Running Away to the Circus School

The New England Center for Circus Arts makes Brattleboro, Vermont a circus mecca.

A moment after the woman at the reception desk hollers up to announce my arrival, Elsie Smith descends the office’s spiral staircase and welcomes me to the New England Center for Circus Arts. Handing over a few brochures, she highlights various events at their Circus Workshop Weekend, Aug.8-10. Classes offered include Intro to Partner Acrobatics 101, Somatics for Athletes, Flying Trapeze Intensive, Chinese Pole, and Aerial Fabric: Using Height. A performance called a Bootcamp Show will be staged at the Main Studio here at the Cotton Mill Studio in Brattleboro. A second show by visiting circus company FAQ Troupe can be seen in the gymnasium of the Austine School for the Deaf, located across town.

“Through a mix of circus, dance and theatre,” the FAQ Troupe brochure reads, “We Don’t Need Another Hero is a courageous journey of shedding away our alter egos to unveil our fragility and vulnerability as human beings.”

As I gather together the already-overwhelming information, Smith mentions that this month marks the 40th anniversary of Phillip Petite’s tightrope walk across New York City’s Twin Towers, and that local students are reading his book, which became the inspiration for the 2008 documentary Man On Wire.

“Patrick Tobin—who was actually a wire student of mine at Circus Smirkus when he was just 12 years old—is now in his last year at the National Circus School in Montreal, and on tour this summer with the FAQ Circus Collective,” explains Smith. “Because he was in town, we connected him with the kids from the Brattleboro Area Middle School, so they were able to come ask him questions, see him perform, and get up close to the apparatus.”

After I take off my shoes, Smith—who is already barefooted—brings me on a quick tour of the school’s space. In the main studio, next to the office, a few pre-teen girls are practicing. One of them is secured to a wire and jumps and spins in a somersaulting motion over and over again, checking in each time with a teacher who pulls at the wire to further levitate the student. Another girl holds herself in a split while standing on her head. In the corner, a younger student works with a hula hoop.

In a second, smaller room down the hall are several post-teen students. A few stretch together on a mat. Another dangles on an aerial fabric hanging from the ceiling. Two juggle, one passing the clubs to the other before lifting her up on his shoulders, all while she continues to twirl the clubs. At the far end of the room, a large window provides a nice view of the Connecticut River, slowly meandering southward towards Massachusetts.

Overall, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much going on. And the space—a few rooms in an old mill building down a small road from the high school and next to a lumber yard—seem underwhelming as well. But this is the circus, and things aren’t always what they seem.

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Structuring The Unstructured: An Adventure Playground for Northampton?

When I arrive at the Florence Organic Community Gardens, Pandora Redwin is standing a couple feet off the ground, balancing on a wooden post and tending to a tarp that stretches out over her. Next to the tarp structure, several smoothed logs stretch out in a circle. The logs rise from a center and are attached by nails to other short logs that have been secured into the ground. Across the tree stumps from the tarp structure is a teepee-like object covered in bean stalks. On the other side of the circle is a structure built of interconnected wooden branches, several of them pointed and flimsy-looking. Next to that, three juggling pins lie on the ground. The ground is covered with wood chips.

Redwin had suggested we talk here, at this playground she built at the community gardens (she is on the board of Grow Food Northampton). The term “playground,” however, may not be the best descriptor, as I explained to my seven-year-old a few days later.

“Is there a slide?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

“Are there swings?”

“No.”

“Are there monkey bars?”

“No.”

“But it’s still a playground.”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

Redwin steps down, and we take shelter from the hot summer sun under the tarp.

“It’s a little oxymoronic,” she admits, “building a structure to have unstructured play. But this is an intermediary step.”

At two events this summer—the first at Look Park in late June, the second on the courthouse lawn in downtown Northampton in late July—Redwin has hosted Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds in the hope of building support for her developing nonprofit The Play Workshop. She is also the staffing coordinator and instructor for Adventure In Adventure Out, and has a two-year-old at home.

Redwin admits she is already busy enough, but says she feels a certain sense of urgency because a style of children’s play so common a generation ago is being lost: “There’s this shrinking window where parents still remember playing stick ball or kick the can.”

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Steaming Up A Phantasy: Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band Headlines the Springfield Armory’s Steampunk Musical Extravagaza

In September, 1859, a British man named Joshua Abraham Norton stepped out of the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and declared himself Emperor of the United States of America. He later added the title Protector of Mexico.

It was the first of many proclamations Emperor Norton would make over the next several years, as he walked the streets of San Francisco in his trademark military uniform complete with plumed hat and sword worn at his side.

Despite having no actual political or military power, Emperor Norton nevertheless gained quite a bit of fame. Mark Twain modeled the character The Dauphin in his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after Norton, and is said to have written an epitaph for Lazarus, one of Norton’s dogs. The Emperor was also Robert Louis Stevenson’ inspiration for a character in the novel The Wrecker, and has since appeared—in one incarnation or another—in works by Christopher Moore and Neil Gaiman.

Norton’s funeral procession in 1880 was witnessed by 30,000 people who lined the streets of San Francisco. He was laid to rest in Masonic Cemetery. In 1934, however, his remains were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in nearby Colma. There his gravestone reads “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” In 1970 he was named a patron saint of Discordianism.

“Every age has its peculiar folly,” Emperor Norton supposedly declared, “some scheme, project or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation.”

This weekend, Boston-based avant-garde gypsy steamfunk vaudevillian circus jazz troupe Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band headlines the Springfield Armory’s Steampunk Musical Extravaganza, held to coincide with the park’s special exhibit Steampunk Springfield Armory: Reimagining Our Nation’s Weaponry. Eli August and The Abandoned Buildings and other friends of the New England Steampunk Meetup are also expected to perform. Admission is free.

Aug. 16, 12-5 p.m., Springfield Armory National Historic Site, One Armory Sq., Springfield, (413) 734-8551, nps.gov/spar.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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Paved Road to Paradise? Taking In the View From the Highest Point in Massachusetts

The Notch Road runs long and smooth, 6.5 miles from North Adams, around Mount Williams, south into Adams next to Mount Fitch, briefly into and then back out of Williamstown, past Rockwell Road—which rises from the south through Lanesboro, New Ashford and Cheshire—and finally to the 3,491-foot summit of Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state.

Arriving at the parking lot after the drive up, I stopped at a sign directing visitors to deposit money in a collection box—$2 for in-state cars, but $4 out-of-state. But the box was not there.

“Two dollars please,” a young man said to me, making his way over from a Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) pickup truck. The lot was less than half full. Most of the cars had New York or New Jersey plates.

“How long has the box been gone?” I asked him.

“I’m not sure. This is my first season up here,” he answered, as I handed him my money. “I wish it were there, so I could get back in the woods.”

I parked at the end of the lot, grabbed my backpack, and headed out of the car, eager to see the sights at the summit: Bascom Lodge, the War Memorial tower, and the unobstructed, above-the-treeline view—a rare treat in this region. But the longing I heard in the ranger’s voice lingered with me, so before following the paved sidewalks from the lot, I hiked down the Appalachian Trail.

There is something about mountain summit auto roads that has always bothered me, even though they are abundant throughout the Northeast. Mountain roads have been paved up Mount Equinox in southern Vermont and Mount Mansfield in the north, Mount Monadnock outside of Keene and Mount Washington north of Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. Here in the Valley we have a road up Mount Tom on the west end of the Holyoke Range, and another up Mt. Holyoke to the Skinner House east of the Connecticut River.

“Climbing the mountains brings out the joyous, conquering impulses, and places life in sympathetic play with life,” Greylock commissioner John Bascom said in 1913. An informational kiosk with his quote greets visitors in the parking lot at the base of Notch Road.

But can cars climb mountains, as the popular Mount Washington bumper sticker asserts? Or is something essential to the alpine experience lost by roads, even as they provide greater accessibility to a greater number of people?

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The Coimbra Concert, by Mostly Other People Do The Killing

Beethoven is turning over a new leaf, goes an old, bad joke. Now he’s decomposing.

This is what comes to mind when I listen to The Coimbra Concert, the live, nine-song, double album by New York-based avante garde quintet Mostly Other People Do The Killing.

The first track begins with a free-flowing drum solo before offering its blues-based melody for two choruses, and two choruses only. Then everything stops, save for some electronic-sounding trumpet pitches. The set somehow continues from there.

“We started off with a song called ‘Drainlick,’” bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliot explains to the crowd after introducing his bandmates: trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Iragagon, and drummer Kevin Shea. “And then by the end there we were playing a song called ‘Shamokin!!!’ We’re going to play another song now.”

Most of their songs are named for towns in Pennsylvania, Elliot’s home state.

The next tune, “Evans City,” starts with a walking bass and corresponding trumpet and saxophone melody before quickly disintegrating into a song stumbling all over itself. MOPDTK seem incapable, or at least unwilling, when it comes to playing anything straight. Which would be unbelievably annoying if they weren’t so flippin’ good.

“We get the irreverent label thrown at us a lot,” Elliot told JazzTimes a few years back. “It’s not so much irreverence as anti-hero-worship. There’s this real hero-worship problem in jazz.”

“It has a lot to do with Wynton Marsalis’ agenda and the whole ‘African-American art form that is neglected,’” added Elliot. “It’s like we need to show everybody that we respect this music so much to convince everybody that they should respect it, too.”

The band’s moniker comes from a quote by Leon Theremin, who invented the early electronic instrument of the same name, and was put in a Soviet gulag by Stalin. Theremin later exonerated Stalin, saying, “Mostly other people did the killing.”

The band’s name also brings to mind the jazz term “killing it,” used to describe someone who is playing very well, and also the criticism that jazz is dead as a musical art form, because (some say) it has not created anything new or relevant in decades.

MOPDTK place themselves directly in this cultural-historical cauldron, calling themselves a free jazz band playing bebop terrorism, whatever that means. Three of the group’s album covers are nearly identical copies of earlier classics: Shamokin!!! riffs on Art Blakey’s A Night In Tunisia; This Is Our Moosic looks like Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music; and The Coimbra Concert, unfortunately their only live album, cops Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert.

This weekend, Mostly Other People Do The Killing play a Friday afternoon set at the legendary Newport Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra take the stage on Saturday. Could be an interesting scene backstage.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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A Good Hit: Flat Track Roller Derby Struggles to Retain its Identity

Members of the Quabbin Missile Crisis huddle together, skating slowly around the flat track. Each player takes a turn standing taller than the rest, acknowledging the applause from the crowd as Drew Danger announces their names: Jack A. Lope, Chewbecca, Ro$han Roulette, After Risk, Pink Panzer, and so on. After the introductions, the team retreats to the far side of the track and chooses the five skaters who will compete in round one of their bout against the R.I.P. Tides, who are visiting from Portland.

“How many of you are at your very first roller derby?” Drew Danger asks. I raise my hand. So do a handful of others. “Well,” he continues, “I was just like you eight years ago.”

As the blockers and jammers from each team line up, referees move into position, and non-skating officials (scorekeepers and penalty trackers) take their places. The crowd grows eager with anticipation.

Most of the 120 spectators sit in portable beach or camping chairs that they brought with them. The crowd consists of as many men as women. One mom carries her toddler on her back. Another woman takes out her knitting. A few yards in front of her, a spectator with a partially shaved head wears a T-shirt that reads, “Fuck Authority.”

I’m in a warehouse in the Florence section of Northampton, home turf of the Quabbin Missile Crisis and the other teams from Pioneer Valley Roller Derby: Western Mass Destruction, Florence Fightin’ Gals, and The Dirty Dozen. I have come to determine whether roller derby is more sport or subculture. It exhibits qualities of both.

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World Cup Fever: Searching for Soccer Fanatics in the Valley

When Thomas Muller scored to put Germany up 1-0 over the United States, the lunchtime crowd gathered around the outdoor beer garden bar at the Munich Haus in downtown Chicopee let out a long, audible sigh of disappointment.

“Don’t worry,” a man said to his buddies. “The U.S. can lose and still make it to the next round on goal differential.”

With 30 minutes remaining in the match, I took a final sip from my stein of Spaten Lager, paid the Bavarian-dressed barkeep and headed down Springfield Street to The Rumbleseat Bar and Grille, where the local branch of the U.S. soccer fan club American Outlaws was watching the game.

A week later I would return to the Rumbleseat when the U.S. lost to Belgium 2-1 in extra time, ending America’s World Cup run.

“I remember watching the ‘86 Cup by myself,” a man wearing a red, white and blue wig with matching face paint and the American flag as a cape told me that day, as we eagerly awaited the start of extra time. “Now look at this place.” He motioned to the packed sports bar.

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I was looking for a few dedicated soccer (dare I say football?) fans of international origin who regularly gather together—not just every four years during the World Cup—to follow Italy’s top league Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, or another high-level league. I wanted to speak with them about watching the world’s most popular sport stateside in an America that, despite ESPN’s hyped-up World Cup coverage, often ignores or willfully disparages the so-called “beautiful game.” Given the various ethnic ties we have throughout the Valley, I expected to discover one or two pockets of fan fanaticism. But what I found surprised me.

Games (dare I say matches?) during the final week in June involved Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Portugal, Germany, the United States and other countries. Many fans, of course, would watch from home. Hoping to find a more public gathering, however, I looked for bars and restaurants at which to watch portions of the Mexico-Croatia, Italy-Uruguay and U.S.-Germany contests.

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