Cirque de L’Amour [a review]

On Fluid Movement’s 3rd Annual Swimming Extravaganza
Patterson Park Pool – July 27-29 & August 3-5, 2001

on the balance beam

Baltimore is truly the center of the universe.

I say this loudly and often, but I was once again convinced while watching Baltimore’s avantish synchronized swim team/rollerskating theater troupe, Fluid Movement, put on a stunning lark on the unnerving world of the circus, with a particular and peculiar take on the Cirque Du Soleil entitled “Cirque De L’Amour.” The show was opened by Maryland’s own diminutive tornado of a senator, Barbara Mikulski, and I was amazed, as always, by her adorable teensiness. If Hummel made sharp-tongued little senators with a dogged determination to champion worthy causes, Barb would be a limited edition that I’d gladly put on my knick-knack shelf in between my porcelain Infant of Prague and my plastic laughing Buddha. I still have a little urge to give her a mean finger poke for that whole “Defense of Marriage Act” vote (darn her) but I was in a delightfully good mood, so I resolved to content myself with snapping her bra strap really hard if she happened by. I’m not writing this from a cell, so fortunately this opportunity did not present itself.

A fleet of amateurs who actually understand that the “amat” in amateur refers to love, Fluid Movement is without a doubt the most delectably unprofessional-looking collection of people who ever took the stage and I almost screamed like a teenybopper at a 1964 Beatles gig when the cast paraded out. Fat, scrawny, bald, tattooed, hairy-backed, slack, trim, stretchmarked, painfully average, pale, tanned, young, and defiantly mature, the cast was something one never sees anymore in the worlds of theater and athletics, a crowd of actual, realistic looking humans–in short, people like us! To a person, the players were resplendently attired in an assortment of home-spun sparkly spangled costumes, carrying thrift-store suitcases and vaudeville-styled props as they drifted into an introductory tableau that was the show’s clever preface.

To attempt to describe the event in detail would be a hopeless endeavor, but the gist can be conveyed in glimpses of the cast and of some of those fleeting moments that Zen masters are always going on about. The traditional barker was played with an untraditional wry wit and a lip-curling Chevalier flourish, while the female love interest, Frenchie, was portrayed by a deliciously junoesque woman who is a perfect reminder of where we went wrong in this grimly anorexic age. A recurring side role was played by a group of circus clowns that magnificently skirted the line between traditional physical comedy and John Wayne Gacy, particularly two of the male clowns, who sported curiously incomplete makeup that gave them the perfect visage of both lusty, friendly bawdiness and an strong undercurrent of menace.

A series of traditional circus acts, including knife jugglers, high wire acrobats, a strong man, and many other classic talents emerged from the exuberantly painted backdrop, performed comic deconstructions of their signature acts, then dived, rolled, or otherwise flopped into the pool to perform aquatic feats of a variety that a drunken Esther Williams might have led at a high school reunion with an open bar.

As the show drifted in and out of the pool, a love story took center stage, ultimately resulting in a comical nautical date and premarital tryst with the circus lion tamer, a possibly unwanted pregnancy, and the emergence of a deadbeat dad storyline–the sort of story that really makes one miss our beloved Mary Avara, Maryland’s censor extraordinaire and inadvertent publicist for all the truly interesting stories out there. I got a tear in my eye imagining Mary perched on the edge of a cloud, watching the show and shouting about the kind of filth that passes for entertainment in Baltimore these days as Frenchie and the Lion Tamer writhed under his glittering cape.

Her brilliant love affair gone horribly wrong, the female love interest, Frenchie, sang an oddly poignant “La Vie en Rose” to an audience of swimming clowns armed with oversized plastic roses (embarrassingly causing me to get misty-eyed in what must be a fatigue-related emotional mood swing) before attempting suicide in an unusually amusing fashion. As her attempt to drown herself went hilariously wrong, she was saved by her replacement love interest, a cutie of a downtrodden dog trainer named Froggy (with a clown pants-clad Dalmatian in tow), and fell in love again, this time with the right fellow, who immediately obliged by proposing marriage. As expected, our deadbeat dad reappeared on cue with his own counter-proposal, leaving Frenchie in a quandary until the heralded arrival of the show’s starkly beautiful Cupid, played in this case by a bald, white-bearded man in Speedos and angel wings who could be easily your grandfather if your grandfather was a massively tattooed free spirit who spent years as a biker before and after retiring from his career as a Tilt-A-Whirl operator at Trimper’s. Cupid rolls out a giant Love Meter and encourages an audience vote, which naturally results in the victory of the better man.

the cast

Somewhere in the mix (and probably not in this sequence, but I’m writing this in the wee hours my head is still spinning from the show, so I make no claims on accuracy), a series of extraordinarily pregnant performers emerge, hurl themselves into the pool, and perform a series of riparian gymnastics that might well have been Busby Berkeley’s response to traditional tribal fertility rituals–with results that hover proudly in the grey area between hilarity and empowerment. Emerging from the pool, this group of future mothers were triumphant, diverse, and beautiful, to the sheer delight of the audience, who applauded in an appropriately thunderous fashion.

It’s hard to even recount the many many delights to be found in this show, and, I suspect, probably pointless to try. A former member of the seminal German art-rock group Can, Holger Czukay, once noted in an interview that learning to play an instrument was like learning to lie–to let craft obscure the truth of one’s performance is a tragedy. The honesty of the performances in the Cirque De L’Amour is thrilling–their lies are all little white ones, perfectly stated. Fluid Movement’s synchronicity is often more theoretical than actual and their movements are far less fluid than their name would suggest, but the democratic spirit, full-immersion enthusiasm, and good humor of their work is indisputable, unmistakable, and, in my view, truly and absolutely perfect. This show would not be the amazing spectacle it is if it was attempted by physically perfect “professionals,” coldly and precisely hitting their cues on the millisecond.

It’s Baltimore in a nutshell–gleeful, rough, and often insane–and there’s probably not another city in this country that would be a better breeding ground for this kind of ground-level artistry. Look down on us and sneer if you like, but we know what the big cities are missing: somebody, anybody, everybody, all here together in this joyous mess, this celebration of our common humanity, the wholehearted worship of the human spirit, right here at the center of the bloody universe. I’m just happy that they’re doing it all over again next weekend, so I can go back and see it again.

Now I just need to work on my backstroke.

© 2001 Joe Wall

Originally published on PEEKreview, August 2001.