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!