Dec 022010

A fan wrote recently and asked a question that is very central to circus performance:

Dear Mr. Paul,
I have been a long time fan of yours and Big Apple Circus.  I was fascinated by the PBS series “Circus” and was surprised by your reaction to the safety issue with the horse vaulting tricks (first episode).  Can you explain why you are so strict about the artists using the harness when they don’t want to?
Thank you,
Jennifer, NJ

Thanks for asking Jennifer.

Safety must always be the first priority. Circus performers place a premium on safety. They’re artists, not daredevils. They don’t perform a feat once and go on to the next stunt – they repeat their performance, as Francis Brunn once said, “at 8:20 every night.” There’s some risk built into any extraordinary feat, but circus performers look to make that risk as small as possible. But they’re also supremely confident people. They have to be. You can’t throw a triple somersault without complete faith in your ability, without total commitment to the moment. And that’s where the real danger in circus performance lies: in the tension between confidence in one’s abilities and the need to reduce risk. In my years with the circus I’ve seen how performers can sometimes let that faith in their abilities trump their ingrained need for safety, and I eventually came to understand that part of my job (the job of any director) is to spot those occasions and head them off.

Also, the first rule of engagement for the film makers was as follows: “There will be people training for an act involving vaulting on horseback. NEVER approach with a camera when there are animals in the ring. Horses, particularly inexperienced ones, are spooked by any approach, especially if it involves a large object like a camera.”

Acrobats who don’t have years of experience working with horses are at particular risk, not realizing that it is not only their ability that is being tested, but that they are working with another sentient being, with a mind of its own. And in this particular case an animal that runs away from anything alien or the least bit threatening.

Imagine how I felt, then, when I walked into the tent one morning to find not just a camera crew ignoring that first rule, but a performer brazenly putting himself at risk. What I saw was this: a company member without a safety belt on a horse circling the ring, and a camera crew advancing toward that horse.

Quite simply, I lost it. My temper is usually as close by as my laughter, and this appalling breach of safety, not just by outsiders by one of our own, enraged me.

With a furious outburst, I stopped the camera crew. Then I stormed into the ring and halted the action. I glared at the company member, who had been on horseback without a safety belt, then at Christine Zerbini, the horse trainer standing in the middle of the ring with a long whip. “ALL OF YOU INTO MY OFFICE IMMEDIATELY!” I shouted.

Christine, afraid that the horse would interpret my roar as intended for him, tried to quiet me down.

“SHUT UP! I yelled, misunderstanding her intent, and stomped out of the tent towards the office that had been set up for the film’s producers. There, I told them that I didn’t care that we had a contract with them – that I’d tear it up if this blatant disregard for the rules continued.

If my anger didn’t get their attention, that certainly did.

The company artists who had flouted the rules were next, and I let them have it with an anger that was nearly uncontrollable. Over the years I’d seen overconfidence or inattention lead to some perilous situations – in two cases to serious incidents, one of which led to a performer being paralyzed – and I wasn’t going to let it happen again, not on my watch.

Soon my temper cooled, if not my indignation, and I sought out Christine and apologized for my insult to her. For a few days everyone seemed to walk on eggshells around me, and I regretted having caused such an ugly scene. But ugly though it had been, I’d gotten the message across.

The film crews behaved, as did the company, and I kept one eye on them – and another on my volatile temper.

“CIRCUS” turned out to be an excellent film.  I’m glad I didn’t have to tear up our contract with the production company, because they were able to capture what I’d wanted to see for so long: the moment the trick is made. Thanks to the latest camera technology, slow motion, Steadi-Cam, and the talent of great camera people, I’ve seen that moment – as Alex Cortes turned the triple somersault on the flying trapeze, Anna of the Rodion Troupe completed the double-double on the russian barre, and Sarah Schwarz executed her straddle leap on the tight wire.

These are awesome sights.


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