The Passing Spectacle Vol. VIII, No. 5

Bindlestiffs Stage a Tribute to their Favorite Borough 

The Bindlestiff’s latest production begins with the appearance of Sxip Shirey, the show’s musical creator. The spelling of Shirey’s first name may give you some indication of this genius’ persona.  He sports a  bouffant hairdo reminiscent of another genius Albert Einstein.  His facial expression reveals an impish penchant for mischief.  The fact that Shirey opens the show is entirely appropriate despite its being titled Brooklyn Abridged, for in almost all respects this is really his show.  He is on stage for the entire performance highly visible despite his upstage position at stage right.  The percussionist is in a balancing position at stage left.  The sound scape the two produce by a wild assortment of strange and wonderful gadgets invests the performance with a manic energy that is just about the best argument for live music in a circus that one would be lucky enough to come across, especially when it is created specifically for the circus.

Shirey, by the way, dates his association with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus to the company’s very beginning, and before returning for this gig his work has been performed at the Sydney Opera House , the Cleveland Museum of Art and NYC’s Highline.   His work for a 300 person choir will be performed in Rockefeller Center, NYC this July.  So despite his taste for the bizarre his work is recognized by the high brow art world as well as the circus, proving once more that they are not such strange bedfellows.

As for Brooklyn Abridged, despite its title,  not much in it makes reference to that imposing, iconic structure. But for a monologue on the bridge’s history and later a toast to the borough’s various neighborhoods both delivered by Keith Nelson, there is little to remind us of where we are supposed to be.  The problem with Nelson’s monologue, at least on the night I saw the show, was that the sound system tended to garble his words leaving us with only a vague understanding of the bridge’s unique and significant history.

The production is credited to writer, director and designer David Gallo Design. In pursuit of filling all those roles Gallo has choreographed the introductory moments with some energetically delivered foot traffic and by placing along the back wall some visuals of the Brooklyn sky line that become animated during various acts which can be both a distraction or an amusing backdrop.

And then, of course, there are the acts, performed by a cast of just seven multi-talented performers who double in brass. Is there a working circus performer these days who doesn’t have at least two acts in his repertoire to offer? Not all their acts, however, are of equal power and excitement.

Ermiyas Muluken presents a very effective free standing ladder act and later a rola bola display. His work is considerably more secure in the opening segment.  His work with the ladder reminded me of Fred Astaire’s dance with a hat tree, as the prop actually becomes an effective partner.

The latest iteration of the conventional hula hoop act is provided by Cassady Rose Bonjo whose electrified hoops twinkle  in a variety of patterns that more or less make the artist’s manipulation of the prop more or less superfluous.  Bonjo’s second act begins with her emerging out of a suitcase and eventually ascending  into an aerial sling.  Despite the novelty of beginning the act and its conclusion back into that suitcase, this sort of aerial act has never been among my favorite as it makes the artist look like a netted fish.

The first of Esther de Monteflore’s two acts is a rather mild version of cigar box manipulation.  Her second turn, on the slack wire, is more stylish, giving it a distinctive, personal touch not seen in her earlier act.

Kenneth Stephen Neil reveals his dance background in several appearances, most notably a lyrical turn on the corde lisse and later in a flag manipulation display.

Yoni Kallai and Angela Buccinni add a pleasant touch of humor to their work together in an adagio/hand balancing act that is nicely appealing.  Later they return for a constricted version of a perch pole act.  The problem here is the height of stage.  With that limitation the couple is unable to attempt any of the really astounding feats usually associated with this kind of presentation.

As one can see these are mostly strong circus acts, but what repeatedly elevates them insofar as their level of excitement and drama is concerned is that they are accompanied by what amounts to a perfect musical accompaniment. This really serves to pull the audience in and give each performance a sense of constantly rising action.

In between the circus acts Keith Nelson, the co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, demonstrates a variety of classic sideshow turns that are delivered with the perfect sideshow pitch man’s slyly suggestive vocal delivery and physical mannerisms. With his well-honed glib patter Nelson is the embodiment of the old-time sideshow pitch man who may or may not be entirely legitimate, but is nonetheless always irresistible, just as this show turns out to be.


Kelly Miller Has a Split Personality

The latest version of the Kelly Miller Circus, now in its second year under the aegis of Jim Judkins, played West Creek, NJ, a small town in the Jersey shore area, in late June. As it turned out it was the beginning of a very difficult period for the show, as we shall document in the FYI section.  But for now let’s concentrate on the performance I saw.

This version of the show was really two distinct offerings: one aimed directly and exclusively for young kids and their parents and the other for adult circus fans with a series of relatively brief displays of traditional skills.

The kiddie show was in the hands of a new, young ringmaster, Nikolas Strubbe, who managed to win even the adults in attendance to his side.  He is young, well spoken, and handles himself professional ly but his gags if they can even be called that are definitely aimed at kids, several of whom join him in the ring on several occasions.  He even had the adults responding to each and every cue thrown their way calling for cheers, guffaws and broad smiles.  He whipped up their enthusiasm merely by suggesting they were having a grand old time, and they bought into it.

He was even better at handling the large contingent of moppets in the audience, engaging them directly with several rather lame, but apparently highly amusing gags for those at whom they were aimed.  One involved a juggling lesson, another a tight rope walking fiasco, some magic involving card tricks, and of course the peanut pitch.  In the evening show he had every kid in attendance involved in holding up a tight rope upon which he managed to take a few steps.  A great time was had by all.  Each of these episodes lasted between seven and eleven minutes.  Time enough for me to slip out of the big top for some fresh air and to escape for a few minutes the hard metal seats of the bleacher seating.

With that strategy I ended up having to punish my rear send for little more than twenty minutes. That is the approximate amount of time allotted to the adult portion of the show.  None of the nine acts ran for more than two or three minutes.

What with the preponderance of the program aimed at the youngest members of the audience a logo I saw painted on one of the trucks for the first time: “Entertaining families since 1938” suddenly made the format make sense.

The Rosales family opened the adult portion of the show with some club passing and then later impressed with a perch pole act. One of the young men in the act, introduced simply as Jonathan,  also appeared in a rather limited routine on the Washington trapeze.

Miss Deya offered some standard moves with hula hoops, and Mergen, a member of the Mongolian troupe contributed a brief display of hand balancing, whose final trick was working his way up a series of posts of graduating height on one hand.

Fridman Torales had more time in the ring with his rola bola act than almost any other act but for the Mongolians, two of whom, Mende and Zaiya, presented a typically short flight on a set of silks. This was one of the more captivating acts in the show, topped only by the other two displays presented by the acrobatic Mongolians billed as the Janger Troupe.  Their first appearance involved some spectacular flights and strong landings off the Russian swing.  In their second appearance, an exciting and surprising display of rope jumping, that involved some banquine style catches and  their final trick, a three high column that managed to stay upright and jump the rope at the same time.

This is the fifth year the Mongolians have been with Kelly Miller as soloists. In 2018 they began working as a large troupe.  The head of the troupe, Mendbayar Chuluunbaatar,  trained at Mongolian State Circus School, beginning when he was 15 and continued training for twenty years.  His wife, Chandmanizaya Iserendorj, is currently  pregnant ,due in March, but has continued to work the jump rope act holding one end of the rope even in a two high.