The Passing Spectacle Vol. VII, No. 8

The Big Apple Circus Flying High

As you may imagine, I see a great number of circuses of all kinds.  Even with all those exciting moments I have experienced in my circus going, I must say one of the most thrilling was provided by Ammed Tuniziani flawlessly completing  a quadruple somersault to the hands of his catcher and then putting an exclamation point on that glorious achievement by turning a beautiful pirouette on his way back to the fly bar.  It was not just the perfection of the execution that made it so thrilling, the expectation that it could end in disappointment made the success even sweeter.  It sent me out of the big top with a level of exhilaration rarely matched.

That moment topped off an exciting and highly enjoyable visit to the current production of the Big Apple Circus that was never less than totally engaging.

Two other acts added enormously to the overall effect of the production: the sexiness of Desire of Flight with Valery Sychev and Ekaterina Stepnova and the graceful strength of Duo Fusion’s  Virginia Tuells and Ihosvanys Perez.  I have seen the latter act many times and its smart, sleek look never fails to impress, especially since much of the heavy lifting in this hand balancing act is performed by Tuells, which she executes with such smooth sureness that it seems only natural and effortless.

I first saw Desire of Flight in Monte Carlo where it won the top prize, a Golden Clown.  As I understand it, the young woman in the act is a replacement for the original who worked in Monte Carlo.  The difference in tone that the change in casting has made is quite remarkable.  It is now much sexier with a Lolita-like vibe it did not originally possess.

Beside excitement this production also has a lot of charm, thanks to the performances of Adam Kuchler and Mark Gindick.  They appear throughout, always adding a touch of gentle humor.  Kuchler’s solo turn manipulating cigar boxes is great fun as he brings his performance to an heroic conclusion.

Jennifer Vidbel’s two appearances with a variety of horses and dogs also add greatly to the production’s appeal.

The performance is rounded out with the fast-paced bouncing gyrations of a troupe called Spicy Circus.  The work of these five acrobats on the wall trampoline is so filled with activity rendered at such  a hectic pace that it becomes a blur of somersaulting, twisting bodies.

Emil Faltyny’s work on a variety of free standing ladders, some of which provide a visually novelty, is always interesting and like much of the production fast paced.

Juggler Victor Moiseev did not work at my visit.  Gamal Garcia filled in with another speedy performance with his ball bouncing and juggling act.  Garcia is one of the Tuniziani  brothers who also works as a flier in the flying act.  Speaking of which I should point out another brother, Dandino, is working as a catcher in the act which now works off a double-sided rig in which two flyers can be in the air at the same time.  I wish they had made more of that opportunity because when two flyers were flying in sync  it added greatly to the visual excitement.  More often than not, however,  it was one flyer at a time.  Incidentally these solo flights were usually executed by the female members of the troupe.

I also wish we had seen more of ringmaster Stephanie Monseu. Here her personality has little opportunity to shine through, which is a missed opportunity  because she is capable  of adding a whole new level of pizazz to any production in which she is involved.  Admittedly she is difficult to simply stick into a traditional role, so some sort of accommodations would have had to have been made.

This untitled production has been directed by Mark Lonergan who also served as writer.  Choreography and assistant director is Grady McLeon Bowman; production and set designers are Anita La Scala and Rob Bissinger.  Amy Clark is the costume designer, and  Jeff Croiter is the lighting designer.  Rob Slowik is back as musical director.  Original music was provided by Peter Bufano, David Bandman and Jeffrey Holmes.

The concession area has been redesigned  and is populated with roving, costumed performers who are available to pose for photos.  Following the performance Gindick, Kuchler and Monseu were similarly available in a Spiegeltent that has been erected in the outer lobby.


Satyagraha at BAM

A Collaboration of Circus and Opera

Folkoperan/ Cirkus Cirkor perform Philip Glass’ Opera “Satyagraha” at the BAM Harvey Theater on October 30, 2018, part of the Next Wave Festival.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger.

Mellika Melouani of the Swedish Folkopera and Tilde Björgfors of Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkor originally began working together on a new production of Turandot by Puccini.  The artists’ collaboration was born on Long Island at Watermill Center, where they worked with set designer Dan Potra during their preparations to stage Turandot .

Fate intervened when the women lost the rights to the Puccini work.  Ironically, as an escape from their emersion in the Puccini music, they had been relaxing listening to the music of Philip Glass.  When Turandot became unavailable,  it was an easy decision to work with Satyagraha, instead, particularly since Glass’  20th Century minimalism made sense for the circus acts, as  they  were now about to deal with peace, nonviolent protest and the young Gandhi’s travels in South Africa explored in a non-linear style allowing more freedom in interpreting the work.   Also, in contrast to the Puccini work, Glass’ score is abstract, and therefore more hospitable to accepting the inclusion of circus acts.

The resulting production premiered two years ago in Stockholm and was an instant hit.  Its five performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music represent the production’s American debut as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.

Björgfor, who normally commissions original scores for her work with Cirkus Cirkor, has said she felt sure circus acts could work with Glass’ music.  “When  you see circus artists practice, it is like a constant meditation.  They can practice balance for hours. “  Of Glass’s music she has said: “There is something about this sense of the ecstatic, that the music is continuously reaching new heights with minor tweaks that suit the circus we are making here.” And besides, she point out, circus and opera “are two incredibly virtuosic art forms.”

For this production of Satyagraha the orchestra has been somewhat scaled back to just twenty pieces.  They are part of the stage setting and are seen through a series of transparent screens.  The musical production, under the guidance of  Melouani also features a chorus of eight and six soloists, all of whom sing in Sanskrit.  The performance at BAM was conducted by Matthew Wood.  With that in mind Glass and his librettoist Constance DeJong have made no attempt to present a story that progresses along a linear fashion.  In fact there is no plot, just isolated episodes taken from Gandhi’s time in South Africa.

The production is not, however, entirely without recognizable language.  English translations from selected verses from the Bhagavad Gita the holy scripture are projected onto the scrims that form the backdrop.  These are mainly inspirational in nature: “He who renounces actions merely because of their difficulty, or out of fear of physical pain thereby acts only in self-interest and is not on the path of truth.”

Into all this are inserted approximately nine or ten circus acts (depending on how you count) performed by five circus artists.  They begin with a spectacular display on the Korean plank, the sensational moves of which inevitably draw gasps from the audience despite the even natured music.  This is followed by various forms of balancing acts, a dizzyingly fast exercise on the Cyr wheel, a stunningly novel turn (literally) on the slack wire and later on the high wire, some extraordinary manipulation of some large set pieces and various forms of more conventional juggling props, and a final display on aerial silks.  The first act concludes with a startling display that belongs as much to the sideshow as the circus.  The entire cast removes their shoes and stands on shards of broken glass.

The manner in which the props and apparatus needed for these acts were put into place and removed was carried out with impressive efficiency, so that one was hardly aware of such activity and the performance flowed quite gracefully from moment to moment.

In all these circus turns the props used are always inventive and surprisingly flexible, often employing balls of unraveling yarn or strands of rope, which make for some very unusual versions of traditional circus acts.

Does it all work?  For the most part it is easy to be captivated as we are immersed in the warmly rich sound of the music and the fascinating images created by the staging.  The third act, however, is a bit of test ,for musically it is the most characteristically Glass, which is to say repetitive.  But overall the novelty of the staging, the brilliant lighting design and the music coalesce into a thrillingly unique experience.

Satyagraha was presented in BAM’s Harvey Theatre a converted grand movie palace whose grandeur has been exposed without being restored.  It is located a block from BAM’s home on Lafayette St.  Set and costume design was by Dan Potra, the lighting design by Patrik Bogǟrdh.   It has been directed with enormous creativity by Tilde Björgfors.


King Kong Larger Than Life and Twice as Impressive

Unquestionably the biggest, most exciting star of the Broadway musical King Kong is the big ape himself. Kong is actually an animatronic puppet ,  twenty feet tall, whose movements are controlled by three operators working from a remote control booth in the mezzanine of the Broadway Theatre.  One of these three produces Kong’s voice:  his roars, growls, sniffs, howls  and heavy breathing.  There is another ten person onstage team that is in charge of operating Kong’s arms and legs.   Despite all this and the ropes and cables that are obviously  attached to the gorilla’s body, the humans are not at all a distraction, nor do they interfere, as far as I am concerned ,not one bit in destroying the illusion that this is a fully animated, breathing living creature.  His face is particularly effective  in conveying life, what with those sad, blinking eyes. Ultimately, too, the great ape displays more honest emotion than is on display elsewhere in the cast.  One might come away from it all with a level of sympathy and regret for its violent end.

The other star of the show is the physical production itself.  It does not shy away from nor cheat on any of the big iconic moments of the plot as first seen in the 1933 film version.  These are produced quite convincingly and dramatically.  The city scape at the beginning of the production is stunning in its detail and evolution.  Once we board the ship that takes the characters to Skull Island, one might experience a bout of sea-sickness thanks to the effect of the ship’s prow cutting its way through the rolling ocean.

The first we see of Kong is his impressive set of dentures which emerge out of the pitch black darkness before his full body appears in all its remarkable glory.  His dalliance with object of his affections is handled with great care, avoiding pure sensationalism.  Kong’s fight with the towering cobra is excitingly dramatic, and his escape up the side of the Empire State Building until he is finally revealed sitting on the tower is theatrically effective.  We are also privy to the horrifying scene of his being shot by three circling airplanes, another theatrical coup.  This is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

The one exception to the unerringly theatrical instincts of the production is the theatre piece the plot’s villain has staged to present King Kong to the public. This is meant, of course, to be in bad taste, but here it is just plain tacky, and is one of the least appealing elements in the scenically and dramatically effective production.

As for the humans, Christiani Pitts is somewhat  less than persuasive first  as damsel in distress and later as  the defender of the majestic  beast.  It was often difficult to understand her lyrics when she sings, and her final song, at the conclusion of the show seemed ant-climactic.  But then the music , other than the character songs ,is not particularly useful in supporting the story. There is, for instance, a long section that is done without any music which proves it was wasn’t really needed in the first place.

Eric William Morris  gives a very energetic and effective performance as the unsympathetic Carl Denham, the crass film producer ,who attempts to exploit the ape’s size and ferocity and ultimately causes the final disaster.  Erik Lochtefled manages to be sympathetic in the minor role of Denham’s assistant.

I also found the choreography of Drew McOnie to be strangely  stylized  throughout, which was anytime we were not in the jungle. Certain lifts keep appearing again and again.   It seemed especially inappropriate and repetitive when Kong has escaped from the theatre where he was being caged.

So ultimately Kong is set up to die another horrible death, but he proves to be good company in the early scenes when he is helped to be himself.  Just don’t bring the kiddies.