Features, Vol. I, No. 6.

Two Pals Off Stage Make a Comic Couple on Stage

It was one of Ringling’s three show days, with barely time enough between performances for the performers to relax and get ready for the next show.  Despite the inconvenience of the timing Johnathan Lee Iverson ringmaster of the current Dragons showed up for our conversation as eager to talk and as full of energy as he exudes in the ring.  He arrived in mufti, having quickly gotten out of costume.  With him was Paulo dos Santos, his diminutive co-star from Brazil, who sat next to Johnathan beaming with pride and grinning with delight as the ringmaster showered him with compliments.

During our conversation we arranged for Maike Schulz, our photographer, to take some shots of the two of them in costume when they came off at intermission in the next show.  When the time came for that shot, Johnathan seemed willing to stay on for as long as we wanted, but his wife, who was serving as stage manager that day, hustled him off to make a costume change.

We saw him again after the second show and the strain and exhaustion was beginning to show as he greeted friends, but none of that could be detected in his performance of the final show.  He was full out energy, charm and selling it for all he was worth.

As this production was being prepared Johnathan faced a situation he was not altogether unfamiliar with.  He was told that he would be working with someone who would be his co-star and foil.  That, of course, was Paulo.

“It’s been a fascinating experience, and for me a very  humbling one,” he began.  Initially I was apprehensive about working with someone who might be considered a sidekick because I am a loner.  Traditionally you leave the ringmaster alone.” I doubt Johnathan is aware of it, but these are the same sentiments he expressed when he was told he was going to work with Bello Nock several years ago, during his first run with the circus.  And we all know how that turned out.  Pretty well, I’d say. It worked to the advantage of both stars.

The same can easily be said of his co-starring stint with Paulo. His initial reaction on meeting the diminutive, versatile performer was simple surprise.  As they began working together, however, and Paulo’s many talents began to be revealed Johnathan says that  he was simply impressed. “He can become whatever you need.  He’s very pliable.

“He’s also the athlete I wish I was.  It’s a strange irony, you know.  I am a waste of six foot five inches,” he says with a bit of charming self-deprecation.  “Paulo’s both an amazing athlete and an amazing performer.  All my apprehensions ceased immediately on meeting him.”  And besides that he is very easy to get along with, he says, pointing out the obvious.  Paulo seems universally adored backstage.

But it’s onstage or in the ring where he really shines.  “He has so much presence,” Johnathan continues to effuse. “It’s a really fascinating thing, because obviously he’s this little person, but he’s not.  He’s like a giant when he lights up, and it’s been a grand learning experience for me and, I think, our audiences as well, because the thing I hear from people all the time is, ‘Man, I don’t even think about him being a little person.’  They are so caught up  [in his performance].”

A friend of Johnathan’s he reveals, just wants to squeeze him. “He likes that, of course.” And judging from the grin on Paulo’s face, he surely does. “I like it insofar as the show is concerned;” Johnathan adds.  “He makes the show come alive.  It’s so easy to work with someone like that.  It’s like we have a jazz band.  We improvise off one another.  We can just feel a situation.  I don’t even have to tell him.  He catches it.  He has a vast imagination.  He does physically what I do vocally.  It’s wonderful to watch and to work with him.”

Since the cast of the show not only works, but lives together and shares social as well and  professional time, the two stars have come to know each other on another level.  Seeing Paulo in this aspect of the business has convinced the ringmaster that his partner is a truly genuine and beautiful human being, and “you know it because kids don’t lie.  The children of the show and those in the audience react so positively toward him.  But he’s very humble about it.”

“I don’t know if Ringling realizes the potential they have with him,” but to Johnathan his side kick is a man of great range.  He’s multi-lingual.  He speaks Portuguese, his native language, and then he also speaks Spanish and English.  That covers a huge market right there, Johnathan points out, and besides there’s also his fabulous personal story.

Growing up in Brazil Paulo became fascinated with the martial art known as capoeira, which Johnathan points out, jumping in, was begun by African slaves in Brazil.  So he began training and was spotted by one of the teachers at the best school of the sort in Brazil and was invited to come and train there.  When he arrived he was immediately rejected by the other students and teachers because of his size,  They wanted him out of the school.  His coach came to him and said he would train him privately when no one was around. Later Paulo entered an important competition at the school.  So impressed was everyone who attended their cheers were mixed with tears of joy seeing this little man conquer what to others appeared to be a handicap. Eventually Tim Holst found him and signed him to a contract.  The very next day Tim died.

“If I were P.T. Barnum,” Johnathan chimes in, “There would be a lot of things I would do with him.  Imagine the reach and the impact that he can have.  It is beyond anything we can imagine if done right.  Let’s say there are kids who think they have limitations, and they come and see him,” and they know that what they are seeing, in contrast to films, is real and live.  “You can’t fake it.”

“So here’s a person that is challenged like we are, they may think, but he can fly, he can do so many things.  For a kid who has insecurities to see that, wow, that would be terrific.  Just learning his craft was a challenge.  People have always been under estimating him.  I think secretly he thrives on that.  He has figured out a marvelous way of turning people’s opinions  around.  His story is right out of The Karate Kid.  Everywhere we go, he embodies the beauty and majesty of circus.    We are so much more than we limit ourselves to be.  And we learn, thanks to him, that we should not limit ourselves.  It makes me feel ashamed that I’ve wasted six foot five inches of myself.”

Even when the Dragons show was in its earliest planning stage the creators already had an idea of how they would use Paulo in the show. They immediately put him to work training on the aerial straps as soon as he got here.  “One of the wonders of his talents is that  he can do so many things,” Johnathan reminds us  He rides a motorcycle in the Globe of Steel.  He’s tumbling, riding an elephant, and generally charming everyone in range of his irresistible smile.  “He’s doing so many things,” Johnathan continues.  “He’s not limited.  When you have that type of talent, there is so much they can do with him and on top of that he has this personality.  In the middle of a performance he comes up with things that work.  That’s what I love about working the circus here. They allow you freedom to grow and expand.  Go for it, they say.  They know the performers.  And there is an affection there.  They really know their product, and they know you so well they just let it happen.

“During the creative process they just saw certain things working.  I could agree with that because I had a relationship with them.  And they are with him like that now.  That they can say. ‘Let’s try this.’”  And he’ll get it done.

The interaction of the two stars that is such a charming aspect of the production came about through a collaboration with the director.  “She was smart enough to let us have our lead.”

This is Johnathon’s second tour since returning from a foray into other aspects of the entertainment business. “I am happy to be back, because it is different from anything else in the world of show business.  When your coworkers are super athletes and seven hundred pound tigers, everything else is kind of dull.  Who wouldn’t want to be a movie star.  But now I know why those people go crazy.  After a wrap there is nothing.  I get to live with these people.  It’s all fake in Hollywood.  Nothing is fake here.  Paulo is very much a human being, and he  just happens to know how to fly.  We live with each other.  We have barbeques together.  We go to the park together.  There is a sense of community.  You live with this person and perform with this person, so there is a great intimacy.  There is also a danger because as ringmaster you want to be a little standoffish.  It’s a challenging thing mentally.  Outside we’re all goofballs.  Here everyone has these special gifts.  And you forget when you see them, that they’re human.”

As for Paulo, he loves the entire experience equally as much as Johnathan.  He does say his favorite part of his performance is the straps and the spec. “We play off each other in the second half,” Johnathon points out.  “He is the one who ends up conjuring the dragon, and he embodies all those attributes. I am just his voice.   I never feel like we are in each other’s way.  That was my biggest worry when I first met him.  Who is this guy?  But it’s been a seamless progression.”

As we were wrapping up the interview and getting a few last photos I asked Johnathan if he had given any thought to doing another show.  He was indeed, and he was shooting ideas to the Felds whom he said were open to suggestions, and these ideas could include another role for Paulo.

With a new circus production every year and several other ice shows and units on their plate, it is never too early for the Felds to start thinking about another show, and they are open to ideas from everyone.  “You know the wonderful thing about the Felds is that you can build your skills.  You never know [how they might be used].”  As for Paulo: “I think they should keep him around as long as they can.  They are open to ideas from everyone.”  So we may see a lot more of both these star performers.






Cirque  Eloize Continues to Reinvent Itself

One of the most unique circus-based shows I have seen in the past few years was Cirque Éloize’s Id.  Éloize was for a time Montreal’s other contemporary circus, smaller, performing on theatre stages and intimate than the behemoth from which it sprang.  Today it is one of many such circus companies that thrive in the Canadian air. To maintain its identity it has created several unique shows. Thus the connection to the show’s title, which I mistakenly concluded had something to do with Freud, but in fact was simply a short hand way of saying “identification.”

After working with the Daniel Finzi Pasca, the director of  company’s productions Rain, Nebia, and Nomad, Jeannot Painchaud, Éloize’s co-founder,  decided he didn’t want to go in the same direction again, “because our goal is always to try to reinvent ourselves. I needed to go somewhere else, find some fresh air.  I have always had a crush on street people because that is where we all came from, so the popularity of the hip hop and break dance and all that stuff, popped up in my head. The way urban dancers have gone from street to theater around the world, reminds me of the way we did it with the contemporary circus twenty years ago.  Those guys were dancing in the street in France ten years ago, and now they are doing shows inside the theater, and the mix of the different art forms of the street arts was the perfect match for the circus.”

The creation of Id also had another goal in mind, to broaden the market in which the company’s shows could play, from intimate theatres to large cultural arts centers.  So in the time since it has opened Id has played in both big and small theaters, for long and short engagements.  Sometimes the show is funded by sponsors, and at other times it has had longer commercial runs.

The show did a five week run in December and January at the Theatre Nationale de Chaillot  the most prestigious state theater in Paris. “It is where the big, important shows play, Painchaud explains. “It is a very high class place for culture.  Every performance there for the entire run was sold out, and then later in March we did an extended run in a commercial theatre, with a different producing partner and a different media partner, targeting the young people.  So here we were in the same city, with two months of performances before two totally different publics.”  The only difference in the show’s reception from venue to venue, Painchaud reports, was that the younger audience reaction was a lot louder.  The show was, after all, more their identity.  The audiences at the cultural center did give the show a standing ovation each night. So obviously the show’s goal of enlarge the company’s public has been successful. “But we kept our traditional public as well,” Painchaud adds.

Next season, in an effort to expand the public even more, Cirque Éloize hopes to bring Id to Broadway. “I believe that show has that potential,” Painchaud states flatly. “So we are working on that project.  We have a partnership in mind.”  Previously he had spoken about involving the Nederlander organization.  “They could be one of the partners.  My goal would be to tour that show across the United States as a Broadway show.  To do that they will need to get hooked up with an agency that books national tours of  Broadway musicals.

The partners Painchaud speaks of would be investment partners who will buy the license to market the show in the United States.  Cirque Éloize’s  investment will be the production itself, for which they financed all the production costs.  The biggest costs working on Broadway, Painchaud believes is in the marketing.

In addition to pursing the goal of making it on Broadway, Painchaud is also working on a new project which will have its premiere in Helsinki, Finland.  Full time rehearsal have just begun.  He will be directing the show with two co-directors, exploring the world of the cartoon.  Turning a three dimensional art form (circus) into a two dimensional one (comics), or is it vice versa, he admits will be a challenge, but he adds, he likes challenges.

Painchaud says this idea came to him two years ago. “Sometimes ideas are up in the air,” for the taking by whomever, just waiting to be made into something real.  The first reaction from those he tells about his idea is surprise and they tell me about people who have done something similar.  I told him about Phineas and Ferb.   “If you get an idea,” he advises, “you have to do it right away as soon as possible, because so many people are also looking for new things.

His choreographer for the new show started with him as a performer with their production Orchestre.  He started with us then went to the dance world and now is back in the circus, then years later.”  People go from one discipline to another which provides lots of cross fertilization for the new generation of young creators by working in the worlds of dance and theater and circus as well.  “It is amazing.  You have to be accomplished in many arts.”  Painchaud confesses that he doesn’t get to listen to music as much as he would like what with family obligations, but that, too, is a vital ingredient of the new circus.

“My goal is to find a new general manager,” he says.  “Someone who will take care of the company so that in the future I can concentrate on artistic side and creation.  That is where I have to be to make my company grow.  So I need to have people in operations, and then I can listen to more music.

Id, the show that began our  conversation has now been running for two years, and there have been many cast changes which is a giant headache in a show like this, because it means constantly rearranging who does what. It is not a simple revue of specialties.  Everyone has many things to do throughout the show. “You change one thing and all down the line other adjustments have to be made.  One of the biggest challenge of my job and the people I work with is maintaining the quality of the show.  It’s not the type of show you just replace someone to play a role.  That’s impossible.”

Unlike the productions of Cirque du Soleil a full-time artistic director does not travel with the show.  “I Can’t afford to send someone on tour to just do that.  But I sometimes send someone or I go myself.  I have two persons that I work with.  One is for the theater part and the other is the choreographer.  Sometimes I send the choreographer just to make sure it is up to snuff.  She will spend two or three days with them and then they need someone every couple of months to help them to maintain the level of the show.”

The most difficult thing was Id was going into smaller theaters, because the set is quite huge. It fits perfectly in the big theater. “The problem right now is in Mexico, the stage and theaters are small, but it’s also great for the audience to be so close. We are in their face. I like it better, the beauty of the set, with some distance.  All the aerials have to go smaller on a small stage.  We played in a 3,000 seat theater in Toronto and it was great.  The ideal size theater would be between 1,500 to 1,800 seats.

Working out of Montreal is like being in a cauldron of circus creativity. For the past twenty years the city has been increasingly a circus city. People from all over the world come to train at the national circus school, and it’s a good place to establish contacts.  “A lot of smaller companies are popping up all over the city, with just one or two or three people.”  They are what you might call a  like chamber circus.  “That is good.  It forces us to question ourselves.”

Presently Id is the company’s only show on tour. Come September that show that will open in Helsinki will be added.  The goal is to have three show tour at once.  “With three productions we can have a good living.  One is not another because the company is quite big now.  We used to have two and three productions, and our development department.  I want the company to grow but I don’t want to become a second Cirque du Soleil.  That is not the goal.  We have our own identity and our own way of functioning even if we are partners in business.  We need to keep our specificity and our humanity in the way we manage things.  Creating shows that will keep that intimacy with the public even if we go to Broadway.  I don’t want to do a show with seventy-five artists on stage.  Ideal is fifteen or twelve.  Big show may have twenty or twenty-five  .  I want to keep the flexibility.  A big production is difficult to tour. The new show will reach the United States after a European tour.  We are in Latin America, which is a great market; Asia is a long shot.  We have played Korea three times.  The company has visited 450 cities in thirty-five countries.  We go everywhere.  We have never been to Africa, but I would like to go since we’ve been everywhere else.

“My target is to stay unique artistically and where we play.  If every show is different.  you have a great chance of being successful and that is very difficult.  But that is the pleasure [of this business], and it is also painful.”