Passing Spectacle Vol. I, No. 7

 

From Soap Bubbles to Gorillas…and Everything in Between

Circus performances turn up these days in lots of different venues, including tents, or rather tents that don’t look anything like the classic big top of yore.  Empire is one of the latter shows.  It is being presented in a spiegeltent in mid-Manhattan, in the very heart of the theatre district.  Its front door faces onto the sidewalk of W.45th Street.  The façade that is presented to the busy street traffic gives little hint of what goes on inside, except to scream that it is not your usual Broadway fare.

It seems quite clear from even the initial impression that the tone the show is striving for is decadence.  Decadence, a difficult tone to achieve,  is a way of looking at the world as if it were a playground where one can indulge all of one’s appetites, especially sexual without any care for consequences.  It reeks of a decline or decay of morals.

Decadence, however, as we’ve suggested, doesn’t come easy.  Most everything about the trappings of Empire is studied and forced.  Merely spouting common four letter words or mentioning the sex organs of both sexes don’t produce decadence automatically

Instead what the show and its physical environment achieves is a sense of shabby chic what with its collection of discarded furniture and architectural artifacts, and, thanks to its bawdy jokes and outrageous behavior, it does descend to a level of raunchiness that can be both amusing and /or off-putting depending on how well oiled or inclined to decadence one already is.

As the audience gathers and is seated the bar enjoys a hefty business, and those already seated are approached by a variety of ersatz weirdos and panhandlers who work various harmless scams.  Once the show proper (as opposed to improper) begins, the obvious attempts at suggesting decadence are made through the costumes, all of which seem composed of various bits of underwear.

Oddly enough the performance is a collection of some beautiful, controlled and highly skilled circus acts, which my colleague Hovey Burgess, who saw the show on another evening, rated as being simply superb, despite, according to the master ceremonies their having been  “pulled from the bowels of Broadway.”

Elena Lev opens the show rather spectacularly, at least in terms of entrance and wardrobe, by climbing into a plexiglass bubble that is lifted aloft and in which she performs a series of contortions and poses. Her act ends as spectacularly as it began with a shower of iridescent soap bubbles that fills the space with a touch of something approaching an unexpected touch of whimsy.

The first legit skill act is performed by a trio of females, Anastasila Gavrylenko, Anastasila Permikova, and Olena Lomaga who enter wearing gorilla masks and little else except for what used to be called “scanties.”  (The gorillas are something of a running theme in the show.) Hovey Burgess has said that their act smacks a bit of sport acrobatics, but neither he nor I have ever seen these tricks in a circus before.  In fact so impressive is the strength and balance they display, they have just about ruined me forever for Mongolian contortionists.

I enjoyed seeing Yuchun Wei and Yunming Lu  performing an adagio act that included the female standing on the shoulders of her partner and eventually producing a beuatiful arabesque on his head on pointe.  This is a feat the Chinese have perfected, and it is rare to see it performed here in the United States.  The Big Apple Circus had a couple who did it a few years ago, with far less aplomb and assurance than the couple here, who were perhaps too elegant for this venue. Nonetheless I found the couple to be charmingly straight forward in their presentation, which may have been what provoked Hovey Burgess to observe that “they just do not have edgy showmanship.”  They also appear later in the performance briefly working on aerial straps.

Of the risley act of Tariku Degefa and Yonas Alemu, Hovey Burgess said “I do not believe I have ever seen a better Risley act, but it is, hands down, the best black Risley act I have ever seen.”  Certainly it is the fastest and most exhausting act of this genre that I have ever seen.

In what seemed a curious bit of repetitive casting, a second adagio/hand balancing act was presented by Ludvine Furnon and Martin Charrat.  Their act, in contrast to the Chinese, was filled with exciting lifts and daring throws, all of it beautifully choreographed.    Hovey Burgess thought the act topped Dance Paradiso (David and Zoey), “who are themselves quite good.”

One of several truly startling acts is presented by Yanasuaki Yoshikawa, who works his various wheels, including the German and Cry wheels on an extremely confined space.  The stage proper is no more than ten feet in diameter.  For Yoshikawa’s turn two narrow ramps extend the stage somewhat, but it is still something of a minor miracle that he doesn’t come crashing down into the laps of the audience, exhibiting remarkable control. This represented another first for Hovey Burgess, noting he had never seen this apparatus in such a limited area.

The roller skating duo of  Roma Hervida and Sven Rauhe  Roller, for whom such a small stage feels like home, spun their way through the traditional repertoire of skating pairs,  with trés moderne wardrobe and attitude. 

A few months ago I would have said the most unusual acts in the show were something called Somnablance, presented by an older performer named Rigolo What he does in his most extended appearance is to create a stunning Calder-like mobile out of a couple dozen palm fronds of ascending size, with a large, white turkey feather balanced at its end.  All this is accomplished with excruciating care, since the entire creation literally hangs in the balance as each new piece is added.

But something happened in the past two months to alter my thinking about Rigolo somewhat. Oddly enough I saw a woman do the same act in the latest Cirque du Soleil production Unaluma a little over a month ago.  It was the first time I encountered such an exercise in all my theatre and circus going experience.  On a second viewing and knowing where it was all headed made the painstaking care the performers had to exert to get it there seem a bit painful for me as well.

No doubt the others in the audience were holding their collective breathes hardly daring to breathe for fear of upsetting this delicate procedure.  It is certainly something to see—once.  A second viewing lacks the suspense and is actually  rather tedious.

Rigolo

Rigolo also appears earlier in the proceedings  spinning a large top along a grooved path in a large tree limb.

The closing act is Vladamir Malachkin’s pagoda of chairs which served as  a centerpiece for the finale.  Admittedly there was nothing remarkable about his performance, except for the design of the chairs themselves, but it was presented almost as if it were part of the company bows and was, therefore, more or less ignored.  He, too, was dressed in a gorilla suit, but even that failed to create any sense of tension in the act.  Perhaps we were all rung out from Rigolo’s contribution to that phenomenon.

The show’s clowning was provided by Anne Goldmann who  played a character named  Fanny, the mistress of ceremonies  and by  Jonathan Taylor, as her alleged husband and the impresario Oscar.  The style of their clowning goes back to the Greek’s Plautus, but rather than an oversized phallus, one of their bits involved the real thing, in its less than spectacular form.  Hovey Burgess found them “outrageous, raunchy, spoofy and multi-talented.”  That they were indeed, their talents extending to juggling bits of banana the way some jugglers manipulate ping pong balls.  They added the twist here was that they caught each other’s tosses in their mouth, giving new meaning to the word “distasteful.”

At one point Goldmann drags an innocent young man from the audience and proceeds to crawl all over him, while doing a comic strip tease.    When Taylor entered that scenario in drag he commented, “I can’t believe you’re still smiling.  I’ll fix that.”  At which point he took over from where Goldmann had left off.

Their funniest bit, which involved the above noted bit of nudity, was a devastating spoof of all those quick change acts that have become so popular recently.

The musical sof the show that were not canned were provided by an electric guitarist, Martin Hailey, introduced as Moondog.  Lena Hall, the show’s sexy chanteuse, scored with each of her songs.

Photos by Thom Kaine

 

 What Happens When George Washington

 Meets King Louis XIV?

Circus Smirkus’ new production is titled Topsy Turvy Time Travel.  I became something of a time traveler myself with my visit to this charming showI was seated a bit early and had plenty of time to absorb the special atmosphere that is Circus Smirkus.  This year the red-carpeted ring seemed especially brightly lit, creating what seemed a magic circle and taking me back to when I was a kid and fell under the spell of the circus arena as it was set up in the old Madison Square Garden.  There were three rings then, but one is enough, especially when it glows with anticipation, a magic circle, waiting to be filled with all sorts of wonderful sights.  Here it was soon filled with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of youth, exuding an irresistible level of joy that was transferred from the beaming smiles of each member of the company to every member of the audience.

But even before the ring was brimming over with Smirkus’ special brand of magic, the pre-show excitement, as the audience gathered and found seats was palpable.  Finally when kids packed the mats around the ring curbs three and four deep and the capacity audience was squeezed into place the excitement was transferred from the audience to the ring and then,  back again, until we were all caught up in a level of energy and excitement that was electric.

I have found over the years of watching Circus Smirkus that it really takes more than one viewing to fully absorb and appreciate what creators Troy Wunderle and Jesse Dryden and choreographer Matt Williams have fashioned with their cast of twenty-nine in three short weeks.  They were aided and abetted this year by the lighting design of  Anthony Powers, Tristan Moore’s indispensible music, and  Katrin Leblon’s costumes.

For one thing, this particular production has many more identifiable characters than usual.  There is Father Time (Troy Wunderle),

(L to R) Liam Gundlach, Chase Culp and Sarah Tiffin

a pair of time travelers (Liam Gundlach and Sarah Tiffin), a cave man ( Chase Culp),  George Washington (Sam Gurwitt, and yes, he crosses the Delaware), King Louis XIV((Magnus Giaever), Cleopatra (Jessica Roginsky ),  Caesar (Nick Zelle) , and even Elvis (Sam Ferlo).  There is also  a band of Vikings, the Three Musketeers, various kinds of cowboys, a brigade of Doughboys and a commune of flower children.  There is also a scene set on the Titanic on that fateful night when it met an iceberg, which here happens to be yet another character (the smallest member of the cast, Ariana Wunderle) who throws a tantrum when she is ignored and kicks the boat in its shins.  Almost all of the characters and their confrontations with one another have some element of comedy to them,  so the show is especially heavy on clowning.

Father Time begins the show by giving the ozone a good stirring  with his magic staff and in so doing brings on a potpourri of personages from various times, so that  the opening charivari is a veritable stew of anachronisms.  From out of this mélange comes a barrage of displays, showcasing a variety of circus skills.

Jessica Roginsky and Nick Zelle

The most versatile member  of the current cast is Jessica Roginsky.  She is one of the Three Musketeers who does a very accomplished routine on the single point trapeze along with Isabelle Ansari and Maia Gawor-Sloane. Later, as Cleopatra,  she does a very nice hand balancing routine with Nick Zelle’s Caesar.  Zelle, soldiered on despite  nursing an ACL injury.  A lot of production surrounds this number.   Finally Roginsky works on the aerial cube with Emile Gare and Sonya Gurwitt.

I did not get to see Ezra Weill’s corde lisse act in person, as he had already left to begin work at the Canadian National Circus School, but a video I was provided with showed his performance to be styled on an astronaut’s moonwalk.  Weill was very effective in maintaining that unique style along with some impressive displays of strength.   In previous years we saw him demonstrate proficiency in a number of different skills.  Little wonder the folks in Montreal were impressed.

Weill was also an original member of the tight wire troupe in this show before he left.  Others in the act were Keenan Wright-Sanson, Olivia Saunders, Maia Gawor-Sloane,and  Alyson Mattei.  In addition to walking the level wire they also worked on a wire rigged at an angle of approximately 20 degrees.   This troupe was costumed as World War I Doughboys, and the signature comic touch was provided by little Ariana Wunderle as their drill sergeant.

For this and all of the other acts composer Tristan Moore has provided just the right musical setting. In this display  he used music adapted from the period.  With the show moving through so many time periods the score was something of a charming musical pastiche.  I was especially impressed with the original music Moore provided for the club passing routine, as it helped build the act to an exciting climax.

Many of the performers appear in more than one act.  Aaron  Berman and Bekk McGowan first worked in a very strong cradle act that featured three girls Sonya Gurwitt, Alyson Mattei, and Morgan Pinney.  Berman later worked in a fabric act with several girls, cast this time as flower children.   Bekk was also a member of the Vikings, which included Will McGowan, Sam Ferlo, Liam Gundlach, Una Bennett and Anna Partridge.  The Vikings were mostly relegated to striking props, which they did with appropriate Scandinavian gusto and braggadocio.  They get into the action proper with an exciting and well executed club passing routine.

Noah Nielsen  and Will McGowan, as a gaucho and cowboy respectively, gave an amusing comic edge to their display which  might have been called  “Diabolo Duel at OK Corral.”  In addition to the comedy, the skill level exhibited by both was very impressive.  Nielsen also appeared with several other men in the company in a wall trampoline act that suggested the panic aboard the Titanic once disaster struck.  It was a nicely conceived act, in all respects, including Ariana’s petulant iceberg.    Apparently now that one hundred years has separated us from that tragedy,  it is  possible to make a joke out of it.

Will McGowan and Noah Nielsen

The action is held together by Father Times’s magic staff, which keeps getting stolen, so that whoever has it finds him or herself being  hotly pursued by those who want it back, especially Father Time.

The quietest moment of the show, and certainly the most charming is provided by Ariana Wunderle who attempts to get a smile and finally a chuckle out of the depressed cave man of Chase Culp.  I also loved the novelty of the cannon blowing smoke rings at the audience and the required bit of spritzing, which is always a refreshing touch.

The performance ends with the entire company, most of them lying flat on their backs, juggling three balls of different colors.  It is a visual delight that not only says a lot about the company’s versatility but also gives a good accounting of the skill level achieved.  In the center of all those flying balls is a bit of five ball juggling and some ball bouncing.  There is always a lot going on in the opening number and the finale of a Smirkus show, in large part thanks to the choreography of Matt Williams, which here incorporated all the typical movements associated with the various times and characters most effectively.  It is all but impossible not to get swept up in the excitement all that dance movement  invariably generates.

The smoke ring belching cannon

 

 

Photos by Robert Sanson

 

 

 

 

Zarkana : Las Vegas Ready

When this show first opened last year at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall it was announced that it would be the first installment of a multi-season summer engagement at the Showplace of the Nation.  When it opened this year, however, it was announced as its final year.  It was going to be moving from New York to Las Vegas replacing the shuttered Elvis show at the Aria Resort and Casino in City Center.

Anatoly Zalevsky

Apparently the production now playing New York is a tryout for the show’s  next stop.  It has been trimmed down to a flat ninety minutes, which is the required length of all Las Vegas entertainments, without an intermission.  That would mean that about fifteen minutes was cut from the original version which ran two hours with a twenty minute intermission.  All the major acts have been retained and are now presented pretty straight-forwardly, surrounded by what has now become spectacle for its own sake,rather than for  some connection to what it once was supposed to enhance.  A couple acts that neither have nor need such trappings is the gorgeous Russian barre act, and Anatoly Zalevsky’s hand balancing,bothof which are elegant in the simplicity of their presentation.

The reason the spectacle is now more or less meaningless is that any semblance of story telling has been totally eliminated.  The title character is reduced to some nebulous figure who wanders through the proceedings waving his staff and singing arias that sound very dramatic as if they were in fact telling a story.  But of course they don’t because whereas the original production used English lyrics all the songs are now song in a version of what I have called Cirque du Soleilese, a language that threatens to replace Esperanza as a new international means of communication.  Unfortunately no one really speaks or understands this language other than the people who write the songs.  So there goes the most important story telling device employed by the original production.

There are still three or four female vocalists, but their characters are never established, and  they turn up without any preparation so that they might as well be singing offstage for all the sense their costumes and settings register.

The ball bouncing act still gains from the presence of all those extraneous characters that continue to hang around the edges of the production, but otherwise the payroll could be trimmed by eliminating them with no ill effect to the production, since they are basically irrelevant, except perhaps as prop movers.

The flag juggling act continues to impress me the more I see of it, as it is visually quite exciting and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The highwire troupe has been reduced to two, the one member most often criticized is now gone.  The same duo also performs on the Wheel of Death with great abandon.  The spectacle that surrounds their high wire act does serve the purpose of making it seem more exciting, what with the snake heads’ slithering tongues and the blasts of fire that erupt after each trick.

Even the impact of the sand sculpture that was so fascinating in the original is diminished because the scenes she depicts are now only vaguely in the show.

The flying act is almost worth the price of admission alone.  A troupe of ten to twelve fill the air with flights of varying difficulty, including those that send the flyers skyward  where they are caught on the upswing instead of their downward thrust after the completion of a layout or triple somersault.

The two principal clowns’ number has been altered to make them less offensive and therefore less interesting.  And the other company act, the banquine choreographed by Debbie Brown is absolutely the best of its kind on the world, breathtakingly beautiful and thrilling at one and the same time.  It concludes with a four high column with nary a wire attached to the topmounter.

Photos by Jermey Daniel and Richard Termine, Costums by Alan Hranitelj.

 

It’s No Mirage.  It’s Really Bello

Bello Nock has once again spent his summer at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, appearing in a show which he has produced with his creative partner Misha Matorin, a graduate of Cirque du Soleil’s Mystére.   The two worked as a team last year in the same venue with a different show.

This year’s production is called Fata Morgana, which is Italian for a mirage or something you can’t be sure is real or not.  Nothing much is made of that idea, but the term could certainly be applied to many circus acts that test one’s credulity.  What holds the show together, instead of any exploration of a theme, are four lithe dancers whose changes of choreography and costumes provide introductions into each of a terrific lineup of varied circus acts that range from the interesting to the top flight, each of which is followed by an appearance of  Bello Nock who does not change costume, but whose irresistible comic personality and performances, ranging from gentle spoofs to daredevil clowning has the audience totally charmed. In other words it is Bello doing what Bello does better than anyone else in small and big doses.

The other constant in the show is a motorcycle cage, which stands upstage throughout the performance.  Since it can’t be hidden it is draped with fabric upon which are projected ever changing images during most of the acts that proceed its unveiling.  In the opening the four girls are in white gowns undulating in front of it, until a soft white cube rolls onto the stage, out of which Bello makes his first appearance in his fat suit. It is here that Bello establishes his character and henceforth has the audience totally in his sway, putting a smile that will remain throughout the show on every face.

Two of the acts on the bill I founds especially impressive.  One was the juggler Valeriy Demiche, whom I had not seen in several years, when he impressed everyone at the Paris festival.  At that time one could not help noting the stylistic debt his performance owed to Viktor Kee who was then wowing audience in Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion.   As it turned out he eventually replaced Kee in that show and toured the world for several years, hence his absence from the American circus scene.  He is, by the way, despite his obvious Russian heritage, American, a resident of that all-American show-biz city, Las Vegas.

His style is still somewhat reminiscent of Kee’s but he has become more his own man.  He still spends a good deal of time on the floor, slithering about as he manipulates three balls, but there is some strong traditional juggling to his act as well.  He keeps a seven ball cascade in the air far longer than one normally sees, and he concludes that exercise with  a beautifully staged ending.  In fact much of his choreography is quite amusing.  There is definitely a sense of humor at work here, as for instance when he nonchalantly exchanges balls for clubs which are tossed into the air one at a time by one of his feet.

Such a wonderfully accomplished act is certainly ripe for parody, what with its distinctive style, and Bello does not disappoint.

The other act I admired was a stunning hand to hand balancing act, which, like that of Demiche,  is reminiscent of another much admired and highly praised act.  That act is one that Cirque du Soleil hashad  tied up for many years, the Alexis Brothers, who are a feature of Mystére. The two men who perform this version of that act, Adam Vasquez and Anton Mahkuhin, unlike the Alexis brothers are not related, but their moves are so tightly atuned to each other that they might as well be.  They moved beautifully with seemingly effortless grace from one inspiring display of strength to another.  A class act in all respects.

When the Steel Globe (an essential thrill element in circuses these days) is finally put into play three riders careen around its interior at breakneck speed.  The daredevils are  two the Dominquez brothers, Eric and Jason, and Justin Chodkowsky who has done just about everything there is to do in the circus.  Surprisingly it is not programmed as the closing act.  Placed midway into the evening it provides an enormous jolt of bravado, what with the roar of the revving motors and the dizzying blur of speed it produces.  What made this particular version of this kind of act so effective is that it enjoyed the best lighting I have seen this specialty work in.  What a difference being able to see those revolutions makes.

Those four dancing girls noted earlier introduce most of the acts, and one of the girls adds an immeasurable dose of sparkle to the free standing ladder act of Alekandr Rebkovets that uses its music very well.  Her shimmying is perfectly in keeping with the style of the act.  It all fits together, the tricks, the dancing and the music, create a very pleasing singular impression.

Polina Volchek,  a sexy red-head is the one performer, other than Bello, who makes more than one appearance, a sure sign that everyone is doing their number one specialty.  As it happens Volchek has two, the one more special than the other.  Her opening act, a hula hoop display that combines a number of other ingredients that takes it out of the realm of the ordinary, is really only a warm-up for her pole dancing.

The latter act has an interesting history.  It began as a circus act popularized by Dima Shine (coincidentally Viktor Kee’s protégé) using a shorter than usual Chinese pole.  It has now developed into a competitive sport. Volchek is just back from just such a competition, and her performance does indeed combine strength and dance as she threads herself around the pole in a presentation that is both sexy and highly skilled.

Another performer that I had recently encountered before seeing him work here was Raymond Silos.  He is a young man I first saw in Tuffy Nicholas’ so-called Hawaiian circus in  Atlantic City last summer.  Here he demonstrates how much he has grown as an artist and performer.  The last I saw of him he was subjected to the indignity of having to mop up the stage before his performance.  Here he presents an elegantly refined display on the Cyr wheel.

The opening act is presented by Anastasia Makeeva, who works on a pair of fabric slings that afford her  the possibility of many different kinds of movement of which she takes full advantage.  Since the theatre in which Fata Morgana appears was originally built to accommodate a Cirque show, it has plenty of height which allows aerial acts the opportunity to deliver a strong impact.

The side show performer Vladislav Miagkosyoupov, who walks and lies on glass and allows  knives to bounce off his chest before walking up a staircase of sabers, is not particularly to my taste, and his act suffers somewhat because little of torture to which he submits himself reads very well in this situation.  His finish trick, a blind-folded dive through a spinning, flaming hoop, is certainly impressive and has no problem registering strongly.

And then, of course, there is Bello.  In addition to the fat suit and his brief parodies of many of the acts he also does his bungee act which gets the biggest reaction, thanks to the previously noted height of the stage. Unfortunately he is not well lit up there, but even still his apparent loss of balance is quite believable, and he elicits the proper screams of terror that change to delight when he bounces back into the air ibstead of being splattered on the floor.  He also includes his surefire William Tell entrée with a clueless girl from audience, and he brings the show to a rousing finish with the Wheel of Death, or whatever euphemism it has attached to it these days.  So discreetly and efficiently is the apparatus rigged that  I was unaware of it until it was ready to go. In the early portion of this act Bello’s assistant David Martins and Justin Chadkowsky work the cages until Bello takes over with his unique brand of hair-raising comedy.  (I am talking about the hair of the audience here.  Bello’s hair in in a perpetual state of standing on end.)

Following the close of this show on August 19, Bello heads off to Australia and Japan, and ghen Europe for the holiday season.  He  will return to New York City in March at the New Victory Theatre, with his own BelloMania.