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Today we have Jane George, author and illustrator of the YA book, The Mumbo Jumbo Circus. 

Sideshow, Burlesque and Circus

by Jane George

“STEP RIGHT UP! DON’T BE SHY. THAT’S RIGHT FOLKS, WHAT’S INSIDE MUST BE SEEN TO BE BELIEVED!”

As a kid, I was exposed to such imaginative oddities as The Wild, Wild West TV show and The 7 Faces of Dr Lao.

These kinds of cultural influences wax and wane, and now the lure of the mysterious, the impossible, and the forbidden is stronger than ever.  The resurgence of interest in circus arts, sideshow and burlesque theater may be part of the same cultural backlash to beige-box consumerism that spawned Steampunk. Humans crave color, imagination and creative freedom.

Poster: Gemini & Scorpio

Intense explorations of cabaret/burlesque, circus, sideshow and Steampunk have popped up all around the country, from one night events like The Lost Circus Circus Meets Dark Cabaret With a Steampunk Twist in Brooklyn last year to on-going performances and dinner theater.  Just to name a few:

In Austin, Texas, The East Side Show Room serves up gourmet cuisine and vintage cocktails with a side of cabaret in a steampunky-circus atmosphere. For a Tim Burton meets the circus experience, there is Cirque Berzerk   in Los Angeles. And in San Francisco you can have, “Love, Chaos & Dinner,” in a tent with Teatro ZinZanni

While the delights of classic roadside attractions like The Thing are now few and far between, there are performers who are carrying on the tradition of Sideshow and the Ten-in-One.

Austin, Texas is also home to Noel Benedetti aka Ballyhoo Betty, a sideshow performer who specializes in fire arts.

Noel is blogmistress of www.HeyRubeCircus.com , a fantastic celebration of all things circus and sideshow. She is affiliated with 999 Eyes Freakshow, The Invisible Man Corporation, and The Surreal Sideshow.

Noel says this about her experience as a sideshow performer, “Aside from musical acts, people are relatively sheltered from live entertainment today and so people are typically unaware of the very visceral chemistry that can exist between performer and viewer. During a live sideshow, there is an interaction taking place, unlike the unidirectional consumption of most mass media, such as television. This dynamic often takes people by surprise, and you can see their eyes light up in response to this confrontation.”

In contrast to the hybrid theater/circus/cabaret blends that are gaining in popularity, Noel says this about her art, “While sideshow is often considered a radical or fringe culture, it is also heavily steeped in tradition. There are relatively few genuinely novel sideshow acts around today; people have been eating fire, swallowing swords and displaying anatomical oddities for centuries and tipping the hat to performers of the past has become a norm in the business.”

Photo: Jason Black

Noel suggested I look up a visual artist and sideshow performer named Jason Black, aka The Black Scorpion.  Among the venues he performs at is Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore

A poem by Black describes The Black Scorpion:

A winged, performance Anti-Artist.

He, born a naked baby boy with irregular hands, unlike any other.

When him you see, understand you will.

Witnessing his Anti-Act is the longest day you will ever live.

Remember he is breathing for something onstage, and living the rest for his life.

That last line stays with you, doesn’t it? I’ll bet his act does too.

Current circus and sideshow acts could be be said to be more about individualism and creativity than about “Hey, Rube” hucksterism. This is especially true in the modern world of burlesque. A revival in burlesque and the art of the striptease happened in the Nineties and has been gaining in popularity ever since. Partly driven by a nostalgia for old-time glamor, modern burlesque is also a feminine reclaiming of the “male gaze,” often in intelligent and hilarious send-ups of the medium. Burlesque is theater, cabaret and performance art rolled into one.

photo: RJ Johnson, Hot Pink Feathers

Hot Pink Feathers   is a renowned, award-winning San Francisco Bay Area troupe that performs World Cabaret Showgirl dance. Founder and head Feather, Kellita, told me why she feels burlesque is so popular, “The heart of the matter is that burlesque is an art and a craft that puts the woman front and center, as performer and as producer. Audiences today are more heavily female than they used to be. Content is almost exclusively created by a woman for herself, and it often parodies her personal insecurities, transforming them into mainstays of joy and inspiration.  Burlesque is an art form that deserves its due. When it’s done right, a lot of craft goes into the art of slf-expression.”

Hot Pink Feathers is performing a Sally Rand-type showgirl routine, with feather fans and dripping-pearl bikinis, in San Francisco’s Carnavale Parade on  Sunday, May 29.  Say hello to them at the staging area 9am-12 at Bryant between 21st & 22nd.  Parade starts at noon. They can also be seen on the 2nd Saturday of every month at Café Van Kleef, where they perform with the Blue Bone Express brass band. Next show is June 11.

For a while now, circus arts have been making their way back to the more intimate, single ring circus. When I saw an equine show produced by Cirque du Soleil called Cheval Theatre, I could practically reach out and touch the horses. I definitely felt the whoosh as they galloped past my seat.

Poster: Circus Flora

A circus dedicated to this connection between performer and audience is Circus Flora in St. Louis. Circus Flora weaves a theatrical storyline through their classical circus acts. From their site, “The artistry, magic and charm of Circus Flora’s performances have made it part of the vanguard of the “new circus” movement in North America.”The artistry, magic and charm of Circus Flora’s performances have made it part of the vanguard of the “new circus” The theme of their performances changes annually. This year it’s a Victorian-era riverboat theme entitled Vagabond Adventures.

“Circus Flora is about performance, not spectacle. Circus Flora concentrates on displaying the individual talents and personalities of human and animal performers highlighting their relationships to one another. It’s a circus about family, beauty, magic and inspiration.”  Ivor David Balding

That quote could have been written about my recently-released, young adult fantasy, The Mumbo Jumbo Circus. It describes the themes of my novel perfectly. One random commenter will receive a paperback of The Mumbo Jumbo Circus. Step Right Up! into the world of human possibility that is this writer’s imagination.

Freedom, creativity and individualism are hallmarks of modern sideshow, burlesque, cabaret, and circus arts. Just like the relationship between author and reader, the magic is in the point of connection. I like to think of a circus ring as a sacred circle of human possibility. Happy performing, in whatever you do!

 ~Jane George

What do you love most about the circus? 

Jane is giving away a copy of The Mumbo Jumbo Circus to one lucky commenter (North America only please).   Contest ends 11:59 PM PST  June 1, 2011.

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