Passing Spectacle Vol. VIII, No. 8

Big Apple Circus Justifies Its Name

The Big Apple Circus is celebrating its hometown this year: New York City with all its diversity, variety and even one of its most iconic if prosaic characters, the ubiquitous and lowly street pigeon. This foul fowl is being impersonated quite convincingly by Amy Gordon (aka Amy G) even going so far as to twice duplicate one of this bird’s least attractive habits of dropping its calling card on unsuspecting pedestrians.  That may give you some idea of the free-wheeling nature of this production which indeed has other extraordinary flights of fancy and light as a feather whimsy.

Let’s start with the most extraordinary aerial act I have seen in a very long time, one that delivers the unexpected surprise that makes a visit to any circus more than worth the price of admission. Billed simply as The Aliev Troupe, this large group of aerial acrobats combines elements of the Russian barre, casting and the flying trapeze into an exciting novelty that is both thrilling and elegant at the same time.  Because of the complexity of the action the rigging on which all this takes place is a wonder of technology that allows it to transform itself into various configurations as needed.     Of course working on a Russian barre some twenty-five to forty feet in the air is gaspingly amazing in itself, but the beauty of the flights from several female members of the troupe as they are tossed from catcher to catcher is every bit as breathtaking.

Another act that combines beauty of movement with extraordinary skill is Kyle Driggs umbrella juggling. This is an act I am always happy to see on the bill for it is easily one of my favorites.  I have in the past compared Driggs work to that of Fred Astaire.  For the sake of variety this time let’s say he is the Baryshnikov of juggling. His moves from moment to moment have become more balletic, and his props seem to float from hand to hand as deftly and effortlessly as Baryshnikov might land one of his dazzling leaps.

Another of the performance’s surprises was delivered by a hand-balancing duo billed as Dupla Mao Na Roda, in which one partner works out of a wheel chair and into the hands of his partner.  It is an amazing display of courage and fortitude, done without having to ask for sympathy.  It is simply too good for that.

The show opens on a literal high with Duo Strap, two women, working on a pair of straps, sometimes rather aggressively but always daring and impressively risky.

A pleasant reminder of what the circus once was is provided by the bareback rider Caleb who was recently seen in Circus Flora. Here he seems stronger and more confident, completing his backward somersault from horse to horse on his first try.  Caleb projects a sunny personality that fills the ring when he is on.

The high wire act of the Lopez Troupe and Jayson Dominguez on the Wheel of Death both provide what amounts to the standard repertoire of thrills that these acts are designed to deliver, and they do so with polish and flare.

The company also includes the seventy-nine-year-old legendary juggler Hovey Burgess, who makes several brief appearance, mainly to provide, by virtue of his age, another aspect of the city’s diversity.

A troupe of domestic felines, the Savitsky Cats, add an element of novelty with their amazingly obedient and pliable nature not normally associated with house cats. The same arguments about the abuse of the big cats which have been banished seemingly forever, could also be applied here, it would seem.

A pair of Chinese Pole artists, The Explosion Duo, is an act mainly devoid of thrills or excitement and certainly in need of the propping up provided by three backup dancers.  Their closing trick, which is becoming increasingly popular in such acts, is, as it should be, their most impressive.

The theme of diversity is first introduced by the Afro-Latina ringmaster Storm Marrero.  The term “ringmaster” used by the circus itself may be a sexist term which is not only inappropriate but out of date. (The duties fulfilled by someone acting as a ringmaster has been growing increasingly superfluous in the contemporary circus for some time). It might be more appropriate to refer to this person as the host.  As such she is quite pleasant and at time adds some exciting vocalizing to the proceedings, especially in combination with Amy Gordon.

Comedienne Amy Gordon as our fine feathered friend brings her trademark edgy comedy to bear with happy results, always willing to push the envelope of what is in good taste.  Her solo turn on roller skates is a thorough-going delight in all respects.

The untitled show has been directed by the mother/son duo Cecil MacKinnon & Jack Marsh, adding yet another dash of diversity.

In order to fully appreciate how far the current edition of the Big Apple Circus has moved  from the circus produced by Paul Binder and Michael Christensen one has only to compare the style and tone of ringmasters Paul Binder and Afro-Latina Storm Marrero. We have moved from the smooth elegance and authority of Binder to the funky, low keyed gee-whiz delivery of Marrero.  This is not necessarily a criticism; it is intended only to illustrate the varying different experiences one may have under the big top of the two managements.

 

Slava’s SnowShow Blows Something New

and Something Faniliar Our Way

 

I first encountered the Russian clown Slava Polunin’s work twenty-four years ago in 1995 when he was appearing in Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria, a credit which his bio oddly does not acknowledge.

That was where audiences were first moved by what amounts to much of the closing segment of the current edition of Slava’s SnowShow, all of which goes to prove that when a clown creates an entrée that works and to which audiences respond, clowns the world over retain such work in their repertoire, in some cases that single entrée becoming their entire repertoire.

This particular entrée begins with a coat and hat hanging on a coat tree. These props morph into a mysterious character, which seems to come alive when Slava sidles up to it and the two exchange what is, when I first saw him perform this, a poignant moment of unspoken but heartfelt sentiment.  It seems somewhat less sentimental now for some reason, but it remains an undeniable bit of theatrical magic as one character convincingly becomes two.

In the pre-show minutes as the audience begins to form we hear the chug of distant train engines and the plaintive cry of their whistle. For anyone who saw Alegria this must bring to mind the moving moment when Slava transforms himself into a train(as he does again here), eventually parting the two characters he has previously created, inducing a palpable sense of pathos.

A good deal of the whimsy, humor and spectacle that is a major part of the show now must be attributed to the people who produced the scenery, props and special effects that originated in the creative mind of Slava Polunin along with Viktor Plotnikov.

Slava himself does not appear very much in the first half of the current performance. That is left to his eight clown assistants who are made up much like Slava, and all wear the same distinctive comic costume.  They perform ever changing bits that are sometimes amusing but always provocatively surrealistic.

At the beginning of the second half the ensemble invades the audience and engages in variously aggressive assaults. This bit of intimacy is greeted by the audience with wild enthusiasm.

During this half of the performance audience participation enlivens the proceedings considerably. This is particularly true of the efforts of the various clowns to conduct the rise and fall of the audience’s vocal responses.  This is a technique I first saw Rob Torres use to great effect. Here it becomes an ensemble piece as the various comic styles of conducting and a growing enthusiasm from the audience to participate keep it going.  The clowns are happy to oblige until it seems they will never stop, which is part of the joke.

Finally Slava reappears to enliven the proceedings once again with the series of images I have already described, ultimately bringing the performance to a conclusion with a blinding blizzard which, in its realism, threatens to blow us out of our seats.

In speaking with Slava during a brief interview before the show’s opening night, he said this kind of entertainment is what the world needs now, especially its sense of playfulness and joy. To promote that in his own theatrical company he has a rule that the last cast member to arrive at the theatre before the traditional half-hour call must bring a cheese cake to the theatre the following night.  He also notes that although the company numbers eight there are only seven costumes.  So in a version of musical chairs one cast member sits out each performance. This sounds like fun but it strikes me as a policy impossible to enforce.  Each member of the cast has his own specific moments in which he is featured.  To have to keep juggling who does what and when each night would seemingly lead to maddening chaos.  If in fact that is what actually happens this flexibility is extraordinarily impressive.

Slava’s SnowShow originally debuted in New York City in 2004.  It is currently playing a limited engagement on Broadway through January 5, 2020 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd St, west of Broadway.

The many faces of Slava!

            

 

 

 

Cirque Gets Dressed in Holiday Glitter

In the opening moments of ”‘Twas the Night Before …,” Cirque du Soleil’s Yuletide package designed to brighten the season at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theatre, we meet Isabella, a plugged-in teenager who is totally disinterested in her father’s gift of a silver hoop which she ignores until the penultimate segment of the show.  Until then she appears only sporadically throughout the proceedings which unevenly vary back and forth  from the  unexciting to the ultimately spectacular while her father tries to win her over to the Christmas spirit by reading certain sections of Clement Moore’s beloved classic poem.

The opening act, after the to do with Isabella and her father, is a strap act performed by a duo who consistently manage to tangle themselves up with each other to the point of becoming a blur.

A cigar box juggler, whose boxes are a pale collection of Christmas presents, does little to enliven the proceedings. This is too intimate an act for the cavernous Hulu Theatre. It fails, therefore, to make much of an impression.  Although I must also say I have seen much better practitioners of this art so it isn’t entirely the props’ fault.

Table tumbling by a group pajama clad acrobats represent the poem’s children nestled all snug in their bed.   They may have started the night tucked in but they soon become rambunctiously playful  engaging in an amusing series of pratfalls and comic tumbling.  It’s the show’s first suggestion of humor, and it is a most welcome if uncharacteristic display of a sense of humor from a Cirque du Soleil company act.

Interspersed throughout the circus turns a group of six dancers bounce their  merry way through a collection of hip-hopped versions of familiar Christmas music.  They are never less than entertaining and do manage to keep things moving at a jaunty pace , but for a time they also leave one wondering when Cirque’s trademark jaw dropping acrobatics will take over.

Certainly not in a bit of contortion in and around one of the most unusual pieces of apparatus seen in a Cirque or for that matter any other show. Its a luggage trolley, the sort of piece one is likely to encounter in a hotel lobby when checking in or out. The lithe beauty who performs on this novelty displays a suppleness that is quite admirable but only vaguely entertaining.  On to the dancers.

The action is given a great boost of energy by the appearance of the inline skating team of Rosie Axon and Adam Jukes who eschew the raised circular disc most such acts confine themselves  to .  The result is equally as exciting with a dash of lyricism added thanks to use of an expanded stage.

Late in the performance the soaring hymn “O Holy Night” is sung as an accompaniment to a fabric act.  I have expressed my feelings on the inappropriateness of this music for almost any circus act.  But the music seems irresistible to circus artists.  But for me, I don’t care how poetic an act aspires to be, which happens to be the case in this instance.  Nonetheless  it always seems to me to border on sacrilege, or just plain tackiness especially when it is sung and the lyrics are meant  to match someone doing contortions on a fabric sling.  If this music belongs on any stage it is the Radio City Music Hall during its nativity pageant rather than in a circus.

A male pantomiming the moves of a cat around a female drawn from the audience and stretched out on a sleigh bed is also of questionable taste for what is supposed to be a holiday treat.  This is an act I had previously seen in Kurios, when it seemed so much more hilarious, even to the point of doubling audiences over with laughter.  I couldn’t quite tell why it seemed so much less successful here  as it moved toward the  distasteful.

Magically lighted diablos provide a much needed shot of fascination, as those manipulating them keep the lighted projectiles sailing along at an  amazing pace and flying over great distances where they are amazingly plucked out of the air.

A solo turn on a single strap to which was fixed a shaded light bulb proved to be impressive up to a point after which it began to feel too long and repetitious.  The fact that it is one of three similar acts doesn’t help make it more interesting.

Eventually we come back to that discarded hoop and Michele Clark as Isabella. Those she uses here are smaller in diameter than the standard hula hoop, and therein lies all the difference.  Here they are magically manipulated as if they were mystical objects that seem to have a life of their own independent of any  interference from a human being.  The effect is mesmerizing, as they often seem to be floating on air, responding to the slightest touch.

More hoops next appear for Santa’s eight reindeer who dive through them, thus elevating the excitement level to its highest point and not a minute too soon.   The act is so cleverly choreographed that there is never a lull in the action. Someone or several are always leaping through or being thrown through a variety of hoops at different heights.

Finally, with our spirits newly lifted and aglow, we are ready for the joyous finale involving the entire cast, including a visit from old St. Nick.

The show which runs thru Dec. 29 was written and directed by James Hadley, with choreography by Vinh Nguyen Kinjaz, costumes by James Lavoie, setting by Genevieve Lizotte, acrobatic choreography nu Edesia Moreno and lighting by Nicolas Brion.