Friday, March 14, 2014

'The Ordinary Acrobat': Letting the circus run away with you

The Ordinary Acrobat
Duncan Wall
Alfred A. Knopf
New York

The remarkable thing about Duncan Wall’s circus memoir/history “The Ordinary Acrobat” is how deftly it marries the personal and the global, the macro and micro. His quest to understand the history, structure, and process of the art form is married to his personal desire to join the circus, or at least train at the Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque, seven miles east of the center of Paris.

The result is an immensely readable, perfectly paced alternation of personal saga and an exposition of the circus’ past, present, and future. The indefatigable Wall plows across Europe and North America, taking in the scene from the rattiest street performer to the steel-and-glass complex that houses Cirque du Soleil, the monolithic “entertainment company” that turned circus into big business again. (Wall even-handedly surveys contemporary developments, looking askance at Cirque du Soleil’s corporate stylings, reporting but not endorsing the opinion of artists who call it a “factory” or a “Walmart of circuses.”)

Wall’s passion invigorates the narrative. No George Plimpton, he is not a hobbyist nor a “participatory journalist.” He is rigorously honest about both his achievements and shortcomings in the ring, and his attention to the physical, mental, and emotional details of what it means to the perform “feats of activity,” as they were once charmingly called, makes the achievements of big-top stars only more impressive. His travels take him into the heart of circus culture, and trigger a multitude of fascinating discussions with the outsize personalities who keep the art alive.

The book is an immensely powerful starting point for understanding the circus. Wall’s pocket history of the form and its primary disciplines (juggling, acrobatics, trapeze, clowning) gives any interested reader a laundry list of names, and descriptions of acts, that will drive the curious to do more research . . . and maybe even inspire the next Grock, Wallenda, or Rastelli.

Given the circus’ ephemeral nature, its off-and-on popularity, and its sometime disreputable past, many sites and stories have been lost forever – at times, Walls’ quest seems bereft even of ghosts. The ultimate, comforting impulse that pushes the writer to devour all this information and relay it to us is one he finds embodied in Pascal Jacob, circus historian, who donates his collection of memorabilia to circus-friendly Montreal. As Wall helps Jacob sort his historical treasures, he realizes: “The world couldn’t be bothered with circus history. This had been proved to me time and again. Pascal’s passion was a response to this destruction of the past. He was on a mission to gather together what had survived and keep it safe.”

Thanks to Duncan Wall, a vibrant portrait of the art and an author’s relationship to it, is safe.

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