The Passing Spectacle Vol. IX, No. 1


Cirque Dresses Up in Holiday Glitter in NYC

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.


Cirque Mechanic Pays Homage to the Original Circus Ring


Cirque Mechanic was founded in 2004 by Chris Lashua, who has been fascinated by things with wheels his entire life.  The company grew out of a collaboration with San Francisco’s Circus Center and their remarkable production Birdhouse Factory, which remains to my mind one of the most creatively exciting circus productions produced by American artists.  With its unique approach to circus production Cirque Mechanic moved on to other work tying Lashua’s love of mechanical devices to a story line all of which was supported by equally unique skilled circus artists.  That combination moved me to call it “the greatest contribution to the American circus since Cirque du Soleil,” an accolade I still stand by today.  Their stories are more realistic than the fantasies so popular with other  circus companies searching for a theme to hang their shows upon.  Since Birdhouse the company has created Boomtown, set in a mining town of the old West and featuring mining vehicles used to inspire novel circus acts.  Their next production was Pedal Punk, whose titled pretty well tells us what the inspiration for that show was.

Their latest production is 42ft, a Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels, which immediately tells us it is a work conceived by Cirque Mechanic.   The 42ft of the title refers to the ideal dimensions of a circus ring which has prevailed for all of the 250 years of circus history throughout the world.

I first saw this show this past February in one of its tour stops nearby at the Raritan Valley Community College Performing Arts Center in New Jersey.  Essentially the show remains much the same as it was in that venue, so I don’t want to belabor its shortcomings.

Instead let’s take another look at the strongest acts in the show. At the top of the list for me, surprisingly enough, is strong man Battulga Battogtokh.  It isn’t just his impressive feats of strength and juggling that make his two appearances so successful, it’s his ability to relate to the audience.  He has a strong and amicable connection to the audience and it’s a pleasure to be in his company.

In my original review I noted that the problem inherent in such an act is convincing the audience that the balls he is juggling are actually heavy.   The current staging has found an acceptable solution which involves dropping one of the balls on a stick of wood and snapping it in half, allowing us to buy into the authenticity of the act. Cleverly done.

The next most successful in this respect is slack wire artist Esther De Monteflores , who in addition to maintaining a sly connection with the audience also adds a beguiling sense of style to her work on the wire. In this respect she is very ably assisted by the original score of Michael Picton.

As far as skill goes the most accomplished is the aerial duo of Elijah Newton and Nikki Unwin. Their act is so complex and daring it is perfectly reasonable that they should become self-absorbed.  After all, their life and limbs depended on that sort of concentration.

Since the show is called 42ft, and is meant as an homage to the original circus ring created 250 years ago by Philip Astley the production would seem to require the appearance of at least one horse.  And so it does.  Not a real flesh and blood animal, but one of Lashua’s mechanical contrivances rigged up to look and act like a circus pony upon whose broad back Tatiana Vasilenko performs a fine ball bouncing act.  The movement of the horse around the ring adds to the complexity and interest of the act.

I should also point out that I found Picton’s music a great asset throughout. Along with Sean Riley’s setting , Caroline Rogers’ costumes and Anthony Powers and Joe D’Emilio’s lighting the production nicely invokes a circus of another era.

Maike Schulz’s Photo Gallery of 42ft can be found in Vol. VIII,  No. 2