The Passing Spectacle Vol. VII, No. 7

Virtuosity Turns a Machine into a Spectacular Circus

Virtuosity is the new buzz word for me.  I have recently seen three  new contemporary circus productions that demonstrate a huge advancement of the circus arts that has nothing to do with emotional  involvement, story-telling, poetry or character development, but all of which have everything to do with virtuosity, personality, creative incorporation of all the performing arts and originality.  What makes the difference is the ensemble work.

In achieving this we don’t need the director’s program notes to appreciate the brilliance of the performance and engage in the company’s obvious joie de vivre.

In the most recent, five performers from Quebec have formed a company they call Machine de Cirque.  They are identified by their specialty:  Maxim Laurin on the trapeze, Fred Lebraasur on percussion and guitar, Yohann Fradette-Trepanier on the bicycle, Raphael Dube on the unicycle, and on the Korean plank Ugo Dario and Maxim.  Dube and Yohann are also the company’s principal jugglers.  Besides their specialties all are multi-talented and take turns working on the Chinese pole, the Korean plank, juggling, teeterboard and acrobatics and dancing.    (These five are the original members of the company, other units with different casts tour the world.)  It is a great pleasure to see the joy and obvious pleasure they take in performing and do so without the usual ta-da styling.

The individual members of the company have found ways of making traditional turns novel and interesting, often by combining one skill or apparatus with another, as for instance Maxim Laurin’s turn on the trapeze brilliantly incorporated the Chinese poles between which  it is hung, resulting in an endless string of  new and interesting moves.     Eventually he used the trap’s counterweight system for more variations on the theme.

Besides the Chinese poles that flank the trap there is another pole on stage left that was often used by various members as an elevator taking them either up or down  or as a jumping off spot for some acrobatic maneuver.

Yohann Fradette-Trepanier’s  bike ride is turned into a beautiful ballet, the choreography between tricks giving its all the grace and fluidity of a pas de deux, often with assists from other members of the company.

A hat juggling routine begins with an amusing series of complex synchronized patterns that  evolve into an expansive club passing display involving most of the troupe  that is even more complex, intricate and visually exciting than the hat passing.  The club passing eventually rises to a crescendo of flying clubs and dazzling catches, at the end of which the ensemble needs a breather and a drink of water.   Even that is accomplished with a sense of humor.

Raphael Dube’s unicycle act is another example of a traditional act that is elevated by its originality and extreme novelty, the likes of which I have never seen.  This is often the case with this company through their inventive exercises using the circus arts to abandon themselves to the fun involved in it all.

The final thrills are provided by the latest and most reliably exciting addition to the circus arts, the Korean plank, which in comparison with the traditional teeterboard, insofar as they use similar apparatus, is far more daring and spectacular.  In recent times more of these acts are coming out of advanced circus schools around the country, supplanting the old teeterboard which requires more people.  The Plank requires just two.  Here it involves all four of the acrobats and even, briefly, a bit with  the musician.  The two principal flyers, Ugo Dario and Maxi Laurin toss off doubles, twists and lay outs with abandon and the eschewing of  spotting makes each flight and return all the more breathtaking.

The company  works in a space dominated by an interesting structural setting three levels high which is used like a monkey cage or jungle gym.  It also incorporates some rolling platforms and trap doors which add to the visual interest and surprises.

The percussionist is often as abandoned in his drumming as his acrobatic comrades are in their physical feats.  He sets the pace with his rhythmical pounding of various percussion instruments:  pails, tubes, various metal objects and  a Rube Goldberg-like contraption.  Lebraasur adds to the production’s soundscape with a variety of vocal sounds, like a monk’s chant, with a little synthesizer thrown in  for further versatility.

I was impressed by the behavior of the largely kiddy audience with whom I saw the show at the New Victory Theatre on West 42nd St. In New York City . It was attentive and receptive to it all, captivated, one might say, as they stayed riveted in their seats.

For an adult, it might seem an  exhausting but nonetheless enormously rewarding hour.  Just when I think I’ve seen it all along comes a new ensemble that just blows me away with its brilliance, creativity, novelty and awe-inspiring skill.

Vincent Dube is responsible for the concept, as well as being the director and co-author.  Everyone in the cast is also listed as a ”co-everything.”


Circa Takes the Minimalist Route

Circa, the acrobatic ensemble from Australia, made one of its infrequent visits to the United States recently with a brief stop at the opera house of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  The ten-member troupe represents, according to advance press notes  “Circus in its purest form.”  I would amend that to say “Circus in its minimalist form.”  The performance runs seventy minutes, which is a lot of time to fill with no scenery, no costumes really, and just ten acrobats on a bare stage.

The title of the work the company presented at BAM was Humans.  The production purports to be about what it means to be human, which is to say exploring our limitations.  Apropos both that theme and the company’s aesthetic,  the performance is limited to an acrobatic vocabulary, which means it is often repetitious, repeating the same moves or images throughout its seventy minutes as the press notes suggest: “They jump, somersault, stand on hands, toss and catch each other, balance on one another and twist their bodies in every direction,” and “in the process they explore the physical limitations of their own bodies and rely on the strengths of their teammates.  Humans is a theatrical demonstration of our physical vulnerability as individuals and our strength when working together.”

I have no quarrel with that description of either the action or the conclusions one might draw from  it. The performance really begins  as the audience is gathering and finding its seats.  During this preshow time the performers  come  onto the stage, one by one, and strip down to trunks and perhaps a simple, monochromatic top and then leave.  They sometimes return to dress in the clothes other people have let behind, as if trying it on for size and fit.  Since the audience’s attention is not specifically directed at this, it proved to be rather frustrating  for me, as a good bit of it was obscured by the activity in the audience.  If we are not meant to make note of this action why bother including it?

The real action begins with a piano solo and then a male vocal as a lone female slowly emerges from under a pile of the discarded clothes and through painful contortion tries to free herself from the encumbrances, as if climbing up from out of the slime to take on human form.

From here on in we are occupied with a series of acrobatic encounters like those described above. They begin with solo moves and quickly develop into various forms of partnering, interactions that quickly resolve themselves and seem a mix of battling and affectionate horse play.  The most impressive thing about it all is the precise execution of the acrobatic choreography that keeps the performers from what otherwise could be catastrophic collisions. But in all this fast and furious movement there is little that is new or capable of producing a rising level of excitement.  In order to provide some of the latter the production occasionally delves into some banquine style throws and catches, but these are always short lived. To escape the visually static nature of floor acrobatics, one such throw builds to a three high column.  In another such attempt at building some verticality into the production, the ensemble builds a pyramid like those traditionally created by Arabian acrobats, and in another such borrowing one male member of the company lifts five people.

Other attempts at variety include an interlude of contortion on a single point trapeze and later three members of the troupe work on aerial straps in isolated solos.

There are also a few attempts at injecting some humor into this otherwise straight-faced display of acrobatic prowess.  In one section the entire ensemble indulges in exaggerated expressions of self-love, and in another a woman stands on the back of a man in a prone position as the two move, rather comically,  to the rhythm of the music.  In yet another they all fall into laughing fits.

In all of this the most jaw-dropping exercise is performed by Keaton Hentoff-Killian:  a forward somersault beginning from a standing position, using no hands as he turns himself into a human projectile and finishes in a standing position.  In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that this young artist is the son of Jessica Hentoff and whom I have known practically his entire life.

Finally it seems as if the director is unable to find a way to end it all. It just keeps going until it stops.

I must say that it is somewhat exhausting to engage with that level of energy for seventy uninterrupted minutes of non-stop and overlapping activity, especially as the choreography breathlessly keeps avoiding potential disaster.    (Contrast this to the popular usage of “circus” as a chaotic, out of control enterprise as was so often invoked from both sides of the aisle during the Kavanaugh hearings.)

Circa has been in existence since 2004, based in Brisbane, Australia and has performed in 39 countries. The company is said to have taken a radical turn with the arrival of its current artistic director Yaron Lipschitz, who is the creator, in collaboration with the entire ensemble of Humans.  Following its performances in Brooklyn, the company played five cities in the United States, ending its visit  on November  13, before resuming its world tour.