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Run Off and Join the Circus

May 29, 2011

 When I saw the posters for Circus, a mini series documentary about the Big Apple Circus from PBS, on the subway last summer, it was one of the few times I felt sad that I didn’t have cable. It seemed just obscure enough that I wouldn’t be able to use my inherent twenty-something magic to find it to watch illegally online, and I thought I’d miss out on what I was sure to be a fascinating inside look at one of the most mystifying traditions of our recent history. Thankfully, I discovered that it’s available on Netflix Watch Instantly, and I devoured the six part series this past week.

As expected, it was delightful, and I strongly suggest you check it out. What I appreciated most about it is that it eludes the tendency for documentaries to be opinionated, and instead gives us a peek into this world through an omniscient narrator. The performers are celebrated, but not put up on a pedestal and their flaws are exposed. The workers are proven to be the supposed rough and tumble mix of misfits, degenerates, and even criminals, but they’re not scorned or pitied and are shown as just as human. The circus is seen as magical and beautiful, but its dark underbelly is revealed too.

In essence, Circus is a collection of short stories with an incredible cast of characters. Throughout the six episodes, we get to know everyone from the founder to the star acrobats to the ring crew very intimately. We know their roles, their hopes, dreams, and fears. We’re with them when they struggle and when they succeed. We know where they came from and, by the end, we know where they’re going. Some of them are funny, some of them are tragic, some of them are disconcerting, and all of them are fascinating and like no one you’ve ever met before. We follow the rise and fall of relationships, invade  family drama, listen in on the gossip about squabbles amongst the crew, and quickly learn the pecking order. As one person put it in the first episode, what the circus creates is a microcosm of society that’s secluded from the world, so you get everything life has to offer – the highs and lows – turned way up.

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the divide between those who were born into the circus and are now in the fifth/ninth/thirteenth generation of circus folk, and those who came into it as a hobby. Yes, there are still plenty of people who run off and join the circus, and their reasons are always fascinating. But equally as fascinating are the lives of the families who have been living in this strange world for all of their lives and decades back into their history. I went into the show having certain expectations and assumptions about what I was going to see, but I soon discovered that there was so much more to the circus that I didn’t even know I could learn about. By the end of the show – and in many ways, I felt it ended too soon – I found myself caring deeply about every single person I had gotten to know.

And I sure as hell wanted to go to the circus.


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