The Passing Spectacle Vol. I No. 4


A Single Ring and

 a Fire-Breathing Dragon

 Inspire a New Ringling Production

The latest edition of the Greatest Show on Earth is called Dragons and suitably enough it opens with dragons of all sorts whirling about the arena, none of which are all that impressive, tending more to the whimsical than the fearsome.  Surely none of these are the mythical creature that is said to have the power and dramatic interest to sustain an entire circus production.  No indeed.   But to call the real thing forth someone will have to demonstrate that he possesses the virtues of Heart, Strength, Courage and Wisdom.  And who better to do that—dramatically speaking—than the most diminutive member of the cast, Paulo Dos Santos?  This little fellow, fairly bursting with energy and enthusiasm, is more than eager to show that he has what it takes.  He enters the arena at the side of the ringmaster in the imposing figure of Johnathan Lee Iverson.

The two men, opposites in all respects, ride into the fray on a motorized tub.  DosSantos is the believer determined to get a glimpse of the real dragon. Iverson, the doubter, humors his little side-kick and perhaps somewhat facetiously tells him that in order to do so he must display the four qualities noted above.  Undeterred Dos Santos sets out to do just that, and throughout the course of the circus performance he does in fact, exhibit, those virtues one by one, and as he does, he (and we) catch fleeting glimpses of the dragon’s tail and wing, his eye and by intermission are caught by surprise by a lick of the mythic creature’s fiery tongue.  But it is not until Dos Santos has demonstrated all these traits that the real thing appears in all its fire-breathing glory.

Of course we always knew it would show itself. It would have been a huge disappointment if it didn’t, and as it turns out it is an even bigger delight than we expected,  fulfilling all our expectations most gloriously.   It had to be spectacular after that build-up, teasing and stringing us along for the entire show.   Talk about getting the biggest bang for your buck or, in this case, all your bucks.  I don’t think I would be spoiling it for anyone, since it comes as no surprise, to tell you that this dragon is everything and more than any one could have hoped for: a dazzling creature breathing real fire, engulfed in a sulfurous cloud of smoke, with a skin of burnished scales, and of a size that could leave children (of all ages) sufficiently awed.

But Dragons is not all about waiting for the big payoff.  There are plenty of thrills and delights along the way to this rousing finale.  Before moving on to explore those displays of the four virtues, let me point out that the interplay between the two men—Iverson and Dos Santos—propels the show along with humor, charm and even some touches of drama, a well conceived and nicely executed mise en scéne.

We get to see a lot of “courage” displayed throughout the program, or perhaps we should call it daring.  The first  exhibition of that comes from three sets of Roman riders who circle the arena in beautiful lavender/baby blue outfits and saddles.  They are part of the handsome and elegant troupe billed here as Riders of the Wind but are in fact the Tchalabaev.

Once the initial riders exit the arena, three unbridled horses are sent into the single ring with its banked ring curb that occupies the arena floor.  They are allowed to romp about unattended for a few minutes before two riders enter and the trick riding begins.  After their first round of exploits is completed at break-neck speed, a single, saddle-less horse enters the ring and as the men try to approach, it bucks and kicks, repelling their attempts at riding it.  The animal’s behavior changes radically when approached by a woman, whose feminine touch subdues its wild instincts and brings it to its knees.

This lovely touch of softness is in wonderful contrast to the bravado of the six men who now alternate in presenting the full repertoire of Cossack-style riding, including a few, like the running leap to a standing position and later astride, are taken from the voltige play-book.  This pulse-quickening performance concludes with the five men in a three-high gallop around the ring sending the show off to a rousing start.

This is topped by the roaring entry and noisy thrills of two motorcycles troupes (the Medeiros and Petrov) riding inclined  wires on either side of the LED displays.  Two girls work on the each of the trapezes hung from the two bikes, with it all culminating in the revolve around the wire.  While this is going on in the air in front of the lighting panels the big cage is set in place in the ring below almost invisibly.

Alexander Lacey next presides over four female lions and one, lone male, along with four tigers.  In this instance, unlike the manner in which he normally works in Europe, Lacey is miked and that novelty plays a major role in the act’s unsuspected effectiveness. At first the effect is almost comic with his, shall we say, non-heroic voice, but eventually his “conversations” with the cats becomes quite charming as he coaxes and urges them on with asides meant for the audience.  Even when Lacey takes the time to insist the cats do as asked, it is always fascinating to watch him getting them to respond to his demands.

Along with this novelty there are some new postures created by combining the different species.  What with his new approach to presenting the animals, I enjoyed Lacey’s performance much more than I ever did in any of the numerous festivals in which I have seen him work inEurope.

Up to this point an exciting and riveting series of acts have kept us fully engaged, but here the show’s creators apparently decided it was time for a change of pace and something to mask the removal of the cage and props.

While the big cage was working six large spheres masked in concealing drapes were hung, three on either side of the cage, waiting to reveal their contents.

The cat act, once concluded, the orbs are uncovered, and we see six clear plastic globes, each with a girl inside. Billed as “The Sizzling Sirens of the Sky,” the girls perform a series of contortions and acrobatics, sometimes pushing the globes open to add a bit of complexity, providing a change of pace that is perhaps more radical than intended.  It amounts to the first let-down in what had been a steadily engrossing performance, for it is just never very interesting or attractive visually beyond the first reveal.

The problem is that it is too slow and rather static.  What little action there is is confined to those cramped transparent balls, and so, since they are all doing the same routine, rather than taking in the entire picture, the tendency, I feel, will be to focus on one girl, and that is not very impressive.   The moment undoubtedly calls for a change of pace, but this one is too extreme.  Since the routine has no big movements as a web routine would have, more visual interest night be added to the entire picture by having the globes rise and fall in random patterns as the girls work their routines.

All this raises an intriguing question.  How many people doing the same thing does it take to make a greater impact than just a single person doing the same thing?  Six doesn’t seem to be working here.

All it took to jolt us back into the show was the fast-paced entrance of two beautifully blanketed elephants carrying the two women who will soon be presenting a hair-hanging act.  Viktoria Medeiros and Widny Neves get into their act quickly, and before we know it we are presented with the spectacular image of two women hanging not just by their hair from an aerial apparatus but from each other’s hair, which is certainly the most impressive of the various ways in which they have found to support themselves entirely by their tresses.  At one point one of the women hangs off the other’s foot or from a lyra held by the other’s ankle.

This amazing feat is topped by an even more exciting display of strength and body control by the Shaolin Warriors of Shandong,China, (eighteen strong) and two solo artists, Sun Junjie and Qin Guojing, who were first seen in the Gold Unit in Coney Island.   These two climax the presentation by diving first through a hoop of knives and then through the same hoop set afire and revolving, while blindfolded.

In the meantime the large troupe has been demonstrating various martial arts moves and feats of strength and concentration, making them apparently impervious to pain.  They smash various items like wooden staffs and steel blades with their bare hands or over their heads or chests or knees.  One of the soloists bends a steel rod around his neck and then unwinds it.  This action-packed display is accomplished with breath-taking speed and dazzling efficiency.

The only way to top such a display is to undercut it, which is exactly what the clown contingent does in a hilarious parody that is presented in the format of the old-fashioned walk around with lots of terrific sight gags played before varying segments of the audience, washing the memory of the previous act out of mind and preparing us for another skill act, two sets of Russian barre troupes, at least one of which, the Asadullin Troupe, was in the previous Blue Unit production Barnum’s Funundrum.

The novelty of their work is that the porters often work two-high and sometimes with two separate barres crossed or

Troupe Scala

parallel on different levels.  The troupe is very strong.  Its flyer or leaper assured and steady.

The other group, Trupe Scala, which works at the other end of the arena at the same time, is less secure.  The two troupes appear simultaneously again in the second half of the program presenting a teeterboard display.  This is apparently Trupe Scala’s stronger suit, and they are the team to watch here.  Their repertoire includes a five high column, a double to a chair, and saltos on single and double stilts, all accomplished successfully.

An interesting note here is that the show is performed with only one ring in the arena floor, reassuringly centered.  In the opening sequence it has a banked ring curb to accommodate the Cossack riding.  In the second half it is a standard ring.  When the two troupes of Russian barre and teeterboard artists appear the staging seems somewhat messy, perhaps because there are no ring curbs to confine their movement and act as boundaries.   But, as if to remind us where we are headed, the dragon pokes his head out from the stage opening and emits a fiery blast as a way of reminding us to get us back to our seats after intermission.

At this point it would be appropriate to note the contribution of the LED lighting panels.  This is the third time we have encountered them in a Ringling production, and now that the novelty has worn off we can appreciate them for the level of visual interest they add by supporting the various acts without stealing attention from them.

The interlude is concluded by getting the audience not only emotionally back, but physically as well.  The entire arena is engulfed with “the wave” orchestrated by the clowns.  This and the show’s opening gambit involving over-sized beach balls bouncing about in the audience are amazingly effective (and inexpensive) devices for getting the audience involved.  Now fully revved up, the entire cast, dressed in coveralls, gets the audience on its feet and dancing while the flying net is rigged.

The Flying Careres open with a two tiered rig in which the flyers go from fly bar to fly bar instead of the catcher, as it was in the earliest days of the flying trapeze and is still quite lovely to watch, especially when there is more than one flyer in motion at a time.  At one time there are four in flight simultaneously.

This is followed by the standard type of flying to a catcher, and it is somehow less impressive despite an attempted triple by a woman.  Seven members of the troupe are leapers although not all of them actually get to work.  Their form is less than poetic, but they do catch the earlier tricks.

The act does not end with the usual dives into the net.  Instead they descend in the dark, as the clowns take over with their Rapunzel gag, which has all the frenetic activity we expect from their production numbers.  In this one Paulo Dos Santos gets to demonstrate another of the virtues that will allow him to see the dragon in all its spectacular glory.  He is the hero who rescues the damsel in distress.

Once the clowns have gotten us satisfactorily stirred up it is time to bring on a display of three mixed animal acts: the Panfilov Family House Cats, the dogs of Klose’s K-9s,  and a variety of exotics consisting of two ponies, llama (or yak?), a couple of donkeys and some goats presented by Andre McClain within one of Ringling’s signature inflatable rings.  All of which is plenty to keep one amused throughout.

The martial arts ensemble returns to create various animal forms with their groupings, ending by forming the shape of an elephant which is an effective segue to the entrance of the show’s seven elephants, along with ten girls who dress the act stylishly. The herd is broken into smaller groups for a succession of tricks that always provide the essential “wow” factor.

But the biggest “wow” or wows is yet to come.  First there is the Torres family who ride their motorcycles in the Globe of Steel.  Their act builds to an incredible eight riders, including a single woman, simultaneously whirling around the inside of the globe. DosSantos works his way into this act, as well, proving himself to be in possession of the required trait of courage.  He opens the act on one of the motorcycles to cheers that soon grow into screams topped by the roar of the motors.

There is no where else this show can go.  It has reached its climax with the proceeding excitement, and there is nothing left to do but to have the dragon appear, its gigantic form, fully animated, circling the arena above a magical vapor belching fire with each turn of the head.

The entire creative team has contributed their various talents to infuse the production with theatrical and dramatic know-how, making it one of Ringling’s most engaging, satisfying and even thrilling productions.  Headed by the producing team of Nicole Feld and Alana Feld, they are Shanda Sawyer, concept, direction and lyrics; Bradley Zweig, writer;  Joe Stewart, scenic designer; Greg Poplyk, costume designer; Alex Reardon, lighting designer; Michael Picton, score composer; Ron Aniello, song composer; David Killinger, music director; Troy Wunderle, clown director; Martin Brinkerhoff Associates, video content designer; and Cecilie Stuart Garcia, associate director.



OZ  Makes a Religion out of Irreverence

The current production of Circus Oz, which concluded its international tour at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, Easter weekend, is titled (somewhat surreptitiously I might add) Steampowered.  It could just as well be called Anything Goes.

It takes its inspiration from a number of varied sources: Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ and the Three Stooges, just to name a few comic styles it brings to mind, from whom they borrow the broadest examples of slapstick and outrageous sight gags.  It also draws inspiration from such serious sources as Cirque du Soleil, the traditional circus, vaudeville, Chinese acrobatics, cabaret, and even stand-up comedy.  Most of these models are turned on their heads, twisted, or parodied for some wildly comic results.  These Australians make a religion out of irreverence.

This show was first reviewed in the print version of Spectacle (see Vol. 14-1) about sixteen months ago by Judy Finelli.  Comparing her review and my notes from the show I saw inPrinceton reveals that there have been several changes.  Some acts have gone altogether or been replaced by others, some costumes have been altered, tipping the look of the show even more into the realm of “Anything Goes.”  But it essentially it remains a romp through convention with nary a tradition emerging unscathed.

Sarah Ward

The show is quite blatant about its purpose, perhaps more obvious than is really good for it.  Early on the ring mistress, riding on a platform attached to a bicycle, itself something of a spoof of the peripatetic Ringling ring masters, announces exactly what the show means to do.  In the most unsubtle terms she tells us that comfortable old stereotypes and biases are about to be blasted.  She informs us that there will be no animal performers, only humans, a fact we hardly need to have hammered over our head.  Of course her manner is so brash the speech seems less a polemic than a weird sort of sideshow ballyhoo.

More than any other circus that I know of, Circus Oz is an ensemble work.  Each of the performers assumes a variety of persona ranging from the demented to the innocent which each maintains throughout the show regardless of the acts he or she might be engaged in.  They all play musical instruments and at one time or another provide the musical settings for other members of the company, so that almost all of them are involved all of the time, and the extent of their versatility is constantly remarkable.  Even the show’s rigger, whose name we learn is Chad, is far more than an invisible figure lurking in the wings.  He gets involved rather prominently in several of the acts, most especially when he provides not only the counterweight, but the most fascinating of aspect of the aerial strap act of Flip Kammerer.

Kammerer as Fantasia the fitness guru spends far too much time on the floor during this number giving focus to vocalist Sarah Ward’s rather lugubrious rendering of the plaintive “I’ve been working hard,” all of which adds up to the only downer of the show, but then directors must have, I suppose, their change of pace, even if the change amounts to a stand still.

Kammerer comes into her own later in the performance in what amounts to an extended comic monologue promoting her fitness CDs as she demonstrated the precepts of Fitness 101 while on inline skates.  This includes some of the most gasp inducing pratfalls of a performance filled with them, but ends with a spectacular flip off an inclined ramp, that was even more amazing than her falls, so that one could only wish there had been more, instead of less, of this sort of thing as was the opposite case in the previously noted act.

From vaudeville come two mildly amusing acts: Luke Taylor’s box juggling which is precisely paced to a piano piece and has a novel closing trick that I have not seen before, and some whose lame magic from Jeremy Davies, which is the most calculated humor of the show.

A nicely choreographed hat juggling routine segues into group passing act using candles from a candelabra.  The choreographed mayhem reaches a crescendo here with slides across a table and four-alarm chaos of knockabout comedy that results in some amazing falls on and off the stage.

From the circus come the Korean plank, a cradle and static trapeze acts, a rola bola and a sway pole.  Both of the latter two acts are contributed by Mason West.  The rola bola display is really a fascinating duet between West and the drummer Bec Watthews.  This kind of pairing is something of a signature piece of Circus Oz.  It also incorporates some of the aforementioned jokes, which are presented rather apologetically.

The Korean plank is not presented in its purest form in which the two acrobats at either end flip off and return to their end of the board to send their partner aloft.  This is accomplished a few times but most leaps are finished to the mat stationed behind the board.

The cradle act is presented by two women, Rowan Heydon-White and Stevee Mills, to a rather depressing recitation of “little known facts,” by the ring mistress.  Their act includes a number of daring leaps and catches and a mid-air salto caught by the catcher.

Rowan Heydon-White and Paul O'Keefe

Heydon-White works the static trapeze with Paul O’Keefe, in what is both the most accomplished act, skill-wise, and the most hilarious parody of a certain style of romantically inclined trapeze duos.  Here is the classic Oz gender reversal with the male supported by the female.  Even while executing some amazing tricks that are more or less thrown away in the interests of comedy, the act is consistently funny as the pair struggle to maintain their poetic attitude in the face of some of an aerialist’s worst nightmares.

The sway pole act of Mason West again, also is given an eccentric comic edge thanks to the amusing, miniature airplane that sits atop the pole.  The act does not score heavily because it is neither high enough nor capable of wide enough swings to elicit the required gasps this act usually produces.

Mason West

From the Chinese the show has borrowed the three numbers that are honored with the most classic approach to the presentation of the skills involved in hoop diving, the Chinese Pole and bike riding.

The amazing thing about this display of the Chinese pole is the seemingly limitless number of ways humans can find to wrap themselves around an upright pole.  The Aussies have found several new ones, and at one point three of them go up simultaneously.

The most delightful aspect of the hoop diving is the incredible flexibility of Paul O’Keefe once again, who also provides a charming piece on a trick bicycle after the grand, group ride.

From cabaret, of course, comes the singing ring mistress, Sarah Ward whose range of material is as eclectic as the music provided by the back-up band and its ever changing instrumentation, from brass to electric, music hall to heavy metal.

One other source of inspiration which I would have to list as coming from “I’m Not Quite Sure Where,” apparently originated in the imagination of the company.  In this piece four or five red kangaroos toss little Stevee Mills around as if she were a rolled up carpet.  There’s nothing particularly attractive about the way she is man-handled (or should I say “roo-handled”.)  But the sight of these giant creatures hopping about could only have been conceived in the mind of an Australian.

And finally even the opera provides the ultimate cliché turned into a charming finale.   It’s not over, as they say, until he

Mason West

fat lady sings.  This cliché derived from the world of opera is made literal as the ring mistress is inflated to enormous proportions and delivers her final aria.  But even that isn’t as straight forward as it might at first seem.  Ward sings us and the cast of twelve out of the theater in a song that more or less tells us to get up and leave, the show is over.  Quite a charming send-off after all these send-ups.

The show’s artistic director is Mike Finch, and the founding member, senior circus artist is Tim Coldwell who accompanied  the production on its world-wide tour.

Paul O'Keefe