Passing Spectacle Vol. I, No. 8

Circus Juventas Provides Polished Showcase for Some Extraordinary Talent

One of the great joys and occasional thrills of seeing as many different circuses as I do is discovering fresh new talent.  American and, to some extent, international circuses these days tend to recycle the same talent over and over again.  It is rare indeed that I discover an act in an American circus that I have not seen before.  But the youth circuses are another matter entirely.

For the past several years Circus Juventas has showcased one or more young artists who have displayed exceptional talent in each of their annual productions, and this year’s Showdown was no exception. In fact it was more than usually brimming over with talent.

Some of these young artists I had seen before, prominently displayed in past productions, and here it was possible to see how they had grown artistically and developed their skill level.  But let me begin with the newest addition to the roster of exceptional talent that can be found in Circus Juventas productions.

Shena Tschofen and Jacob Oberman

Showdownis obviously set in the old west and Shena Tschofen is cast as a mail order bride, for the most doltish son of Ma Casher, and her bridal assets are nothing short of remarkable.  She works on the aerial straps; she tumbles, dances beautifully, and is an expert on the German wheel and the silks as well as the triangular and swinging trapeze.  In addition she can handle a lasso.  She was also part of an impressive two-person hand balancing act.  In each of these skills she demonstrates a high level of development and artistry, to say nothing of her acting ability which requires her to change from shy and demure virginal bride, to an uninhibited woman with a mind of her own who ends up happily lassoed by Black Bart, the Robber Poet, with whom she has fallen hopelessly in love, the kind of love, that has her very romantically sharing a set of aerial straps with her strappingly handsome beau.

Tschofen and Oberman

Last year I was struck by the acrobatic versatility and acting commitment of Zebulon Fricke whose talents and dedication are once again on display in Showdown, to the point where they caught the attention of Bello Nock who has invited him to join his tour of Australia and Japan.  That should be quite a thrilling learning experience for a young artist who appears to be ready, willing and able to do anything in the circus.  In addition to playing Billy the Kid one of the three

Zebulon Fricke

principal characters of the show Fricke dances up a storm, works on the German wheel and the lasso, and climbs aboard the wheel of steel.  He is also involved in a four man hand balancing act, the seven-man pyramid on the high wire, a beautiful strap act with one of his partners in crime, the ensemble wall trampoline, and ultimately abandons all restraint in some comedy which involves sliding on his belly, head-first across a table, numerous times.

That high wire act, by the way, places Juventas with two other youth circuses who have accomplished this feat successfully.

Jacob Oberman, who plays the previously noted Black Bart, is both Tschofen’s and Fricke’s partners on the straps in separate displays.  He is also an energetic member of the wall trampoline ensemble, a two person hand balancing act and the teeterboard.  He is exceptionally talented on the Russian barre, and joins his friends as a member of the seven-man high wire act.  He also works the lasso, and is a talented dancer.

Then there is Paul Weisman as Johnny Ringo, the third member of Billy the Kid’s gang.  He is involved in the four man hand balancing act, the wall trampoline, the German wheel, the wheel of steel, a chair stacking /handstand act, the Russian barre, the Russian swing, the teeterboard, and a nicely staged adagio, besides dancing and twirling the lasso.

Imagine having this quartet of versatile artists who, besides their skills, also have abundant stage presence and project convincing characters.  But there is still more.

Sam Krey, who had along with Fricke had previously played one of the Grimm brothers, here is Wyatt Earp, one of the show’s two protagonists.  (It’s difficult to call one of them the antagonist, as they are equally appealing and continually manage to avoid the showdown of the show’s title.)  Krey, who is a theatre arts major in college, worked on the wall trampoline, the wheel of steel, the Russian swing, the high wire, and like just about everyone else in the cast danced with grace and style.

Rutger VanHuber and Avery Young

I was also impressed by Rutger VanHuber, who performed unicycle with Kayleen McQuillan and duo trapeze with Avery Young . He was also involved in the club passing act, the highwire, and lo and behold, despite being cast as a visiting preacher, cracked a literally fiery whip.

In addition to Bello who came in to coach the people working on the wheel of steel and the clowning, Angelo Iodice, who works a western act as A.J. Silver, was responsible for coaching all the indispensible rope tricks and whip cracking.  Jerome Scott’s acrobatics in the lasso spinning display was very impressive as well.

Capturing a Mail Order Bride

There was a great deal of fire in this show.  The club passing routine used flaming torches, and at least one of the three German wheels in that visually exciting display was also set ablaze.

There is also a lot of narration, all of it pre-recorded, including the dialogue between some of the characters which necessitates that they lip sync the words much as they do in the Disney on Ice productions.  There are even pre-recorded sound effects, including numerous gun shots.  I can well understand why the dialogue needed to be recorded.  It’s not easy doing acrobatic stunts while delivery heated dialogue.  But gun shots?   Real shots produced with starter type pistols make a much greater dramatic impact than those that are pre-recorded.

Ostensibly the plot is supposed to lead us to the final denouement between Earp and Billy the Kid.  But the real tension revolves around the fate of the mail-order bride.   The much anticipated “showdown” remains unresolved.  Perhaps in the sequel.

All of those requires some convincing acting on the part of all the principal characters, and as I have indicated they pull all it off convincingly.   If one were to examine the images of the show shot by any one of the numerous photographers they would reveal that the performers are always fully in the moment in character.

The German Wheel Trio

Thanks to the machinations of the plot, there are a few places in the performance where a lot is going on at once.  In one scene there is rola bola, contortion, handstands with chair stacking, table comedy and a barroom brawl.  At the show’s climax, as the plot continues to thicken, setting up the final confrontation, the action reaches a hectic level what with the wall trampoline, the bungee trapeze, some tumbling, and dancing, all of which seems to be going on at once.  In the aerial display we saw a swinging trapeze solo, a triple trapeze, the duo trapeze, and cloud swing all working simultaneously.

An amusing twist to the teeterboard display which often went to three high columns, and once to a four high with the use of a mechanic, an outhouse was used as jumping off stand. The club passing is routine is visually exciting and very well executed. 

The show even has an honest-to-goodness horse, an impressive Gypsy Vanner ridden by Lars Nisswandt and Rachel Hain.

There also seemed to be a great deal of dance, more than is usual, most of which tends to look the same but never lacks for exuberance. The choreography is by Austin McCormick.

The flaming German Wheel

The show has been conceived, directed and staged by Betty Butler, who with her husband Dan is the co-founders of Circus Juventas, and as always the physical production has a polish and style not often seen in youth circuses, or most professional ones, for that matter.  The show was written by Lauren Stringer who is also one of the scenic designers, along with Susan Furr. The setting included a jail, dance hall, bathhouse, livery stable, and the façade that functioned as the wall trampoline.

Several people are credited with the costume designs: Sara Langworthy, Oliver Manhattan, Janice Marcella, Kathy Staszak, and Merrill Stringer.  One of the most clever collaborations between the director, costume designers and writer is a set of girls who are dressed to represent veins of gold from the gold mine.  They arrive in mining trolleys before ascending the silks.  At the conclusion of the act they end up once more in the baskets.

The Juventas productions consider every element of the experience from the lobby design by Kelly McManus, to musical guest artists: Fiddlers Peter Ostroushko and Sedra Bistodeau, the percussion of  Marc Anderson, and the banjo of Jim Tordoff.  Ostroushko also plays the mandolin.

The excellent sound design was by Don and Debbie Rutledgel and the always impressive lighting design was contributed by Josh Wabaunesee

The experience actually begins outside the theatre as the audience arrives.   Showdown played sixteen sold out performances with a cast of seventy-five.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Circus Juventas photos by Corey Gordon and Lori Ulm

Dralion Moves Out of the Big Top into the Arena

 

Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion has been around since 1999, first in an extended world tour under its blue and yellow striped big top, and now as an arena attraction, playing split weeks.  The difference in venue and perhaps the years that have elapsed since its premiere have had a profound effect on the production.

This past summer I saw the show in Atlantic City, where it appeared in a venue once made famous as the home of the Miss America Pageant and Burt Parks.  That famous building is now called Boardwalk Hall, and it has been renovated to accommodate touring attractions.  I saw both of Ringling’s units, the Red and the Gold, there in recent years.

As we have learned from shows that use Chinese performers, these artists are not allowed to leave their homeland for any extended time and, therefore, must constantly be replaced.  Now into its thirteenth year, bringing in a new contingent of Chinese may have been out of the question either economically or diplomatically.  Whatever the reason, in this version of the show there are far fewer of the Chinese acrobats than there were in the beginning and who made the original so powerful.  An entire troupe of Chinese women who performed an amazing teeterboard act and a hand balancing act while standing en point on the tip of lighted light bulbs is gone without being replaced by other Chinese acrobats.

Ironically the artistic management at Cirque du Soleil has chosen what has historically been the weakest element of all their shows, the clowning, with which to fill the void left by the departing Chinese.    Including an extended pre-show appearance, the so-called clowns appear five times throughout the proceedings.  Each of these appearances is a tortured affair that attempts to draw laughs out of the slightest of material.  One extended entrée deals with one of the clowns’, toupees.  Their one success at drawing laughter from the entire audience instead of sporadic forced laughter is their last appearance, in which they spoof several of the serous acts that have preceded them.  This is the one comedic element that was already successful in the original production and has apparently remained so.

The highlights of the current show are those performed by the remaining Chinese acrobats.   They first give us a visually spectacular display of pole juggling.   A bit later they return as the Dralions, (a combination dragon and lion) in a version of the tradition lion costume, balancing atop giant rolling balls, and finally in a display of hoop diving, which is their most exciting contribution.  The climax of the show is a rope jumping display that is not quite as spectacular as the one that was with the show in its early days.  So the wow factor is considerably reduced.

 

In fact almost everything about the show seems reduced and less majestic in its new setting it was in the original.  The golden back wall hardly registers in an arena environment, and the representatives of the four elements, earth, air, water, and fire, which are given greater prominence in this version, come across as time filling dance sections.

We miss the sensational double trapeze act of the original, as well as the hauntingly beautiful pas de deux on silks.

We still have a juggler, known here in the U.S. simply as Vladik,  doing an impressive  variation of Viktor Kee’s unique juggling style, and a new addition to the show, which is a true innovation, is a an act performed on  a device made up of two single hoops, dissecting each other to form four hemispheres.  A solo on silks and a dimly lyra act fail to make much impact.

A Chinese specialty, the diabolo act, is performed in this version by a set of much older girls than those that appeared in the original.  The wall trampoline act goes on seemingly forever with little variation or rise in difficulty and therefore works to diminishing rewards.

There seems to be more singing in this production, perhaps because some of it is done as solos on stage with nothing in the way of acrobatics or theatrics going in around them, so that  instead of backing up the acts they are now front and center.  In addition to the two soloists, the company includes six musicians.

The impressive physical production and its machinery have been retained from the tented version, and although it is called into play on occasion here, it has little impact on the proceedings in any significant way.

 

 Nik Wallenda Reaping the Rewards of Celebrity

This past summer I was lying on the beach of Long Beach Island, only half aware of the single engine, two-seater planes towing advertising banners across the horizon when one of them caught my eye.  “Nik Wallenda,” it read.  I was jolted fully awake to discern that Nik would be appearing from August 12 to September 22 in the showroom of the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City just thirty miles south of my sandy retreat.   This did not come entirely as a surprise for each of the past several years this once famous resort town on the Atlantic Ocean has seen several circus-based entertainments playing there.

Nik won this prestigious booking thanks to his new celebrity status gained from his walk on the high wire across Niagara Falls, NY.   But his show does not trade on that celebrity.  There is no attempting to get away with as little as possible.  This was a very good production, with a full program of quality acts from top to bottom.

I had some doubts as the show opened with a young man in a boldly checkered suit and little in the way of clown makeup working his way through the audience.  Once he got to the stage he produced an inflatable ball about the size of a soft ball that he began throwing out into the audience and asking to have it thrown back.   That tiny ball kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and more amusing as his act progressed. Finally it was so huge he was unable to even pick it up.

Interestingly, prior to his appearance, the pre-show music tended toward hard rock.  But when he came on it changed to some 20’s style vaudeville music, which I recognized from having heard it at Cirque d’Hiver during intermission time there.

So we were off to a pleasant and comfortable start when Ty McFarlan, who turned out to be the evening’s host, stepped out on to the stage, dressed, not in traditional ringmaster garb, but a jacket-less suit with vest.  It was another pleasant, informal, note that added a contemporary note to the good humor of the evening.

The first act was the hyper-energetic Dancing Gauchos, who described themselves as the Sonny and Cher of Argentina.  They immediately set the tempo for the show with the vibrant rhythms of their drums, whips and bola, closing with a set performed in strobe.

As they departed the clown, Mikey Richter, entered with a brief parody of their act. In an act as outrageously styled as this one, parody begs for a chance to create some fun.  This became standard operating procedure for the rest of the show, as each act was followed by one of Richter’s very funny parodies.

Next up was Nik and his wife Erendira on the sway poles.  Thanks to the high ceiling of the Trop showroom, they were able to use their tallest spars, which forced everyone to crane their necks to see what was going on up there and surely added to the thrill of the act which closed with the couples changing positions and then sliding headfirst toward a last minute braking.

Another featured act was presented by Rafael DeCarlo, who is a very exciting juggler, somewhat in the style of  Francis Brun in that he bounces a lot of balls on his head and feet and works at a frenzied pace with lots of movement.   He eventually worked his way up to five balls, and then seven which he neatly sent into the pockets of a belt he wore for the occasion.  He ended his act working some ping pong balls in his mouth, more for their comedic value than the skill involved.  Like the Dancing Gauchos, DeCarlo’s act was rather long.  Obviously all the acts were being allowed to display their entire repertoire instead of trimming them down to the best and fastest five minutes.

A bit of variety was contributed to the program by Oksana Klymenko on the aerial straps.  The style and grace and tempo of this act were in sharp contrast to what had gone on before.

Mikey, the clown, was not about to be hoisted into the air with another parody.  Instead he presented a comedy unicycle act.  This was followed by David and Danya’s fast- change act.  The act as a whole is beginning to look rather tired and done by rote.  David has put on some weight, which doesn’t help the act, and all in all it was the least well received act of the show, which is certainly a change for the couple which is usually greeted with delighted surprise.

In the penultimate spot Ricardo Sosa, provided another change of pace with his elegant, solo hand balancing and contortion act.

Finally it was time for the Wallendas to show us why the family has been so famous for so many decades.  Along with his wife and mother Delilah, the troupe also required the services of Blake Reed, Nik’s cousin in order to recreate the act that set the Wallenda’s on their course in circus history when they made their debut with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden in 1928.  Before they provided that final thrill, Delilah did a split on the bar yoked between the two men, and Erendira did several rolls over the same apparatus.

The true climax to the act and the show had the two men riding bicycles with a bar set between them over their shoulders.  Onto this bar was set a chair that was occupied by Delilah.  Midway across the wire the team stopped and Delilah climbed up and stood on top of the chair.  It is a moment fraught with unrelieved tension which has been immortalized by photos of this moment when it was performed by the patriarch of the family, Karl and his wife Helen.   It is has been a long time since I have seen this particular trick performed, and it provides a genuine one-of-a-kind thrill that always bring audiences to their feet, as it did here.

I last caught sight of Nik on TV a few weeks later, being interviewed during the annual Steuben Day Parade in NYC, a celebration of the city’s German heritage,  for which he served as Grand Marshall.  Next up, he says, is the Grand Canyon.

 

 

A Roster of Great Acts Makes for an Unbeatable Big E Super Circus Performance

The Eastern States Exposition, affectionately known to hundreds of thousands of patrons as The Big E has a lot to offer in the way of free entertainment, once one pays his admission fee to the fair grounds.  In addition to the Super Circus which brings me back year after year, there was this year, a sea lion show, the Peking Acrobats, a comic hypnotist, and the daily Mardi Gras parade.

This year’s circus was made up entirely of acts I had seen before, but were all top flight, so it was a pleasure to enjoy their polished and carefully considered performances once again, which made for a very satisfying and even thrilling performance, leading one to the over simplification that all it takes to make a good circus is to book good acts.  This seems especially the case in a one-ring situation, where we are close to the action and therefore get a chance to study them in minute detail.  Of course there is also the matter of programming the order in which the acts appear, and the real difficulty is finding acts that are available when you want them.  But this year the stars were in the correct alignment and they worked to create a thoroughly exciting show.

The Hanneford big top continues to provide the perfect setting for such a circus and this year the lighting was more impressive than ever.  We were given a good display of its virtuosity during the warm-up to the performance and the vocalizing of ringmaster Ty McFarlan.

David Rosaire and his Pesky Pekes opened the show with a beautifully programmed act that featured a star canine comedian.  What makes this act so enjoyable is that before long the trainer loses control of the proceedings, or so it is meant to seem, as the joke is always on him.  The comedian of the act gets his laughs thanks to its naughty behavior and his hasty retreat back to the dog house, where he spends most of the act.  The entrance of the stage coach pulled by a Great Dane big enough to match a small pony always provides a way of topping the aforesaid antics.  Now it is the baboon that drives the stage coach who provides the star turn, with his rifle and six shooters.

I have seen the trap duo, the Marinoffs, many times before.  But it is such a beautifully routined act with every move considered and refined to the point of a choreographed ballet that is always a pleasure to renew its acquaintance.  In addition to the beauty of the movements by Louisa, the act’s female partner, the tricks are quite impressive, despite their being executed as if they were no more daring than hanging from a playground swing.  Theirs is a nonchalance that provides far more thrills than an excess of styling and begging for applause.  Even the way Louisa takes the web with his leg and then moves up and down it is a simple but gorgeous maneuver.  What a pleasure to watch such seasoned professionals go about their business with an economy of effort, in which nary an extraneous gesture or move distracts from their pulling off a truly astounding exhibition of strength and daring and balance.

The rola bola of Dany Daniels I had seen first in Circus Sarasota.  Hailing from Portugal, Daniels begins by jumping a very short rope and then builds to a pyramid of six benches stacked about the rola board, and then balancing over an eight-high stack of cylinders.

Mark Gindick has returned in the character of Grandma and the exercise machine entrée originated by Barry Lubin.  Gindick has all the moves and gestures down pat and gets every one of the laughs that there are to be had, many of which come from the lip synching sections. Later Grandma returns to cover for setting up of the Globe of Death (or Steel) and the riders who will careen about inside, while throwing popcorn at people in the audience.  These are fool proof gags delivered with precision and perfect timing.

He is followed into the ring by the hand balancing act called A & A (Anton Makuhim and Adam Vasquez) which I had seen and admired earlier this past summer in Biloxi with Bello Nock.  It is a gorgeous act in which the two men, dressed in unadorned white tights, move from statuesque pose to pose with simple, slowly adjusted moves that are kept to a minimum allowing one to fully appreciate the strength and grace of the duo.    This is an act one could marvel at over and over again.

The closing act is the Big E Thrill Riders, which brings four motorcyclists into the cage to roar about with wild abandon and dizzying revolutions.

With a new performers entrance musical director Larry Stout’s perch has been moved to the rear of the tent.

This was certainly the fastest fifty minutes I have spent under a big top in quite some time.

 

Scary and Sentimental, These Dragons Breathe Fire and Respond to Anyone Scratching Their “Sweet Spot”

 It certainly is turning out to be the year of the dragon, thanks to the Chinese calendar, Ringling Bros. Blue Unit and now a touring arena attraction called, How to Train Your Dragon, presented by the Dreamworks film company and their animation studio, based on their animated film of the same name.  This, however, is unmistakably a love spectacular, whose technical credits, in order to list,  would take up an entire book as they do in the very handsome  souvenir program.  A great many craftsmen, artists, and technical wizards have combined to make this an impressive spectacle on several levels.

One would think that initially it had the potential to be terrifying to young kids, what with the awe inspiring ferocious physical aspect of the five very large, very fierce some dragons that appear, breath fire and belch smoke and even, it is even suggested pass gas quite potently.  In addition to these impressively sized and animated creatures, the arena is sometimes lit with blasts of flame, and filled with a crashing musical accompaniment and fast moving images.  But the show is not just scary.  It is quite sentimental as well.

In fact, it doesn’t take too long for the seeming monsters to be turned into cute pets once they are anthropomorphized.  There is some not too subtle defense of animals whose natural habitat is being cannibalized or who have been over-killed almost to the point of extinction, but essentially it is a tale of a boy and his pet dragon.  The young man faces the dilemma of wanting to make his father, a fierce Viking, proud of him and at the same time protect the animal he loves and defend its specie the right to exist.  All of which will ultimately captivate the youngsters in the audience, who accounted for at least half the attendance at the performance I saw at the Izod Center arena in the Meadowlands of New Jersey.

But it isn’t the story that really impresses the adults in the audience. It is the technical prowess of the production that sucks one in and provides a different kind of thrill than those offered the younger set.

The production is set in a little over half of the arena, with screens that stretch across not only the back of the playing area, but also the entire back wall of the seat area as well, so that the effect is very much like that which I had experienced many years ago in a new cinematic advancement called Cinerama and its three screen projections.  So we fly, we dive under the sea, we cross mountains, we sail over the clouds, and experience all that movement as if we were on the back of the dragon who provides the rides for the plot’s young hero Hiccup and his girlfriend, Astrid, combining three-dimensional characters with the filmed background in a most engaging and convincing manner.

To get the plot across there must, of course, be human characters as well as the dragons.  In addition to the plot’s four principals (besides the three already noted there is the Viking king’s right hand man, who is the voice of reason) , there are about a dozen other performers who serve as apprentice dragon-slayers and provide a good deal of comic business with their break-dance style acrobatics and terrified pratfalls.

Happily all the dialogue is presented without the actors having to lip synch pre-recorded words.  It is much more believable to have the body language and physical energy match the vocal delivery, and as a result the acting is quite convincing, and at times, even touching.

The plot and the physical production, both visually and aurally, build to a fitting climax in a spectacular fight between the largest and most ferocious dragon and the boy and his father.   In the end all the characters change—father, son and dragons.  The latter allow themselves to have their teeth not only brushed but flossed as well.  With no more bad breathe to contend with they all live happily side by side, cooperating to build a (literally) rosy future.