Friday, February 27, 2009

Chicago Tribune: Wear long Sleeves. The flea circus is in town.

Wear long sleeves. The flea circus is in town.
The circus is coming to town.

Wait just a minute, coulrophobics; you can relax: This circus is clown-free. There aren't any bearded ladies, strong men or tigers jumping through fiery hoops, either. We're talking about a sideshow-size tribute to some of the tiniest wonders of the world: fleas.

On Thursday, professor A.G. Gertsacov and his Acme Miniature Flea Circus hopped into Intuit: The Center for Intuitive & Outsider Art, where they're in residence through the weekend. The Acme circus fleas pull chariots, dance on tight wires and perform other death-defying feats.

We think.
Although Gertsacov, the show's self-proclaimed Flea Master, swears his Victorian-inspired circus uses real, live insects, we were skeptical. So, we called him up to ask.

"The only thing I can say to people who don't believe it," Gertsacov says, "is to come down and decide for yourself."

Such is the business plan of the Acme Miniature Flea Circus: It succeeds primarily based on the curiosity of its patrons. And, of course, the talent of its performers.

Gertsacov first stumbled into the ... er ... flea market more than a dozen years ago. After graduating from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and traveling for a few years with an East Coast-based troupe producing a show with a combo box turtle/imaginary flea circus act, Gertsacov sought out career advice from renown clown Avner Eisenberg, under whom he studied. "Focus on the fleas," Eisenberg advised. "You're so big; they're so little. You love the fleas. That's your show."

And so it was.

Gertsacov began researching his act, recruited a set designer to build his show apparatus and invested in pulex irritans (a.k.a. human fleas), whose average life span reaches 24 months. He uses only female fleas, which are slightly larger than male fleas and, according to research, typically easier to train. While Gertsacov isn't sure whether that's true, he's going with it. "One set of [human] fleas can perform for nearly 18 months," he says, noting that cat fleas—which are much more common in North America—have only an eight-week life span. Which, he says, isn't enough time to train and perform.

As for the training, that's Gertsacov's secret.

"The word 'training' is a funny thing," he says. "I'm not training them to do rocket science. What they do in my show is natural behavior. And to coach them in context, they do these tricks in a way that makes them entertaining. Do they know that they're racing chariots? No, but I train them to pull the chariots on command, which they do 85 percent of the time. There's always a 15 percent chance they won't perform."

So what happens when they don't?

No biggie, says Gertsacov. "That's showbiz."