New York

Huck Snyder, Circus

From Pablo Picasso’s striking, painted decor for Parade to Alexander Calder’s toylike sculpture circus, the Big Top has been raided by visual artists in this century for colorful, “low” subject matter on which to exercise “high” art techniques, with a perfunctory nod to the circus-as-a-metaphor-for-life conceit to provide an implicit philosophical rationale. In Circus, visual artist Huck Snyder and a squad of collaborators created a performance-art revue on circus themes, based on an ’80s club/cabaret sensibility of multiplying ideas and modes of performance that are thoroughly compatible with the concept of fun. This Circus was a collage of late-night club numbers thrown together under the loose category of a pseudo-tent show. And although the performers always played for laughs, the stance behind much ’80s club entertainment—loving parody—showed in their detailed mimicry of the real thing. Circus was a good-natured goof, not a biting deconstruction.

Within this general, mellow approach, the conceptual points of Circus poked out willy-nilly. Some bits were simply kitschy vaudeville: for an equestrian ballet, the performers wore horse masks and horse-body costumes that turned them into both rider and horse. Other moments were silent-movie comedy takeoffs: A juggler struggled to keep up with two flanking filmic images of his frantic self. There were surrealist trifles: A clown at a makeup table was surprised by a filmed, high-speed version of himself in fast-changing masks; a circus dancer shot a doll. There was even a gesture toward melodrama: The ringmaster sang a French torch song about the sorrows of circus life. Most numbers were also silly farce, as when the Fat Lady chased other performers who were dressed as food, then gobbled popcorn, after which a film was projected on her enormous skirt, showing food moving through intestines and decomposing in stop-frame action into feces (all film segments were by Anthony Chase).

The wonder of Circus was that its basically sentimental notion of playful mimicry coalesced into a full-length delight without any other conceptual agenda. Although it didn’t even try to add up to any Big Statement, Circus played just fine; its near-continuous music (warped oompah tunes from a live ensemble and calliope classics on tape), efficient skit-to-skit pacing, and a tight spatial focus—the ring as spotlit stage—kept Circus moving with only occasional longueurs.

Circus romped in two, quite opposite performance spaces to different effect. Staged in a tiny, intimate theater at La MaMa, it was a raucous cabaret, its ambience that of a club in every way except for the raked, theater-style seating. The actors could be heard and felt at close range, and its pratfall humor dominated. However, in the cavernous anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, sponsored by Creative Time, Inc., Circus appeared more at a distance, like a brightly colored whirligig, a tinsel spectacle accompanied by a booming soundtrack. The gut wallop of a club revue was replaced by the more laidback absorption of visual tableaux. The respective versions of the virtually unaltered Circus accommodated both contexts equally well.

The performance, sets, props, and costumes were conceived and directed by Snyder and realized in collaboration with John Kelly, Beatricia Sagar, Wendy Copp, and Diane Martel.

John Howell