The Passing Spectacle Vol. VII, No. 2


Cirque d’Hiver Attempts an Exploit

Despite its adventurous title, Exploit, Cirque d’Hiver’s latest production is an oddly mild if not downright timid affair in spite of such rabble rousers as a female human cannonball and the Wheel of Death.  That attitude of restraint is epitomized in the performance of Rob Torres, the American clown, who has enjoyed a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic.  His signature gag is one I have seen him perform numerous times, and it is always rewarded with huge laughs.  It begins with his pinching a finger between some metal cups he is juggling.  Wailing like a little boy, he goes to a woman in the audience and asks her to kiss his boo-boo and make the pain go away. A bit later he hurts himself again and repeats the business with the same woman.  More laughter.   After a bit of diversion he strains he attempts executing an extravagant split.  He rises from the split clutching his crotch, wailing in pain.  The audience immediately begins laughing in recognition of what is to come, and the closer he gets to the woman the howls of laughter continue to grow.

Rob Torres


But at his performance in this Cirque d’Hiver show Torres kills what is generally one of the biggest laughs I have ever known to shower down upon a clown, before it can reach its crescendo.  He does this by making a gesture of dismissal and saying (in English) something to the effect of “that’s enough of that,” and then moves on to something else.   I can only assume he has stepped on his biggest laugh at the request of the director to tone it down.  Perhaps there were complaints.  Whatever the reason, a clown’s greatest moment is thrown away.  Who says political correctness only rears its head in America?

Otherwise it seems evident that by now Torres’ work must be well known in Europe as evidenced by the audience’s reaction to his “magic box.”  They knew exactly what was expected on them when he raised its lid because without prompting or encouragement they supplied the needed sound effect: their enthusiastic applause, which they extinguished on cue (again without rehearsal) when he closed the lid.

All of the shows I have seen at Cirque d’Hiver in recent years have featured a clown, who like Torrres eventually provides the signature closing to the show.  After the bows he appears one last time, alone in a single spot with his magic box to offer a final farewell as the orchestra plays the plaintive melody of “Smile,”  a sentimental book end to the mysterious tone set at the opening as a group of black-lighted dancers whirl about inside the pre-set steel cage to the strains of music from the opera La Traviata.

Trainer Emanuel Farina’s cage act is composed of three impressively majestic but lethargic and rather blazé male lions and a single tiger.  The most fascinating aspect of the act is the approximately two- foot-high plexi-glass protection that is placed on the ring curb around the outside of the cage, presumably to protect the audience from being urinated on.  That is something I have often worried about during cage acts especially for those seated ringside, but I have never seen this solution put into place. It is removed at the conclusion of the act right after Farina puts his head into the mouth of a compliant lion.

The one real surprise and quite unexpected delight in the show was Gunter Sacckman, Jr.’s trained rats. Sacckman provides a running commentary, which, since it was in French I could not understand, but the droll, tongue in cheek attitude of it all was hard to miss, and the sight of a dozen little rodents scurrying along a slightly elevated platform before dropping into an escape hatch is one of the more charming experiences I have had in a circus in quite some time.  An escape by a faked tiny bundle of fur provides the laugh Torres has sacrificed.  The hilarity is finally topped off by one of the creatures parachuting out of a miniature airplane circling overhead.

More comedy is provided by Max Weldy, whose diving/trampoline act is a classic knockabout comedy routine.  Weldy has obviously been around for some time and he has every minor disaster choreographic right down to the dropping of his pants and through a catalogue of comically suggestive poses and gestures.

Something of the future can be seen in Sofia Komenda’s aerial pole act.  Officials from the international Olympic committee have said that pole dancing will be included as a demonstration sport in the next summer competition.  Here we have an aerial version of pole dancing.  The pole is initially set in a socket on the floor, where it used as a rotating piece of apparatus before moving into the air.  Pole dancing, whether stationary on the floor or in the air is a combination of acro gyrations and contortion adding up to a very sexy display. Especially when performed by a young woman.

Another act that has enjoyed international success, beginning with a win at Monte Carlo and includes an engagement with Circus Sarasota, is the equilibrist Encho, whose act is literally a block buster.  In the act’s sensational conclusion Encho builds a stack of blocks on which he balances before pushing them aside and falling into a strong handstand from his former height.   Encho works bare-chested and has managed to maintain an impressive physique despite the passing years.

The rapid-fire pacing of Les Donnert  traditional jockey act is set by a handsome and distinguished gentleman, the very model of a model ringmaster. The act’s feature is a back flip from a lead horse to one behind.  It all goes by so fast that one hardly has time to catch one’s breath from trick to trick.

The Bouglione family, which owns and operates Cirque d’Hiver, is represented in the ring by Regina’s elegant dressage display. Joseph Boulgione is credited with the direction of the production as he has been for the many years.

The novelty of the Le Duo Giribaldi Raluy risley act is that it is presented by  two women.  Otherwise there is nothing new in their routine which finishes with a series of rapid-fire flip-flops.

I am not particularly a fan of diabolo displays as I noted in my review of the recent Monte Carlo competition, but Pierre Marchaud qualifies as one of the most off-putting diabolo artists I have seen.  He looks like something of a wild man with his disheveled hairdo and slightly hysterical moves.  Instead of hiding his effort it is all put out there on full view.  By the end of his act he looks completely spent.

The lighting of this act is impressive in and of itself, with multiple shafts of light creating an eerie environment for the performance.  The same lighting scheme turns up in the Wheel of Death display.

Robin Valencia, the human cannonball, closes out the first half of the performance which runs slightly less than an hour.  Given the tight confines of the Cirque d’Hiver it is a rather short shot.  The show closes with the expected, yet heart-stopping work of Les Navas on the Wheel of Death.  Torres plays a bee during the wheel’s set-up and is eventually swatted when it is ready.

The classy production also features as ringmaster, the elegant Michel Palmer, who manages to stay just this side of haughty, a stylishly sexy female dance ensemble whose first entrance and final exit exploit the drama inherent in the elevator stage set in the center of the ring, and a jazzy live orchestra led by Pierre Nouveau.


Zingaro  Presents  Horses Au Naturel

It’s hard for me to believe that twenty years have passed since I last saw Zingaro in Brooklyn.  This is the French equestrian troupe that prefers to be known as an Equestrian Theatre eschewing anything to do with the term “circus.”  The company is the creation of a man who has adopted the single and singular name of Bartabas and is now, in addition to maintaining his company in France, the director of equestrian activities at Versailles. During those twenty years since I last saw their work, the company has obviously been drastically refining its aesthetic. Seeing it at last in its unique home in a suburb of Paris has been a memorable experience that is unlikely to fade any time soon.

One first enters a reception building that also serves as a restaurant.  It is decorated with a spectacular display made up of props and costumes from past shows set out in the eaves of the roof.  It is in all respects an amazing fun house of memories and moods

The performance I booked was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. but it was not until that moment arrives when everyone is finally shepherded into the arena en masse, group by group, through the chandelier- lighted stables which manages to be even spookier than some of the macabre displays in the reception.

The performance space is dimly lit, a circle of seats are vaguely visible across the ring.  Seating is on planks with a cushion provided and a short back rest.

Twenty years ago a Zingaro performance had as much to do with human equestrians as it did with the horses themselves.  All of the human equestrian skills were on display in flamboyant brilliance.  That has changed dramatically in the interim.   Now, in its latest production, Ex Anima, it is the horse that is not just front and center but exclusively the star of the presentation.  Humans are almost invisible throughout, making the work, it seems to me, as much a demonstration of equine behavior as it is a performance of either the horses’ or their riders’ talents.

The two notable exceptions are stunningly extraordinary.  In one a draft horse pulls a long plank  that reaches across the entire arena and up an exit ramp.  After it is in place, the horse walks up the length of eighteen-inch wide plank, a unique display of equine equilibrium.  In a second display of equine talent a horse delivers a display of dressage that it as close to dancing as we are ever likely to see a horse perform.

As the very beginning of the performance, distant drums and then flutes are heard in the dim, fog enshrouded ring.  As the fog slowly evaporates eleven horses can be vaguely made out in the mist.  The horses interact with each other tentatively, no humans visibly present.  Bird sounds are heard as a large draft horse enters, then two whites which fight playfully with each other.  The draft, guided by a groom using long reins, pulls a sweeping device which he takes in ever widening circles to rake the ring’s soft surface.  A pack of white doves sit on the horse’s back momentarily, followed by a rooster.

Five piebald horses enter next, stand stock still until a solo tan enters and engages in a good deal of kicking and biting.  After a moment of quiet, he is ignored by the other horses.

In one of the more bizarre displays several horses enter wearing what looks like exaggerated gas masks, the purpose of which eludes me.  It seems impossible to see it as a demonstration of what it means to be a horse beyond its willingness to accept what humans ask of them which contradicts, Zingaro’s insistence that movements are proposed, never imposed.   It’s difficult to accept the idea that a horse would accept wearing such contraptions without a great deal of training.

This contradiction is even more blatantly revealed in a display in which a large draft horse is put into a sling and lifted off its feet.  It then remains remarkably compliant if not entirely serene during its extended time in the air, a position that is surely not natural for a horse.

Once more birds are heard, giving way to a scene in which a scarecrow holds court as four men appear with crow whistles.

In the next scene ground fog fills the arena before we discover a warriors’ camp or battleground, littered with corpses of humans and mounts.  A wolf enters, sniffs at the corpses and leaves, harmlessly.

Several other scenes ensue in which we see various groups of horses frolicking freely, until at last a stylized, life-size equine figure is set firmly in place.  A magnificent stallion is then brought up behind this stand-in for a live mare.  The stud is then encouraged to mount the figure until he is brought to what is unmistakably an actual orgasm, bringing the performance to a true and literal climax.  I’m not sure of the artistic merit of masturbating a horse, but this is intended to be a demonstration of animals au naturel.

I have seen the real thing enacted between two real horses in a documentary about the Lipizzaner stallions of the Vienna School.  But that is meant to be instructive.  I don’t know what the intent is in the Zingaro show.  Despite appearances, the animals are not entirely at liberty, uncontrolled by humans.  Their human handlers in their anonymous monk-like habits are always there, discreetly tucked away almost out of sight.  So, like any art, as opposed to nature, the performance is controlled and mannered to a rather larger degree than the company would probably be willing to concede.


Bromance at the New Victory Good for a Laugh

Basically Bromance, a production of the Barely Methodical Troupe of Great Britain, consisting of four acrobats Beren D’Amico, Charlie Wheeller, Louis Gift, and Arthur Parsons and  directed by Eddie Kay, is little more than a one joke show.  How many times can you expect one guy recoiling from another’s touch to be amusing?  To make matters worse the acrobats project these moments with protracted pauses and various bits of extended mugging.  So a lot of time is spent selling this one joke.  The most interesting part of the performance insofar as the theme is concerned is a narrated explanation of the messages sent by various types of handshakes that begins the show.   Otherwise it’s the same message every time they come close to touching, lots of nervous, self-conscious shrinking, for fear of being mistaken as gay.

Even the New Victory audience which caters to the family trade stopped giggling half-way through the performance, the joke having run out of steam.

Other times, maybe about half of the 50 minutes of playing time, is spent in displays of parkour, B-boying (Break dancing), and hand to hand duos and trios,  some of which are rather novel and interesting but, in contrast to the touching, goes by so quickly they almost fail to register.  There is also a little bit of banquine acrobatics thrown in near the end, and an overly long exhibition on the Cyr wheel.

One section of acrobatics includes a nicely choreographed pas de deux.    An impressive hip hop section provides a needed boost in the energy level, and a section of what amounts to casting while standing on the ground is a unique touch.

Three chairs that have sat throughout the show in lonely isolation finally get into the act and are tossed around toward the end when some bigger movements are needed to enliven the proceedings. By then it may be too late.

The New Victory Theatre is located on West 42nd St., New York City.


Circus Sarasota Deserves an Ovation

If ever there was a show that deserved to be called Ovation it most certainly is the current production of Circus Sarasota in which act after act receives an enormously enthusiastic response from the audience.  The line-up of acts is that good.

Some of them begin with what, in other acts of their ilk, would be their closing tricks and then build from there.  Among these is Sylvia Zerbini’s unique liberty horse display. She opens with a three horse waltzing weave pattern that is usually positioned at the end of most liberty acts.  By the end of the appearance she has worked eight horses into the act,

Then there is Kiril Rebkovets, whose rola bola act, like Zerbini’s, begins with a trick that in most such acts would the closing trick, if indeed an artist actually had it in his repertoire, which I doubt as I have never seen this particular trick performed before.  It involves Rebkovets doing a handstand on a pair of pommel posts while balanced on the rola bola.  Rebkovets, who was born in Russia but grew up in Florida, in addition to an impressive collection of tricks, has an appealing manner of engaging the audience with lots of eye contact and flamboyant gestures.

Then there is the show’s closing act, Duo Kvas, whose entire performance is a succession of poses and moves that would normally close any self-respecting hand to hand balancing act.  It elicited a well deserved roaring standing ovation by way of approval.

Other strong acts are the Bronx cowboy A.J. Silver, (aka Angelo Iodice), whose work with lariats and whips together with an engaging personality made him an audience favorite.  Iodice’s work is well known to audiences of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and here his skill  with the bullwhip adds some early thrills to the proceedings.

I have seen Julien Posada’s solo work on the tight wire quite a lot in the past few years after first seeing him in the Paris festival.  His solo work never really had the interest and charm it has acquired since he teamed up with Julia Figuière and together they became JuJu.  Quite rightly she is given top billing in the team.  She adds an element of stylishness that had never been there before. Together the team’s work on the wire, which is characterized as a flirtation, includes some impressive footwork and close team work.

Jimmy Folco adds an element of infectious energy with the Italian folk music that accompanies each of his appearances.  His best bit of clowning involves a shark attack in a rubber swimming pool that ends in comic triumph.  Like so many clowns today he also has an entree involving audience participation.  He had his hands full at the performance I saw thanks to a couple of show offs who threatened to take over the act, which, in a way, I suppose, is a deserved retribution.

Returning by popular demand are the quick change artists Vladimir and Olga Smirnov. For me this act is beginning to seem rather old hat, and somehow the new set of costumes seemed less spectacular than usual.

By now gentlemen juggler Kris Kremo has earned legendary status.  Unfortunately such standing usually goes along with advancing age, and age is not the friend of an artist whose work is exquisitely and finely detailed, down to the smallest detail, like the bounce of a hat.   So Kremo has had to add some self-effacing moves to add a bit more humor.  Necessity is teaching him how to play with his audiences in a new way, which seems, for the most part, willing to go along with his jokes, creating a kind of sly conspiracy or sense  of complicity that can be quite appealing.

The one disappointment is Anastasini’s soccer dogs, a melee of jumping dogs and human pratfalls that is little more than a blur of chaos.  Once that is out of its system the show roars along with one ovation after another.

Joseph Bauer, Jr.  is a stylishly elegant ringmaster whose smooth delivery keeps the show moving at a fast clip.

Somebody Called Barnum is The Greatest Showman

The film The Greatest Showman takes only the barest bones of the Barnum biography to create a rags to riches morality play about class warfare, bigotry, the need to celebrate diversity, the difference between highbrow and popular art, and finally and most strongly the importance of self-actualization.   The fact that the film’s writers cared but little about Barnum as a real person is evidenced in the fact that two of the film’s pivotal scenes involving Barnum take place in saloon where beer and whisky are flowing nonstop, despite Barnum’s renown as a teetotaler.   So forget about seeing anything that much resembles P.T. Barnum and his career as a showman.

There is a fairly faithful rendering of the exterior of Barnum’s museum, which is here referred to as a “circus,”  but the interior, like much of the film’s settings is exaggerated out of all proportion.  The mansions feel like cathedrals and the city’s streets  are adorned with an endless series of Greek columns and wide, steep staircases.  Barnum may not be larger than life here, but the world he inhabits certainly is.   When the circus goes under canvas at the film’s conclusion there are many animals shown but none of the elephants, horses or lions are real.  They are all Disney-like animatronic or computer generated creatures.

Despite lukewarm reviews from critics that film has become something of a sleeper hit particularly among teenagers.  My granddaughter tell me her friends have seen it four and five times.  The reason?  The music and the presence of Zac Efron in a supporting role that is a complete fabrication.  The songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the music for the almost Academy Award winning movie La La Land (their song did however win the Oscar) and the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen.  Most of the songs are contemporary sentimental ballads.  But when it comes to the big production numbers they invest the film with an undeniable energy and compelling enthusiasm.  The choreography in these numbers is the most innovative dancing seen in films in a very long time.  There is even talk that it may, along with La La Land, help revive the forgotten genre of the film musical.  At other times, however, when actors suddenly break into song, the music often feels like an intrusion.

The section dealing with his relationship with Jenny Lind is played for maximum melodrama, but stops short of making the film’s hero a cad.  She comes off more unlikeable than he does.

Barnum’s two young daughters are significant characters throughout, delivering the “out of the mouths of babes,” advice their father needed to make his museum a success.  This Barnum it turns out, is, above all else, a family man.