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Curator's Note:

For several months each year, The Big Apple Circus pulls its muddy trailers and tents into the superlative air of Lincoln Center. Here, in the company of lean ballet dancers with elegant posture and sopranos with voices akin to angels, the Big Apple Circus stakes its claim as a classic art form. It’s incongruous: A messy circus with bales of hay and cotton candy wrappers plunked in this epicenter of high art. But the circus ring has always been a showcase for performance artistry, a place where athleticism, humor and human physical potential are on full display. In this collection from PBS’s upcoming series, CIRCUS, we shine a spotlight on the artistry and athletic prowess under the big top.

 

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Exhibition Playlist

Art of the Circus: Puzzling Out a Clown Act

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Barry Lubin and Mark Gindick collaborate to cook up a clown gag inspired by Singin' in the Rain.

Circus Content Producer Helyn Trickey writes:

A good clown act is like a love affair on fast-forward, says veteran clown Mark Gindick. First, there’s the initial meeting between clown and audience, the sizing up, the first shy smile. Next comes the communal laughter; it’s the “spaghetti moment” in Lady and the Tramp when both parties realize that, against all odds, they share something in common. Finally, there’s the ooey-gooey, transcendent moment when audience and clown can’t get enough of each other, when they’re both googly-eyed and would likely run off with each other if it weren’t for the trapeze artists waiting patiently for their turn in the ring.

“You have a love affair right there on the spot,” says Gindick of the magical connection between clown and patrons.“You skip the two years that you usually spend bonding with a lover or friend. It happens right then, right there,” he says.

For Gindick and fellow Big Apple Circus clown, Barry Lubin, such a magical moment happened in the ring during the 2008-2009 Play On! season, with a quirky parody act of Gene Kelly’s iconic dance scene in the movie, “Singin’ in the Rain.” But the performance, which was an instantaneous hit with crowds and critics, alike, was an unlikely success. First, “Singin’ in the Rain” was a mid-season replacement for another Gindick/Lubin act -- a parody of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen -- that was garnering more yawns than laughs. Second, these veteran clowns worked out the details of the dancing act even as Lubin was away from the circus seeking treatment for his cancer.

“Mark pulled together the props and costumes for the act, and we launched into rehearsals [for “Singin’in the Rain”] one day before we hit New York,” says Lubin of the haphazard way this comedic act came together. “We pulled off a miracle.”

In the act, Lubin,  as his clown, Grandma, spits water on Gindick as he dances around the ring in an earnest Gene Kelly impersonation. But what makes one clown act bring down the house while another languishes for lack of laughs?

“Keep it simple, stupid,” says Lubin. “Sometimes you want to make it so complicated. ... Early in my career I wanted to live and die by my own skill, but in the end the clowns always get the credit anyway. My sense of humour has nothing to do with making something funny: If I’m laughing and they’re not, it doesn’t work.”

The show-stealing act was truly collaborative, the two veteran clowns insist. “You start jamming ideas, and if I’m making him laugh and he’s making me laugh, If we’re just two giggle monsters, than I know we may have something,” says Gindick of his creative process with Lubin. Also, the two credit Big Apple Circus Guest Director Steve Smith with helping them with the oh-so-crucial staging decisions.

“[Smith] had a lot to do with the staging [of the Singin’ in the Rain act] so it would be open to the whole round,” says Lubin. “It’s about where to hit the marks, where the moments are in the moment. [“Singin’ in the Rain”] is such an incredibly well-known, iconic scene, so we would hit the younger audience with these bits and hit the adults with other material. [Steve] was integral to pulling together the technical stuff -- the lights, sound, where you can actually spray water where it won’t be a hazard to an acrobat later.”

Gindick knew the “Singin’ in the Rain” act was working when he looked out at the audience and saw the young kids giggling at Grandma’s antics and the older audience members singing along with the catchy music.

“I think the reason it was so special is that it hit the audience on two levels. ... The adults are going to get hit in the heartstrings a bit,” he says.

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