Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Denver Post: Boulder Festival Still Has A Few Bugs In It


Boulder festival still has a few bugs in it

Professor A.G. Gertsacov examines one of the stars of his Victorian-style flea circus.
The Acme Miniature Flea Circus is part of the inaugural Boulder International Fringe Festival.

PUBLISHED: August 10, 2005 at 1:00 pm

"Do you really have fleas in your show?'
 "No, really?"
 "Come on. Real fleas?" 
"Insects, right?"

In descending order, those are the four most frequent questions heard by Professor A.G. Gertsacov, the owner, operator and ringmaster of the Acme Miniature Flea Circus.

 "I say the same thing every time: 'If you don't believe, come down and decide for yourself,"' Gertsacov said in a recent telephone interview from the circus' home in Rhode Island.

He and his two star performers, Midge and Madge (a.k.a. Pulex irritans, the "human ea"), are among the array of acts scheduled for the 12-day Boulder International Fringe Festival. The festival, boasting more than 300 events at various sites, runs Wednesday through Aug. 28.

Boulder's event will differ from most fringe festivals, executive director Lawrence Kampf said. Rooted in Europe, fringe fests honor the offbeat.

"The Boulder fringe is about half theater," he said. "There are lots of other art forms, circus arts, dance, literally arts (and more). We have lots of educational workshops and that sort of thing."

Not that the Boulder fest will lack its share of goofy hijinks. The festival met its goal of booking 70 percent of its acts from the Boulder area.
"We hoped we could get enough national and international touring artists to really act as an inspiration to local artists, while at the same time really putting the bulk of our energy into creating a prosperous environment for the local artists," Kampf said.

The first fringe festival took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1947. The city was mounting the Edinburgh International Festival, a mainstream event inspired by the idea of helping reunite Europe a after World War II. "It was a very political sort of thing," Kampf said. "It was juried. ...So essentially it became seen as the same fascism that started the war."

A host of artists showed up uninvited and, in an act of rebellion, wound up playing the fringes of the city. Thus the name was born. The fringe festival organized in the early 1950s and grew popular in its own right.

Today there are about 50 such festivals worldwide. They are a magnet for some of the more oddball acts in showbiz – like the Acme Miniature Flea Circus.

Only a handful of flea circuses exist in this day and age, but their history reaches back at least to the 19th century, with some historians arguing they can be traced 300 years earlier than that.

 "The earliest flea circus that we know reliably about is a flea circus that was done in the 1820s in England by a guy named Señor Bertoloto," Gertsacov said. "He was the talk of London during that time." One of the most popular elements in Bertoloto's act was a flea re-enactment of Napoleon's 1815 defeat at Waterloo, still much in the public mind at the time.

Gertsacov notes that in those days everybody had fleas, even royalty. The circuses had no problem finding performers.

"Nowadays, the flea is less prevalent for humans, primarily because we, you know, wash," he said. "We wash our clothes; we wash ourselves."

Gertsacov buys his human fleas – a variety common in Europe but rare in the United States – from an entomological company. Some circuses use the more common cat flea. Gertsacov likes to follow the flea tradition of the earliest circuses.

One old-time practice to which he does not adhere is using glue to attach fleas – alive or dead – to the props.

"Years ago one of the thing they had was sword- ghting eas," Gertsacov said. "The way that they would do that is they would glue a sword to one of the eas' legs. 

The fleas were constantly trying to shake off this little toothpick sword. As a result, it looked like they were sword ghting."

His show includes a flea walking a tight wire while balancing a miniature chair and pole. Midge and Madge also get shot out of a cannon through "the aming hoop of death" and into their trailer home. They also pull miniature chariots in a race along a 12-inch course.
Gertsacov declines to reveals how he trains fleas for fear someone might steal his show. He will say he uses only positive reinforcement – hear that, PETA? – and time-honored methods used to train animals of any kind.

"You have to observe very carefully what it does, and then you have to gure out a way to replicate its natural behaviors," he said. "I'm not teaching the fleas how to do rocket science. Nor do they do arithmetic. They do what they normally do, but I am able to make that into a little show."

Take the chariot race. Fleas naturally move by hopping – the critters have no wings, but as leapers they're the Michael Jordans of the insect world. The fastest hopper wins the race.

"They go 12 inches, and it takes them a minute and a half to do so," Gertsacov said. "That is not like great visual theater."

But racing fleas are not what has brought Gertsacov the success he has enjoyed since he launched the show in 1996.

"The great journey of my show is not the journey the fleas make when they pull the chariots," he said. "The really amazing journey in my show is when I get an audience of people cheering for these insects, going 'Midge! Midge! Go Midge!' or 'Go Madge!'

"They're cheering for these insects that they can't really see, and if they could see them they'd want to kill them. Yet, somehow I manage to get them to love the eas. And that is really the secret and the magic of my show."