By the by? This is so ridiculously full of symbolism and allegory and trope and oh my god, all that good stuff that if I even tried to annotate it, the annotations would be tem times as long as the story. If there’s anything that catches your eye and you either want to squee at me or ask what it’s referring to, please comment! I’d like to know that someone got at least some of this.
Jack and Ben have three acts in their repertoire. While crowd work can be informal, ring shows take more time, more planning, more rehearsal. Their three acts leave room for variety, but follow a script. Their three acts are very successful, and in some ways notorious, at least among the other circus folk. They are ‘theharliquinade’, ‘the inamorata’ and the, ‘death takes the maiden’.
The Harliquinade is their standard: good for family shows, and only requiring a tiny twist to make it great for post-show crowd work. Just a bit of bawdy talk, and they eat it up. With a bit work it’s even good for the Midnight tent. It’s the one they do the most often, the one they always default to.
‘The Inamorata’ is the same – though it takes a bit more bawd to make it work after the sun does down. But it’s stellar for kid-heavy shows, and the parents love it. It takes a while for them to get comfortable with this one – it takes a bit more rapport – but once they do, it becomes a standard.
‘Death takes the maiden’ is only done in the midnight tent. It’s their favourite, but the hardest and without a doubt the most exhausting. however, it is without a doubt the mostpupular of thier ‘R rated’ acts. It’s the one that takes the more care and planning, but the real it always brings the house down when the planets are aligned.
The harliquinade starts out with a hackneyed fiddle, and usually they come on just as Paz is heading off, tossing his loathsome kisses to the crowd, and at night shows topping it off with a knowing wink. the crowd always catches the wink, whether they can see his face or not.
And the fiddle is just like the twisted creep-of-all-trades: it capers but never saunters, and it struts but never dashingly, always with that scrape of the foot and unwholesome leer.
Jack and Ben come out with their strut on, though, and the audience laughs with a slice of relief in it, at sing two suck pretty, healthy young ones in the ring. They play to the crowd’s pleasure: he bowing with a flourish, she tossing generous kisses to the crowd, bobbing curtsies like some maid in a British drama. jack will take a pratfall, and Ben spins about madly, does a pirouette, sometimes tossing flowers and sometimes candy, making the crowd love her with her love of the crowd. Meanwhile his pratfalls entertain, and the crowd laughs and claps at seeing hisgangly body exaggerate the awkwardness of adolescence, that horrified graceless tripping. it’s a story they all know, or will someday. the music gets a bit richer now, other instruments joining in the dance. athunkering bass, perhaps, and a wild-rambling horn. woodwinds only fill out the pastoral comedy, painting in the requisite hills and trees and sheep, perhaps. If there is a flute, so much the better. it provides Ben’s cue the same way the fiddle gives Jack’s: it lets her twirl and leap and pair cartwheels to his somersaults, and meanwhile he follows her, catching vainly at her skirt-strings. the crowd laughs, each time she dart away, just out of his reach. sometimes they find acha-cha that works, and Jack’s so pleased with this he’s willing to practice twice as long, and get twice as close.
the music’s’ faster now, getting into the swing of things, and it reminds Jack and Ben to get down to the business they came out for. Finally, the juggling gear comes out. The crowd murmurs, and Jack and Ben don’t disappoint them. They start off with something simple, something easy. Maybe switching from two-man to solo, maybe circling around one another, maybe just a bit of high-tossing. But it’s strait-up easy stuff, stuff they can’t mess up, nothing flashy. the flash comes later, when they start getting bold. he chases her, she runs; and this means spinning for her, back-tossing for him, and constant movement. This takes more rehearsal that the fancy juggling: developing a radar for one another. Tracking each other’s movements, knowing not only where your partner stands in space now, but where she will in two seconds, five seconds, at the end of the toss. Counting steps and working out the degrees of turns, so that a hand will be where it needs to to catch the ring, just as the ring comes down. Too fast and you miss it, too slow and you have to reach. And there’s always the danger of overcompensation: adjusting too much and getting thrown off the rhythm. Still, most of the time they doallright with this, though it’s slow going. Ben can’t read him like she can others, and he doesn’t like paying that much attention to her. Tossing-wise, they match up wonderfully. both of them are very good, and they juggle together well. It’s that constant awareness of one another they lack, and this is what makes theHarliquinade so difficult: it is a dance, albeit a simple one. He pursues her, she eludes him, rinse and repeat. Movement is essential to the plot, and the only music thatCaiden (or Paz ) lets them use is the sort that won’t let them stand still. His choices are the most urgent, they push the dance along, making it almost frenetic, desperate.
Finally, the harliquinade comes to a close. There’s a bit more tumbling and showing off here, and so the juggling is a bit simpler. Still, it’s all good stock stuff that works well, because it looks a lot harder or fancier than it is. Sometimes they even work in a bit of stage-fighting, slaps and light spankings and such, which they’re told is the ‘punch andjudy bit’. Ben likes it, it makes her think of Bertha’s puppets. And then there’s the grand finale: the two circling one another, and their best throws. This is the part they never vary: it would be a mistake to juggle (ha!) too many element now. the moving and the juggling is hard enough, but the crowd reaction is worth it. they scream, they cheer, and there are usually a few impressiveyoutube videos uploaded the next day. Finally go the highest tosses of all, and Jack catches the clubs as he dashes forward, also catching Ben about the waist. the crowd goes wild: he’s finally caught her! he drags her off, sometimes even tosses her over his shoulder, and she tosses a last few kisses to the crowd. for the elaborate way they come on, their exist it simple and spare: the crowd doesn’t need to be told what happens next. Jack jogs out of the ring with Ben in tow, and sets her down immediately. They’re both breathless, though, and usually they can’t stop laughing.
the second act isn’t ready for a bit. this isn’t because it’s harder: it’s the easiest of all their acts by far. They both know how it goes, the juggling is simple and fun, and the tropes and stock gestures (lazzi, Pazlo corrects them, repeatedly) are so old and timeworn and well-known that they don’t take much rehearsal. It takes longer because it takes a lot of flirting, and that’s hard to pretend right away. By the time they’re ready to bring this one out, they don’t have to pretend. The first time they do this one, it’s to T Rex’s ‘Bang a Gong, Get it On’. It didn’t go over terribly well with the old folks in the crowd, but anyone under sixty liked it. Usually, though,they use calmer music, but ‘something with a shimmy’. Those are Ben’s words, and she demonstrates what she means with a little hip-wiggle that makes everyone laugh. All but Jack, of course, who pulls hishoodie down over his face to hide it. Oldies work best for them, tunes they both grew up dancing to on the radio and both know by heart. Roy Orbison, theSupremes, a bit of Doo-Wop, maybe a bit of Elvis when they’re in the southern states. Ben goes weak for Elvis Presley, Jack prefers Costello.
The Inamorata is an old story, but it’s been given a facelift. Oh, sure. Sometimes they rock it old school: Jack comes out in a old Regimental uniform, and Ben looks like a ballerina with whitefloofy skirt and pink top, and sometimes even a tiara. Usually, though, his captain’s jacket is over-sized and unbuttoned, and her ballerina skirt is pink and black. Always longer, though: she’s no schoolgirl, no nymphet, at least not in this story. Never with Jack. Sometimes he’s a greaser and she’s in bobby socks, sometimes they do Victorian thing, in big cities, sometimes, he’s Sid and she’s Nancy, toned down a bit of course The story is always the same, though. Love, love love! Usually when they do the 50s costumes, they use early Beatles, or theMonkees . Ben loves to perform Inamorata, and she likes to use different costumes every time. Jack doesn’t tend to care much about the costumes, he’ll wear anything as long as he gets to choreograph. And this is where he shines: every week there are new pratfalls, new jokes, and new dance steps. Every week there’s a new way for them to play out this old story and give it new life – it never gets old. Not for them.
He comes out with a grin and a whoop, holding his juggling clubs high as he lopes out into the center of the ring. The first two minutes of this act are solo. He starts right away: no preamble. There’s no girl yet, and thus, no story. Jack displays his best juggling during this segment, but it’s never the part the audience remembers. He stands in place, stationary and solid, totally in control. His skill is astonishing, the audience is captivated. Such grace, such skill! Then the unthinkable happens: he drops. The audience gasps, some to of them tittering nervously. Of course no-one really blames a juggler for dropping, even if they all expect their money to buy them one that doesn’t. Ah, but the plot thickens! It becomes quickly obvious that the greaser, the soldier, the young man’s mistake wasn’t exactly his fault.
Ben is standing there, having come on quietly, and smiles at the audience with a cheeky raised eyebrow. She indicates surprise and scorn at her partner’s pratfall, as Jack abashedly picks up his clubs and stands aside. And everyone laughs: it’s the oldest story in the book! He saw a pretty girl, and ‘dropped the ball’. Some men in the audience make this pun to their spouse, and get an elbow in the ribs as thanks. Some of the single girls make the same observation to their commitment-shy beaux , and get a glare. The music picks up, swinging into the real fun, and the dance starts again. This is a much simpler dance, and the steps don’t really matter much. Ben grins and flirts, and Jack chases after her. She spins circles around him, and he stands befuddles, his hands fumbling for the clubs and his rhythm thrown all off kilter. Of course his scrambling is just for show and he never actually drops, but it’s real enough that the audience is convinced: he’s smitten.
They change parts. He juggles around her, and she spins faster and faster until she finally topples over. Sometimes her pratfall makes her skirt fly up, revealing white underpants with a big read heart on the bum. This is Bennet’s favourite thing to do: she loves the scandalised, delighted reaction it gets. Sometimes he ties a scarf or ribbon around her waist, and she juggles as he pulls her around by it, yanking her this way and that, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes Ben flirts with the audience, flipping her skirt and giving broad wings. Jack makes a a big show of getting huffy., and tying her up and pulling her away from the object of her attention. There are a hundred things they do, and they switch back and forth, over and over: she distracting him, he tying her up in knots, she pulling him this way and that, he shaking his fist at anyone she blows a kiss to. The audience laughs, watching their antics with the superiority of those who, they’re sure, would never let love make them such fools. Or perhaps they know better, and that makes them laugh more.
Finally, the finale. This is when the music gets faster, when the guy gets the girl. Sometimes, they end with the same finale as the Harliquinade : circling about one another, until finally Jack tosses Ben over his shoulders and runs off with her. Usually, later at night and for shorter acts, this is how it goes. More often they adapt this idea with a long length of cloth between them, tying them both together. The lovers swoon and frolic, all the while connected at the waist, joined at the hip. Even if they pantomime some quarrel, they can’t separate. They try to pull away for a while, comically, all the while tossing endless things between them. Ben and Jack like to go wild with props for the finale, mimicking quarrels by throwing blades or axes, and passion by tossing fire. Doing it while tied together is even more challenging, though somehow they never get tired of rehearsing this part. The juggling gets more and more impressive, and they walk closer and closer together. Soon the objects fly so fast the audience can hardly follow them, and they’re so close there’s almost no room at all to throw. The audience moans: how do they keep it up? The lean forward in expectation, as the Inamorata keep them on the edge of their seats. Yet all stories must come at last to the Happily Ever After, and with a grand flourish, all the objects in the air are caught suddenly, tucked fast away for the Big Kiss. Sometimes, as a variation, they simply let everything fall, and end in the kiss with the audience laughing at the scattered clubs and rings all around them. Either way the kiss is the big clincher, and it’s got to be good. For day shows, they keep this decent. In the midnight tent, there’s a little less need to keep things tame: sometimes Jack, or Ben, or both of them forget it’s an act for a second or two.
They bow as one and leave the ring beaming, holding hands.
Death Takes the Maiden (or, the Danse Macabre)
Of all the acts they have, Death Takes the Maiden is the one they can never agree upon the music for. Then again, there are plenty things they don’t agree on, lately. The name is another: Jack wants to call it ‘danse macabre’, but Ben argues that her name is actually older and therefore, ‘old school’. Jack is forced every time, (begrudging), to agree. This act can only be done in the Midnight tent, but it gets the biggest response. it’s the hardest, and that’s attractive to both of them. And it lets them push the limits – get into some really dangerous juggling, as well as some pretty crazy acting. They both love it, and it’s one of the things that will bring them together, over and over and over again. But they can never agree on the music. Jack likes to go classic: morbid, minor-key classical pieces, Litz and Beethoven and of course, Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns. Bennet likes those, but she wants to branch out. Just once, she doesn’t want to kick it old school. She tends to pull out Echo and the Bunnymen, Iggy Pop, the Wedding Present, and once in a while, even Nick Cave. She puts song after song onto cds she burns for him, grumbling that an ipod would be easier but glad that at least she doesn’t have to make cassette tapes. They get into fights over the music sometimes, even though both of them get their way about half the time. Sometimes these fights and in tears and an off-again period, more often they end up in both of them tearful and naked and exhausted, with red eyes and red welts. Whatever they use, it’s usually some murder ballad or tale of dark, obsessive love, and it’s always almost painfully intense.
Just as Inamorata lets Jack show off, Death Takes the Maiden is Bennet’s chance to shine. She begins solo: already standing in a bright spot that blinks open out of a solid dark centre ring to display a silent and preserved tableau: a girl, in the centre, delicate and alone. Ben’s silent just after the spot comes on with a rusty clacking, completely still and so painted and perfect that she seems like some doll or marionette, the ballerina in the music box. Sometimes,Bennet plays with this by painting stitches or joints onto herself, or moving in exaggerated clockwork jerks at first. She sometimes dreams of acting out this story as a robot, but Jack always points out that the audience wouldn’t even understand. And she’s better as a girl anyway; no matter how still she keeps, the flash of her throat as she breathes and the blushing of her cheeks always gives her away. She wears the simplest costume for this act: usually just her white ballerina skirt and some simple top that offers up her shape while still conveying purity, delicacy. Her hair is tied up into a messy bun with tendrils escaping, or sometimes stuffed up under a ‘snow white’ wig. Some nights she wears a wreath of flowers, or a single bloom (red or white) pinned just behind one ear. She found a Victorian camisole in a thrift shop, that’s become her favourite. She likes the way the delicate buttons thwart Jack’s greedy fingers, after the act, and he likes to threaten to tear it off. He hasn’t, yet. No matter what costume Ben wears, she always wears the same shoes: a brilliant, bloody red pair of ballet flats, with ribbons that criss-cross up her calves and tie just under the knee. Jack loves them. He loves the way they show of her legs, he loves the colour of them, he loves pushing her down into piles of straw and twining the long ribbons over and around her slender throat. they make him think of snow white, and darker things. she plays him the Kate Bush album, he reads her the Hans Christian Andersen story, and she suppresses a thrilled shudder at the gory bits. they both know by now that loving is sinning, and that even the eventual price doesn’t dim the pleasure of it. Not for them.
The music starts slowly. after the spot, after the audience gasps at the beautiful maiden., she begins to toss. It’s graceful at first, and this is where she shows all of her best tricks. Under and over and around, and sometimes she changes this part up a bit and does poi instead. The audience never minds, they’re too enamoured of the ballerina in the spotlight to care what she’s doing as long as it’s fancy. The music deepens – sometimes violins, and sometimes wailing electric guitar adding the creeping fear to the pantomime. It creeps over the audience slowly, and they wonder why until they see the figure in black skulking just at the edge of the light. It takes a while for everyone in the stands to catch on. People nudge one another, pointing out the hook-nosed or skull-masked figure that circles the juggling ballerina, darting in and out of the shadows as she goes on, unawares. This is the only time that Jack really gets into the costumes. He likes his skull-mask best: it’s old and yellowed and terrifying, and no-one’s really been able to say for sure what it’s carved from. He got it at a Dios De Los Muertos parade that he was too drunk to remember, and he feels stronger, better, more powerful when he puts it on. He uses it to scare Ben, and though she screams and smacks him, there’s as much thrill as true fear in her cries. Sometimes he paints his face like a skull, and sometimes he wears his Harlequin mask, not the domino mask but the real one: black, hook-nosed and leering. once, he somehow put together a plague doctor costume, but the audience didn’t really get it – and anyhow, the robes weight down his arms too much. And always his clothing is black black black, sometimes with a dash of shocking crimson catching the eye, like a blood-splatter in high contrast. They’re always ragged, too, with ribbons or strips of cloth hanging down. Sometimes, when he’s wearing a skull-face he performs in only black trousers and bloody bandages Ben wraps around his arms and chest. Whatever he’s wearing it makes the audience shift uneasily, all of them crying out silently to the maiden: turn around! look behind you! Don’t go up those stairs, don’t trip outside the light! As if hearing them, she turns.
Jack joins in with her without a pause. It has to be seamless, this part: any crack in the action ruins the whole thing. Without missing a beat, they’re juggling together. And unlike their other two acts, in this one they chase one another in equal parts. He follows her, then turns away, and she pursues him, only to pantomime fear and skitter out of his reach. He tosses to her, she tosses to him, and they’re perfect. Perfectly on-key, perfectly matched, their hands fly through the air and the knives (he likes knives for this, it seems to fit) flash brilliantly in the stoplight and twirl so fast that it seems they should both be in ribbons, but they’re not. Everything happens in perfect timing, like clockwork, and this is when they both hit the ‘zone’. No matter what they do in third segment of this act, it’s beautiful. He improvises, she follows perfectly. She adds in a bit of tumbling, he adapts without missing a beat. Sometimes they sing the words for this act, even though in the others they’d only lip-sync – some songs they’re screaming the words at one another with passion that makes the audience squirm, and still, the juggling never falters once. They pull apart and push together like taffy, coming close then far, she ducking under him and he leaping over her, both of them making complicated heys, promenades, pousettes , figure-eights and mad robins around one another. Sometimes, just like in the Inamorata, he uses a crimson length of silk to bind them together. The audience gasps. It’s a show of amazing beauty and subtlety, the choreography always changing but always perfect.
The finale of Death Takes the Maiden is short but powerful: it takes less than a minute. If Jack has been tying Ben up with his red ribbon, this is when he pulls her inexorably in. If he’s simply been chasing her, this is when he catches her. It’s a little different each time; there are so many ways to end this story, and all of them are real show-stoppers. Sometimes Jack leaps upon Ben in a frenzy, her glittery rings falling as her body falls to his fury and the blunted ax in his fist. Sometimes he creeps up as quiet as a lover, holding one of the knives to her throat, mimicking the slice. She gasps, a crumpled square of silk blooming from the hand that rises to her throat, fluttering softly to the ground as she crumples like a blossom. sometimes she comes to him, and all of the balls he’s been tossing are hidden away – and so is she, when he folds her up into his cloak. Sometimes they pantomime her begging him,tearful. Sometimes he strangles her. Sometimes, sometimes he mimics fucking her as he kills her. He never planned out that part, it just happened one night. They never agree beforehand to do it, and no-one ever mentions it afterward.
However Death takes the Maiden, the Danse Macabre always, always ends exactly as it began: in a stark tableau. As the maiden stills and the flower falls, all other lights go out but that one staring spotlight. There’s a kiss: Jack’s painted lips (or, sometimes, the cold musty teeth of his mask) press to the still-blushing lips of the maiden, ‘to part with breath nevermore’. Ben never kisses back, though sometimes she shivers. Freeze. The audience stares, and there’s never a sound in the tent as the spotlight reveals this picture, all colours washed out but white, black and red. Some of them look away, without knowing why. The spotlight goes out on this tableau with a hollow, final sound, leaving the tent in darkness.
It’s only then that they cheer, and it’s then they cheer the loudest.
Of course the curtain never really falls, does it? The show must go on, as all players know, and night after night Ben and Jack rise again to act out their three acts for a captivated audience. There will never really be a happy ending, not really: this show never really ends.