Valérie Berta

The Mudshow Diaries
Location: Columbia, MO, U.S.
Nationality: American, French
Biography: Valérie Berta is an international photographer based in the United States. She was born and raised on the Riviera, in the South of France, studied English in Paris and journalism at the University of Missouri­Columbia and worked as a... read on
Public Story
The Mudshow Diaries
Credits: valérie berta
Updated: 03/13/19
Location: United States

It's about us.

It's about a small circus traveling around the country gathering memories.

It's called The Mudshow Diaries.

It's about making sure my kids stay away from the elephants, trying to find a laundromat in a strange town, documenting a world built around blood ties, and sweat: A diary kept over ten years of traveling with a circus in America became a journey in motherhood and photography, along with an odyssey into the country's forgotten paths and the circus' hidden world.   Along the way it also became a journey in belonging - in discovering my family in a fleeting cast, reluctantly, and of finding acceptance, slowly, in this close-knit family that is the circus - love unfurled by tenuous chance, as on a tightrope. 

But there it is, it has faded away, only memories left - time, beauty, the faces of loved ones.
The diaries follow the Kelly Miller Circus, a mosaic of people who live, work and travel together for nine months out of the year, seven days a week, from Texas to Massachusetts and back again. My husband is an acrobat from Peru; I followed him into another life. On the road we had two sons and I painted my life as a circus mother and the life of an American tradition facing an uncertain future.
 It is an itinerant life, a life of constant lessons, the embodiment of impermanence and pure beauty. 

The circus a life of unbearable lightness.  

No show.
March 18, 2008, Rhoyse City, Texas (50 miles, Rhoyse City Middle School parking lot.)
    Both shows were cancelled today for it didn't take very long for nature to catch up with the circus - exactly two days.  
    Strong winds and torrential rains prevented the crew from raising the big top; it was doubtful anyone would have showed up in this weather anyway.  The circus was parked in a field outside an elementary school and everybody knew what was coming tonight, just not how messy it would turn out.  As for us, we felt so snug in our confidence that the truck's four-by-four abilities would get us out that we didn't see anything coming at all.
    Here we were, at ten o'clock at night, ready to go.  
    Circus trucks and trailers were starting to move into a nearby parking lot, Dylan wanted to ride in our truck, Fridman had told him to wait as the trailer needed to be hitched first.  As time went by my Dylan was like a lion in a cage, circling the small space of his home, getting more and more agitated until finally he gave up, snuggled up beside me and went to sleep.  Our trailer's front jacks had broken, and when Fridman was finished with the business of raising the trailer he got stuck in the mud trying to back up as our truck's four-by-four was broken as well.  By the time he came back into the trailer Dylan was long asleep and soon we were, too.  The crew had to pull out each and every trailer out and by the time voices outside woke us up it was two in the morning.  
    The scene outside was as beautiful as it was eerie, trailers stuck at odd angles on the muddy field like beached whales, flashlights and the forklift's beam striking the engulfing darkness, men's voices shouting, and deep gouges in the black earth, like battle scars.  As the trailer began to move, ever so slowly, painstakingly lurching forward, only to become still again, its structure creaked and swayed like an old house and it reminded me of a poem by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, "Le Bateau Ivre" - my house a drunken boat, indignant in its sudden infirmity.

It's about the Fusco family, an extended Argentinian tribe with ties to circus families around the world.  
The patriarch of the Fusco family was once one of the best malambo performers in Argentina.  They were with Kelly Miller for a few days last year, we'd seen them at Circus Chimera before that. They do two acts these days: a malambo act where they're all together, and a juggling act with only the twin brothers, the only boys.  We've worked with yet other siblings over the years.  
They come in and out of the picture of our traveling life with a kind of erratic regularity, a reflection of the offbeat small-world character of the circus.

    April 20, 2009, Clinton.
    Yolanda Luna turned thirteen a few days ago and there was a birthday party under the big top today.  She's Manuel Luna's daughter from a  previous relationship; her mother, Marixa, who is Romani and part of a Peruvian circus family, is a childhood friend of Fridman's, and so is Manuel; they all practically grew up together.
    I remember Yolanda from the first year I went to visit Fridman on the road with Carson and Barnes.  Manuel and Marixa were performers there as    well and Yolanda worked in the show the way children of performers most often do.  
    I remember a little girl perched on a pony, looking like a porcelain doll in her frilly costume.  I remember a little girl holding on to the reins with a fierce determination in her eyes as elephants, camels, horses and a slew of performers swirled around.
    That was seven years ago.  
    Blow, blow your candles.  
    She danced to Hannah Montana on the ring with eleven-year-old Channing, Josie's daughter, who looks like she's seventeen, Jessica Perez, twelve, Tavo's youngest, and the other teens on the show.

It's about the Poema family.
Adrian Sr. comes from an Argentinian circus family who emigrated to the United States in the early eighties and is famous for its Risley act, a sort of juggling act using the human body as a prop.  His wife, Nellie, comes from a prestigious American circus family, the Hannefords, whose dynasty reins just second to Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
It's about the Poema family, bilingual and multi-talented, raising a tribe one day at a time, one act at a time, with discipline and determination, and such passion for the miracle of being in the circus, still.  The Poema family is the circus.

Stormy night.
    April 4, 2008, Glenwood, Arkansas (57 miles, fairgrounds.)
    At nine o'clock last night the local police came and ordered everybody to go home.
The storm had gotten worse and the rain heavier.  Fridman went off to help with the tent, and the rain poured and poured; I sat at the dinette table watching, all blinds up, fascinated, as the rain pounded the truck in front of me, the scene illuminated by the circus' floodlights, as if on a movie set.  Only some of the crew had raincoats, the rest was soaked and still they worked hours on end, until the task was done, as they have before and will again, without a word of complaint.
    Then the rain stopped, abruptly, and all was calm.  
    That's when I noticed the siren.  It went on and on, and the crew went on working.  I remember Casey walking by, not hurrying; he walked back moments later, at the same pace.  And still the siren went on, and all was calm.  There was no rain, I could see the wind had died, too.  Then it all started again.  
    In the morning the radio station said a tornado had touched down somewhere in the area.   
    There's nothing we can do at the circus if a twister were to hit us, no time to go anywhere, and where would we go?
        There was also flooding last night.  The performers' trailers were parked in a low-lying area and water began to rise quickly as the storm went on (we were parked on the other side, safe.)  They had to move as soon as the tent was down and they could go through.  Water had reached the door in Sara's house; as she drove out she got stuck in front of our trailer and her engine woke me up as it idled.  
    I watched as one of the elephants was hitched to her truck and hauled her off, a strange sight in the stormy night.

It's about families.  
Ours.  Our friends' families, the circus family.  My husband grew up on his parents' circus in Peru, a few seats, a small tent, no running water or even a trailer, making do, and came to America as a young adult.  I came over from France, a photojournalist from an upper middle-class family in artsy Paris, and one day the circus came to town.  But it wasn't until later that I joined him, and embarked on the journey of a lifetime, into and out of myself.  Only slowly did the circus become my easel, photography and words my links to the world I had left behind, and a window into myself.  The circus my family, an anomaly.  
But: circus families like all other families, the births and the deaths, the rivalries, the baptisms, the closeness, the milestones, the joys, life going by. But: the constant, back-breaking work, the birthday parties under the big top, the circus fast disappearing as a way of life and a business, out of place in the digital age, with its old-fashioned bohemians of the road, driving on against the odds.

Time suspended.
    September 18, 2008, Belvidere, Illinois (27 miles, fairgrounds.)
    It only lasts a moment.  
    I sit with a hot cup of tea, sometimes, and the sun is streaming in through the trailer's windows, in the stillness of the morning, when we stay in one place for two days and the kids are not awake yet and there are no sounds at all but the sounds of life emerging (the circus generator will be turned on later.)  Everything is quiet, and the moment tastes like eternity, time suspended before a sleepy face of happiness appears at the bedroom door and the whirlwind of the day begins anew.

It's about the writing, and the writing about us, circus families, the travel, and sometimes about not that at all.  
Traveling with the circus an odyssey into myself, too, the geography of the land and my geography, and that of my past, cleaning the slate in the circus but finding fragments of my memory on the road, un-decisive moments surfacing in an image, in a stoplight, a pause and then we go on.

    Paris, Texas.
    March 17, 2008, Honey Grove, Texas (73 miles, field.)
    Paris, my only address worth having in Texas.  
    Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders' movie, a cult movie in Europe, and a heart full of memories, circa 1983.  
    Paris, Texas, maybe because it was my father's favorite movie and because I miss him, maybe because my friends all live in Paris, France, or maybe just because you never get to see Paris, Texas, after all, in the movie.  Paris, Texas, seeing it for the first time, barely eighteen, and not getting it; seeing it again two years later - stepping out of the theater and into the daytime bustle of the Latin Quarter and bursting into tears, overwhelmed by an emotion I still can't fathom some twenty years later but felt then raw and unmistakable.  
    My mother and I stayed at the Holiday Inn in Paris, Texas, when I was pregnant with Dylan and relocating to Savannah, Georgia.  I've never had the opportunity to take a good picture of the place, one that imagine would be banal and would remind me forever of that buried sorrow.

It's about the show.  
The circus is an old business and its attraction is still alive for some, like Ryan Combs or Sara Greene, New Englanders who left a comfortable life to pursue a career as circus performers, but the circus' luster is fading in an age of visual and entertainment plethora.  The circus is all costumes and spotlights and astounding feats but it is tedious in its brutality and exertion, the body stretched to its limits, you watch the weather the way farmers watch the sky, with anxiety and resignation, at the mercy of a bad storm which will turn your fleeting village into an ocean of mud in an instant, and your work will suddenly be that much harder for the magics to operate beyond the frayed black curtain where everything is meant to shine and smile.  

    The way we are.
    July 23, 2009, Cochoranton, Pennsylvania (45 miles, Lions park.)
    It has become part of life on the road by now, as far as we can remember this year, the incessant rain, pouring like last night and into the  morning drive, storming like the day before, drizzling sometimes, but always there it seems since we left the Rio Grande valley back in March, always there for a fact since the beginning of June, following us like a faithful fan, in truth working to the circus' advantage most of the time for kids out of school for the summer don't have much else to do but come to the show when it rains and rains and rains in those small towns.
    No complaints then, not even with the pan on the bed to collect water from the leaks, no complaints, just the raindrops on the roof, the way everything shines so, even with the mud, towing the trucks over and over again, the discomfort, the added work.  During our audio interview Casey said how he gets wishing he were doing some other work when he's stuck on the side of the road in the rain, only to love it all over again the next day, mud and all.  
    Circus people are like that, this is their life, it's tougher than most but they don't wish it could be any different.  
    It makes them stubbornly endearing.


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