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Theatre on Venice Beach

March 13, 2009

A long stroll along the water from Santa Monica to Venice Beach in Los Angeles is the perfect way to catch a bit of recession-worthy theatre. Last weekend, impressive jugglers and break dancers were out in the sun showing passers by and lingerers their skills, all for the price of whatever people felt like tossing into a hat.

Elsewhere on the waterfront, a different sort of "performance" was going on, undertaken by people with no interest in passing a hat, but equal amounts of exhibitionism.

It was fascinating to see how the Los Angeles gymnasts and acrobats, doing their stuff by the sea ostensibly just to get a bit of exercise and meet with friends who share the same tastes, attracted similarly enthusiastic crowds. And it was also interesting to see how the crowds reacted to the gymnasts' "performances".

I stood for a long time on the beach near the Santa Monica pier by a giant metal frame from which chains with hoops at the end dangled. I watched entranced as a group of strapping young men and women wearing wrist guards and gloves swung like monkeys from one hoop to another, ornamenting each graceful leap along the line of chains with corkscrew spins and jubilant high kicks of the sort one sometimes sees in martial arts movies.

Eventually five of these people performed a routine on the hoops together, swinging in the air in tandem and performing somersaults before throwing themselves forward onto the sand. Bystanders, including myself applauded wildly.

Was this a performance? It's hard to say. If what they were doing had been billed as something worthy of public spectacle through, say, an announcement by a barker and the passing around of a hat (as was the case with other more officially theatrical acts I saw on the beach that day) I might have been disappointed by the dire lack of synchronicity between the gymnasts. What they were doing was primarily for themselves. They weren't interested in getting it perfect for an audience, at least not that day.

On the other hand, people did stop and clap and laugh with delight as they do at a circus. And there was something boldly exhibitionistic about all the gymnastics going on at the beach that day. If there had been no audience of curious passersby, would the acrobats have enjoyed what they were doing as much?

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