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Published on October 18th, 2013 | by Zamná Ávila

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When the Cirque Comes to Town

Proving the value of the arts in public-port venues

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

Over the course of many years, we have criticized the Port of Los Angeles on a range of issues. And we have done so again in this issue with our reporting on the TraPac terminal expansion and its cost overrun of $146 million. It would seem as though Mayor Garcetti’s office also had concerns with this “miscalculation” of costs considering that both Deputy Director of Port Operations John Holmes and the Port’s Executive Director Geraldine Knatz resigned or retired after the matter came to light.

I have been told by some who would know that the Mayor had serious misgivings about this cost overrun and the financial position it has put the Harbor Department in. I am not going to belabor the point, as our reporter has done an adequate job of explaining it elsewhere in this edition.
I will, however, shock some on the Fifth Floor of 428 South Beacon Street by giving them a standing ovation for bringing Cirque du Soleil’s Totem to San Pedro. Everyone knows we have our own kind of three ring politics in this town complete with clowns and ringmasters. But Totem was really extraordinary. To have these incredibly talented, world class performers performing an inspiring, transformative piece in this town was extraordinary. If you’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance before, it is unlike any other circus you’ll experience! This is the kind of event that puts San Pedro on the cultural map of California.

What is profoundly intriguing about the Cirque experience is the multi-pronged approach to storytelling, from the use of multi-media and performance art. From the design of the costumes, to the live music, and from the stage design and lighting to the dance routines, and not to forget, the hilarious comedic clown routines, they were all superb. And these were only preparatory to the astounding acrobatics where we saw athletics meet art. One is left questioning if this was really a circus at all, as it absolutely challenges every stereotype we have about circuses over the past 200 years. This is not anything like them. No elephants, no tigers and no animal rights activists to protest, because there aren’t any animals other than the human kind involved. The apes in costume were curiously humorous as social commentary.

So under the big blue and yellow tent at the end of Miner Street we had a magical experience that was part spectacle, part ancestral story telling. Totem brought some 2,500 surly San Pedrans together under one tent for a brief moment to reflect upon how we are all frogs in the same pond. It is a message that we should all take away from this performance.

What is even more interesting about Totem, in their very Canadian-Cirque du Soleil way, there isn’t a “star” of the show. The star, if there is one, is the collaboration of the entire cast executing an entire show. The practical side of this, as explained by Jeff Lund manager of Totem, is that if at any time one of the performers are injured, there is a backup performer ready to fill in. Again it’s not about the star of the show it’s the team and the story line.

Culturally, this is a refreshing divergence from the American pop culture idolization that we are force fed by our media industry. It is perhaps the underlying take-away message of the entire show that could be transferred to our own socio-political perspectives on national, city to even neighborhood council politics– it’s not just about the one in the spotlight that matters most, but the dynamic of the group that matters. Perhaps Congress should check out a show and take a few notes right about now.

For those who have been rumored to cock their heads at the mention of our San Pedro arts district or who routinely question the contribution that the arts make to our community and economy, think about this. Cirque du Soleil will bring something more than 50,000 people to a part of our harbor that is rarely used. They will hire some 350 locals during their four week run, house their entire staff and performers at local hotels and both audiences and performers will be discovering all the cool places and favorite restaurants we take for granted.

And just why did Cirque du Soleil choose San Pedro, the “surliest” town in all of Los Angeles, as one of their three Southern California locations for Totem? Because they did their research and discovered our arts district and waterfront development plans and want to help with the “re-emergence” of this community. They actually said this to a room of reporters up front.

This circus is not the solution, nor is any other one element of the proposed waterfront development the key to our future. Nor should one personality be. But Cirque du Soleil does point us in the right direction of what is possible, and what is imaginable. Let’s not forget to invite them back.

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