Editor’s Fanfare Vol. IX, No. 1



A Year of Surprises

Miles White, who designed the costumes and décor for twelve productions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1941 to 1957 kept as his guiding mantra the invocation to constantly surprise his audiences. Having personally seen all but one of those productions I can attest to the fact that he realized his ambition over and over again, especially in the always surprising spectacles the circus staged during those years.

Over the many years I have spent reviewing circuses the one thing I have always hoped to experience at any circus was that element of surprise. In the sixteen circus performances I took in this past year I am happy to report that there have been many unanticipated surprises that delighted me to the point of renewing my love of the circus.

The most recent of these was the hoop juggling of Michele Clarkin in Cirque du Soleil’s holiday show at the theater in Madison Square Garden. In the opening moments of the show titled Twas the Night Before…what looked like a hula hoop was placed at the foot of the bed of the character played by Clark.  Seeing that I thought, “Oh, no!  They are not going to put a hula hoop act in a Cirque show.”    To my complete surprise Clark’s act was absolutely wonderful. Her hoops were somewhat smaller in diameter than the usual hula hoops, and she spun them in patterns of movement that were hypnotically mystifying and had little resemblance to an ordinary hula hoop act.  The act deserved to be the penultimate offering of the show as it caught me by complete surprise and lifted the proceedings to a magical level it had not yet attained.

A few weeks earlier I saw Slava’s Snow Show.  It reprieved much of Slava’s work that I had found so startling and moving years ago when I first saw him in Cirque’s Alegria.  His work was so surprising because it was an unexpected combination of pathos and comedy, the kind of comedy if it can be called that we have not seen since Charlie Chaplin and perhaps Red Skelton at his best.  The images he created the first time I saw his work were so indelibly moving that they have remained with me all these years and were as satisfying as ever seen again many years later, proving that the thrill of a surprise has a long shelf life.

Across town from Slava’s show the Big Apple Circus’ newest iteration brought audiences an act so thrilling in its daring and so exciting in its movement using a rigging that was so novel  everything about the act was continually surprising,   Although the NY Times reviewer completely ignored this act I said it alone was worth the price of admission.  Some people just don’t know what they are seeing.

Last winter I made my annual visit to Circus Sarasota. This year‘s production featured an act that took me completely by surprise.  The Kolev Sisters from Italy presented a hand to hand balancing act that was an awe inspiring display of strength and balance without so much as a hint of exertion or sweat that matched and in many cases exceeded what pairs of male acrobats in similar acts are able to accomplish.  Here was the perfect and unexpected physical illustration of that Irving Berlin song, “Anything You Can do (I Can Do Better).”

Daniele Finzi Pasca is a director whose work I always look forward to seeing. He has staged several Cirque shows , as well as others for Cirque Eloize and his own company.  The reason for my anticipation is because I know he will find lots of delightful ways of surprising me.  His most recent Cirque production Luzia was no exception.  Always fascinated by water and rain, in Luzia Pasca finds new and fascinating ways of incorporating these elements into his production, ways that always provided surprising, gorgeous visual delights.

I had been hoping to see Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs present their new brand of comedy for quite some time. I finally caught up with them at the Big E this past fall.  Their new comedy act is basically a vaudevillian turn with singing and dancing, which comes as a surprise given their previous work as knock about clowns given to sight gags and outrageous props.  Here there is still an element of the clown to their work, but we get to know them as personalities more than we ever did when they were wearing full classic clown makeup.  The surprise is discovering that there is more to their talents than we had formerly seen.

Sxip Shirley’s music in the Bindlestiff’s Brooklyn Abridged was another surprise.  One doesn’t go to a circus expecting to be delighted by the music, but  Shirley’s brand of music is unique. It cannot be considered mere background accompaniment.  He is a circus all by himself.  He was seated prominently on stage throughout the show and given his physical appearance and the way in which he extracts music from the number of unique devices he employs he provided as much fun as any of the acts.

A visit to Circus Flora predictably provides many surprises from the St. Louis Arches, that band of inexhaustible young acrobats who always seem to have one more trick with which to astound us before they completely knock themselves out. This year’s Flora also featured one of the best flying acts that I have seen in a long time.  The Flying Royals  work off a rigging in the form of a cross duplicating that which was used by the Flying Otaris, Ringling’s legendary flying act from the 1930s.  This rigging provides three stations for flyers to take off from and a fourth for the catcher, creating the kind of constant, uninterrupted thrilling action that is not common to most flying acts.  The closest anything I have formerly seen that  compares goes back to 1999 and the French all aerial circus Les Arts Sauts

And finally there is Circus Smirkus, whose performance unfailing provides a series of surprises in the way the acts are presented and by the youth and professionalism of the troupe.

Such surprises are what I hope to experience any time I attend a circus performance, and they keep me going back for more.   Obviously this past year has provided a good many of them.