Saturday, June 14, 2008


One of the best life and showbiz insights I ever got came from a fellow performer who just happened to be a dancing bear.

During one of their North American tours, members of the Moscow Circus had been guests at a play I was doing and had offered the cast and crew ringside tickets in return. And they really meant "ringside".

Even though the Cold War was waning and tours to the West by Soviet Ballet companies, hockey teams and other forms of cultural outreach were the norm, we still had to breach a couple of rings of security to visit them. The first was outside the arena, as local police kept an eye on anti-Communist protesters of many stripes.

Inside, most of the audience only dealt with Ushers, but we got a once over from Russian security officers, ostensibly there to protect the performers but also to ensure that none of them defected.

Once these guys were satisfied we were harmless actors or IATSE stage crew and not planning anything subversive, we were seated next to the orchestra at one side of the giant (red, of course) curtain that opened onto the Circus' single ring. We were also inside a thin mesh curtain strung around the arena to prevent animals (or humans) getting out and projectiles getting in.

The Moscow Circus was then known for its legendary clown, Popov, Cossack riders, spectacular acrobats, and its most famous icon -- the Dancing Bears.

I'm not a big fan of animal acts. I grew up around rodeos and think they're kinda cool. But that's mostly because the animals involved are predominantly well cared for and aren't punished for being themselves. Contrary to urban legend, nobody twists a bull's privates to make him buck and frequently they get the best of the humans putting them through the spectacle. So it's kind of an equal deal.

But dogs walking on balls, seals blowing horns or lions hopping through hoops, flaming or not, have always felt forced and predictable, along with giving me the uncomfortable feeling those animals aren't too happy with their lot in life.

Watching the Soviet version of Roustabouts prep for the matinée performance and the disinterested orchestra tune up, you had a feeling some of them weren't very content with their lot either.

But once the crowd was seated, the overture started and the lights dimmed from arena bleak to circus garish, the magic took over.

The acts were spectacular. Clowns and acrobats at the height of their craft, people you knew spent hours training to create a few seconds of breathtaking excitement. The horses and riders were the best I'd ever seen, accomplishing feats I'd never imagined back around the old corral at home.

And then the bears rolled in...

There were three of them, all much smaller than the kind Canadians are used to. They were brown and skinny and their fur was matted. They looked like animals just rescued from the pound instead of fearsome creatures from the wilds of Russia.

Some of the protesters out front had handed us pamphlets decrying the treatment of Dancing Bears, claiming they were stolen from their mothers as cubs, branded and pierced with a painful nose chain. According to the animal rights people, yanking that chain was what made the bears dance. Theirs was not a desire to keep time to Balalaika music but to avoid pain.

All of the bears in the ring had slim chains tethered to a neck collar, but nothing pierced their bodies. Yet, despite their colorful vests and bright little caps, hats and bow ties, they had a whipped and defeated look. It was the same expression I've seen on horses and dogs that have been mistreated. Their spirits have been broken and while they're obedient and do what they're told, you can tell they're just going through life by the numbers.

These bears rode bicycles, walked yappy little dogs and, of course, "danced". They dutifully hopped or twirled or bounced to the music. To be honest, I'd seen better booty shaking in a Senior's home.

It felt a little like watching the passing of a cultural icon that just doesn't fit anymore, like boxing kangaroos, piano bars or going to Niagara Falls for your Honeymoon. Something pointless and almost pathetic that still had a finger-hold on the communal psyche.

And luckily it was soon over. Or almost over. Two of the bears rode off on their bicycle with the yappy dog, while the third was escorted to the ring surround, the Trainer parking his shabby butt right next to me. He gave the animal a firm signal I took to mean "Stay" snapped his tether to a fastening hook and turned to one of the clowns, the two of them preparing a prop for the next part of the act.

The bear looked over at me, even sadder up close, his spiritual deflation a clear contrast to the pert red bowler hat that was perched between his ears, the oversize bow tie and the multi-color vest with a flower in the lapel. There was simply nothing about him to fear. Any thoughts of lunging at the closest human had long ago been taken from him.

He studied me for a moment, perhaps wondering what I'd done to deserve being a part of this world. But his attention quickly turned back to the ring as a new piece of music began to play.

It became clear that the Bears were bookending a performance by one of the Circus' feature performers, a stunningly beautiful blond trapeze artist who entered the ring wearing a blindingly white bathing suit studded like her feathered tiara with rhinestones and sequins. She was one of those acrobats who does gymnastics at the top of a thick rope, climbing up 30 feet and performing feats that are nearly impossible on the ground while suspended high above the crowd.

The lights in the arena winked out as she climbed, until a single spotlight was all that remained, focussed on her and tossing sparkle and shimmer as she swung, posed and swung some more. It was a pretty astonishing act, illiciting gasps and shrieks from the audience.

And then I heard a small gasp next to me -- from the bear.

I looked over, barely able to make him out in the dim light at ground level. But he was clearly mesmerized by what was happening high above. I honestly don't believe I've ever seen a human face exhibit a more perfect expression of wonder.

His eyes followed every movement she made. I know bears don't have the best eyesight and for all I know he could only make out a shimmering ball of light above the arena. But it enchanted him and I swear that a wistful smile crossed his face as she performed.

And while this world he lived in degraded him and made him less than he had been born to be, there was a part of it that erased any pain, disappointment or drudgery he felt. Somewhere above him there was a shining apparition that seemed to make it all worthwhile.

The woman descended the rope to a standing ovation. The ring announcer draped her shoulders with a huge flowing cloak that sparkled even more than her suit and she made a victory circuit of the ring. And then she was next to us, even more beautiful and perfect up close than she had been atop the rope.

She stopped, bent to the little bear and kissed him on the nose.

Suddenly, those dead brown eyes were dancing and his body trembled with excitement. He reached out a paw. She squeezed it, silently acknowledging that without the audience he had drawn no one would have witnessed her own talent. Then she ruffled his ears and floated away. I'm almost certain he watched her go with a contented smile.

A moment later, the music changed and the bear was back in the ring, the butt of some joke as the clowns had their way with him.

I've always felt the great bulk of show business (and life) is populated by people as used as that bear. Writers who slave in solitary to create scripts, crews lighting sets in the pre-dawn, editors and mixers making imperceptible improvements late into the night, so actors or producers or directors can shine for their one moment.

None of those people are ever fully appreciated. And often, their contribution is lost in the swirl of commerce, of abiding by bibles and shot lists and the harsh realities of ratings.

But then, hardly anybody ever thanks a nurse or a cop or a cab driver for what they do, let alone most of the other "ordinary" people who help us make it through a day. And as a result, too many people go through their lives feeling less than they should, that their dreams will never be realized or that there's just no end to the losing and the demands and the drudgery.

Often, too many of those "shining stars" also forget who got them where they are -- and keeps them there.

Whenever I encounter one of the two, I remember that Dancing bear and go out of my way to say thanks, to offer some respect or simply give somebody a kiss on the nose.

It truly does make it all worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I honest-to-god teared up reading this. Great writing, Jim! It's something I'll try to keep in mind as well.