Performing women: hard road to the big time

Lisa Summers | For The Sun

This year the Sonoma International Film Festival will show two feature length documentaries – “Circus Dreams” and “The Girls in the Band” – that focus on the passionate dedication of some extremely talented performers and the respective sacrifices they made to follow their dreams.

These films are unique in that they not offer insight into the many hurdles female artists have faced throughout the years, but the inherent gender bias against, say, a female clown or a big band saxophone player in the 1950’s.

The films are upbeat and deliver an empowering message to aspiring young performers, especially women, working hard just to get a foot in the door.

“Circus Dreams” follows the personal journeys of a group of teens, ages 12 through 18, as they compete for a chance to perform with the prestigious traveling youth circus Circus Smirkus. During their intense three-week rehearsal period in Vermont, seasoned circus performers from Ringling Brothers, Big Apple Circus and Cirque Du Soleil coach the kids in acrobatics, magic and clowning.

The filmmakers enter the lives of the kids – their individual dedication and hard work, their friendships and even a few budding romances. But director Signe Taylor is never intrusive; she maintains a respectful distance from the personal struggles and setback of the kids and chooses to focus instead on their artistic visions and what is wonderful and good about teenagers.

While it is impossible not to be charmed by all the kids, aspiring clowns Joy Powers and Maddy Hall, best friends and clown partners, steal the show while adding yet another layer to the documentary. Both young women are set on proving to their fellow performers, instructors and audience members that “girls can be funny too.” Anyone who remembers the late shock columnist Christopher Hitchen’s ludicrous proclamation that women are genetically unfunny will experience the triumph of these two hilarious physical comediennes. Powers and Hall are living proof that comedy is gender blind.

As a special treat for festival-goers “Circus Dreams” will bring a few fearless performers for an aerial demonstration at the Sebastiani Theater prior to the film’s screening. The film is appropriate for all ages.

“The Girls in the Band” documentary has won audience awards at several film festivals, and for good reason. The film opens up the repressed and censored history of the collective contribution of women to jazz over the course of nearly one hundred years.

Director Judy Chaiken begins with the famous 1958 photo “A Great Day,” taken in Harlem. The photo brings together dozens of the leading jazz musicians of the day, all of them male with the exception of two women who, for reasons the film explores, have remained largely unacknowledged. Throughout the documentary, via interviews with musicians, jazz scholars and historians, Chaiken establishes the real misrepresentation of how many women actually made up the intricate tapestry of the American jazz scene at the time the photo was taken.

“The Girls in the Band” looks at the early decades of big-band and swing, a time during which female musicians were treated as novelties, wore ridiculous, revealing costumes and were expected to project the image of a sex symbol even while blowing a horn. Archival footage celebrates the unsung talents of these women, many of them still alive such as drummer Viola Smith, saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert and trumpeter Billie Rogers. Also noted is the pivotal role of Woody Herman, a uniquely progressive bandleader who was proactive in opening doors to women in jazz.

The film explores the history of all-girl bands such as Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, the Fayettes, and the International Sweethears of Rhythm and the legacy of musical genius Mary Lou Williams. That these bands were multi-racial presented an entirely new set of obstacles, especially in the Jim Crow South where many of the bands toured.

Ultimately, however the women of “The Girls in the Band” are irreducible to gender or race.

With that said, “Circus Dreams” and “The Girls in the Band” are bittersweet reminders of how far women have come and the challenges they faced in carving out a path for future generations of artists. Both films manage to provide an upbeat and optimistic prognosis for women in the performing arts and the power of art to break down barriers, as well as the passion, dedication and talent required to make it in a band or under the big top.


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