Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thoughts from the Shanghai Circus

Hello, my friends!  I have missed sharing my thoughts with all of you recently, but felt I needed some time away from life in general, so I took a much needed mini-vacation at the end of last week.  Now that I'm home again, I find myself trying to get back into the routine of writing. 

I traveled to Branson, Missouri, a quaint little town in the Ozark Mountains that is known for its family-friendly stage shows.  Since I was essentially taking a vacation from the life of a performing musician, I decided that I wanted to see a show that didn't have a strong musical theme.  I chose to see the Chinese Acrobats of the New Shanghai Circus.  I shouldn't have been surprised, but as soon as I set out to enjoy an evening without thinking about music, my mind was filled with the things I could take from the program and apply to my music.

On Friday evening, I was drawn into the performance by the beautiful colors, the variety of dances displayed, and the artistry of the overall performance.  This program moved from the grace of the butterfly lovers soaring over the stage on their satin ribbon to masterful displays of technique using a child's toy before ending with the heart-pounding excitement of the acrobats with their see-saw.  The connection to music is fairly clear.  By programming recitals that include moments of sheer beauty in addition to moments of exhilarating spectacle, the audience is thoroughly engaged because of the diversity and variety of music presented.

As I left the auditorium, I continued to reflect on the Circus as a whole.  I felt as though some of the routines were severely inferior to the others.  This was made painfully clear because of the act's placement in the show.  Following one of the most beautiful displays of dance I had ever seen came a second-rate attempt at illusion.  The props did not support the intended illusion; the "magician" had little stage presence.  Sadly, this act occurred half-way through the second act.  Just as the ensemble should have been preparing the audience for a climatic finale, the show hit a major snag from which it never recovered. 

It is essential as performers of any kind that we carefully plan our programs with the audience's emotional journey in mind.  While there may be a piece that I would like to play early in the recital in order to navigate a difficult passage without fatigue beginning to set in, I must remember that the program's order is not exclusively about my comfort.  Certainly I must consider what sequence will allow me to give my best performance.  I must also make sure that my preferred order leads the listener from one piece to the next in order to insure that they have a satisfying musical experience.

Lastly, I noticed the audience's response.  By nature, an acrobat's performance will contain amazing feats performed in rapid succession.  While I do not claim to be either a dancer or acrobat, as a performer, I do understand that the most difficult routines also contain moments of simplicity to allow the audience and artist to prepare themselves for the climax to come.  Friday evening's audience was what I consider to be a typical cross-section of the average American audience.  It was amusing -- and actually frustrating -- to sit in the audience and listen to the "oohs" and "aahs" at the beginning of each new act that were accompanied by thunderous applause.  As the routines proceeded, the spectacle became more exciting and impressive, but the audience had already lavished its highest praise and was ready for the next act to take the stage.

Most disheartening, however, was the realization that audiences enjoy thrilling moments because there is always the possibility of failure.  During a wonderfully beautiful segment featuring a cast of young ladies who were balancing spinning plates high in the air while performing elegant gymnastic tricks, one member of the cast appeared to have lost focus momentarily, causing plates to noisily crash to the floor.  These professionals continued to maintain their part in the scene while making every effort to discreetly clean up their mess in order to insure their colleagues continued success in the performance.  While I was thrilled with their commitment to recovery, I was appalled by the audience's response. 

A mature couple sat directly behind me and loudly commented on the accident.  Not only did they point out the misstep and laugh, they made wagers with each other for the rest of the night regarding which performers would be the next to stumble.  (Thankfully, this was the only catastrophe that we would observe on this night.)  What I came to realize is that audiences are often thrilled by technical display not only because of the excitement they provide, but also because of the possibility that they may catch us in an obvious error.  Am I being too pessimistic to think that a performer's mistake gives the audience an opportunity to lessen the talent of the individual and feel better about themselves?  I hope I am only seeing the worst in people, but I fear that it may be all too true. 

I do not intend to end this post with a negative impression.  Facts are facts:  planning is essential, artistry must be the centerpiece of our programs, and audiences can be mean.  The good news is that I am only responsible for two of those aspects.  If I plan effectively and relentlessly pursue artistic excellence in my concerts, I have done everything I can.  While I want the audience to have a pleasing experience, I know that their responses -- whether positive or negative -- do not define my talent, my happiness, nor my success.  That's the biggest lesson I walked away with after visiting the Shanghai Circus while on vacation.