The Last Circus

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The Last Circus

"And now, let me introduce you to the world-famous Dongchun Circus!" Though a few folks in other parts of the world may not have heard of the Dongchun troupe yet, that's how the stentorian-voiced ringmaster begins the show. He booms out in a corny manner to better set the tone of an old-fashioned circus. Clad in the traditional Korean outfit, he then motions dramatically behind him and bellows, "Come out on stage!"

The audience of about 100 people, assembled in a downtown Seoul auditorium and consisting mostly of senior citizens and families, shifts their gaze to a swarm of 30 performers materializing in a dazzle of sparkling shirts and satin pants. A mix of teenage boys and girls, they form a circle and walk around waving their hands ostentatiously and smiling like beauty pageant contestants.

Then the first real circus act begins: a tightrope act performed by a man who holds only a feathered fan in one hand to keep his balance. At intervals he jokingly warns the spectators near his rope, "Catch me if I fall." Up on the rope, however, he's the picture of confidence.

Triport Hall, where the circus is being held this night, is usually used for live concerts. The auditorium's low ceiling has presented a problem for the circus, however. Dongchun's acrobats normally practice aerial feats beneath a 17-meter ceiling, and the Triport's ceiling falls a few meters shy of that mark. The ringmaster, Park Se-hwan, who was adopted by the founder of the circus, points out that the troupe's natural habitat is still traditional circus tents. "That's where the circus comes alive; you have to be breathing in some of that dusty air," Mr. Park says. Inside the tent is also where Mr. Park, 57, dons his tuxedo and sings two or three songs just before the big show begins in front of crowds that typically number about 1,000. He used to perform with veteran comedians like Nam Sung-nam and Seo Yung-chun when the two funnymen traveled with Dongchun in the '60s, the heyday of Korean circuses. Back then the circus experience was a mix of acrobatics, musical plays and singing contests.

And those were flush times, evidently. "So many Koreans came to the circus in those days," Mr. Park says. "Every night, we stuffed cash in a huge bag. We had to stand on the bag to get all the money in."

Dongchun is a survivor. It was the first independent Korean circus formed during the colonial period and the last of its kind in Korea. During its 75-year life, the circus has amassed a colorful history. It was organized by Park Dong-chun, a famed acrobat, who had escaped from a Japanese circus with a few other Korean performers in the 1920s. In an odd twist of fate the troupe was recently invited to perform in Japan. The city of Yokohama, home to many ethnic Koreans, hosts the circus next March at its annual Korea Day celebration.

Mr. Park notes the significance of the invitation. Korean-Japanese, away from their ancestral homes, have a longing not dissimilar to what Koreans oppressed in the colonial period felt, he says. Perhaps the biggest contribution Dongchun made is the emotional independence it gave to colonized Koreans.

Times have changed. Action movies and video games have more pull on kids than the big top. But Park Se-hwan, who runs the show today, says the spirit of circuses is still alive. He says there are still enough people who come to see his shows. "There aren't many entertainers who can perform 30 days in a row and still attract crowds. But we do."

In times past, the Dongchun presented monkey and rabbit acts. Now only puppies perform.

November is an especially busy month for Dongchun. After the Triport show, half of the troupe will kick off a month-long run in southern Seoul's Doksan-dong, where a big beef market once stood. Now the area is an open lot with a few gas stations and a small army base across the street - a perfect place for the troupe to park their trailers for a few weeks. The other half will be performing near a big traditional market in Gwangju, in South Jeolla Province. At both places, Dongchun is collaborating with a Chinese circus, whose performers are legendary for their acrobatic prowess. Mr. Park notes that finding places to perform is always a concern, especially in big cities.

The circus life is not as exotic as it's cracked up to be and not as seedy as some snooty people might think, says Kim Kkonim in her dressing room after the Triport show. Ms. Kim is an 18-year-old acrobat whose stage name is Miss Flower. Her forte is fitting herself into a plastic cube no larger than a rabbit hutch. Once she's squeezed inside, a man closes the lid and proceeds to execute a series of handstands on top of it. She started doing this act when she was 15. "There are times when I'm in that case and I wonder what I'm doing there," Ms. Kim says. "But as soon as I hear the audience clapping, everything's fine."

Perhaps the biggest fear for every acrobat is making mistakes on stage, and Dongchun has had its share of accidents. Back in 1980, a rookie tightrope walker fell during a practice session and died from his injuries. Another tragedy befell one of Ms. Kim's fellow performers in July during a show in Ulsan. A young man riding a motorbike across a tightrope lost control and plunged 18 meters, missing the safety net. It was later discovered that the man had been drinking before the show. Four months after the fall, the man is still in a coma. Ms. Kim frowns and says danger comes with the territory. "I thought about quitting after that accident, but instead, I took out more life insurance."

As he checks each room of the troupe's trailer for the next show, Mr. Park laments that some intellectuals think circus is an art of the past. "It doesn't matter," he says. "It's only important that the Korean masses come to see the show. Circus is the art for the masses."

Dongchun Circus will perform in Doksan-dong, south western Seoul (Siheung subway station, line No.1) across from army base 9287, from Friday through Dec. 10: weekdays at 1:30, 4:30, and 7:30 p.m.; weekends at 11, 2, 5, and 8 p.m. For more information, call 02-6383-9141.

by Park Soo-mee

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