Flea Smitten

Fleas typically inspire little more than creative ideas on how to kill 'em: One ancient Egyptian solution advises coating a naked slave in donkey milk and leaving him in the plagued bedchamber one hour before retiring. In sharp contrast to humanity's unending battle to destroy the flea, Maria Fernanda Cardoso buys them mail-order. In fact, as the self-proclaimed Queen of Fleas and Ringmistress of the Cardoso Flea Circus, she can't get enough of them. Her problem is two-fold: First, fleas have a two-year life span under the best of circumstances, and second -- does OSHA know about this? -- performer mortality rates are high. Despite the labor shortage, a film of the Cardoso Flea Circus in action as well as drawings, memorabilia and props are on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum.

Apparently fleas can be trained, although with flea circuses you always have a sneaking suspicion your leg is being pulled, or at least bitten repeatedly. Flea circuses had their heyday during the 19th century, when promoters (hustlers?) used the insects to stage such spectacles as Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Flea training techniques always have been closely guarded secrets, but they generally involve working with the flea's instinctual behaviors -- jumping, sucking blood, transmitting the plague? Judging from the film of the Cardoso Flea Circus, the technique looks more like wiring the little bastards up and dragging them around, but I could be missing flea-training subtleties.

The film is the high point of the exhibition, opening with a tribute to the Fearless Alfredo, who is shown diving from a great height and tragically missing his thimble pool. With quirky music, dramatic color lighting and zooming overhead camera shots, the whole thing has a Cirque du Soleil aesthetic to it. As Ringmistress, Cardoso sports a shimmery costume with the wittily incongruous addition of a magnifying visor. The camera closes in on Cardoso's distorted eyes as she takes her performers through their paces. We see flea tightrope walkers, two noosed fleas tangoing back and forth, and Brutus, "The Strongest Flea on Earth," pulling a tiny locomotive. (Did you know fleas can pull 160,000 times their own weight?) Dimitri and Sarindar perform a tenuous trapeze act, and Cardoso fires flea cannonballs into a tiny net. With intense magnification, the little parasites take on the same sort of lurching, tragic quality as trained circus bears. The film ends with an eerie chiaroscuro shot of the fleas feeding on Cardoso's bare forearm.

The actual flea arena is on display, with an array of surprisingly tiny props, some with the bodies of dead fleas still attached to them. I wound up feeling kind of sorry for all the little carcasses, an admittedly hypocritical attitude, since I've spent exorbitant sums on dog flea control. Still, it was kind of like seeing some dead Wallendas left scattered around the big top. Maybe the holiday season makes you overly empathetic.

Created in conjunction with Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop and Museum, the circus tent is lavishly decorative, with multicolored fabric and painted pseudo-vintage circus scenes. Tent sketches and drawings of the various flea feats demonstrated in the film are mounted on the opposite wall. The self-consciously illustrational drawings aren't that interesting. They seem redundant, introduced to fill space or to reinforce the "art" behind the circus. Cardoso Flea Circus memorabilia, fan letters and panels with flea facts are a little more successful in fleshing out the exhibition.

Among other amazing trivia, it seems flea infestations of our none-too-clean ancestors spawned a variety of charming accessories. Renaissance women had decorative ivory sticks to scratch flea bites under their bodices and in their elaborate hairdos -- an antecedent to the souvenir plastic back scratcher. In a variation on the No Pest Strip, Victorian women wore little filigree pendants containing a honey-soaked cloth in their cleavage. Apparently fleas would be drawn to the warmth, crawl through the filigree, get stuck in the honey and die. Really conjures up that yesteryear nostalgia, doesn't it? In what we today would be hard-pressed to consider a sentimental act, 17th-century playas would keep small enamel boxes on their bureaus containing the dead fleas they'd picked off their mistresses. Picture Casanova engaging in chimplike grooming activities.

Cardoso has carved out a goofy niche in her investigations of the flea circus, flea behavior and flea history, mixing it all with performance art. The film is the strength of the show, especially shown as a wall-sized projection, while the rest of it falls pretty much into one-liner territory. To really pull off the other materials, there needs to be a greater quantity and a sense of the obsessive. It is a strangely singular project, and despite its shortcomings, you can't help but wish it well. Long live the Queen of Fleas!

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer