Passing Spectacle Vol. IX, No. 2

Monte Carlo 2020 Promotes Horses Rather than Elephants

The Monte Carlo International Circus Festival  had a surprise for its audiences this year, one I never expected to encounter here.  There were no elephants in either of the  festival’s two shows.  Every one of the many people I’ve come to know as friends at the festival and with whom  I spoke during our stay in Monaco remarked more on that fact that there were no elephants  than about any of the acts in the competition, and with good reason.  This was the first time in the 17 years that I have been attending the festival that there were no elephant acts.

There are of course several possible plausible explanations.  One is that no elephant act that had not been at the festival in recent years could be found that was available.

Another possible reason for the exclusion was that If the decision to bring the Knie family’s 30 horse carousel to Monte Carlo was made early on in the planning stage,  the cost involved would have seemed to prohibit assuming the added expense of inviting an elephant act .

One rumor had it that the number of stables outfitted with individual box stalls which were required to house the large number of horses involved in the Knie presentations  left no room on the grounds to house any elephants.

Or perhaps it was none of the above.  The festival simply decided it was not in its best interests to have elephants involved this year.  If that is the case, the message such a move sends can only be seen as detrimental to the circus community fighting to keep animals in the circus, for whatever the reason for their absence it will be proclaimed as a victory by the animal rights lobby.

Such a proclamation will, of course, ignore the presence on the bill of a tiger act that is by its very nature and style a repudiation of the argument that insists that animals in the circus are abused.  This was an act that demonstrated the intense bond between humans and animals on a physical and emotional level, and in so doing illustrated the very best in modern training technique.

This was an act that involved five white tigers and was presented by the Russian Sergey Nesterov, who works in the ring without a whip, using only a short stick to direct the tigers to where he wanted them to go.  Wearing a tunic and pants made of a rough looking clothe and working barefoot, the trainer appears not as some grand subjugator, but a humble human engaging the animals as playful partners.

I must say I came to the act with rather low expectations, as the advance word was that the act was slow and boring.  Slow it certainly was.  Boring not at all; quite the opposite.  It engaged the spectator  in a manner that approached  zen-like concentration.  The soft music , with orchestrations that seemed to be dominated by cellos at one point and a solo piano another, added to the quiet calm.  The act began with Nesterov discovered tangled in a group of his prostrate tigers.   Later he prostrates himself  across the backs of his five collaborators.  The deliberate, unhurried  moves eventually have the cats walking and lunging on their hind legs moving both forward and backward.   At one point the five tigers line up to create a wheel  that swept around the ring while Nesterov stood aside and watched with delight. 

Once the tigers depart Nesterov wrestles a female lion and rides her off.  By this time the audience was standing and cheering.  Obviously they knew very well what they had just witnessed and were showering Nesterov  with the same  appreciation he had displayed toward his animals.

But this was not the festival’s only thrill involving animals.  The Knie family, whom I had not seen in the festival for many years were the unquestioned stars this year, presenting four equestrian displays one more spectacular than the other, none more glorious than the aforementioned thirty horse carousel.  When the full contingent of horses had been deployed they circled the ring in concentric circles, every other circle moving in the opposite direction of those on either side.  In the midst of all this speed and the atmosphere of excitement created by the horses,  stood  Maycol  Errani, Fredy Knie Junior’s son-in-law, splendid in white tie and tails, his stillness intensifying the dramatic contrast to the whirlwind swirling around him. The very essence of elegance and perfection, he took our breath away with his supreme confidence, as the horses ran their course with only the subtlest of cues.

This was, of course, the culmination of the equestrian displays offered by the Knie family.  Prior to this we were treated to a dazzling display of horsemanship in a double version of the Hungarian Post Act in which the riders stand astride two mounts as a series of horses pass under  and between their legs .  As each horse passes , the rider reaches down and takes hold of its reins, so that by the finale each rider has, besides the two steeds he is riding, the reins of nine other horses he is controlling, filling the ring with twenty-two horses.  All of this moves at a breathtaking speed, with precise timing.  Here the daring riders are Ivan Frederic Knie, Fredy Knie Jr’s grandson and Wioris Errani.

The equestrian offerings are rounded out with two separate displays of smaller groups of liberty horses.  Maycol presents a group of six Friesians while seated aboard another gorgeous  specimen of the same breed.  Ivan Frederic Knie also rides a Friesian while he directs the moves of fourteen Arabians in two different groups.  Both liberty displays conclude as several of the horses return individually, galloping unrestrained, entering the arena with fiery energy before performing a series of  thrillingly  impressive hind leg walks and turns that top off the displays with the most dramatic of statements.

One of the three winners of the Golden Clown award was the Flying Tuniziani.  (The others were unsurprisingly the Knie family and the Martinez Brothers, whom I will discuss a bit later.)  A number of Americans, including  Neil Kahanovitz and his wife Suzanne were in attendance to cheer them on.  It was Kahanovitz who brought them to the Big Apple Circus after their contract with Ringling expired.  It was while the troupe was on the Big Apple that Ahmed, the youngest member of the troupe,  developed the quad to the point where he threw it at most performances with an ever increasing rate of success.

The troupe works on a double rigging, so that on occasion two flyers may be in the air at the same time.  At one point in their routine both Ahmed and another flyer complete triples in quick succession.  The same unidentified flyer also completes a double with a double pirouette to be caught by his feet.  On his return from the triple Ahmed executes a beautiful double pirouette to the fly bar.  All this is capped off with the quad, surely one of the most spectacular tricks in the entire circus repertoire .

Each act performs twice in the competition.  Ahmed completed the quad on his first attempt in the first show and on the second try in the second show, each time bringing the audience to its feet for a standing and jubilant ovation. What a thrill to have witnessed both.

The other winner of the gold was the Martinez Brothers, whose risley act is unique in all the world.  Their act quickly works its way through the standard repertoire of such icarian games, with perhaps greater speed than usual: forward and backward somersaults, landing feet to feet after a double back somersault.  It is the act’s finale, that sets it apart from any other such troupes.  The cradle is set on a hydraulic platform that rises to a height of 8 meters, repeating the earlier tricks as the platform rises.  Once it reaches its ultimate height the brothers begin a series of 50 rapid flips as the platform descends.  What makes all this so suspenseful is that the violent motion of the tricks causes the platform to vibrate visibly, adding a sense of danger and tension to the work that is unmistakably palpable.   

One of my favorite acts which took home silver was a Russian barre act called The Dandy’s.  From their name one can tell this was an act that displayed enormous style and humor.  Dressed as a trio of dudes they danced their way with tongue in cheek dandiness through the most exciting display of flights and spectacular landings I have been lucky enough to see in a long time, all without ever seeming to take themselves too seriously   This is a winning combination in any exhibition .   Here the sheer nonchalance took us by surprise as the flyer began with what most such acts usually end with, and then goes on to consistently top itself.   It was, in all respects an absolute delight.

Another of the winners of the Silver Clown was the Chinese Acrobatic Troupe of Shandong, which presented three acts, a female ensemble of sixteen showing plate spinning, a smaller male group in rope jumping and a mixed group of twenty-four hat jugglers.   To understand the Chinese approach to acrobatics I refer you to a Yiddish word “Dayenu,” which means that would have been enough, as in “If God had  only (insert your favorite blessing or miracle) that would have been enough.”  But what is ordinarily enough  for others for the Chinese enough is just the beginning.

In the first of these displays, what would have been simply enough is the art of plate spinning.  All the young women enter spinning four or five plates  on long slender canes in each hand.  (It was difficult to make out the exact number they were spinning so fast). That was, of course, just the beginning.  Then they incorporated elements of risley, balancing two knives point to point held in the mouth, moving splits in a series of two high columns and finally building ever more complicated and higher pyramids. 

The rope jumping was apparently a last minute replacement as the boys wore no special costumes , but worked in warm-up clothes, once again complicating the jumping and  bringing the act to a finale as a three high pyramid moved as one unit jumping the turning rope.

My favorite of the three acts was the hat juggling, as joyous an expression of object manipulation and acrobatics as one could hope to see.  The joy evident in the grins worn by the ensemble makes it all just about irresistible, as they move from pattern to pattern without ever stopping those hats from flying.  Once again it all ends, but far too soon,  in a pyramid this time four high.

One of the enduring problems the festival seems to have difficulty in overcoming is providing comic relief that is actually funny or at least amusing.  That was overcome somewhat this year thanks to the presence of a clown simply named Henry.  Each of his three appearances were tolerably brief and entertaining.  The last, an entrée set in an Italian restaurant and drawing laughs from tangled string of spaghetti .  Another gambit was reminiscent of a Bill Irwin bit of pantomimed stair climbing and descending.  But what was really remarkable about Henry is that he ultimately appeared with a highwire troupe, The Ayalas.  With these three wire walkers , Henry drops the comedy after a single gag and plays it straight for the remainder of this troupe’s daring exploits that includes a heart stopping leap from the shoulders of one man (Henry) to the shoulders of another several feet away.  Henry makes a solo contribution to the thrills with his blindingly fast rope skipping.  The act was another Silver Clown  winner.

You may have  noticed in this review what appears to be a bias toward large, troupe acts when it comes to awarding the top prizes.  In addition to the troupes named above as winners, three other groups won Bronze:  Troupe Efimov, who performed floor gymnastics, Five Boys from the Bingo Circus, who combined Chinese pole and hand balancing, and Troupe Zola, a Mongolian contignent who worked on the teeterboard.  The only  other act to win a Bronze Clown, Flash of Splash, was  a two person strap act featuring a male and female who took turns supporting each other with an iron jaw apparatus.   Solos and duos, of which there were ten in the competition, have to be extraordinary to make an impression amidst all this high powered ensemble work.

Of course one can hardly fault a festival of the size and reputation as the Monte Carlo Festival for emphasizing the spectacular.  Why then were there no elephants on the bill as well?