Last Friday, I went to see Circus Contraption based on the strong recommendation of a friend of mine. I like circuses. Unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed by Circus Contraption. Part of it was that the last circus I’d seen had been the 7 fingers circus, which was phenomenal. Part of it was that the recommendation set my expectations pretty high. And part of it was that their show didn’t really work for me.
Don’t get me wrong – Circus Contraption was good. They had some nice trapeze acts, and some really good hand balancing stuff. The music was surprisingly well done, with an old-time jazz feel (string bass, trombone, trumpet and clarinet for a lot of songs). And I really liked their juggling act – it was pretty basic ball juggling, except that they did it in the dark with lighted balls, which left a visual trail as they were thrown around the room among the four jugglers. Their final act was also amazing – the band slowly wound down the finale, and then a band member picked up a couple bottles and walked to center stage, blowing over the top of the bottles to fill in notes in what the rest of the band was playing. And each of the band members put down their instrument one by one to join the first guy. Meanwhile, the rest of the performers were coming out with two to three bottles of their own. And when they were all assembled, they put on a credible rendition of the show theme, which they’d played throughout the show, with a complex bass line and melody. It was pretty darn cool. Kind of like hand bell ringing, but blowing bottles. We were speculating afterwards how hard it must be to fill the bottles to the right height to tune everything each night.
So that was neat and a breath of joy to finish on. But overall, I was disappointed. And I spent some time trying to put my finger on what I thought was missing. Their connective tissue was definitely weak – they had several skits which didn’t really work for me. And I think it was because it was clear they were acting. One of the performers dressed up as a caveman and stomped around the stage, but it was just an act – it didn’t really seem to be an extension of him. And when I thought about it, I felt that way about a lot of the performance, that it was forced, especially the skits.
I used to think that what made me enjoy a performance was seeing that the group on stage was enjoying the performance. But I think it’s not enough. It makes a huge difference certainly, but the group on stage also has to convey to and include the audience in their enjoyment. A lot of the bands I have seen live multiple times do this well (bands like the House Jacks, or Moxy Fruvous, or They Might Be Giants). And they do it by being themselves on stage – they happen to be performing, but you can imagine them bantering with each other the same way even if there wasn’t an audience. And they take it a step further by often including the audience in their banter, riffing off of catcalls and cheers and stuff. I really enjoy that, to the point where I often enjoy the House Jacks bantering between the songs more than the songs themselves. The 7 fingers circus had a similar feel as well – it felt like the performers were real people – people who could perform amazing physical feats, but their acts still managed to show some aspect of their personality.
I didn’t get that sense from Circus Contraption. It felt too artificial, too staged. You know that feeling you get from some people who are trying so hard to be one of the group (“Hey guys, whatcha doing? Where should we go for lunch?”), where they’re really nice but just aren’t fun to be around because they’re trying too hard instead of just being themselves? That’s kind of the feeling I had. Which was a pity. But it made for some interesting reflections on what I look for in a live performance. So that was neat. I think. You’re probably just bored.