Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Delicate Balances

Don't get me wrong. I love computers. I remain in constant awe of our ever-evolving uses of today's technology. I am deeply thankful for such remarkable technological advances as:
Still, all of the media's brouhaha over James Cameron's use of new technology in Avatar strikes me as rather silly for one simple reason. No amount of CGI scripting can ever replace the visceral thrill of watching a live performer taking risks in front of an audience.

At a recent performance of Cirque du Soleil's new OVO, I occasionally had to remind myself that, just because the acrobatics on display might have looked easy, did not mean that they actually were easy. One or two falls onto the safety net offered a stark reminder of what could happen to a performer who had not endured long hours of practice, training, and experience performing dangerous stunts before a huge crowd of onlookers.

In the circus arts, failure often leads to growth and a strengthening of craft. I sometimes wonder if the awe we feel toward circus performers, acrobats, and clowns has more to do with their necessarily insane level of confidence than their willingness to risk failure and immediately go back into action.

Two recent events offered an interesting contrast in how physical stunts and circus acts have been performed before an audience with eight decades separating the actual performances. Watching the difference in styles while remaining in awe of what the performers were actually doing with their bodies offered a model lesson in technique and creativity.

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As part of its special winter event, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered two films featuring the great Buster Keaton. The Goat (1921) is a 23-minute short in which Keaton's photo is accidentally taken and distributed to the media instead of a photo of the criminal "Dead Shot Dan." A classic farce based on mistaken identities, the film also features some wild stunts -- such as the image of Keaton sitting astride a clay statue that slowly melts and collapses under his weight.

Keaton and Harold Lloyd were notorious for doing all of their own stunts and, in The Goat, there is one stunt that is breathtaking in its design and execution. Trapped at a dinner party with the girl of his dreams and her father (a huge policeman who is none too happy to see Keaton in the room), Keaton executes a brilliant step escape as he leaps from his chair to the dining room table, and then up and over the cop's head, escaping through the transom above the door.

The Goat is also famous for one of Keaton's great train stunts. As the camera focuses on a train coming into a station, we see the engine grow closer and closer until it stops -- just within range of the camera -- and the audience sees a deadpan Keaton seated astride the train's cowcatcher. Watch The Goat in its entirety in these three video clips and notice how fresh the stunts seem after 85 years!

The main attraction, of course, was Keaton's 1924 classic, Sherlock, Jr. in which the actor plays a young film projectionist who has high hopes of becoming a detective. In 1991, the Library of Congress chose Sherlock, Jr. as one of the films worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry. This film is most notable for the dream sequences in which Keaton seems to move from the auditorium directly into the action taking place on the screen.

As you can see from the above video clip, Sherlock, Jr. is filled with remarkable stunts involving trains, cars, motorbikes, and any other vehicle Keaton was able to work with (the scene in which Keaton hangs onto the spout leading to a railroad water tower led to a fall that fractured the comedian's neck). For the dream scenes that required rapid changes in environments (from the jungle to the ocean, etc., ) Keaton and his crew used surveying instruments to mark the exact locations where Keaton and the cameras needed to be positioned to assure continuity in each sequence.

The American Film Institute has ranked Sherlock, Jr. as #62 in the 100 funniest films of all time. With Dennis James accompanying the film on the Mighty Wurlitzer in the Castro Theatre, the screening of Sherlock, Jr. was, as always, a huge hit with the Silent Film Festival's audience.

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Over at Dance Mission Theatre, Sweet Can Theatrical Circus has been offering a new one-hour performance piece designed for children of all ages. Yes Sweet Can features a quartet of circus artists who, as the show opens, are staring out a window to the sounds of thunder and torrential rain. Looking for ways to amuse themselves while trapped indoors on a rainy afternoon, they embark on a series of carefully choreographed stunts and dance routines.

  • Matt White has a lyrical dance number with a broom that has obviously been inspired by some of Gene Kelly's routines.
  • Kerri Kresinski performs a solo number on aerial silks.
  • Beth Clarke balances on a slack rope in addition to acting out a lovely pantomime during which she uses every part of her body to balance kitchen objects while creating a liquid chocolate treat for herself.
  • Natasha Kaluza becomes the "Super Duper Hula Hooper" (eventually using her neck and torso to twirl a dozen hula hoops at once).
If that isn't enough to entertain an audience filled with children, there is also a rather silly number for three women stuck in garbage pails. As directors Wendy Parkman and Johanna Haigood explain in the show's program notes:
"Sweet Can presents the circus performer as a human being, accessible to everyone, and uses the performer's circus skills to make connections by demonstrating the shared emotional experiences that unite all of us -- joy, exasperation, and love, to name a few. Our mission is to create intimate, heartfelt performances in which the audience and performer easily connect with one another.

Yes Sweet Can explores the theme of resourcefulness. Throughout the show the performers demonstrate the magic in everyday life which is accessible to everyone by using the ordinary objects that make up their world. Inspired to create this show by the drastic social and political changes in the winter of 2008 with the election of Barack Obama (and following economic downturn), Sweet Can wanted to reinforce the concept that the things we need are always around us and that, simply by being ourselves, we can bring joy to one another."
While Yes Sweet Can offers plenty of visual entertainment, the true star of the show is Eric “EO” Oberthaler, the wiry trumpet player who has composed a knockout score to accompany the performers.

Composer Eric Oberthaler

Oberthaler's compositions have ranged from operatic rituals composed for the Burning Man Festival to a piece called Flowering Anomalies (that premiered at the TED2009 conference); from a techno-rock opera entitled Joe Messiah to numerous works for the world music ensemble, Gamelan X. A musician who specializes in trumpet, keyboards and voice, Oberthaler is also a featured performer with Brass Menazeri.

It's a bit startling to attend a performance by acrobats and circus artists and realize that their impact is being eclipsed -- in fact, almost dwarfed -- by the talent that composed the music to support their acts. Oberthaler is definitely a creative force to be reckoned with. You can (and should) listen to samples of his music here.

Eric Oberthaler performing in Joe Messiah

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