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October 03, 2007

"Absinthe" 1: Performers

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of days ago The Wife and I attended a performance called "Absinthe" at Spiegelworld, a touring circus group that had set their tent up at Manhattan's South Street Seaport.

In fact -- and despite the tent and the ringmaster -- "Absinthe" wasn't a circus performance at all, at least not in the usual three-ring, elephants-and-tigers, clowns-shot-out-of-a-cannon sense. It was instead ... a show. For adults. This was one evening that was definitely not meant for the kiddies. Full of bawdy language, sleazy glamor, campy drag performances, and outrageously filthy jokes, "Absinthe" featured ghoulish and obscene pranks, as well as some all-but-the-cork nudity. Yeah, baby.

It'd probably be fair to describe the show as part burlesque and part cabaret, with a few circus elements mixed in too. You've seen the movie "Cabaret"? (If you haven't: Do!) Well, "Absinthe" was far, far closer to the decadent and lewd shows put on in the KitKat Klub than it was to Barnum & Bailey. It was loads of lowdown fun. I think I laughed loudest during a parody number spoofing the artsy pretentions of Cirque du Soleil. I've never even been to a Cirque de Soleil show, yet I was wiping laughter-tears away anyway.


"Absinthe" was also an interesting show in an art-anthropology sense. For one thing, I was fascinated by how small-scale it was. There were no more than 10 performers in the entire show, and a mere 350 people in the audience. The "ring" in which most of the acts were performed didn't measure a dozen feet across. Very cool to be part of such an event.

For another thing, I was surprised by how much the tent itself was a major part of the show. Outside was a casual beer-garden-like space. Inside, all was opulent-tacky beauty, full of wood, antique colors, and sexy mirrors, like something painted and lit by Toulouse-Lautrec. You can see the interior of the Spiegeltent here.

Although I took my surroundings in and enjoyed them, I'm afraid that I could have done a better job of it. I didn't fully appreciate the tent until I researched the topic of "Spiegeltents" online after seeing the show. Spiegeltents turn out to be extraordinary cultural creations in their own right: showbiz and architecture melded into one spatial-material thingamajig. Hmm: I'll remember to be more aware of this the next time I go to one of these shows.

Not for the first time do I feel sorry that my knowledge of circus lore and circus history is as beyond-thin as it is. I have so many questions. I'd especially love to know how the circus-circuit works. Who books 'em? How many weeks a year are they on the road? Do subsidies play a major role in today's circus economics? And I'd love to know how revues like "Absinthe" get cast and developed. Is a conventional director-figure involved? Are the various acts allowed to do entirely what they please so long as they stay within certain time limits?

A quick critique of the show just because I can't resist. It was maybe a little skimpy; one or two more acts would have pleased. And I was sorry that only one of the evening's performers (Julie Atlas Muz) supplied nearly all the overt erotic interest.


Supplying heat: Julie Atlas Muz

Muz is quite something, make no mistake about it. A Downtown, postmodern Sally Rand with a lot of star presence, Muz has been wowing performance-art and neoburlesque audiences for a few years now. She seems to be a tiny thing, but she's also a dynamo with an amazing body that she's rightly unashamed of. And that g-string she spent much of the evening in ... My goodness. (Wipes sweat away.) It would be hard to beat so far as skimpiness goes.

Barooo! But in a good way, y'know?

Anyway, "sexiness" was one of the main qualities "Absinthe" was selling, and mostly it did so very well. Kink wasn't in short supply, and we were certainly encouraged to enjoy the charms of the women aerialists and the hunkiness of the muscle men. Still, I felt a touch let down that more skin wasn't put on display, and that the art of titillation wasn't paid a little bit more attention than it was. For example, even if the girl aerialists didn't want to do nudity, they still could have supplied a little more in the way of tease. Perhaps they might have started off the show in conventional outfits and wound the show up in something non-nude but still micro. Pretty please next time?

All that said, and though the show was a long way from perfect or ideal -- it didn't get glowing reviews either -- the Wife and I had a terrific time. Both of us wound up in a very good mood, babbling about how if more evenings out were like this one -- a rowdy, depraved variety show for adults -- we'd spend far more evenings out than we do.

But what the evening mainly me left me thinking about had to do with one basic fact: A great thing about variety shows is that they don't have to be great in some official or exalted sense to supply tons and tons of pleasure. I'll go so far as to maintain that they render the whole "greatness" question irrelevant. Why? Because "perfect" and "ideal" simply aren't issues where variety shows are concerned. If you're bored by this act, well, the next one's coming along in no more than ten minutes, and it might be a knockout. Even when the attention does drift, there's always someplace for it to drift to -- to the drinks, the surroundings, the showgirls, the crowd, the lights, the music.

Hmmm. I find my thoughts arranging themselves around two main subjects: performers, and what I think of as "the virtues of the jumble."

This posting: performers.

OK OK OK: Performers can be major pains in the ass. No denying it. They're routinely high-strung, demanding, crazy in infuriating "borderline" ways, shy yet exhibitionistic, obsessive, and unreliable. They're often beyond-flakey people -- yesyesyes. But I admire them anyway, and I hate it when civilians condescend to them, or are unappreciative.

I enjoy the work of performers, of course. Those voices, those bodies, those expressions, those feelings, those stunts ... Wowee. I could spend hours every day watching performers put on shows. How lovely it is that there are people in the world who live to use their bodies and their voices to entertain the rest of us. How boring and less-colorful life would be without them.

But my feelings for performers go further than just appreciating their work. For all their flaws, I admire them as people.

For one thing, they're daredevils. They take chances not just with their talents but with their lives. In the case of the zanies and talents who apear in "Absinthe" -- it has got to have taken some of them years and years to develop their 8-minute acts. Those are years a saner, more practical person might have spent doing something with long-range payoffs, like going to business school. For how many years can these performers -- especially the ones who showcase athletic prowess -- keep successfully peddling their skills? In the lives of many performers, the usual middle-class goals and worries -- health care, schools, kids -- are heedlessly sacrified and/or disregarded, all for the sake of putting on shows.

As well as the fame and applause that might ensue, of course. But, really, most of the performers I've known haven't seemed primarily driven by the lust for fame, though there'd nothing wrong with that, of course. Most of them really are these strange creatures -- born performers. They're here on earth to put on shows, so that the rest of us might be entertained.

It's a metaphor for life more generally, isn't it? At least I find it to be one. No matter how hard we may try to secure what we love and value, in the end everything's going to be swept away. Your savings, your house, your work, your genes -- none will last forever. We get a few minutes to explore this magic circle we call life, then we make our exit.

Most of us try to pin a few things down anyway, if only for the sense of security that comes from the feeling that something might last. Performers, though ... They live the illusoriness of life in a very intense way. They really are creatures of the moment. For them, everything comes and it goes; nothing sticks around. No wonder they drink and drug and crack up so much.

This may be merely one Stage-Door Johnny's line of baloney, by the way. So be it -- even if it's a line, it's a sincere one. In fact, back in younger, freebooting days, I treated myself to some romances with actresses. Barooooo! Let's just say that although actresses may be at their happiest, their most energized, and their most fulfilled when they're in the spotlight, time spent in the sack runs a close second. Inhibition is not an issue, to say the least, and pleasure is pursued with directness, as well as with immense and sweet gusto. Sensitivity and earthiness, imagination and spontaneity ... Highly recommended! (BTW: Don't take 'em seriously as people, and don't expect the passion to last.) I hear that dancers are even better lays than actors, but sadly I've never had the chance to see what they're like.

Performers often aren't practical or bright in the academic sense, though there are exceptions. They tend towards the instinctive, the shrewd, and the lyrical instead. They often seem barely "conscious" at all, in fact. Most of them haven't really made a "rational" choice to enter performance fields, for one thing. Most have little else that they could do, or that they might have been.

Incidentally, these are all good reasons why the 98% of us who aren't born performers shouldn't take performers as role models. Kids: You may worship your rock 'n' roll and performer heroes. But do not go and do likewise. What works (or may occasionally work) for a performer would be life-ruining for most of us.

But the main thing I disagree with some people over where performers are concerned is this: For many people, performers are the least essential of artists. They're incidental to the process, mere interpreters of what real creators create.

There are certainly many senses in which this is and can be true. There's always another actor who can perform a given role, for instance. Still, as far as I'm concerned, performers are often the most creative of artists.

For me they're even the most essential of artists. For one thing, they're out there face to face with the audience -- they're on the line in ways the rest of us seldom are. If the joke doesn't work, they flop. If the audience is indignant, the indignation gets aimed at the performers. (One reason I like writing: I get to hide behind my words.) Without performers, there are no performances. And performance -- as well as the urge to perform -- strikes me as the very root of all art.

But there's a deeper explanation for the disagreement, I think. It has to do with the way higher-end Western art has evolved. In the West, we have often separated out the performer from the creator. There's a composer ... and then there's a violinist. There's a choreographer ... and then there's a dancer. There's a novelist ... and eventually a film might be made from it that actors appear in.

I suspect that many people don't realize that these arrangements are by no means universals. (Semi-related: Many cultures have no tradition of Western-style high art at all.) In many tribal cultures, for instance, the tribe doesn't politely assemble to sit quietly and appraise a concert. Instead they get together for a tribe-wide hoedown. Everyone drums, chants, and dances. There might be one individual in the tribe who's a specially gifted storyteller or woodcarver -- but not only is he working with handed-down myths, characters, and conventions, (ie., stuff he didn't come up with) he's also typically contributing not to a museum-style "appreciation" event but to an everyone-participates event. The visually-gifted person? She's helping to decorate the party.

Even in the West ... "The Odyssey" didn't arise from one guy sitting in a garrett "coming up" with something new. It was a bunch of myths that had been performed live for audiences over centuries by many different storytellers, that were eventually roped together into one big bundle.

In Western popular culture the division between creator and performer is also often barely an issue. In rock, for instance, the performer is often the composer, and the audience is expected to be an active part of the show. Pop songs are sometimes arrived-at -- er, "composed" -- by the group, with drummers and producers and singers all pitching in ideas and riffs, and everyone noodling around until something seems to gel. (Witness all the squabbles about who deserves credit for which song.) Comedians and improv artists are both creators and performers; evenings at improv and standup clubs are quite different things than evenings at Carnegie Hall.

Another enlightening comparison is with African-American culture. One thing that some white Americans don't get about black American art is that in black art the line between performer and audience is much smudgier than in Euro-style concert-hall art. Black people generally expect art to be participatory, as you might have guessed if you've ever watched a movie as part of a mainly-black audience.

Black people don't generally come to sit quietly and appreciate; they generally come to take part. Duke Ellington and Count Basie weren't composers in the marble-bust, Mozart sense; they were guys who ran dance bands. As the great Albert Murray has explained, for black people public life generally -- the clothes, the walk, the sidewalk behavior -- is a performance, and deserves to be enjoyed and discussed as such. As a political figure Al Sharpton may be a buffoon -- a scandal and a fraud. But what a performer!

A friend of mine who covers the fashion world tells me that it's common for black girls to be knockouts on the runway right from day one. They're used to putting on a public show. White girls might well be shy, or introverted, or self-conscious; they might need to learn how to project. But many black girls grew up in worlds where walking down a city sidewalk is already putting on a performance.

This is the general rule, by the way. If there's a baseline, a standard-issue thing, it's culture as a participatory thing. (The web seems to be returning mainstream America to a sense of culture as a more participatory thing than it has been for a while.) The high-art Western arrangement -- with its clear dividing lines between creator, intepreter, and audience -- is a glorious achievement, of course. But it's also a rather peculiar one.

A good book to read on this theme is Josef Skvorecky's "Dvorak in Love." (It's an astounding novel generally, in fact, one of my faves from the 15 years when I followed new literary writing.) Although the book's hero is the real-life Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak, the book's spirit-figure -- the person we're given to understand represents the spirit of art itself -- is an actress. She's vaporous and changeable. She lives, she works, her performances take shape -- but once they're over they vanish, as she does, and as we will too. The book is a moving and monumental thing, it may even last for the ages. Yet what it circles around is a here-and-gone will of the wisp. Skvorecky -- who has also written wonderfully in praise of movies and jazz -- is one writer who isn't about to condescend to performers.

OK, I ain't gonna hold back any longer. I love performers, I really do. I say this, by the way, like someone might say, "I really love Afghan hounds" -- I'm not about to marry one, but I have strong and special feelings for them. I'm anything but a performer myself except in the everyday sense (job behavior, social white lies, etc). But when I look at performers performing I often see something I really adore.

If I can be allowed a Vedanta moment: The Divine manifests itself through (and in) everything, of course, and perhaps part of what some of us love about the arts game is that through the arts "It" (the Divine, whatever) can often seem to be beaming forth. But the Divine seems to me to manifest itself through performers with a special kind of transfiguring intensity. Perhaps what explains this is that the work of performers is -- to a far greater extent than it is with other artists -- all mixed up with who and what they are as physical beings. We look at performers performing, and sometimes we really do see God.

Or maybe this is all an illusion. If so: Does it matter?

Semi-related: Art Dirt Redux enjoyed the show too, and snapped some evocative pix. Here's a review of "Dvorak in Love" that I can get with. I shared some tips about how to dodge conversations about "greatness" here.



posted by Michael at October 3, 2007


I feel the way you do about actors and actresses. When I was in art school, I learned to think that the best parties were the ones that had a few of them as guests. Not only were they entertaining in themselves, but they brought out the best in other people as well. And for all their difficult qualities - and they do have them - actors and actresses have a great deal of empathy and intuition. They notice things about people and can make them feel good about themselves. Of course, they will have forgotten your name the next time you run into them, but really, who cares? Let's hear it for self-dramatizing extraverts.

On the other hand, musicians and singers do tend not to have much to offer socially except their talent, I find. They usually aren't very verbal.

Posted by: alias clio on October 3, 2007 5:19 PM

Is our relation to performers as simple as you make it out to be? Purely celebratory? What about jealousy? Isn't that an element in our reaction to those up on the stage? For me it is. Two experiences: watching the chorus line dancers on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was 9; at about the same age being taken to Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus at the old Madison Square Garden and sitting in the dark below, mesmerized by the trapeze artists spotlighted high above. In both instances the yearning hungry pain of pure desire unrealizeable and the dim awareness, but awareness nevertheless, that they belonged to the aristocracy, the physical aristocracy of the race, and that I didn't and never would. Ergo: jealousy; jealousy and resentment.

Posted by: ricpic on October 3, 2007 7:48 PM

I don't have much to say except thanks for an excellent essay. I'm a Skvorecky fan as well. Haven't read "Dvorak in Love" yet, but I'll get to it ASAP.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on October 4, 2007 12:41 AM

the absolutely most earth-shattering sex and passionate love i ever experienced was with an aspiring actress/art gallery event coordinator.

with the good came the bad -- high drama that would make mincemeat out of most men.

Posted by: roissy on October 4, 2007 12:13 PM

A Downtown, postmodern Sally Rand

Too cool.

Love this post, and I am having to unveil my ignorance about a 2blowhard subject (uh-gin) - this time regarding Spiegelworld tents.

Thanks, Michael. Great review!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 4, 2007 10:41 PM

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