The Passing Spectacle Vol. VIII, No. 1

 

Cirque Dreams Holidaze, Two Shows In One

In the Cirque Dreams’ Holidaze production there are often two shows going on simultaneously competing for our attention.  In the foreground are the individual circus arts which are moderately to compellingly interesting.    In the background there is more or less a steady pageant of characters marching to and fro carrying extravagantly designed and decorated holiday themed props which, depending on what is happening in the foreground are fascinating enough to win out in the contest for our attention.  Without these background figures and the activity they create this production would be a hard sell as a holiday treat for the entire family, which, ultimately, is what it is all about.

In order to achieve that kind of effect, in addition to the parade of whimsical characters and fanciful props there are several vocalists intoning what sounds like holiday music throughout many of the acts. Included in the score are three songs that are familiar pop standards.  Another ,”Oh, Holy Night,” is sung during the finale which features a glittery  couple cavorting on a  set of fabrics which, in juxtaposition with a piece of traditional semi-religious music, produces a display of questionable taste.

The identities of artists involved in the circus acts are difficult to discern from the program which dubs the various scenes with fanciful titles and identifies the artists themselves in similar terms, so the couple on the fabric are named “Flying Angels;” they are in fact Natalia Tsarevske and Oleksly Tsarevskyy.   The latter artist also contributes a less than stirring flight on a sling made up of netting.  Other acts, like a quartet of rope jumpers are named “Skipping Reindeer,” hence their antlered costuming.  They begin  with each manipulating his or her own individual jump rope  and ends with classic school yard jump rope exercises . Another featured aerial duo, who work first on a lyra or hoop and later on a stationary trapeze, are Ivan Enriquez and Duna Lamas-Alvarez.   In both their appearances  there is a great deal of twisting in and out of various positions with one killer trick for  a big finish.

Probably the most sensational act is a quick change extravaganza presented by the “Fashionistas” Natalia Khazina and Ilia Ryzhkov. What distinguishes this version of this increasingly popular display is the number of changes this couple flashes their way through.

Another of the more successful acts was presented by a pair of brothers, Andrii and Mykola Pysiura, whose impressive hand balancing act is presented with a great deal of flash and pizazz and didn’t need the Mummenshanz- likefigures slinking about behind them.

One of the most exciting acts, a display of energetic risley is billed as “Flipping Cookies” aka  Jonathan and Juan Guaredado-Ramirez.  It was one of the acts that didn’t need all the hustle and bustle of building a gingerbread village behind them.

A segment of audience participation involved musical bells was led by Vladimir Dovgan.  It earned the performance’s only, but much needed, laughs.

A spectacular bit of contortion is contributed by the “Snow Princess” Liudmila Dovgan who is a good bit taller than most artists who do this kind of act, and the result is often gaspingly bizarre.

The fact that the background is so often so busy is evidence of the management’s lack of confidence in what is being presented downstage.  In at least two cases that unease is well merited, especially in a very dull ball bouncing exhibition and an equilibrist display on a stack of chairs.  This sort of act always strikes me as a story more about chairs than it is about the (usual) man who is doing hand stands atop them all. A similarly unexciting display by Aleksandr Rebkovets  involved balancing candles and wine glasses stacked on an ascending  pyramid of trays on his forehead.

As a point of interest, the majority of the performers in the cast of 30 are from Russia and the Ukraine. Six are American .

Holidaze has been created and directed by Cirque Dreams’ founder Neil Goldberg.  Production direction is by Betsy Herst, and the elaborate scenic design of colorful holiday artifacts is the work of Jon Craine.  The costumes by Katt are colorful and often amusing.  The effective lighting is by Brad Haynes, and Alex Buckner is credited as associate choreographer , presumably in charge of moving all those extras around the set pieces.

 

 

 

Circus Abyssinia, Founded in 2017,

Employs Older Traditional Format of Presentation

The title Circus Abyssinia, Ethopian Dreams, suggests that the performance that is about to unfold will have some sort of theme.  This expectation is further enhanced by the description in the press materials: the magical journey of two Ethiopian brothers Bibi and Bichu who realize a lifelong wish to run away with the circus.  When the performance, which I saw at the New Victory Theater in New York City,  begins,  we meet those two brothers briefly (Binyam and Mehari Tesfamariam respectively).   What follows is presumably the circus they joined.  But the brothers are mostly forgotten as what follows is one circus act following another in a standard variety show format, a series of unconnected acts.

We also learn from the press notes that the brothers became an acclaimed juggling duo. So late in the show when a pair of young adult jugglers in unassuming street clothes breaks into a fascinating passing act that eventually involves eight clubs in the air at once, there is renewed hope that we are at last back into the story of  the brothers.  The youngsters we met at the beginning join the adults for a bit, raising our hopes that some celebratory resolution to the story is at hand.  This is where the show should have ended, but it has a more exciting (albeit anticlimactic) ending in mind, one that employs six men on a pair of Chinese poles.    (Oddly enough the press materials list the order of the acts but not the names of the people performing them so we can’t know if in fact the jugglers are the boys now grown up.  Other information gleaned from the press notes from further investigation, suggests this is not possible.)

The act on the Chinese poles is one of the most impressive acts in the show, but truth be told they are all interesting, but like a variety show the excitement level rises and falls as each new act takes over from the one before.

The performance opens with a display of banquine acrobats.  (What the notes call hand-vaulting, which is probably a better name for this kind of act than the obscure “banquine.” ) This act builds to an impressive double somersault that ends in a standing position in the intertwined hands of the base men.

This is followed by two female contortionists whose work is most notable for the display of strength involved.

An interesting rolla bolla act involves using a basketball as a revolving mechanism. The artist builds to a five high stand, which he erects while taking himself to very edge of his board,  courting disaster with each move.

A foot juggling display with four girls, two of whom work in the cradle while the other pair balances on their partners feet, mainly involves spinning swatches of fabric on every available appendage. The girls often go two high, mostly spinning small carpets.

The performance comes to the edge of disaster itself with a solo clown who is not very amusing but worse makes the mistake of taking a young father out of the audience without regard to the man’s young daughter sitting next to him. With her father gone the girl went into hysterics feeling abandoned, even as she was being consoled by the unrelated woman sitting next to her. At that point I and those sitting close to the girl lost all interest in what was going on on the stage, anxious for the father to get back to his daughter.  Obviously anyone using audience members in his act should show more   discretion in whom  he selects to assist him.

A solo hula hoop artist did little to dissipate the negative atmosphere created by the preceding act .

The atmosphere was enlivened considerably by a risley act with a young boy whose spinning and flip-flops were nothing short of sensational.

We were back to something considerably heavier with the next act, a cord ’lisse performed on an industrial chain. This act was performed in rather dim lighting which seemed to be the default lighting scheme for much of the show, perhaps to establish a sense of mystery and wonder.

More contortion was presented, this time by four young women, combining contortion with hand balancing, culminating in several four high pyramids. For a finale the quartet balanced themselves on iron jaw contraptions often seen in acts like this performed by Chinese women.

The aforementioned Chinese pole act brought the show to its highest level of excitement. This performance included  some new stunts I had not seen before,  proving  that the vocabulary for this apparatus is virtually unlimited.

The young boys we saw in the beginning turn up again in the bows, and we do learn finally, from the notes that the real Binyam is the show’s director and Mehari the producer.

 

The above should be read with the following letter which was sent to all reviewers from the New Victory Theatre,

Thank you for joining us at Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams. The New Victory has a rich history of presenting the circus arts and Circus Abyssinia is among the most vibrant, gifted troupes I’ve come across in almost 23 years as The New Victory’s Director of Artistic Programming. That made it all the more upsetting when, in mid-November, several company members were denied visas to perform in the United States by the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa. “Lack of travel experience” was listed as the reason for refusal, despite a recent U.K. tour and a weeks-long engagement at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The artists denied entry to the U.S. might have been slightly less traveled than their fellow company members, but no less integral to the production.

In light of this unfortunate situation, we sent a clarion call out to the national and international circus community asking for artists who would be able to perform alongside the original Circus Abyssinia members on the New Vic stage. Responses from colleagues and friends came in immediately from Europe, Australia, Africa and across North America. All told, we received over 100 suggestions and countless messages of support and encouragement. We were able to fill five of the seven open spaces in the show. This newly formed company—including three U.S.-based, Ethiopian-born performers and two African-American artists—rehearsed at our New 42nd Street Studios and then moved into The New Victory Theater, where the show remarkably opened on schedule!

This “new” production came together beautifully with energy and determination, so quickly that the full New Vic Bill was not yet available for some performances. You can read about the extraordinary artists of Circus Abyssinia—old and new—on the New Victory blog, as well as about the awesome music that accompanies the show.

We are very grateful to the world circus community for their help and inspiration. And I’m so proud of all the performrs and in awe of the New Victory staff for pulling together and making it happen. I am saddened, however, that several of the original performers were unable to travel and be part of this engagement. It is so important that the international arts exchange continue, especially so that kids in the U.S. are able to see performers from around the world and hear stories that offer a global perspective.

Mary Rose Lloyd

Senior Director of Artistic Programming.