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Chaos with Purpose: The Redeeming Social Value of Bindlestiff Family Cirkusby Jay Blotcher

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is not your mother’s big top extravaganza. It’s not even your grandmother’s traditional circus entertainment. Bindlestiff harks back a few centuries when circuses were traveling groups of ragtag performers, hucksters and nimble-fingered thieves, playing one-nighters through the countryside, then collecting a few coins before moving on, usually at the business end of the local constable’s billy club. (The very name “bindlestiff” refers to a hobo who carries his bedroll on his peregrinations.) This roving band of joyous anarchists comes to Hudson's Club Helsinki on March twenty-fifth.

While Bindlestiff is not on the lam—the troupe was started in Brooklyn in 1995, but has called Hudson home for five years—a renegade vibe infuses every performance: a mash-up of acrobatics, vaudeville, juggling, singing, clowning, sword-swallowing and burlesque.

“Our mix of politics and entertainment really depends on the specific line-up that we have for any particular show,” said Keith Nelson, 40, Bindlestiff co-founder. “We pull from vaudeville, circus sideshow, from the corporate end to the street performer out there every day dealing with cops, to politically motivated artists.”

The gleeful chaos that marks every performance is intentional; Nelson originally started his career as a leftist truth seeker and vagabond. To be precise, Nelson was a Deadhead, following Jerry and the boys across the map, living in parking lots between concerts. In college, when dorm mates “were binge drinking and pulling all-nighters,” Nelson sharpened his skills in fire-eating and juggling. But Ringling Brothers was not his goal; Nelson’s academic major was anarchist theory; he studied street theater groups which melded performance with radical politics to make their statements, including Wavy Gravy, Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. (Nelson would eventually seek out and work with spiritual godfathers Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and Wavy Gravy.)

By the mid-80s, Nelson had joined activist groups working to shut down nuclear test sites, offering his fire-eating and juggling to enliven the spectacles. By the early 90s, he was involved in an attempted shutdown of Wall Street, and protesting the first Persian Gulf War as a politically-charged fraud.

“My earliest days of entertainment were basically in the street,” he said.

The itinerant, college-educated, street performer found a reason to put down roots when he met and moved in with fellow performer Stephanie Monseu in 1993. Both had been working in the East Village clubs of the late 80s and early 90s, when sideshow acts would share stages with post-punk musical acts and drag queens in hallowed holes in the wall such as The Pyramid Club and King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut on Avenue A.

Monseu and Nelson decided to establish a performing collective of like-minded, cerebrally and physically agile souls. Bindlestiff found a home in a Brooklyn warehouse, where its revolving group of performers rehearsed before fanning out into the city streets and parks. Under Mayor Giuliani’s insidious “quality of life” policy, however, street performers were soon swept up in the same nets as peddlers and the homeless. The pressure was stepped up significantly after 9/11, when an honest fire-eater could be quickly cuffed for terrorist intentions. Nelson and Monseu’s troupe was forced to abandon its established turf.

In 2002, the pair responded to the growing strictures by finding a home in Times Square, which had boasted a rich history of pre-Disneyfication flea circuses, freak shows and vaudeville theatres. The Bindlestiff's Palace of Variety and Free Museum of Times Square thrived for two years. But when the doors closed, Nelson faced the truth that Manhattan was no longer a friendly place for his stripe of merrymaking; like other performers and artists driven out by repressive police tactics and exploding rental rates, Bindlestiff took their act exclusively on the road.

They will play anywhere they are offered a reasonable fee, which has included Burning Man, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Bonnaroo festival—even Caribbean cruises and corporate events. At each venue, the hijinks are modulated to accommodate the audience. “When you’re playing in the Midwest, and people don’t have jobs, and can barely feed themselves, we’re dealing with those issues,” Nelson said.

A gig in Salt Lake City had Nelson worried; but instead of drawing bands of angry Mormons, the group welcomed a crowd of exuberant Utah punks.

“People open themselves up to this type of performers differently,” he said. “The mayhem onstage gives people permission to relax their parameters of behavior and values.”

“There’s something about the circus that really gives you a freedom that other groups don’t have. If we went into a town as performance artists, we’d probably be chased out. But because we’re circus people, they let down their guard at least for a night. They’re there to be entertained, laugh and have boundaries pushed. If we’re still around the next day, things might get a little touchier.”

While ardently political, Bindlestiff adroitly plays hide and seek with their warnings against corporate greed, political corruption, environmental destruction and sexual repression. If you’re looking for a message, it is there in spades; if you are simply looking for a laugh, it exists in abundance. Nelson does not want Bindlestiff shows to be mere broadsheets, “because the last thing we want to do is turn off an audience,” he said.

“If I can enter their minds on a subconscious level where they enjoy the show,” he said, “and they start thinking about what they saw on the way home, I’ve done magic at that moment.” On the blatant side, a Bindlestiff concept show titled Kinko for President toured during the last presidential election, throwing a custard pie in the face of our two-party system. The gambit offered extensive costumes and sets, but audiences were wary and the show lost $13,000. The rodeo-themed Bindlestiff Buckaroos lost $60,000. Nelson, however, remains the political idealist; he plans to restage Kinko for the 2012 elections.

“Personally, I think as long as we’re stuck with a two-party system, we’re really in a lot of trouble. Any real democracy has more than just two choices.”

At the Club Helsinki Hudson show this month, the group will perform the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Cabaret, a variety show of juggling, sword swallowing and, despite the space limitations, aerial acts. Guest artists include Tanya Gagnier of the Wau Wau Sisters and a German juggler and unicyclist known as Hilby.

Bindlestiff remains a low-budget traveling company, filling a van with performers for muscle-cramping drives across the country. There are no roadies; the stars lug sets and costumes from trailers themselves, a vivid rebuke to every romantic notion about running away to join the circus. Every day challenges grow: Smaller venues around the country continue to shutter, and those remaining open offer modest fees. Meanwhile, food and gas costs continue to rise and business hazards remain: Last October, an American event promoter suddenly disappeared in Paris—after pocketing $26,700 in Bindlestiff box office earnings. This year, however, bookings have increased slightly.

“It doesn’t get easier,” Nelson said. “And as we get older, it hurts more and more.” But an encouraging word from an audience member after a show, he said, is worth it all. As does seeing a performer who began with Bindlestiff now achieving personal fame.

When not traveling and performing, Nelson spends most of his time attending to administrative matters and writing grants, though he occasionally steals away from the computer to learn a new skill. (Three years ago, he added unicycling to his talents and created the New York City Unicycle Festival). Bindlestiff’s youth program teaches teens at risk that juggling or clowning may be more effective alternatives to drugs, as well as potent means to conflict resolution.

While the group was designed to enlighten as much as to entertain, perhaps the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is most transgressive by just surviving in the era of iPhone entertainment.

“We’re in a situation where everybody’s plugged in and Twittering and Facebooking and has very little social one-on-one real time with each other,” Nelson said. “Bringing a few hundred people together to entertain them with such a visceral experience is, in itself, a radical gesture.”

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus performs Friday, Mar 25 at Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia Street, Hudson, www.helsinkihudson.com, 518.828.4800. Doors open 6 PM, show 9 PM. More information at www.bindlestiff.org.



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