It's not difficult to guess at the influences of Jenna Bean Veatch's new dance-theater piece Sideshow—it's all about the romance and struggle of dusty, old, on-the-road vaudeville life, impregnated with the sepia mood of Édith Piaf records, Buster Keaton movies, and Fellini's cirque noir film La Strada.

The plot of Sideshow is slightly obscure, but mostly beside the point. A shy and sincere young woman with a hump on her back (Naomi Russell) hoists a bindle over her shoulder and takes up with an old-fashioned sideshow. Along the way, she meets a bearded lady (Wylin Daigle); a half-man/half-tree (Steven Gomez); conjoined twins (Francesca Mondelli and Jillian Vashro) who sing a charming ditty, accompanying themselves on a toy piano, with the chorus "I wish I were a single girl again"; as well as a few others. As characters meet and interact, they dance in a choreographic style that is somewhere between modern dance and old acrobatic tumbling. Once in a while, our hunchback heroine stands center stage and listens to an authoritative voice berate her for being "useless," for her "ugly little hump," and for her unusual lifestyle. The only things missing are some juggling and an accordion number.

Sideshow is a tender and modest piece of work that should please the kind of people who enjoy Circus Contraption and other neo-vaudeville expressions of that soft spot between innocence and irony. But it reintroduces the question: Why are people so consistently attracted to this retrograde aesthetic? From circus groups to burlesque shows to rock 'n' roll dandies, everyone seems to want a strong whiff of the early 20th century.

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You could float a theory about economics, that our current recession makes us nostalgic for the kinds of entertainment we saw during our Great Depression, but that doesn't quite work: Circus Contraption, Amélie, and the rest became popular while we were still floating in an economic bubble. You could also suggest that Americans have an undying appetite for stories about earnest, slightly off-kilter heroes and heroines—our Augie Marches and other little tramps—who set off for their fortunes with nothing more than a knapsack and some pluck.

But I suspect there's a deeper vein of nostalgia running through these attempts to exhume the old aesthetics. They appeal to a time when the world felt a little less controlled, a little freer, when pluck and a knapsack were all that separated a person from a new destiny. We like to think a few months of practicing the musical saw and a juggling act can save us from the slow and patient death of working at a frustrating desk job until we keel over. The last time that seemed remotely possible, in American culture anyway, was the Great Depression. recommended