if professional wrestling is the opera of the working class, then monster truck competition is its ballet. Monster Jam, North America's leading showcase for this newish art form (it dates back no further than the early 80s) was in Toronto last weekend at the Skydome, brought to you by Canadian Tire and featuring the Pizza Pizza Pit Party.
As a birth member of the working class who, over the years, has clawed and schemed his way successfully to the middle, I have a nostalgie-de-la-boue interest in the goings-on of my one-time compatriots. So I go.
It's hard to write about class differences without sounding snobby, which is why most people don't. But it's clear to me within minutes that the large numbers of people filling the Skydome are not of the professional class and are definitely small-town/suburban rather than typically Torontonian. They are almost all white (a distinction they share, actually, with the classical opera/ballet lovers at the other end of this particular class divide).
And, though there isn't exactly a mullet a minute, there's little sign of middle-class youths' obsession with hair gel. The women tend to be heavy, and the teens on average more mottled. (It sometimes seems that small-town youths are the only remaining North Americans with acne.) The crowd also takes unembarrassed pleasure in two things sophisticates have learned to disdain: noise and violence.
But also on display, particularly at the Pit Party, are the working-class virtues of unaffected courtesy, resourcefulness and endurance. This afternoon gathering allows fans, including vast legions of adoring boys, a chance to meet the drivers of monster trucks with names like Grave Digger, Thrasher and King Krunch and to have their pictures taken in front of said behemoths.
Most of the drivers have built their astonishing vehicles themselves or with the help of the guys they hang with. As men, they are quite ordinary-looking -- slightly dumpy, leaning toward middle age. They are also unfailingly courteous, addressing every worshipful little kid as "buddy," every slightly awe-struck mother as "ma'am."
It occurs to me that our high-end cultural industries might learn a lesson from the Pit Party, that there are legions of fans eager to mingle with their heroes. There are little girls dying to have their pointe shoes autographed by their favourite ballerinas, little opera-loving boys dreaming of having their photo taken standing in front of Jane Eaglen.
The audience for this performance, however, is rather different from the ballet crowd I'm accustomed to. Much bigger, for one thing. Fans pretty much fill the first two tiers of Skydome, many of them equipped with laser pens that set the stands aswirl in red dots.
I steady myself for the entrance of the corps de ballet, a role taken, in the world of Monster Jam, by something called Street Warriors. They turn out to be tubby guys in tubby, undistinguished-looking trucks, and they do a few tubby, undistinguished turns around the track. At this point, worries set in.
Still, a superb prima ballerina can save a performance clogged by an inept corps. And it's clear, from advance publicity and the crowd response to the mere uttering of the name, that Grave Digger is the Karen Kain of monster trucks.
Finally, after the MC has whipped the crowd into a state of advanced hysterics, Grave Digger enters (in what can only be called a modified "port de bras" position), its engine spewing exhaust and producing such a debilitating clamour that I have to flee to the relative quiet of a windowed observation deck. From there, I witness the rest of the performance.
So what do I see? A few ponderous "grandes jetés" and a "pas de deux" choreographed around quite uninspired symmetries. Video clips from previous performances looping endlessly on the Jumbotron suggest that a "fouetté" or two might be on the agenda, but they certainly fail to materialize during my stay. On the other hand, it's repeatedly demonstrated that an extremely large, heavy truck will inflict damage on an ordinary domestic automobile in the process of running over it. Duh. These guys don't even drive excitingly fast. They lumber.
So what's the point? What is it with these people? Why are monster trucks popular? For some of the same reasons, I should guess, that account for the popularity of classical ballet -- it's a celebration of a class's strengths and virtues, real and imagined.
In classical dance, it's the aristocratic qualities of delicacy, refinement and restraint. In monster truck competition, it's resourcefulness, stick-to-it-iveness and cooperation. The drivers talk of staying up all night to work with their buddies, of scrounging parts, of taking great pride in doing their best with the resources at hand.
There is also the fact that the competitions are a ticket to celebrity, that valhalla of contemporary life. One young man I speak to from the "corps de ballet" is appearing for the first time, yet he already has a queue of little boys in front of him waiting for his autograph.
But much as I can admire the hearty virtues on display, I'm afraid monster truck competitions provide just tutu little in the way of entertainment. I'm sticking with the girls in pointe shoes. And guys in tights.