter Flo, so we set out for Amsterdam during a trip to the Netherlands to meet him and see his show.

Michael Betrian, center, with young friends
A remarkably poised and handsome young man, compact in the way of gymnasts, greeted us in costume - neat black pants and nifty short jacket with gold braid decorations and buttons - showed us around the yard and introduced his boss, the circus manager and ringmaster. His swashbuckling outfit - gold and black striped pants tucked into boots and big white shirt - completed an impression made by his over-six-foot height, iron grey hair and commanding manner.

Solange and the circus boss
In a minute, we were inside the tent, where maybe 50 people were scattered among 600-odd seats and which was a sauna on this hot afternoon, and the eternal "The Circus Song" began over the loudspeakers.

The strongman balanced a 100-kilo anvil on his forehead.

The tightrope man, walking about 20 feet off the ground, hopped through hoops, jumped rope and rode a unicycle. He lay back on an upholstered chair, balanced a ladder on his feet and a female acrobat climbed it to perform various balancing poses at the top. (I could only imagine how hot it was up there and felt for the performers in their long velvet pants, shirts and jackets.)

The pirate couple and their bird act
There was no trapeze act - difficult in the one-ring format - but some of my favorites were small, intimate acts that you wouldn't necessarily see in the three-ring Ringling Bros. extravaganzas. A couple dressed in pirate costume had six beautifully-trained parakeets, adorably fluttering from their crossed-swords perch to a table, perky and ready to go down a little slide and move balls along a track like the cheerful professionals they were.

The clown on stilts, his puppet and the pretty lady
A clown on stilts had a human marionette whose movements coordinated with his "master's" string-pulling. They had a little story. The master maneuvered the "marionette" so the puppet could present a flower to a lovely lady. When the master put the puppet back in his box, the marionette cut his strings and ran off with the lady. Enchanting!

(There were a number of families with small children at this 3 p.m. show and one boy near us paid less attention to the ring than he did to running up and down the aisle steps. Flo's comment: "Give a kid a circus and he'll play with the stairs.")

At intermission, we went across the yard to the refreshment tent, where the balance man was selling fiber-optic light wands and the strongman was serving frites. I had to tell them how much I liked their performances and they nodded. I felt for them.

After intermission, Michael Betrian was introduced by the ringmaster as the youngest performer, who is "away from his mother." He bounded out to a fast soundtrack, juggling hourglass-shaped diabolos using two handles connected by a rope. With an acrobat's intensity, he joyfully made the diabolos dance and fly. Although his rope got a little tangled at one point and a couple of soaring diabolos hit the sawdust, you could see that Michael's act will only get better and better and his speed was truly amazing. From what age has this young man been practicing?

Michael Betrian and his flying diabolos
The portly animal trainer efficiently put six beautiful tigers - including a white one - through their paces. They looked healthy and well-cared-for, but the single elephant to me looked a little sad or possibly I am anthropomorphizing.

The elephant
The most surprising animal act for me was six trained cows, who moved in unison, danced a little (I am really not kidding) and struck a pose with their hooves on a small ledge. (I had noticed the cows in the yard and wondered why the circus traveled with their own milk machines.)

There were lovely female acrobats, including one who used a huge fabric sail, and a quick change artist named Rama who took about five seconds to emerge from a little booth in a new costume.

I mused on the hard nature of this work - two shows a day with a day or two off - the need to maintain intense concentration and training, the close quarters. We met Michael afterwards and he explained that he travels with the circus in the summer while during the school year he lives with his parents in Neimegen and joins the circus on weekends. I am in awe of such discipline. Flo made a short video of Michael saying hello to his Dutch friend in the U.S., then he had to go to supper.

Flo, Sem and I walked down the road, heading toward a dinner at a cool cafe called the Walvis (whale), but Michael had another show to do. 

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