PBS documentary 'Circus' is more juggling act than one-ring show

The six-part special goes behind the scenes to explore the side of the circus world that audiences don't get to see -- from the sights to the lingo to the cultural legacy. "Circus" airs Nov. 3 at 9 p.m. ET.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Though the dream may be very much intact as a metaphor for escaping life's monotony, people don't run away and join the circus much anymore. They run away and make documentary films.

Both are crazy-brained impulses, and both are on display in "Circus," Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre's immersive and occasionally engrossing story for PBS about a season in the touring life of the small-time, not-for-profit Big Apple Circus.

This intimate, old-fashioned, one-ring circus is based in Manhattan and was started by two American jugglers in the mid-1970s. The wide-eyed members of the audience, we are frequently reminded, are never more than 50 feet away from the horse and dog acts, the tumblers and stuntfolk, the clowns and trapeze artists.

The documentary begins in early May, when the Big Apple circus players and crew members (150 in all -- some veterans, some newcomers) reconvene at a camp in Upstate New York and begin the process of building and rehearsing a new show, which will tour up and down the East Coast, including a stint in Virginia.

"Circus" has no difficulty finding all the usual, romantically enthralling ideals contained within circus life, which unfortunately causes a lot of the series to feel predictable. Chermayeff and Dupre encounter an embarrassment of riches in terms of interesting characters, all of whom are hardwired to put on a show, every moment of their lives. This leads to a surplus of canned ham, starting with the circus's newly hired director, Steve Smith, a former Ringling Bros. clown, who can't resist the camera's presence, making for a grating experience.

At first "Circus" seems overwhelmed by its choices for a narrative array: We follow an early flameout -- a crew member who has left his old life behind and wishes to change his name from Ryan to Yuri -- for a while, until he gets in a fight with a co-worker and makes a sort of bomb threat and goes to jail, parting ways with the outfit, which feels like a false start to the entire film.

Better are the stories of the European and South American immigrants who come to America to perform and find themselves happily rootless as citizens of the circus's itinerant, trailer-park realm. Better still is the conflicted story of Glen Heroy, the new clown in the caravan, who comes with a trunk full of fragile emotions.

Chermayeff and Dupre's last PBS effort, 2008's "Carrier," a 10-hour docu-series which spent six months aboard the USS Nimitz, did a much better job of organizing its stories at the outset. "Circus" often seems more dazzled by its subjects' stunts and yet less revealing about who they are.

As documentaries, both "Circus" and "Carrier" possess a certain stylish, commercialized feel, more MTV than PBS, which may irritate some verite ninnies. With their six-pack abs, multi-culti beauty and derring-do, the circus performers are certainly watchable, but one keeps looking for the overall theme -- what are we saying here, in this documentary, about any of life's biggie essentials? Is there some deeper comment on community, diversity, our need to perform?

Much of "Circus's" second episode focuses on the difficulties encountered in the trapeze acts, as the female "flyers" reach desperately for a trapeze bar that just isn't there. Sometimes, "Circus," for all its mesmerizing imagery, feels like it's grasping too.


(two hours) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. and continues Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 on WETA and MPT.

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