THE THREE BARS #1:
Truth or Fiction, Legend or Fact
By Pierre Couderc. Bandwagon, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Nov-Dec), 1964, pp. 15-18, 23-24.
"This act which we have just witnessed, with others of varying characters, requires for its execution technical perfection as well as super-physical qualities in the performer beyond that demanded by any and all forms of art; for life and limb are involved as well as pride of professional of artistic accomplishment." - Irving K. Pond
The Three Bars (Les Barres Fixes)
Obviously the above quotation is applicable to all circus performers. But it becomes even more relevant - almost axiomatic - regarding the artists who perform that most difficult and most hazardous branch of acrobatics named: The Three Bars!
It is indeed deplorable that this speciality, which once was considered a standard attraction on all circus programs, has been steadily falling into decadence.
Though still considered by pros and connoisseurs as "the acme" of circus ring artistry, the three bars are seldom seen nowadays. Once upon a time there were literally countless triple bar acts flooding every circus ring here and abroad. Today only a mere handful can be found performing this old acrobatic standard.
Why? What are the reasons for this deplorable decline?
Two of the more obvious factors can be cited:
1. the uninitiated spectator, rarely aware of the intricacies involved in this type of performance, lacks a proper sense of appreciation.
2. the performer, aware of this lack of appreciation, has found it more rewarding to devote himself to much less exigent fields - such as the flying trapezes or teeterboard, either of which always trigger more applause than the best of bar acts.
Perhaps, to a degree, our circus historians and chroniclers can be held accountable for this lack of appreciation from the average spectator. For some strange reason difficult to fathom, most of our circus writers have always devoted a disproportionate amount of space extolling the feats of the flying trapezist, while sadly neglecting those of the barrist who, ironically, is by far the greatest of the two artists.
For those who may be inclined to scoff at the above contention, it can be pointed out that almost any barrist can switch over to the fly-bar and, in a relatively short time, become an accomplished performer in that speciality. Inversely, only a very few of the trapezists were ever able to switch over to the bars without spending months - and even years - of gruelling practice.
Famous barrists such as Phillip Shevette, Enrico Diaz, Raoul Monbar, The Ibarra Bros., The Ivanoffs, (also known as Pavlovs) and many others experienced no difficulty in adjusting to the differences of tempo, timing, rhythm and detentes in order to become proficient on the fly-bar. However, just how many trapezists can be named who became experts on the triple bars?
Audiences' preference for the trapezist over the barrist is understandable. The height and length of the trapeze trajectories are not only more spectacular than those of the barrist but also more graceful, creating the impression that it is more daring, more difficult and more aesthetic. The truth is: Almost every routine of the barrist is not only much more difficult to perform but also much more dangerous.
On the bars, the performer can no longer depend on the swing of the trapeze to furnish him the momentum with which to launch himself into the air. Here, he must generate his own momentum out of his own muscular strength. On the trapeze, "timing" depends mostly on the "whip" of the legs, back and neck. On the bars, not only those same "whips" are also necessary (though sharper and faster) but the barrist must include other complexities such as the pulls and pushes from the arms, and abrupt stops from the wrists and forearms, all of which require the muscles, sinews, and stamina of a super athlete.
Of all the various phases of acrobatics, none can be named that present so many difficulties, ruggedness and danger. Alfred Court, "barrist emeritus", once succinctly but aptly described it: "Being a barrist is a painful occupation." Indeed it is! Artistry on the three bars is difficult because any and all timings, reflexes and detentes must be executed with such precision that they require years of practice. It is also true that, with the bars, a performer must be endowed with more than just muscular strength and agility. Besides those two important attributes, the barrist must also possess: a will of iron, nerves of steel, and instantaneous reflexes from which follow instantaneous detentes.
On the trapeze, a flyer's rhythm, tempo and timing flow relatively "moderato"; on the bars, these have to be at least "allegreto" - and at times even "veloce". Indeed the barrist must possess many attributes -including an utter contempt for danger! When a fly-trap leaper misses his catch, usually the only injury he suffers is to his professional pride, for he lands safely (at least most often) in the net beneath. But when a barrist launches himself into a pass from the 1st to 3rd bar while turning a somersault over the 2nd, an error of a fraction of a second can spell serious injury and even death - for if he releases the bar too soon, he will be projected against the 2nd bar; and if he releases it too late, he will fall onto it from above.
Being a barrist is indeed a painful occupation. Technically, it is much more difficult than any other form of acrobatics because every somersault, whether a back or a forward, must be a "gainer" and/or, when not a "gainer" it must be "counter-timed", which makes it even more difficult to execute.
After pondering over such intricacies, perhaps the circophile will begin to perceive how and why, in an era when most people are inclined to take the line of least resistance, the triple bar acts are swiftly disappearing from our circus programs. But even though the spectators will continue to applaud the trapezist and the historians and chroniclers will continue to extoll the latter's achievements, among professionals it is the barrist who will continue to be regarded as "the acme" of all circus artists!
Parenthetically, it should also be mentioned that, with the bars, some routines which sometimes look the most difficult may be the easiest and, vice-versa, others which may appear the simplest may be the most difficult and/or dangerous. For example: A pass from the 1st to 3rd bar with a back somersault is much more spectacular but less difficult than the same pass without the somersault, for the latter requires such a formidable "counter-timing" on the performer's part that only a few barrists such as Enrico Diaz and Alfred Court were able to execute it flawlessly.
Again, using the same pass as an illustration, a back somersault while passing from the 1st to 3rd bar is also more dangerous than doing it with a "half-twister" - though the latter appears more difficult. The single is more dangerous because if for any reason the performer lacks sufficient height while passing over the 2nd bar, he risks cracking his skull against that 2nd bar. With a "half-twist", the pass becomes somewhat like a long "fly-over", where in instead of catching the 2nd bar, the performer is able to catch the 3rd bar from underneath.
Because of the danger involved in all three types of passes from the 1st to 3rd bar, some performers use a dismountable 2nd bar, which is removed for this particular routine. Again, from the spectator's point of view, this removal of the 2nd bar enhances rather than lessens the effect, for it focuses the spectator's attention to the distance between the two end bars, making it appear more spectacular and seemingly more dangerous.
Our circus historians, past and present, are not in complete accord regarding the origin of the triple bar act. There are some who contend that Lauck & Fox created that speciality back in 1875 - and later were performing it in Paris in 1878. Others claim that the team of Berli, Leach & Foster originated it in England around 1864; while still others credit the Hanlon Bros. for the innovation at some earlier date.
Which of these - if any - is correct is not of much consequence. Feats on the horizontal bar date back to the antiquity of Athens and Rome. Whoever was first in lumping three horizontal bars together is not of much import. The point of importance is that artistry on the triple bars requires more physical ability, skill, intelligence, determination and showmanship than any other phase of acrobatics - to say nothing of years of strenuous and arduous practice.
As mentioned before, once upon a time there were countless barrists risking life and limb performing on the bars. At the beginning most of the routines consisted of straight swings, seat-jumps, step-offs, etc. Then gradually followed the greater evolutions such as the belly and giant-swing passes, some with back and/or forward somersaults, other with full twisters. Eventually came the series of "banolas" ("fly-overs"), combinations of passes including old and new wrinkles, finally culminating with the passes from the 1st to 3rd bar, with final "break-aways" (fly-aways) either with "lay-out" singles or double backs or double forwards to the ground. Artists such as Alfred Court, Andres Atayde and some of the old masters would have considered themselves second rate performers had they terminated every one of their routines with less than a double to the ground.
To compile a roster of all the barrists who performed during the era between the late 1800's and early 1900's would fill pages. But, from the so many, perhaps the cream of the crop ought to be mentioned. In Europe were such renown numbers as the Egeltons, Luppus, Marcous, Dionnes, Huggossets, Fernandezes, Poppescus, Avolos, Jupiters and many more too numerous to list. In the States were such remarkable performers as the Dunhams, Van Aukens, Eugenes, Ashton Bros., Nelson & Hill, Newell & Shevette, Worland Trio, Lemoyne Bros. and a host of others also too numerous to mention.
Out of this multitude of barrists must be singled out one extraordinary bar act which appeared during the 1910 period with the Barnum & Bailey and other circuses of the States. These were: the Loretta Twins! They were indeed extraordinary - because they were girls! Not only were they young, petite and attractive, but these two feminine performers could execute the same difficult routines as the very best of the males!
This no doubt would have been a shock to the famous Alfred Court who always contended: "- the horizontal bars is one phase of acrobatics forbidden to the weaker sex, because it is too difficult, too arduous and too dangerous."
There is more truth than poetry to Court's sagacious contention. Even among the males it isn't every performer that is endowed with all the necessary attributes to become a master barrist. In other fields there have been a few female performers who succeeded in equaling the males - as has been proven by such brilliant artists as May Wirth on a rosinback, Antoinette Concello on the fly-traps, Ala Naito on the wire, and Lillian Lietzel on the rings. But when it comes to the three bars, Court's contention holds true - except for that rare exeception: The Loretta Twins, who could duplicate any routine executed by any man, including the pass from the 1st to 3rd bar, followed by a double to the ground!
THE LORETTA TWINS, PAULINE LEFT AND ORA NORINE IN 1914 WHILE WITH BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS.
PHOTO: FROM THE FRANK ROBIE COLLECTION.
How those two girls - then only in their 20's - ever acquired the skill, rhythm, strength and stamina to perform such feats is incredible! Had Alfred Court ever seen those Loretta Twins perform, he would have been bug-eyed!