Circus of the Bizarre

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey it isn't. It's not Cirque du Soleil, either. There isn't one ring, let alone three. The Tattooed Man's inkings are drawings sewn on his clothing, and he has a bunny head. The Siamese Twins are joined at the hip--by a long, wooden table--and dressed in Victorian garb for afternoon tea. Another act is billed as "Three Smith Corona Typewriters and a Tackle Box of Rubber Stamps." And the whole show takes place on a flatbed truck with the sides of the trailer folded down to make a stage.

So what kind of circus is this anyway?

Cloud Seeding: Circus of the Performative Object is an art installation/performance that references the familiarities and history of the circus industry, not a traditional three-ring, high-wire act, traveling show. It's designed and performed by faculty and students from the University of Florida's art department, plus additional artists, with the members covering every detail from booking tour dates and applying for arts grants to performing the two-hour show's vignettes and making the handbills and finks (a slang term for souvenirs).

But Cloud Seeding isn't an alternative circus like Jim Rose's or The Bindlestiff Family Circus, where the sideshow feats become the main attraction. Cloud Seeding wants to keep the magic and wonder of a regular circus alive while still playing to the skepticism of the 21st-century audience. Sculptures ("the performative objects") on display backstage come alive as props, costumes and puppets used during the routines. The troupe's elephant is made of paper and folds up for traveling. The horse act is two guys on hoof-tipped stilts. The Last Mermaid in Florida sings to a seashell while suspended like the nonhuman marionettes. The ringmaster plays a blazing sousaphone.

The best example of how Cloud Seeding uses circus standards in a new way is the High Flying Women act from last summer's tour. The women who perform on the trapeze, who are usually revered for their beauty and grace, are given the qualities of awkwardness and stage fright, which the audience sees onstage as the two performers rehearse their act. A performance that is generally considered elegant and somber becomes humorous, nearing the level of slapstick comedy.

Cloud Seeding also acknowledges that while the circus was traditionally a happy place for kids, it wasn't for animals and the sideshow performers. But rather than preach about it, Cloud Seeding turns the tables. The bear in the animal act isn't a real bear or even an actor dressed as a bear. It has a bearlike head, but the body is a wood and fabric cage holding two men captive, who beg to be set free and refuse to move the bear contraption as the trainer wants them to.

Though it doesn't offer clowns piling out of a VW Bug or a Chinese bicycle act, Cloud Seeding Circus proves that everyone does want to run away with the circus--even modern performance artists.

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Shannon Sutlief