The Passing Spectacle Vol. I, No. 6.


It’s a Woman’s World in Cirque du Soleil’s AmaLŭna

“Medames and Mesdames,” the introduction begins.  “Ladies and ladies.”

Perhaps you’ve already caught on to the theme that is beginning to develop here.  AmaLŭna , Cirque du Soleil’s newest touring show which opened in Montreal this spring is focused on women.  It has a female director, Diane Paulus, whose Broadway work includes the revival of Hair and the current Tony Award winner Porgy and Bess, so its fair to say she knows her way around the stage.  The show is backed by an all-female band, and about half the acts feature the work of women.

The storyline is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, only here Prospero is Prospera, a queen who rules over an enchanted isle.  Her daughter is Miranda corresponding to the same character in Shakespeare’s work, and the trouble-making Caliban has been translated into a lizard named Cali and is played with incredible sexual innuendo by Viktor Kee, the juggler who returns triumphantly.  Eventually Miranda falls in love with one of several men who are washed ashore by a tempest Prospera has caused to occur.  So much for the simple facts of this spectacular show that is a ceaseless visual feast in all respects.

Oddly enough, for a show about women, much of the visual effects are based on the plumage of the male peacock, both in color and pattern of the plumage.  The show and sets designed by Scott Pask,  quite simply looks gorgeous, especially the mobile chandeliers that suggest some Freudian symbolism of the female sex organ.

There are a number of other goddesses who inhabit this strange land, one of whom is the exquisite Amy McClendon, Laura Jacobs Rigolo is the goddess of balance, who does a fascinating turn balancing slender pieces of  wood until they form a giant, quivering bird, and Marie-Michelle Faber is the moon goddess who arrives in a beautiful lunar chariot and performs an equally beautiful act on the lyra. Choreography is by Karole Armitage.

Miranda, played by Iulia Mykhailova cavorts about in what amounts to a giant fish bowl.  Once thoroughly drenched she emerges to perform a hand balancing act on a pair of canes.  The work in the bowl and canes is enchanting and ethereal what with the cello accompaniment and the moon goddess keeping watch overhead. Romeo eventually joins her in the water but leaves rather hastily when the jealous Cali enters.

There is a wonderful playful, joyful quality about the act which is the very opposite manner in which a similar act is presented in Cirque’s Zumanity.  That act is presented as a piece of erotica.  Here it is quite innocent.

The bowl, by the way, is a prominent prop in the early portion of the proceedings when the top is covered.  (It absolutely had to be pre-set from the top of the show or getting it onstage risked sloshing the stage floor with overflowing water.) The girl’s entrance into it is quite enchanting, as shooting star drops from above, as if she were another such celestial being.

Romeo is played by Édouard Doye. His solo specialty is the Chinese Pole.  The other men washed ashore with him perform what is, if I may be permitted a moment of male chauvinism,far and away the most sensational act on the  Korean plank.  It  is mind boggling not only for its spectacular thrills provided by the flips and twists, but also for the complicated patterns that determine who does what, when, and some amazing catches banquine style on another level.  For a good part of the time the men also bounce of a slanted wall, just to add a bit more hi-jinx bravura.

The women who are billed as Amazons have a far less exciting display presented in three sets of uneven bars.

The show opens with two girls on unicycles, certainly the fastest such display one is likely to encounter, spinning, on and off the seat.  They open the show in a burst of energy and twirling excitement.

They are followed by four couples assisted by the ensemble in a display of water globe juggling mixed with risley, including some variations on the latter I have not seen before.  Fast paced, it is also quite beautiful act when the globes  are lighted and other ensemble members in the background join in to fill the stage with dancing light.  What a pleasure to encounter such a unique combination of skills in so charming a presentation. The girls in the act, by the way, are listed as water fairies.  They certainly display the delicate manner of the Chinese.

As has been Cirque du Soleil’s wont the creators  have taken at least one individual act and blown it up into a small ensemble piece.  Julien Posada’s whom we have often seen as a solo on the tight wire, here appears in a four person act.  Here Posada is accompanied on a series of wires strung at various angles forming a triangle as a form of point and counter point.  He does his flips,  The girls walk on heels and en  point.  The most interesting part of the act t is a very nice dance routine for the two couples.

Two female clowns (one of whom works in male drag) eventually get involved in a sketch of dubious taste when the female of the duo delivers several babies which are then tossed about like a football, which they very much resemble.  Their meetings earlier in the show tend to on going no where fast under the assumption that if you repeat something enough times it will eventually become funny.  It doesn’t work here.

Laura Jacobs Rigolo, the aforementioned goddess of balance, presents an act that is nothing short of hypnotic.  Her concentration is so intense we are moved to hold our breath in sympathy, for fear of upsetting her focus and her amazing creation.

The most amazing thing about the performance is Viktor Kee, the giant lizard who is the very personification of the attraction/repulsion syndrome has the climactic spot in the program—for his juggling act.  That’s a juggling act as the eleven o’clock star turn.  His technique and style, however, are so flawless, so exquisitely refined that he fills that important slot with panache.  The shoe may be a celebration of women, but it is a lowly lizard that steals the show.

As the character. Kee has been with us  from the beginning and before we meet anyone else.   As a prelude to his juggling, he rips off his amazingly proportioned tail and sheds his scales. Standing erect, fully a man now, he seduces us with the undulations of his juggling moves.

The finale is a giant celebration, in honor of the joining of Miranda and Hero, a veritable orgy of gorgeousness and luxuriousness, with costumes designed by Meredith Caron.  It includes lots of aerial strap work from three or four women, the Valkyrie.

By this time we are rung out, if not downright glutted with spectacle.  The show at the moment runs long for a Cirque du Soleil production, and could profit from some judicious cutting. A half hour may yet be cut before AmaLŭna assumes its final form.


  Moving Toward a New Form

Over the years that I have been reviewing the annual productions of the Canadian National Circus  School it has become increasingly evident that the directors of these works are moving toward another art form.  There are still numerous circus skills prominently displayed, but the overall package is now equally dependent on music, theatre and dance for its impact.  What has been steadily changing over the years is the ratio of each element to the total production.

As Jeannot Painchaud, the founder of Cirque Éloize, told me in a conversation that appears in another section of this edition, many of the directors of the contemporary circus move back and forth between the worlds of dance and theatre and circus.  No wonder then that their accumulated experiences are moving their work toward a synthesis of all these art forms.  (See also the item about the Seven Fingers Co, in the FYI section.)

This year’s two productions (the graduating class has grown so large it takes two different shows to accommodate all of them) is the school’s thirtieth anniversary show.  When I saw their annual show in the early years they were little more than straight forward showcases for the talents and accomplishments of the graduating class.  They were presented in revue format, act following act.

This year’s shows make it abundantly apparent how well versed in music of all kinds, from classical to the most contemporary, from the primitive to the sophisticated their creators are.  Similarly dance, solo and ensemble movement , are now as vital to the developing aesthetic as it is in ballet.  This is apparent not only in the choreography but in the way the individuals move.  They are all trained dancers as well as acrobats, aerialists, jugglers and clowns.

The first of the two productions was titled Generation 2.0.  This is the generation of the electronically connected but emotionally detached.  In this production their electronic devices have become not just extensions of themselves but actual appendages, the bluish glow emanating from their palms cast an eerie light over their faces, as they record every emotion and experience. “Acute narcissists, they experience life with eyes riveted on the seductive oblivion of virtuality,” is how the director Anthony Venisse and his assistant Manuel Roque sees them.  Interspersed between dramatizations of the show’s theme are between nine and eleven featured performances by current graduates.

As an expression of their narcissism, the performers are always on display, even in their dressing rooms under the seating area. The audience passes them and are free to gawk and stare as they make their way to their seats.  Later we see them warming up in the shadows of the dimly lit stage, prior to the actual start of the performance.

The music prior to opening is a succession of operatic solos.   Operatic music continues  throughout  the performance.  The show’s sound designer Felix Boisvert makes a very good case for operatic music as the perfect accompaniment to circus acts. It is full of crescendos and explosive high notes and calls forth a powerful emotional response.  The arias build in tension to a climax, bringing the excitement to an emotional release.

The performance itself begins with the entire cast filling the stage, each and every one totally absorbed in the blue light of their cell phones and iphones, etc.  In the meantime a double trap presented by  Mélodie Lamoureux and Evelyne Paquin-Lanthier is in progress overhead.  Whether intentional or not the act receives almost no attention, not only from the other cast members but also the audience, which is likely to have become engrossed with the interesting choreography and movement of the ensemble below.  This activity includes various kinds of juggling, including five balls, none of it relating to anyone or anything else. 

The music changes to a piece from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman which is sung by a mechanical doll in the opera.  Here we have hand balancer Audrey Harel-Montpetit, whose comic style involves her shoes and a bowler hat.  It is all delightfully daffy and novel, but the skill level does not impress.   Here is an example of how staging and humor can carry an act that would otherwise disappoint.

At various times during the proceedings, the company breaks out into acrobatics en masse.  Some of it is quite fabulous, culminating in Lauren Joy Herley’s  work on the cord’lisse, which features a fascinating ascent.  Her performance is marked by a wonderful sinuous quality.  She is as lithe as the rope on which she works.  They are as one.

Sebastian Kann, whom we had previously  seen  with Circus Smirkus has continued his training on the aerial lyra and his repertoire of tricks is quite impressive.  Whereas in Smirkus he projected a charming persona, here his character seemed a bit off-putting.  His performance ends when the recorded singer hits a high C.  Endings don’t get much more sensational than that.

Even more disturbing is the tone set by Jordan Clark’s hand balancing and contortion act.  Almost demented in style and presentation, he seems somewhat self-destructive.  Here is a case when style not only trumps content but detracts from it.

Jordan Clark

One of the ensemble’s most amazing maneuvers is the creation of a four-high column which is formed as it grows, story by story.  The entire column is lifted as a single unit onto the shoulders of each new porter or understander.  This segues into Calin J. Stevenson’s performance on a pair of red silk fabric legs.  Here is the perfect embodiment of the self absorption.  It is all about the knots and the windings to the exclusion of everything else.

One of the most interestingly staged numbers was a duet on the Chinese pole.  It begins with Maude Arseneault and Mikaël Bruyére-L’Abbé in the midst of what appears to be a lover’s quarrel.  They then proceed to show each other a thing or two while working individually on the Chinese pole. Having thus spent their anger the act concludes with them working on the apparatus together.  They make a very appealing couple, young attractive and apparently in possession of a sense of humor.

Watching Bridie Hooper work on the straps it came to me that many of the circus acts currently so much in vogue all come down to flexibility.  If you can’t do a full split or wrap your legs around the back of your neck, forget it.  Eventually Hooper loops the straps to form what amounts to a cloud swing, which gives the act an extra  element of interest.

The concluding act, featuring hand to hand balancing, is presented by two men,  Samuel Charlton and Reuben Hosier.  The novelty here is that many of the moves, throws and catches are those usually employed by a mixed duo.  Here it is the rough-housing that two young men might engage in as a way of teasing  each other.  The result is often stunning and quite beautiful actually.

A large ensemble of second year students supports the featured artists and add vignettes of various circus skills as a kind of backdrop and commentary on the main event.

The second show on this season’s bill is La Flèche Au Coeur  (An Arrow to the Heart). directed by Estelle Clareton and Howard Richard.  They provide the following introduction to their work: “After a dramatic event threatens humanity [an atomic bomb?] A small clan forms  to confront the situation together.  Among the rubble they find traces of their past and a way to reconstruct history.  And through this effort they will find the fundamental reason for existence—love.

In the pre-show several members of the cast play on a beach.  (The reference to the film On the Beach, seems inescapable.) Through it all a bicyclist  weaves his way through the activity, as if presaging what is to come later.  All this is ended by a terrific explosion and silence.  The show has begun.

A solo black girl, Léonie Pilote, dressed in black pants and top  enters singing a cappella. She approaches  the Chinese pole that remains standing stage center warily, as if to attack it.  Another  girl in a dress simultaneously works in silks in an upper corner of the stage.  As if to announce her survival.  he black girl finally lungs at the pole and begins a routine that seems motivated by anger, and in so doing displays an incredible level of strength throughout the workout, which is accompanied by  bongo drums and sticks.    In the meantime the girl on silks has disappeared..

A clap of thunder and a rain storm bring the act to a conclusion as a second woman, similarly dressed now approaches the pole to the accompaniment of a piano solo.  Obviously the mood has changed.  From the ferocious attack of the previous artist we are now almost contemplative.  In contrast to the previous artist  Alba Faivre’s work is  slow and deliberate, methodical but even here there is an undertone of  violence, as if she were working out her anger on the apparatus.  This form of  self-flagellation escalates until in the end, the artist is totally spent, exhausted.  The pole tilts upstage, and she is barely able to hang on.

Interestingly, this skill is mainly presented by men or as a group act with both sexes.   Rarely do we see a solo woman.  Here we have two in a row, each of whom is quite different in tone and style, both of them impressively strong and novel.  Faivre’s repertoire Includes a flip to a catch.

The aforementioned clan now takes over the stage.  They are all dressed in black or charcoal gray, their eyes hollow.  They move as if in a catatonic state in massed movements reminiscent of German expressionism.  A girl in black, Camille Tremblay, emerges and writhes about the floor in contortion and eventually rises to the accompaniment of Chopin to a pair of handstand blocks.  I have come to find this kind of act as compared to what was exhibited in the Chinese pole acts to be a rather rigid skill set.  All these acts, wherever one finds them tend to look alike as they make their way through an unchanging set of moves.

Following  this we discover the ensemble  seated in a group, in straight back chairs as if in a church or meeting off to the rear stage right.  The moment is almost funereal in tone now.  Once again a rain storm clears the stage quickly  as the ensemble scurries about to find  fragments of doors and broken fences to construct a makeshift shack in which they can find shelter from the rain that beats upon their roof.

As they remain there waiting for the rain to stop Jonathan Perez  emerges to work on the cord’lisse.  His presentation is filled with new and daring moves, including spins and pirouettes.  In contrast to the work on the pole, his performance is fast paced and  ever changing, reminding me of a lyric that might be paraphrased to say “whatever could be done with that rope, he’s done.”

We next find a young woman lowered from the ceiling in a harness and bungee. Her entrance is a prelude to the most exhilarating sections of the production. To the music of “Valse Masquera,” the ensemble breaks out in a wildly frenetic dance..  A Cry wheel , the bicyclist and various hoops all add to the effect as if the world is literally  spinning out of control. The ensemble races its way through a series of acrobatic dance moves creating an effect that makes one feel as out of control as the cast.  The broken bicycle of juggler Yohann Fradette-Trépanier  is a brilliant comic novelty act,as he  manipulates the parts of the bike and a derby hat.  Another of the dance’s features was some sensational hoop diving by Joren Dawson. I found this brilliant piece of staging one of the most wonderful and captivating examples of  the kind of synthesis I spoke of earlier in this notice.

This is topped off by Emmaline Piatt’s complicated and daring work on the cloud swing, filled with twists, flips and even double pirouettes in mid-air, and then by Shannon Gélinas’ work on a pair of black silk fabric legs.  Once again we return to a style of presentation that is both frantic and violent.  The latter artist worked to a percussive accompaniment.

Joren Dawson who had previously impressed with his hoop diving, next ascends the aerial straps.  What is fascinating is that his performance is in counterpoint to that of  Gélinas.  They seem to be answering each other’s moves as if working something out in their relationship.  It is an interesting  and engaging presentation that works on several levels.

Kevin Beverly

This is followed by another aerial display, the dance trapeze of Kevin Beverley.  In the persona of a rock star and the accompaniment of the song,  “Limit to your love,”  he combines dance and work on the single trap into a presentation that is at once overtly sexual and yet  amusing at the same time.  As he works through his flirtation with the audience, Olivia Weinstein, a second year student, has apparently fallen head over heels in love with him.  She stands in star-struck adoration at his act.

Guilhen Cauchois and Sarah Tessier

This leads to the most successful comic business of either show in which the poor girl, suddenly the center of attention, is teased and tormented by her peers, eventually to be trapped in the middle of a club passing act by Raphaël Dubé and Yohann Fradette-Trépanier  who are dressed as devils.  The clever part of their act is the table from which they withdraw their clubs.  The flying clubs turn into the girl’s worst nightmare. People begin throwing themselves and her at a mat held upright.  It is all very violent but it finally gives way to the duo trapeze act of Guilhem  Cauchois and Sarah Tessier performed to a Bach piano piece.  It is a terrifically daring and complicated act in which the show’s theme of the redemptive power of love is finally realized after which an explosion of circus skills fill the stage providing a joyous conclusion to a dynamic and wholly engaging performance.

A traditional circus fan might very well be put off by all this, but if the circus, or more appropriately circus skills, are to survive it and they must evolve.  No art form is the same today as it was in the 18th or 19th century.  Music, dance, theatre have all evolved and found new vitality and new audiences.  So why should we expect the circus to stand still?

This is not to say that there is not a place for the traditional circus in today’s world of entertainment.  We still listen to classical music and attend opera.  The repertoire of the largest ballet companies is well stocked with pieces that have their origin in the 19th century.  All the performing arts are inspired by and rooted in tradition.  When both their traditional and contemporary forms vie for the public’s attention, the arts are enriched and vital.


Good Ideas Need Better Execution at Kelly Miller

To anyone who has been watching the evolution of the Kelly Miller Circus since it was bought by John Ringling North II it must be obvious that the new owner’s ambitions were to make it into something more than your average mud show.  There is the matter of a certain name and reputation to uphold, after all.  North certainly takes full advantage of his family connection in his advertising and at the ticket wagon.

To enhance the artistic expression, a few years ago he began incorporating a theme into a portion of the show and each of the several acts that appeared in that segment helped to support and carry the theme along in an amusing and satisfying manner.  This year’s theme is pirates, cleverly billed as “The Pirates of the Kellybean.”  Several acts are programmed into this section of the performance: a rola-bola performed by Fridman Torales; a very brief and lame excuse for something that is meant to pass as a knife throwing act;  an even faster run-around (if you blink you’ll miss it)  by clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs in the best costumes of the group, save for one worn by Carolyn Rice in her presentation of  a comedy canine review “The Puppies of Penzance;” and finally an aerial ballet with four girls working on webs.

What is missing almost entirely from all this is any sense of the kind of swashbuckling antics we normally associate with pirates, especially after seeing Johnny Depp in the film The Pirates of the Carribean, which is, of course, the inspiration for this theme.  A young mermaid and an even younger bird of paradise  lounge about to little or no effect.  There is some half hearted sword play, and, of course, the music from the film’s sound track.

The sad part of all this is that apparently the show’s resources, be it financial or simply talent, have not kept up with the creator’s ambitions.  Most of the time the segment looks merely silly or worse, amateurish.  Whatever the reason, the acts and talent needed to make this work are not there.   So instead of establishing a context for a series of major acts the theme looks as if it has been thrown together, which is too bad because it is obvious the show is trying to establish some artistic creds.

But that is not to say the show is altogether without charm.  Ryan Holder, who presents the five tiger cage act  looks to be about fourteen years old, so that the effect of his presentation is that of a backyard circus, where the trained cats just happen to be full grown tigers. It is all quite charming and takes the edge off any possible complaints about  animal abuse.

The aforementioned rola-bola act is quite good despite its surroundings.  It is really one of the strongest skill acts in the show which otherwise is lacking a really socko act like the departed Poemas.

Clowns Copeland and Combs are pretty much into slapstick this year, which gets to seem rather repetitious, but thankfully, the blowoffs of their major gags produce major laughs.  In all respects, whatever antics they are up to,  these two clowns always come across as fully professional in every way.  Combs builds all their props and costumes, with careful attention to detail and design.  So their costumes are quite a bit more elaborate than those of most of the other people in this pirate themed section.

The  juggling of Raul Olivares gets better and more impressive every year, and, of course, his little lion remains another of the show’s charmers.

The aerial work I found somewhat less than exciting, while Armando Loyal’s presentation of the show’s three elephant is fast paced and impressive, as the bulls go through their moves with ease and seemingly without need of a human cue.

Mike Rice whose camels and zebra have more stage presence than he does, provides another note of variety, as do  the two women who wiggle behind them.

The Fusco Gauchos who close the show produce a lot of sound but not much fury and make for a rather tame conclusion.

John Ringling North II needs to decide whether he wants to produce a  show that is a family affair or if he wants to reach out and bring in new talent that can produce the fully realized artistic expression he once seemed to have in mind.



Horses and Costumes Change But Not Much Else

Apassionata, the European  horse show which is currently touring  the United States with brief, weekend  stays in fifteen cities, is one of those productions wherein each act is capable of producing one beautiful image.  Beyond that its attractions are mainly repetitious and in some case little more than time killers.

The latter effect is produced by four dancers, two male, two female, who appear between the equine exhibitions and basically stall for time.  I am not sure why time is needed.  There were enough different sets of horses and riders that no one (at least I don’t think) needed time to make a quick costume change or get into place.  The dancing is rudimentary at best and just plain uninteresting at worst.  After a while, given their numerous appearances, the quartet of dancers start to become something of an annoyance.

The other problem with the show is that soon after any group’s entrance, and we have quickly absorbed the style of the riders’ costumes and the breed of horses involved, the rides are rather repetitious, not only within each number but from number to number as well.  It is only when dressage is displayed that we get any sense of the horses’ training and execution of the classic repertoire.

Proceeding each new group of riders into the arena, key words are flashed onto the giant curtain that serves both as a screen and a backdrop.  We begin at the “Beginning,” in which a few horses are allowed to gambol about the arena without any human intervention.  This develops into “Connection,” wherein a solo female, in a white gown, enters and gently removes the bridal of a horse.  She then proceeds to get him to move around without apparent spoken or whip cues.  This is nice for a short while, but not very exciting.

“Structure” brings us a version of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  As it turns out they do more or less the same moves as everyone else.  The quadrille style of patterned movement is something we will see throughout.  Here there are some interesting changes in pace and steps to observe, but like all the other displays it never develops or produces a high point.  It is all at the same level of presentation.

For some reason “Domination” brings on some trick riding in groups of three.  I don’t see the connection to man’s domination of the horse here, but it is a change of pace, although the excitement generated here is still restrained.

“Friendship” is symbolized by a man with a sleeping donkey, who finally does some bucking.  He is later joined in the arena by a miniature horse who is free to move as he pleases, but manages to appear  more skilled than his full-sized peers.

Laurent Jahan

One of the most interesting displays was presented by Laurent Jahan who gave an exhibition of dressage with  a Belgian draft horse.  Even these big fellows can be graceful and majestic it turns out.

“Martial” is represented by a small group of  Friesians doing more or less the same quadrille figures others have already done.  The only interest now is produced by the appearance of  new horses and new costumes on riders.

Roman riding is represented by “ Determination.”  This culminates in a few jumps over a fence, first by a single pair and then by four horses, two of which are on  long reins.

Just before intermission comes the truest novelty of the show.  A female tap dancer beat out her routine atop a giant piano upstage, while a beautiful Lusitano horse ridden by Luis Raposo  picks his way through a complimentary routine in the dirt of the arena.  Rider and horse eventually join the dancer on the piano for a perfect duet. 

One of the most elegant ensembles was a group of white horses ridden by men and women in high hat and tails, all in white, somewhat reminiscent of William Heyer abound Starless Night in the ‘40s on Ringling.  He, too, wore evening dress, his outfit matched the color of his beautiful mount.

Jahan returns with a Shetland pony, easily the most accomplished horse in the forty horse stable the show carries.  He executed several airs above ground which means all four feet are in the air at the same time.  Amazing.

The one attempt at augmenting the horses with some special effects came with the presentation of the Gudmar Petrusson’s Knights of Iceland horses who executed the by now overly familiar maneuvers in fog, producing the most mystical images of the show.

Three of the best and most interesting offerings were saved for the final displays.  Luis Valença accompanied by a female Flamenco dancer added authentic flavor to the proceedings. Valença worked his horse around the long staff, or Garrocha, creating a series of mesmerizing images, horse, rider and dancer all beautifully turned out and in perfect harmony with each other.

Next  Sylvie Willms presented a long display of five Arabian horses at liberty who responded merely to her touch or voice quite impressively, another of the few sustained images of haunting beauty.

And of course the performance had to conclude with some wild trick riding, provided by a group of five daredevils, providing some real excitement and speed to an otherwise sedate exhibition of costumed riders aboard beautiful horses.  Those costumes by the way have been designed by William Ivey Long, a Tony Award winner, so there was no skimpy on the wardrobe and it shows.