“You can’t do anything ‘half’ in the circus”
It’s tough to remember that Cirque du Soleil isn’t “new” (1984?!) when you’re an American like me whose idea of the circus growing up was watching goofy clowns in ten-sizes-too-large costumes pile into a tiny car while animals roared and jumped through hoops. I think the main reason I enjoyed going was the fact I’d probably come home with something that glowed. Acrobatics were therefore a very tiny portion of my excitement and yet that’s pretty much the part requiring the most talent and artistry. It’s exactly what was at the forefront of the industry internationally so I shouldn’t be surprised we ignored it for the louder, easier spectacle instead. Luckily there was at least one troupe in San Francisco that didn’t comply with the status quo.
Meg Pinsonneault‘s documentary portrait Bizarre: A Circus Story isn’t about the Pickle Family Circus, but the organization definitely plays an important role in the life of main subject Master Lu Yi. This Chinese immigrant is thought of as the father of modern acrobatics who trained and instructed legions of performers back home in China as a bona fide celebrity before politics interfered and goals changed. He ultimately found himself in New York City on tour where Judy Finelli (a Pickle member tragically diagnosed with MS who’s interviewed here at bedside) recruited him to come work with her on the west coast. Master Yi suddenly turned the page on a brand new chapter of his life and brought his unparalleled expertise stateside to Circus Center.
We learn about his journey—good times and bad—through first-hand accounts from Yi and family (biological and circus). There’s some archival photography brought in to show his evolution, but unsurprisingly little else considering the Communist state he escaped. This isn’t a huge issue, however, since the now seventy-four year old is still able to prove just how athletic he is with stock-still handstands and support holds. The path to America was merely the background for his being here; everything since becomes the film’s true draw as no one we watch performing or practicing would be doing what they’re doing without his presence. He’s a teacher, friend, and cheerleader pointing out faults as well as successes with a swift, loving smack to the head.
There are literally only good things to say about Yi and we believe it because he comes across as jovial and authentic. Life obviously wasn’t always perfect, but even when memories of tough times bring the slight sign of a tear to his eye he shakes it off with sentiments exclaiming how “that’s all in the past”. He’s an inspiration and deserving of this extensive look at his work ethic and mission of love in a twenty-first century rejuvenated by the circus we were late to embrace. There’s a youth movement in America towards this acrobatic stunt work and Yi is the man every aspiring performer should try his/her hardest to meet. But beyond helping those who become high-caliber draws, Circus Center also provides a haven for everyone else.
It’s this fact that drives what I believe to be Bizarre‘s best moments: cut scene acrobatics by the professional and amateur performers Yi currently teaches today. Pinsonneault overcranks her frame rate to capture these isolated routines in a way that allows her to play them for us at a deliberately slow pace. We watch the dust clouds of paint burst around clowns, witness the chalk remnants trickling down through the air from an aerialist’s straps, and stare in awe at a Cyr Wheel artist revolving at a forty-five degree angle from the ground. There may be a few too many cuts to truly capture the unadulterated majesty of the stunts, but in the absence of single-take mastery is poetry of limbs, muscles, and motion.
Pinsonneault takes pains to show each interviewee on the mats and strapped in with Yi by their side so we understand how age, size, and ability are meaningless in comparison to love of the art. Everyone involved is passionate about the circus and Yi is forever smiling as he roots each on while yelling commands needed for improvement. We hear from a woman who didn’t start until she was in her sixties, a professional acrobatic duo, student jugglers, and everyone in between. We watch them stumble and succeed behind closed doors and soar in those high-production value vignettes fully costumed and made-up against a darkly hazy room. Yi and his school show how the circus is alive, well, and better than ever. The revolution now starts here.