The Art and Work of the Contortionist

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A contortionist, posed in studio, ca. 1880. From the George Eastman House Collection.

First, let’s dispel the double-jointed myth. Joints don’t come in multiples; however, they do come with what science dubbed hypermobility or joint laxity, both terms for people who can stretch and bend naturally farther than anyone else at the cocktail party.

In certain cultures, or in certain eras – such as the heyday of the American circus at the turn of the 20th century – hypermobility offered a ticket to elite schooling, training muscles, ligaments and bones to configure into impossible-looking shapes, with body parts of all sorts touching each other in some wild game of solo Twister.

The contortionist, the old saw goes, is the only professional who really knows how to make ends meet.

Contortion came to the west from the east during the weird days of colonialism, when European men wrote the narrative of “exotic orientals” and festishized flexibility. Contortionists found work in circuses, in freak shows and wowed their Puritanically-influenced counterparts with what appeared to be a “born that way” aberration of body mobility. What the narrative omitted included the cultural tradition of contortion schools in China and Mongolia as well as the yogic traditions of India that codified a strict curriculum of training, breath work, strengthening exercises and spiritual discipline. That discipline and training required years, starting in childhood, eventually incorporating a fluid artistry to create a serpentine dance of the human body. Contortion emerged, in its home turf, as an exquisite commitment to the belief that the human body is limited only by the smallness of the mind.

Contortion as an art form requiring study and practice caught on in western civilization, leading to a cadre of contortion professionals who continued to try to educate the public about the fact that they looked like rubber people not because they were rubber people but because they spent hours a day, day after day, year after year, training their bodies to put their feet next to their ears. Apparently, other public misconceptions this group faced were assumptions that they had access to special treatments that would give them flexibility advantages. Perhaps they soaked in special Chinese oil or bone-softening chemicals. Ted and Jean Ardini, well-known Australian contortionists, penned an article for Acrobatics magazine in 1971 attempting to stop, once and for all, the outlandish questions spectators asked contortionists about how they could do what they do: “The answer to all the above questions and others too numerous and ridiculous to mention is DEFINITELY NO.” No exotic salves, no chemical baths, no secret elixirs, no sleeping in a bathtub filled with oil. The disappointing truth, the Ardinis revealed, was that contortionists “were all people, quite normal people, who enjoy our work.”

As a rule, the greatest contortionists still hail from Mongolia, a country so steeped in its monopoly on exceptional training that Cirque du Soleil hires Mongolian contortionists almost exclusively. The trainer for their acclaimed water show O is Angelique Janov, a former student of Tsend-Ayush, arguably the most influential contortionist of the 20th century. The magnificence of the cultural heritage imbued in contemporary training inspired a steering committee of Mongolian nationals to nominate Mongolian contortion for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage in 2011. The organization has yet to add it although remains flexible to the idea.

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The art of contortion is believed to have originated from Buddhist meditation practices and poses imitating animals. (Photo: Christine Schindler)

China, too, continues to turn out unforgettable contortion artists who work in the country’s legendary acrobatic circuses that perform all over the world. With its origins in traditional Buddhist Tsam dances and influenced by Buddhist animal poses, contortion reflects its spiritual roots in modern performances. Audience members who know what to look for have a greater appreciation for performance as art versus mere spectacle.

In America, contortion stayed within its prescribed circus limits even though the performers themselves knew they were operating at a physical and artistic level often under-appreciated by general circus-going folk. Because of well-founded concerns for animal welfare and a growing shift in tastes for the American public, the circus entered a new era, and the term “circus arts” began to float in the mainstream. Silks, aerialists, strongmen/women – and contortionists – now find themselves on the cusp of widespread acceptance of their disciplines as performing arts instead of gewgaws in a traveling show. In metropolitan areas, studios offer contortion classes and workshops. In recent years, the profession formalized, hosting a regular International Contortion Convention. The last one took place in Las Vegas in 2016.

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The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China.

You’ll have a chance to exercise this new appreciation for the artistry of contortion at
China Soul: The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China. The show features the beloved favorites of the art form from one of the most well-known acrobatic troupes in China: juggling, gymnastics, Shaolin kung fu and, of course, a handful of people bending to the will of their superbly-trained hypermobility.

 

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII Love a Parade!

This year, Macy’s hosts its 91st Thanksgiving Day parade. With all the costumes, singing, dancing, choreography, floating sets and music, a parade represents an oft-overlooked cousin in the performing arts family.

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Theater and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes (left) worked on float designs for some of the early Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. His modernist eye created work-of-art-caliber floats, including Cinderella’s Coach, 1926. (right).

Human beings and parading have a long love affair, from early uses in rites of passage to military victories to funeral processions to the American modern spectaculars like Mardi Gras and, happening this Thursday, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

In the United States, we parade for holidays, gay pride, soldiers, soldiers who died in combat, giant football competitions like the Rose Bowl, to mark our independence from Britain and to celebrate a newly elected president, mayor or sheriff. If you travel around small-town America, you’ll find as many local festivals as there are small towns and a parade that goes with it. (Chicken Festival, Strawberry Festival, Cow Chip Festival, Festival of Trees, PumpkinFest, GeckoFest … the list goes on.)

Some of the great American parades developed as off-shoots of a bigger parade. For example, take a look at the Mardi Gras Indians. Deprived access to permits because of racism, the New Orleanians of African descent created their own parading organization, ranking structure and processional guidelines. As a show of respect to the native tribes in Louisiana who sheltered enslaved Africans and brought them into their communities, this band of African-Americans in New Orleans named themselves the Mardi Gras Indians.

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They formed tribes instead of krewes and relied on the cultural knowledge of West African and Native American beadwork to construct unbelievably intricate beaded “suits” for the parades as well as gathering the requisite brass band and showing off in processional dancing. Though the origins included (often mortal) fighting to settle scores, eventually the sheer magnitude of artistic ability to create the elaborate Mardi Gras Indians suits (called “masking”) gained national attention. One of our favorite New Orleanians in this tradition is Ronald Lewis who curates and directs The House of Dance and Feathers, a Mardi Gras Indian museum in a trailer on the back of his property in the Ninth Ward.

Here, Ronald talks about the time and effort required to make an Indian suit, and you can catch a glimpse of a few Mardi Gras Indian parades in the footage as well:

Though Mardi Gras and the Mardi Gras Indians specialize in the New Orleans-style brass band, most parades follow suit with marching bands. This Thanksgiving, Macy’s parade features 12 marching bands from around the country as well as performances from celebrities (Gwen Stefani opens the parade this year with “White Christmas,” which we find ironic), Broadway stars (like Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr, who performed at The Straz this past summer) and seven dance troupes. The spectacle of Macy’s parade is, of course, the enormous balloons which make this parade so unique.

From a theatrical standpoint, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade represents a mobile multi-faceted show complete with the “wild-card” variable of navigating an enormous helium balloon. This year’s floating Pillsbury Doughboy is large enough to make four million crescent rolls. That’s a lot to handle.

We speak for many Gen X-ers who cherish the 1997 Thanksgiving Day parade in which Barney the Dinosaur was impaled by a Times Square street lamp during surprise wind gusts and died spectacularly on 51st St. Symbolic as it was culturally, Barney’s death would probably make a great documentary featuring interviews with the unfortunate souls tasked with handling the careening character. Quelle horreur!

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Parades, especially for joyful holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, capture the youthful insouciance of performing arts: it’s fun for fun’s sake. We can laugh, clap, ooh and ahh, be entertained and fawn over favorite characters and performers for no other reason than to enjoy the moment.

Delight for delight’s sake.

We can be grateful for that.

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This year’s parade starts at 9 a.m. EST, broadcast live on NBC. Keep your eyes peeled for performances from casts of four Broadway blockbusters, Dear Evan Hansen, Anastasia, SpongeBob SquarePants and Once on This Island. Florida’s own Flo Rida (get it?) stars on the Krazy Glue float, “Fun House.”

 

String Theory

The mandolin and violin share some interesting intersections.

From the cave paintings at Three Brothers Cave in France came evidence of the proto-proto-mandolin, a crude lute-like instrument with one string. Or perhaps this cave drawing, which depicts a hunting bow converted to a musical instrument, represents the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of what we know as the violin.

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An Obu man playing a musical bow in Nigeria, circa 1909-1913.

These two seemingly different instruments share the same tuning – G, D, A, E – so a violin player could switch to mandolin and crank out the same Bach sonatas. Likewise, a mandolin player could heft a violin under her chin and spool out “Rickett’s Reel,” transmuting said instrument from violin to fiddle.

As humans traveled, pillaged and collided culturally, their instruments ended up in new hands to be played around new fires with new types of fermented beverages. Thus, common roots stem from Middle Eastern instruments influencing European instrument makers, as both the mandolin and violin chart back to Arabic origins. (The mandolin traces to the “oud” and the violin to the “rabab.”)

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An oud (left) and a rabab (right).

The two share a notable historic turn in Italy albeit 100 years apart. In the 1500s in northern Italy, an instrument evolved from the design of the viola di braccio, and an instrument maker named Andrea Amati of Cremora landed on record as the first known creator of the modern violin in 1555. The oldest surviving violin dates to 1560 and belongs to Amati. The most well-known Italian violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, apprenticed with Amati’s grandson. Stradivari set the standard for the violin in the late 1600s and early 1700s, at the time when the Latin mandora, part of the lute family, entered the stream of Italian life.

The Italians invented a smaller version of the mandora, called it the mandolina, and by the 1800s, the mandolin enjoyed a happy, abundant life in Italian music. During the great immigration of the late 1800s to America, Italians packed their mandolins and introduced this delightful little instrument to the New World.

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The Gibson Mandolin Family at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

In 1898, an American luthier named Orville Gibson won a patent for an arch-top design on the traditional bowl-backed Italian mandolin. The American mandolin was born. Gibson instruments became a household name. Gibson’s iconic mandolin design continues to symbolize American folk music to this day.

The roads converged for the violin and mandolin in the United States, where the Italians had created a great mandolin fever in the 1900s. Violins in the guise of fiddles partnered with mandolins, banjos, guitars and upright basses to codify a particular type of Americana music that exploded in the 1930s once commercial radio became a fact of life. Bill Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso, created a new style of finger picking based on the frenetic fiddle techniques of Uncle Pen Vandiver. Monroe added “blue” notes and phrasing from a bluesman mentor named Arnold Schultz, named his band The Blue Grass Boys, and invented bluegrass music.

Several generations later, another mandolin virtuoso who creates celestial interpretations of violin music on his mandolin, Chris Thile, borrowed from Monroe’s tradition of lightning-fast finger picking with his breakout band, Nickle Creek. Now the inheritor of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, which he is refashioning to exhibit outstanding, burgeoning musical talent, Thile stands as possibly the greatest mandolin player in the world.

From humble and possibly apocryphal beginnings on a cave wall in France to stages here at The Straz, the convergence of the mandolin and the fiddle presents an intriguing intertwining of the lives of two fascinating instruments that found a common home in bluegrass bands – not a bad twist of fate for our four-noted friends.

 

We have an exceptional selection of great string-fueled performances this fall. For our other exciting musical acts, visit strazcenter.org.

Colter Wall – Fri., Nov. 17

Lindsey Stirling’s Warmer in the Winter Tour – Fri., Nov. 24

Ben Haggard – Fri., Dec. 15

The Grahams – Mon., Dec. 18

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

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Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

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Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

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Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

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The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

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Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

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“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.