Circus Resurgence

One author thinks underground circus acts are a revolution of sorts

In her new book, Freaks and Fire: The Underground Reinvention of the Circus, author J. Dee Hill likens the contemporary resurgence of underground circus performers to the punk-rock revolution of the 1970s and the radical street theater movement of the 1960s.

"Punk rock was a great example of people coming together, not necessarily because they were really good at playing music," said Hill in a telephone interview from her home in Dallas.

"It was more about wanting to share their creative energy and create something greater than them, to feel community and to find their voice--to say something that hadn't necessarily been said before. There's also a specific direct connection in these circus performers to the political street theater of the '60s, especially in San Francisco."

Hill had just returned from a series of book-signing events held in tandem with performances by Yard Dogs Road Show, a neo-vaudevillian jug band and burlesque show that is one of the acts featured in Freaks and Fire.

She and the Yard Dogs Road Show will travel to Tucson for appearances this Tuesday, April 26. Hill is scheduled to sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. at Reader's Oasis.

The Yard Dogs will also headline a 9 p.m. circus extravaganza at Solar Culture Gallery that also will include Flam Chen, the World's Smallest Freak Show and the Plastinauts. Hill will appear at that event, too.

Freaks and Fire ($24.95, Soft Skull Press), which features photographs of almost a dozen circus acts by Phil Hollenbeck, devotes chapters to such groups such as the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Circus Contraption, Zamora the Torture King, Enigma and the Brothers Grim and the Tucson fire performance group Flam Chen.

After several years as a freelance writer in Prague, Hill returned to the United States in 1997 and began to notice a performance movement at rave parties, festivals such as Lollapalooza and Burning Man. It was part tribal, part outsider performance art, and it drew on a tradition at the fringes of acceptable show business from the earlier decades of the 20th century.

Here was circus without the lions and tigers and bears. It was Jim Rose barking up a crowd of alternative-rock fans, tattooed showgirls lying on beds of nails, fire-eaters and sword swallowers, body manipulators and fakirs, macabre clowns and body-painted contortionists. Here were artists in the act of transformation, Hill's book argues.

No book on contemporary circus-style acts would be complete without including Tucson's Flam Chen, which since its formation 10 years ago has become popular around the country for its majestic, choreographed pyrotechnic spectacles.

Of Flam Chen, Hill said, "They're really representative of the fire acts out there. There are others, too. The book is not encyclopedic by any means. Flam Chen is one of the artists who have helped create a culture of fire performance, of manipulating elements of fire.

"My particular view on fire performance is that you can look at circus as force of shamanistic art. A shaman is one who undertakes a journey into the spirit realm to bring back some of that feeling to his world. Once this person returns to the natural world, they have certain powers, such as a magical control over fire. That's what Flam Chen does."

Flam Chen member Paul Weir, who is helping to present Tuesday's concert, likens Hill's book to another underground favorite. "It reminds me of the Re/Search art-house coffee table books that are still classics today, especially the Modern Primitives issue. Freaks and Fire is a phenomenal collection of homegrown or grassroots circus acts in North America, and one that Flam Chen is honored to be a part of.

Hill says she attempted in her book to examine how the new circus performers embraced the title "freak." These artists are as enthusiastic about being outside of mainstream society as were the performers in Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks.

"It's sort of meant to be exploring what it means to be a freak, what it means to be different. Some of these people, even if they weren't in a circus, if you look at them, they look pretty freaky, with tattoos and piercings or whatever."

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