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Generally Recognized As True: My Carnivale Lune Bleue review... finally!

Monday, September 01, 2008

My Carnivale Lune Bleue review... finally!

To begin, I did take some photos of the event, which I've uploaded here. Many of them are not that great because I was trying to take a quick photo of something before the scene changed, or because it was dark and I had no way of steadying the camera for a long exposure.

I am surprised it took me so long to get around to writing my review of Carnivale Lune Bleue, but it's not because of a lack of enthusiasm for the event. The strongest feeling I have about it, after the fact, is that I wish I could have stayed longer. I should probably have written about the trip first, but I want to get my carnival review out there well before it finishes on September 6 in case it can be of interest to anyone who hasn't yet been.

Back when I planned the trip, I wrote a post about it. I originally got the idea to go and see this event when I heard Nikolai Diablo talking about Carnival Diablo on Richard Syrett's conspiracy theory and paranormal AM radio show back in July. It sounded interesting, and Nikolai made it sound as if CD was a travelling sideshow, which it apparently is. But when I searched for it, the only concrete way I could find to see the show was at this strange event called Carnivale Lune Bleue. In Ottawa. I pretty much ruled it out at that point, seeing as it was so far away and would need a multi-day trip, but I read a bit further anyway, and I'm glad I did.

Upon reading further into CLB, I found something that I was immediately interested in and would likely not otherwise have known about if not for the segment on Syrett's show. I have been enthusiastic about the HBO series Carnivale since I first saw it, as I wrote about earlier this year. I also have an intersecting interest in the Great Depression era (the late 1920s and 1930s), and the coinciding dust bowl that occurred in the plains states. Carnivale combines both of these -- it portrays a Depression-era carnival and does a fair amount of travelling through the dust bowl: the first episode lands right in the middle of it, in fact. Seeing as CLB was a faithful attempt to replicate a 1930s carnival, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to have a look.

Looking through all of the options, I eventually found out that there was a provincial park nearby -- Rideau River -- and so I planned a camping trip around the carnival. I loaded all of my lightest camping gear into an 80L backpack, took the VIA train to Ottawa, and rented a car in Ottawa to get to the park. I'll write more about the trip in a separate post.

I got to the park last Wednesday evening and my day to go to the carnival was the next day, on Thursday. Unfortunately, I didn't realize until I got to the park that they close their gates at 10pm, meaning that I had to be back at the park by then. Seeing as the park was about 15km away, I had to plan to leave the carnival at about 9:30pm. Thankfully my Cirque Maroc ticket -- the main event and the only one that had scheduled seating -- was booked for 7:30pm, and the CLB sideshows were staggered nicely such that you could go from one to the next with a small breather in between.

I had wanted to try the food at the carnival by having dinner there, because it looked like they had resurrected some 1930s-style food for the event. But, when I found out about the campsite's closing time, I decided to have dinner before I left and get to the carnival very near opening time so that I could figure out how to see all of the shows before I had to leave.

The carnival opened at 6pm and ran until midnight. It was held in a relatively isolated rural fairground, which I thought was a great idea -- it was DARK when you stepped away from the lights. I didn't realize how impressive the entrance was when I got there because it was still quite light outside, but I got the chance to be impressed on the way out. Although I think it would have been best if they'd waited until dusk to open the carnival for maximum effect, I'm glad that they didn't, in light of the campsite closing time.

I was a bit surprised at how bright everything was. For some reason, I had expected dull lighting and lots of shadows, which are the epitome of a carnival experience in my mind. But at least they didn't resort to floodlighting -- strings of lights were everywhere, which was very nice to see. If they had been coloured lights and not as bright, it would have been better. As it stood, the amount and quality of light was similar to what you'd get from floodlighting. I wonder if this had to do with modern litigation and safety regulations -- like the big, bright "EXIT" signs in the Cirque Maroc tent. I don't know, really.

When I first arrived and it was light outside and there weren't many people there, I must admit that I didn't really know what to do. I saw the ferris wheel, but I didn't feel like going round and round the thing as the only person on it. So, I went to have a look at the show times to figure out if I'd be able to see everything. Carnivale Diablo had a show at 6:30, so I wandered around for a bit and found the museum tent.

The museum tent was pretty interesting, actually. It had a bunch of odds and ends from the 1930s period, including a number of carnival relics like coin-operated games and a bed of nails. When I first went in, there were a bunch of people with brushes brushing away at some of the relics. I wondered if it was one of those reality displays where real people interact with the apparatus to show you how it would have worked back in the day (sort of like the moving wax museum exhibits that do the same thing over and over again, but with real people). I don't know why I wondered this, but I felt a bit silly when I realized that they were probably just cleaning the exhibits. This was not a long decision-making process, so don't go away thinking I'm incredibly slow or something.

When I got to the other end of the museum tent, there were a bunch of more weird things, like dinosaur skulls and life-sized turtle boy in a glass jar. I must admit, I like this kitschy kind of weird stuff when it's in its right place. There was also a souvenir booth on the way out. Yes, I bought the t-shirt. The $25 t-shirt. I got the one with the Carnivale Lune Bleue art on it, because I'm not sure I knew what any of the the other designs were all about.

By this time, it was around 6:25. I took a photo of the beautifully-painted sideshow posters outside the Carnival Diablo tent. I didn't see a queue outside of Carnival Diablo, but a couple of ladies in costume were standing with the strongman by the entrance. Wondering if there were people sitting inside already, I asked if we can go in yet. Apparently not, because it doesn't start until 6:30. I wandered around again for a bit and when I came back there was a line forming. One of the ladies came around to tell us that photography was allowed, but that we couldn't use a flash in case it distracted the performers. Seeing as there was going to be flame eating and sword swallowing going on, this made sense. Although, I wondered why they allow photography at all in CD when they didn't allow photography of any kind in Cirque Maroc.

The Carnival Diablo set was an impressive faded-tone set with all kinds of weird set pieces, including an electric chair and a big electrical panel, and a number of tables and cabinets. Not all of the set pieces were used in an act, so it was a nice touch to be wondering which pieces would and wouldn't be used in the show. CD was supposed to be a ten-in-one sideshow. I'm not denying that there were ten acts, but I can't remember what they all were. Nikolai hammered a nail up his nose, drank boiling water and lifted a basket of rocks from a shark hook he pierced through his tongue on stage. His strongman companion became the human dartboard, bent a metal bar with his hands and teeth, and took some punishment in the electric chair -- the latter was quite an elaborate act. The other performer -- I think it was the same one that did both -- swallowed some progressively larger swords and took a bow without removing a rather large one and did some impressive flame theatrics, swallowing fire and regurgitating it back. Not all of the posters outside of the tent were represented as acts in the show, but I didn't really expect there to be a half-boy in there. The Carnival Diablo show was very good, I thought, and Nikolai Diablo has done a great job at creating an atmosphere around the show -- he had a great stage presence and was suitably creepy, and the other two performers did a good job, too. Here's a video link of Nikolai doing a couple of his feats on Rogers TV.

Nikolai did some merchandising at the end of the show, which I thought ruined the atmosphere a bit. Selling souvenirs is a great idea because it's a very memorable show, but it would have been better if he'd had someone else do it.

Carnival Diablo was over by about 7:20 and the main event -- Cirque Maroc -- was set to start just across the way at 7:30, inside the huge big top tent.

Inside the big top, my seat was pretty good -- E1, about 5 rows back and near the main aisle. The two people and their kids next to me got sat right behind one of the big poles supporting the roof of the tent, so I felt a bit sorry for them. Their kids ran off to go and sit in some unused seats when the show began. Sitting people in assigned seating with a big pole right in their face...? There wasn't any indication of the pole on the seating maps, either.

But that's the only thing remotely negative that I have to say about Cirque Maroc, because it was a very, very impressive show. I didn't quite "get" some of the acts, but I can still appreciate it as art and most people seemed to enjoy them. All of the acrobats were women, but two male characters (I'm not sure if you can call them clowns... I think you can) were the joining thread that connected all of the acrobatic acts with an act of their own. The clown humour was that type of French Canadian humour that I don't normally find funny, but it was still a good way to tie together the excellent acrobatic acts.

I have seen no professional circus acts before, so bear that in mind. I haven't seen Cirque De Soleil or anything like that.

Going from memory, I think there were four acrobats and the following acts: handstanding, hula hoops, German wheel (which I heard described as "that big hamster wheel!"), Russian bar, slack rope, chair balancing (it is more impressive than it sounds), and trapeze.

In Cirque Maroc, by far, I found the most impressive acts to be the slack rope and the German wheel.

I was pretty amazed watching the slack rope routine, performed by a lady named Elizabeth Clarke, and I'm still not sure how something like that is possible... but, obviously it is. I think it must require a huge awareness of how to control every muscle in your body, and to be aware of what that muscle is doing at any one point in time (one of the acts before this, where an acrobat was forming body shapes around one of the male clowns was equally impressive in the muscle control respect). Just when you had been impressed by a particular balancing act, it went one step further and showed something you hadn't thought possible. We could have done without the clown sniffing the rope after she was done, though. I'm not sure who thought of that one. Rogers TV has a video here.

And, the German wheel. This seemed to me to be more of a gymnastics routine (and the young lady -- Kristina Dniprenko -- that performed the routine looked very much like a gymnast) and it was very, very good. Some of the moves, particularly the ones where a revolution of the wheel was followed by some kind of exit through the outer rim of the wheel were incredibly fluid and I can't imagine how much practice goes into something like that. It was actually better than gymnastics because there was some performance art involved, whereas gymnastics is rather mechanical, even in the freeform routines. It was like a refined gymnastics routine with a lot of the clutter that makes judges happy removed. Also, I liked the choice of music for this routine. Some of the other acts were accompanied by some pretty jarring music. Here's a video from Rogers TV.

The other routines in Cirque Maroc were good, too, but the above were the standouts to me.

After Cirque Maroc was done, when I got outside of the tent there was someone ushering people into the snake show across the way. I went into that and had a look, and it was quite a fun show. A guy dressed up like Indiana Jones was showing progressively more dangerous creatures -- starting with a tarantula and working his way up to a 20-foot snake! At one point, the host asked a teenage boy sitting in the front row to hold one of the snakes but he wouldn't do it and the host moved onto the person sitting next to him. When the next-largest snake came out, the poor boy bolted out of the tent, presumably in anticipation of being asked a second time to have a close-up of the larger snake.

The snake show was done by about 9:30, and it was time to leave. I wandered around for a few minutes. I noticed that the ferris wheel seemed to have carriages sized for the day. A number of larger couples were not able to comfortably sit side-by-side in some of the cars, and the horses on the carousel were remarkably small by today's standards yet were apparently designed for adults. Regrettably, I didn't try either of the two rides, though they were free for unlimited play.

There were also some old-fashioned pay-as-you-go carnival games going on, but I didn't look at those. I also didn't look at the fortune teller's caravan -- in fact, I don't think I even saw it. There were some other old attractions, like the one where you try and ring the bell by swinging the mallet. I was trying to take in too much in too short of a time to notice many details about these things.

It would have been nice to be able to stay for longer because the carnival is at its best after dark. Even Carnival Diablo would possibly have been better after dark, because there was significant ambient light coming in from outside of the tent through the canvas walls when I caught the 6:30 show. The snake show was definitely enhanced from having seen it after dark -- just the fact of having quiet darkness outside makes a big difference in the experience.

If the carnival returns next year, I will probably go again and plan to be able to stay for longer.

Overall, it was a great experience and I'm grateful to the creators for going through with their vision, and it would be great to see something like this become an annual event. I don't think that you can ever truly replicate the 1930s carnival because it was a product of its time: during a time of hardship, it was an inexpensive way for unworldly people to see the wonders of the world. It was a place for freaks of nature to earn a living and find belonging. Today, we have little hardship, many of us are relatively worldly, and we expect a lot from a show, and the creators of this carnival obliged the latter. In doing so, they made the show less authentic, but still genuine enough to provide a unique and memorable experience.

And, again, my Flickr photo set is here.

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Rabby said...

Thank you for posting this revue!! I have seen ads for the Carnivale in the paper for a few years now, but have never remembered to actually GO, and this year, considerably short on cash, again I think I'm unable to go. However, it's great to know what to expect - especially with the knowledge that some of my friends are more squeamish than I am about some of the sideshow acts.

Also, thank you for posting your photos! It's always nice to see! I'm considering dressing up when I do go, however I'm not entirely sure... Were the ladies ushering you in dressed in 1930s carnivale style outfits? Or just regular blue jeans? I'm a bit of a costume nut, so I'd like to know where to aim!

Thanks again for this great revue!


mattbg said...

When I went, I went in blue jeans and wasn't out of place... most people attending were in casual street clothes. Some of the staff were dressed in carnival costumes and some not. For example, the carnival guy shown on the website is actually there near the entrance, but the girls collecting tickets were in jeans. The guy with the snakes was in Indiana Jones-like costume. Some of the ushers for the shows were in 1930s-style dresses. I don't remember about the ride operators and people running the game booths.

Both of the scheduled shows (Maroc and Diablo) are top quality, and the snake show is good, too...