Features Vol. I, No. 9

A Rimgmaster Steps Into the Biggest Circus Ring of his Career

This is a tale of another overnight sensation that has been thirty or more years in the making.  In this instance it is not about a performer toiling away in out of the way dingy bars or run down theaters.  This is the story of a circus artist who spent the thirty previous years  playing the kind of circuses that rarely get much attention in the press.  Now at last he has been thrust into the spotlight in the center of a major circus ring and is proving  that all those years of struggle have taught him well about taking command of the ring and holding it.

Many of you may not know who I am talking about even if I were to tell you his name, which happens to be John Kennedy Kane.  But he is known to legions of circus fans by a much shorter name:  Eggroll.  For now, however, that name has been , if not laid to rest, at least set aside temporarily, as unfitting for the kind of newfound celebrity he is enjoying with the Big Apple Circus.

Like all such tales of being discovered, this one, too, hinges on the cliché of being in the right place at the right time.   Several years ago ur hero—let’s call him John from now on—was announcing the Shrine show for the Hamid organization up in Springfield, Massachusetts while the Big Apple Circus was playing in nearby Boston.  The Shrine show was being headlined by Bello Nock, who had just finished his gig with Ringling and was about to go into the next year’s Big Apple and so people from the New York show came over to see Bello and iron out a few details regarding his coming engagement, andprior to meeting him  they sat through the entire performance.

Scotty O’Donnell, whom John knew from having worked with the Vidbel show,  one of those circuses that tends to fly under the radar at least of the Big Apple operation, stopped by to say hello after the performance and mentioned that the new artistic director, Guillaume Dufresnoy had said that he found the ringmaster “interesting.”  John’s antenna instantly went up and hoping to capitalize on this information, asked, “What should I do?”   He was advised to do nothing.  “It has to be their idea,” O’Donnell advised.  That was three years ago.

But that little bit of a tease was too hard to let go without doing something.  Anything.  No harm in visiting the show in Lincoln Center, he reasoned.  In the course of exchanging pleasantries after the performance with Dufresnoy John was asked if he sang.  His answer was less than politic and elicited no further response from the artistic director.  John’s note, thanking Dufresnoy for the box seats, did get a response., however.  Assuming he had nothing to lose John, in his typical style, wrote that he loved the show.  “Just wish you could find a ringmaster who is charming and personable.  But where are you going to find that in the U.S?”

That got a response.  A week later Dufresnoy called to say they were a long way off from making a decision about a new ringmaster for the show that was still years away, but could he send them some things  like videos of him in action.  John made sure that what he sent didn’t show him being sarcastic, something of a trademrk style.

Just prior to this time John had decided that he would not be able to travel as much any more  because of problems he was having with his eyes, so he backed off from the circus and wrote a play.  It was a one-man show in which he told stories about himself growing up wanting to be a ringmaster. So as it turned out John had a very rough copy of a  videotape of his one-man show. “I sent that off.  Scotty wanted to see it.”   Somehow it ended up on the Big Apple lot, and then Jenny Vidbel saw it and eventually it wound up in Dufresnoy’s video player.  From there it went to the director who saw it, and announced, ”This is the guy.”    Eighteen months ago John received a contract to fulfill a lifetime’s ambition as ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus.

John finally met the director West  Hyler a year ago.  They got together  at a restaurant, and the director took him through the entire show as he saw it at that time.  “I saw the tape of each act so I knew he had been working on this for three years.”  After the opening, recently,  he sent John a lovely thank you card for making his dream come true.   That made two of them for whom a dream had come true.

“ I can’t say enough about this director,”  John says.  Perhaps because he never had one before this experience.  “ When people say they had four and a half weeks of rehearsals, I say we don’t do four and a half hours,” John points out with no little sense of irony.   The director, John says,  was amazed by that.  “You do what?  I told him we post the order of the acts ,and we do it, and if it doesn’t work we fix it in the next show  He couldn’t imagine that.  He is from Broadway.  He is very much into all the acts not just me, because he  wanted it to be collaborative.”  The directors of last year’s show at the first rehearsal, John has subsequently learned, announced at the first rehearsal that they did not know the meaning of compromise.  We do it our way.  “So that the tone for those rehearsals.”

From what he has heard about past practice, the first time the company gets together to begin work on a new production, all the various departments introduce themselves to the cast  and explain what they do.  And then they leave.  This director took a different approach. He began by saying “You will have plenty of time to meet each other,  so instead, today we are going to take you through the show ,” at which point he and John took everyone through what the show would be.  “ We went through the whole show with everyone sitting on the ring curb, every performer, everyone associated with the show.  It was kind of scary but West had prepared me for it.  We got immediate feedback for all the jokes and whatever.  And there was a buzz afterwards, and everyone was excited about the show.  They could tell it was going to be pretty neat, and that set the mood for the four weeks of rehearsal.”

Once rehearsals got under way the director, having directed on Broadway, was used to doing the lighting with the designer and having the cast work around what they came up with.  Here at the circus for the first time he ran into something new.  He was amazed at how much the acts knew about what they needed in the way of lighting.  He wasn’t used to that. ” It was a learning process for him, too.”

Obviously John was in awe of his first director. “He would talk to Rob Slowick, the musical director ,in musical terms,” he says in wonder. “ We didn’t know what he was talking about.  He was hands on with everything, wardrobe and all.  If you saw the sketch of my costume…  I hated it.  I said it looks like a clown costume.  I wouldn’t wear that if I was a clown.”  The director had the design changed. “Now I love it,” John says.  When the show opened the cast give their thirty-five year old  director a copy of the big Circus book, an indication of how loved he was by everyone in the company.

The director also wrote the script, collaborating at times with John, who now  came into his own.  There were several versions of the script, some of which had a lot more historical material in it than the final draft.  “I am afraid it is the jokes that I contributed,” John confesses.   In an one early version a joke about the invention of the leotard had to be expanded because the act whose rigging set-up it was intrended to cover was not yet with the show, and a cradle act, which was a temporary replacement  took longer to rig,  To cover the delay John did what amounted to a fake strip tease with lights and special music.  “I was happy to get rid of all that when the new act rigged much faster. “

It would be giving away too much to discuss the genesis of the other gags that get such a good response, but suffice it to say, as John explains,  “In rehearsals you say stupid stuff, and you say, wait a minute, maybe there is something here.”

Obviously the director recognized the special sense of humor that those of us who have known John for these many past years have always enjoyed, and he wanted the audience to get to know him  and his love of the circus as well.

What John enjoyed most was getting direction to help his performance.  “All during rehearsals he would say to me , ‘Stop announcing, John.  I want you to talk and tell a story, like in your play.’  One night he said to me ‘You don’t think I watched the whole play, but I did.’  Many times during the writing process he would say, ‘Give me a joke here.  Give me a joke.’”

Perhaps his most significant bit of direction for John was being told by the director  that he wanted the audience to see the show through his eyes, the eyes of a ten year old who loves the circus. “And I want to see that all the time,” he told John near the end of rehearsals.  How lucky it was for someone who had never worked with a director to have such a positive experience with his first.

When John first arrived for rehearsals  Dufresnoy checked out his new ringmaster’s new facial growth.  Everyone at the Big Apple had always loved Dinny MacGuire.  He was their favorite ringmaster. They loved his handlebar mustache.  Prior to coming on to the Big Apple John had done the Bello show.  “ They had me in boots and riding pants and they glued a moustache on me, but you can’t smile because the spirit gum stiffens your lip.  So I knew I had to grow something.  They talked about the handlebar, but what we finally came up with was using Chester A. Arthur, who was the president at that time period in which this show is laid, as a model.  So I grew mutton chops.

At one point he was asked why he had never worked on a major show before.  He replied that he had never had the opportunity.  “Why do you think that is ?” was the next question.  “I think mainly it is because of my weight.  Do you want me to lose weight?”    “No, no we like your silhouette,”  was the gratifying reply.

John did not start out to be a clown.  He only knew he wanted to be in the circus, preferably as the ringmaster, but he had no idea how to join the circus.  Clown College offered an opportunity to get a foot in the door, “ with a big shoe on it,” John adds.  “My father said it was embarrassing enough to have a son who applied to Clown College, and then to make matters worse I was turned down.”  Instead he worked the Clyde Beatty show right out of high school with his magic tricks.  He stayed with that show for four years and learned a lot from  Jimmy James who  was still clowning at that time.  “I did a fire act in the side show.”  With comedy of course.   When Jimmy saw it he said, ‘You’re in the wrong tent, son.’ I credit Jimmy James for teaching me a lot.  I model myself after him.  Have fun doing the job. was his motto.”  At the end of those four years John  finally realized he was going nowhere on this show, so he went to college and studied communications.

One area of show business and comedy John has never tried is stand up. “I’ve wanted to be a ringmaster since I was eight years old.”  The closest he ever got to being on a major show was selling programs at Ringling’s Gold Unit.  Coincidentally Nicole Feld visited the Big Apple show recently, and John reminded her of how they knew each other.  “ Well,” she says, “it looks like you have done all right for yourself, but I will tell you this, our program sales are down.”

His one-man show, unlike stand-up does not require his fighting with hecklers and dealing with audience participation.  Neither does it require much in the way of scenery and props.  Just one elephant tub.  He has taken the show to a college audience and presented it  in conjunction with a comedy workshop he offered during the afternoon prior to the performance,  which may be the way to go in the future for the combination worked out very well.   He would like to do the show in New York, perhaps in conjunction with the circus.

This tale ends, I am happy to say, with the happiest of endings:  the overnight sensation has received wide acclaim for his work as ringmaster, and he appears to have a future with the Big Apple Circus.   Apparently so will his director West Hyler.  The powers that be are very pleased with the work of both, and they make a good team.



Turning a Wheel Into an Acrobatic Partner


Like all teenagers who face the decision of what to do after graduating from high school, Daniel Cyr was uncertain of which direction to take.  He was good in sports but not academics, and all he knew for sure was that he wanted to do something with his body rather than his brain.  Then he saw Cirque du Soleil for the first time in Quebec City.

“I said that is where I want to be,” he recalls of that life-altering experience.  “From there I started to find my way toward circus.”

At 19 he entered Canada’s national circus school.  Eventually he was cast in one of Cirque du Soleil’s new productions, along with another young French Canadian, Jeannot Painchaud, whom he later teamed up with to create Cirque Éloize.

Today Cyr is 45 years old and has been on the road for more than twenty years, away from home for 230 days a year. Not surprisingly he chose not to put himself into Nomade, what was then the company’s new show.   “I said I will stop for now and maybe in a year or two I will go back on tour.”  But, he is quick to point out, he loves being in the circus now as much as he did when he started.  He wanted to refresh himself by working independently.

“I will do research and development in Montreal, so I can create.  That’s what I want to do, find new ideas and after that put someone in to do the acrobatics. I will do the test on the new apparatus and after that I will see and choose the right person to do the act instead of me.  That is basically what I would like to do for Eloize.  Every show I would like to have a new apparatus or a new act.”

Cyr has a thing for props.  His first act was with a freestanding ladder.  “My mother used to tell me that my grandfather used to go up and down on a wood ladder just to impress people, and when I went to the circus school I saw a guy climbing a ladder and I said, ‘Wow!  What I coincidence.’  So I said I am going to start to try it. I tried it and stuck with it for ten years.”

Cyr has a way of turning inanimate objects like ladders and now a giant hoop into partners that seem to have a personality and ambition of their own, which he plays off of and turns to his advantage.

The idea of using a giant hoop first came to him on a visit to the Big Apple Circus.  Barry Lubin was doing his giant hula hoop routine.   ” I said, ‘Wow, this is interesting, a big hoop like this,’ and after that I went to another theater and there was a costume rack inside the theater, and it was round, and it was in pieces on the floor.   I took the round tube, which was about a meter in diameter,  picked it up and played with it, made it turn and leaned on it and did all sorts of things.”  That clinched it.  He decided to have a hoop the size of Grandma’s made of the same strong metal he found on the costume rack.  His intention was to try some of the tricks usually associated with the German wheel on it.

“I went to a shop and told him how I wanted it.   They turned the pipe and made the circle.”  And there was no experimenting with size.  “The first one I had was a good size for me. I practiced with it, and I said, ‘Okay that’s what it’s going to be.’

“But when I went to practice with it, nothing I had imagined on paper was working.  Before you make a piece of apparatus you imagine what you can do on it (and this is done in planning on paper).   I draw pictures and write down what kind of tricks I can do on it, but nothing I had written was possible. When I forgot about the German wheel that’s when I started to evolve, because it’s a completely different piece of apparatus.    My vision was to inspire myself from the German wheel, but only when I forgot about that did I start to go up on the hoop.

“I have never seen anyone do the acrobatics I do in the wheel, but I don’t think I have reinvented anything like the circle, it’s just the way I work with it, as an apparatus for the circus.”

When Cyr knew he would be coming to the Paris festival he decided to put two hours a day into developing the new act.  “I said if I have a two a half minutes, I will be happy, because you never know how the act will turn out.”

After three months in solitary confinement with the wheel Cyr asked Daniele Finzi Pasca, the director of Nomade, to come in and work with him in building an act.  That process took about a week and then after that there was two more months of practicing and setting the music.   “Working two hours a day was very different for me,” Cyr says, ” because I was used to doing about 20 minutes a day.  All of a sudden I was having pain everywhere in my body because you have to get used to the apparatus and two hours a day is really intense.  This went away after about a month.”

Not being someone who listens to a great deal of music Cyr admits to not knowing what he wanted as a musical accompaniment for the act.  Once again he called on one of the people who helped create Nomade, the composer Lucie Cauchon.   “She has been working with different circuses for maybe ten or fifteen years.    That makes it easier because you know already how to work with them.  She came in and sat at the piano and improvised with me.”  This went on for more than two months with periodic visits.  In between those sessions, Cyr videotaped the act for her to look at further, until they had a score both were satisfied with.

Speaking of those films, Cyr says, “I film myself and improvise and sometimes you make mistakes and the mistakes become a trick. I try to make the apparatus alive as much as possible.  There is complicity between the two of us.  That is the point.  That is what I try to make happen.”

“After training within four walls for about six months,” Cyr points out, “I had gotten really tired of doing my act by myself.  I wanted to have a crowd.  I was looking forward to doing the act.”

He got the chance to try it out on a corporate gig he had booked in Montreal.  “The stage was a lot smaller than in Paris, so I had some trouble going around, but here there is so much space, I can relax and enjoy myself.”

When we talked in ParisI remarked that he seemed to have bulked up a good deal since I saw him last in New York.  “This is normal,” he says, ” because I am using different muscles, and I am not practicing as much as I did before.  So the body changes.  In a good way.”

Apparently it will keep changing.  Cyr has ideas for several other new acts, which he plans to develop for future productions of Cirque Éloize.