The Passing Spectacle Vol. VIII, No. 2

The Space is Confined, but the Acrobatics are Boundless

They call it A Simple Space, an apt title both literally and figuratively.  There is nothing fancy, technically extravagant nor jaw droppingly daring.  In this limited space, small enough to fit on to the stage of the New Victory theater along with a specially ticketed hundred or so audience members, a troupe of six acrobats playfully and with boundless energy, pull us into their non-stop activity  by their obvious joy at what they are doing and the fun they are having doing it.

This is an ensemble which illustrates my feelings about where the circus is hopefully going, evoking in their own words “real responses … something visceral rather than cerebral.  Instead of fine tuning the performance with makeup, lighting and contrived theatricality, the cast has deliberately gone the opposite way.  The audience is brought in close to surround the stripped down stage where we can feel their heat, hear every breath.”  Speaking of breathing they make a contest out of holding one’s breath.

The ensemble is made up two women and four men . A seventh member provides the musical accompaniment in the form of percussive rhythms.  He does eventually provide a solo performance of his own in a rendition of the arcane art of hambone, at first inviting the audience to join before he loses them in the speed and variety of body slapping and finger snapping.

This is the second creation of the group that calls itself Gravity and Other Myths. It comes to us at the New Victory Theater  on 42nd St., in New York City from Australia.   The intention of the group is to invite audiences into the training room to witness the success, the failures (there are none to speak of in their performance) the healthy competition, the physical exertion (amply and convincingly displayed in full-throated enthusiasm) and most importantly the trust and camaderie that make it all possible.  (The show opens with a vivid and often breath-taking demonstration of just that.)

If I am quoting more than I usually do from the company’s own words and descriptions of its work it is because their words have a greater sense of simple honesty and relevance than can usually be found in most program notes I read.

The action begins with an exercise often used to build trust in group therapy sessions. Here, of course, it is raised to the level of throwing  caution to the winds daredeviltry.  Before long that trust in each other provokes the group into building three-high pyramids  that come together and dissolve at such lightning speed that we are on to the next enthusiastic expression of their boundless energy and uninhibited sense of fun and games before the last has fully registered.  I have never seen a group of acrobats express such obvious pleasure in their work.  Their smiles and grins are infectious  to the point we almost feel the physical exhilaration of their performances ourselves.   We are finally invited to exert ourselves a bit by tossing  plastic balls the size of tennis balls at them as they hold handstands before they start throwing them back at us in an all-out war.

They execute a series of back flips that seems to test their stamina to the point of comic exaggeration. One of the women demonstrates expertise on posts, executing moves traditional to a hand balancer.  That ,by the way, is about as close as the acrobats come to demonstrating what might be called a traditional circus act.  Sometime later they each create a balloon sculpture behind their backs which is then given to kids in the audience, about the only non-acrobatic moment in the show.

At one point the two women are turned into pinwheels and spun about by two men each holding one arm and leg and then passing her off to another pair in a dizzying series of revolutions.

I ended up having as much fun as the cast members themselves whose members, Benton Adams-Walker, Rachel Boyd, Lachlan Harper, Jackson Manson, Ashleigh Pearce, Jacob Randell and Joshua Strachan display equal prowess in acrobatics.  Elliot Zoerner is the percussionist.  Together they have created an entertainment of which it can truly besaid a good time was had by all.

The cast is supported by five co-founders who also serve as co-directors. They are Lachlan Binns, Jascha Boyce, Jacob Randell, Martin Schreiber, and Triton Tuni-Mitchell.


Cirque Mechanics Pays Homage to the Circus’ First Wheel

42ft is Chris Lashua’s homage to Philip Astley’s creation of the first circus ring 250 years ago.  Forty-two feet being the ideal measurement  that allows a horse to gallop at full speed, providing the centrifugal force needed to allow humans to perform acrobatic tricks on the horse’s back.  Lashua, of course,  is the founder, creative director and producer of Cirque Mechanic. 42ft is his fourth creation and a reference to classical circus in general.

The performance opens promisingly with the appearance of a bill poster who affixes announcements of a coming circus to an otherwise naked fence.   These gaudy banners catch the eye of someone who appears to be a down and out vagabond, the comedic character of the cast played by Justin Therrien.  He is literally pulled back from advancing on his travels by both the allure of the posters  and the tug of his suitcase in a classic mime set piece that goes on for far longer than it needs to.   When Justin does get to peak through a canvas opening we see that world from his perspective, and he is so enchanted that he resolves to join this world of wonder.

The stage set, a structural suggestion of a big top then revolves and we have a new perspective on the action. The circus performance now in the throes of an energetic and frantically paced charivari is facing us.  The first full solo act is Rosebud juggling on horseback.  (Rosebud being something of an inside joke and reference to the company’s debut hit The Birdhouse Factory.)  Rosebud is played by Tatiana Vasilenko who performs her act on the back of a mechanical horse.  (It had to be mechanical, of course, given the company’s name and branding.)  Vasilenko’s act opens with her juggling three balls, which eventually increases to five.  But the major portion of her act is devoted to ball bouncing.  There is ample room on the small platform set on the horses’s back for her to do her act, but the speed of  the bouncing and the rather slow pace maintained by the horse as it circles the ring seem to work against each other, and the effect is less dramatic than it might otherwise be.  Instead it all seems rather forced.

Throughout the production there are certain staging effects that acknowledge the long-standing traditions of circus. The next act makes a flashy entrance with swirling capes before they ascend to single still trapeze and present what is one of the more skilled acts in the show.  Kae Henning and Javen Mungun Ulambayar twist and flip their way through a complex and daring presentation that is all one could hope for in such an act.

In another nice nod at transition the circus wannabe picks up one of the capes left behind by the aerialists and uses it for a bit of comic illusion.

The strong man Tulga-Battulga Battogtokh presents another of the acts whose skill level is unimpeachable, but as with  all such acts the problem is convincing the audience that the balls he is juggling are actually heavy.    Once you buy into the concept it is a nicely staged act.

Justin, the comic, is back with a bit of audience participation which at first I anticipated with dread, but it turned out to be one of the more creative and amusing such endeavors I have encountered. With a partner from the audience Justin attempts to stage a pantomimed version of  a traditional flying trapeze act.  To fully appreciate the humor here, it helps to know the classic pattern followed by all flying acts, but the musical accompaniment “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” should be strong enough hint  to clue everyone in.  It is well done even with a somewhat uncomprehending assistant.

We are back to the big top performance at the end of the first half with a less than rousing display of club passing with the two participants perched on pedestals at either end of a revolving device, one of Lashua’s signature contraptions.

The second half opens with a bill poster once again, now in the person of Justin who is at least a part of the circus albeit in a less than glamorous position. He does not have much luck with keeping his posters up, but the comedy never rises to the level of cascading catastrophe in which we could easily envision Laurel  and Hardy.  The problem is we are never sure if his problems are intended or not and as a result  the laughs are slow in coming making the act seem over extended.

When we do get back under the big top several members of the company are working a revolving ladder routine which is not very impressive. This is soon followed by another act that misses even more badly, a whip cracking display that seems rather pointless and never manages to build any drama.

A brief but effective comic knife throwing act provides an effective introduction to Ariel Mosier’s adequate Cyr wheel routine, which, despite its continuous movement fails to produce any excitement.

Somehow Justin has found a sword which he swallows much to the amazement of the rest of the circus cast, and he is invited to join the circus at last.

Before that achievement is crowned with a costume of his own, Esther De Monteflores climbs aboard a slack wire.  Her stylish approach to the act, especially the choreography at the outset,  more than compensates for what is only a serviceable routine.

The strong man then returns to help pick up the energy level with another set of cumbersome props he handles with agility and showmanship.

The big top performance is capped off with a display utilizing the Russian swing. The fliers  seem to literally fly, some adding flips and twists before landing on a mat held by two of their compatriots.  The leaps are high and fast but never particularly thrilling.   The Russian folk music and choreography helps produce the energy to put it  over.

At last Justin is rewarded and is made an official member of the circus cast with the presentation of his own costume.

42ft starts off with promising burst of creativity and maintains the excitement level with a few solid acts early on, but the second half sags lacking a knockout turn or two.


Monte Carlo From Afar

I was unable to attend the Monte Carlo Festival this year, but friends whom I have come to know over the many years of attending have kindly offered their impressions of this year’s  two highlights.  These are collaborated nicely by the extensive photo gallery the Festival has been kind enough to provide.

From Peter Shaw comes the following:

I actually thought that  show 1 was the best I have seen in the 14 years we have been going.  This was largely due to Gia Eradze’s group of 70 performers from his Russian Circus Royal, together with Martin Lacey.  Don Stacey agreed with me that Martin is at the very top of his game now with  a troupe of 24 animals.  It has everything—spectacle, drama and emotion.  It was just a beautiful  thing to watch and deserved the immediate standing ovation and loud cheering followed by a gold clown.

Gia’s troupe was largely based on the most spectacular and over the top costumes you’ve ever seen. The horse and gypsy act after an enthusiastic dance opening was quite something. There were gasps from the audience as the horse leapt into the air dancing with the gypsy girl around the ring.  However, even more impressive were the Faberge eggs.  The six large eggs opened to reveal a female dancer, then closed and opened once more to reveal her male partner, but the beautiful dancing developed into a multiple 13 person quick change act.  I just loved it.  No.  It was better than that as it built, accompanied by the most beautiful music to a wonder climax.

Some people have said that Gia’s contribution dominated the show, which it did and was not really circus but more a theatrical performance. I don’t care.  I loved it anyway.  He, of course, won the other gold.

Dominique Jando added the following information:

Gia has the most successful circus company in Russia. He is the Liberace of the circus world, and a very nice person.  He started as an animal assistant at SoyuzGosTsirk.  Then he became a Cossack rider and then an animal trainer from exotic animals to tigers and finally he became a producer.

Two of Eradze’s acts got Silver Clowns  independently from the Gold for the ensemble.

After his Monte Carlo win Gia Eradze was named the new artistic director of RosGosTsirk, the organization that regulates the circus business in Russia. It has not had an artistic director since the days of the old Soviet Union.  Eradze has three units of the “Royal Circus” currently under the RosGosTsirk banner.