Passing Spectacle Vol. I, No. 9

 

The Big Apple Circus Reminds Us

 Why We Fell in Love with the Circus

 

 

The Big Apple Circus has at last come up with a show that has charm and a personality that makes it all but irresistible.  Thanks for much of that must go to the young director West Hyler  who comes to the show with Broadway credits, choreographer Matt Williams whose work we have admired for several seasons past with Circus Smirkus, the renowed Broadway set designer John Lee Beatty and the costumes of Mirena Rada who returns to the Big Apple with Broadway credits of her own.  But it is not just the Broadway theater element that has turned this outing titled Legendarium into such a delight.  For that enormous credit must be pinned on John Kennedy Kane who serves as both our guide through circus history and the show’s ringmaster.

John Kennedy Kane comes to the Big Apple Circus having been “discovered” by the creative staff  after he has been hanging around the circus world for thirty years or more.  He holds the show together with both a deliciously wicked sense of humor tempered by his obvious affection for the circus which is evident throughout.  As a result the delightful show’s personality and Kane’s are virtually inseparable.  In him the Big Apple Circus may very well have found the replacement for its previous icon Grandma the clown.

John Kennedy Kane

Kane is currently getting the best and biggest laughs of the show, and happily never seems to be taking himself too seriously as he regales us with historical factoids of both the circus and the city from which it  derives its name and stature. (How convenient this turns out to be given the fact of the exhibit “Circus and the City” at Bard Graduate Center.) All of this is larded with a delightful sense of humor.  One of my favorite bits was a reference to Broadway which provoked a brief but amusing spoof of A Chorus Line. Happily this is not at all out of keeping with the rest of the show.  Sadly, however, the actual clowning is more or less much ado about nothing.

This is a very big and powerful show packed with one wonderfully entertaining and gasp-inducing act after another.  It all gets started with a homage to the 19th century street parade that heralded the circus’ arrival in towns large and small all across America.

The selection of music is perfectly in keeping with this era.  It opens with “The Entry of the Gladiators,” and the score includes such evergreen favorites as “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camp Town Races,” and the “Man on the flying Trapeze.”  The one notable excursion into the 20th Century songbook is for “Rhapsody in Blue,” which is used for Zhang Fan’s slack wire act, which turns out to be a match made in heaven, putting the performer and the musical accompaniment into the same total sync as a ballet dancer.  (And he is presumably not counting beats.)  All of this gives the show a level of charm the Big Apple Circus has not enjoyed recently.  Another ingredient insofar as charm is concerned, is Rada’s highly stylish and often breath-takingly beautiful costumes.

After the parade, led by a cart pulled by two oxen, the performance begins with a very traditional trapeze act performed by  company member Andrey Mantchev.  This is his first season in the air, I believe, and some of his tricks could not have been completed with the assistance of his lunge at critical moments.  But the style of the presentation, the music and the costuming make us more than ready to forgive such shortcomings.

Elayne Kramer

Elayne Kramer’s contortion act is up next.  She concludes her beautifully choreographed act with a closing trick that  is nothing short of sensational.  Turned upside-down she shoots an arrow through a target, manipulating the  bow and arrow with her feet.

The Quinterion troupe is an act made up of youngsters which I first saw a few years ago at the Budapest festival when they had just graduated from the Hungarian national circus school.  At that time they were the best act in the all-Hungarian program, and since then they have come a long way both in terms of  style and skill.  Their Banquine-style catches are strong and sure, and as it did then and still does now, the folk dancing adds another charming note.

Zhang Fan

The previously noted Zhang Fan is nothing short of fabulous, as fully in control on the slack wire as if he were on solid ground, he executes a repertoire of various spectacular tricks with amazing aplomb, the act enhanced beautifully, as I have suggested, by the musical accompaniment, punctuating every trick most dramatically.   Who could ask for anything more in a circus performance?

Following a charming entr’acte  made up of a display of various old-fashioned wheels, Daniel Cyr the man who invented the Cyr wheel demonstrates how this particular apparatus can be more than a prop.  He has made it his partner in an exquisitely refined and yet excitingly realized performance, in which he and the wheel are at play as if they were one.  Two hundred circus artists around the world, Kane helpfully informs us, now work on this same apparatus, each finding something new and stylish to do with it.

Jennifer Vidbel

Jenny Vidbel is a double delight with both her horses and dogs, charming (have you noticed how often that word keeps popping up in this review?) when working with either, taking delight in her charges’ maneuvers and antics (especially those belonging to the dogs in a lovely Central Park setting, which is elegant yet filled with a delightful sense of humor.)

Katerina works her way through a fairly standard repertoire on silks, but her presentation is kept brief and to the point with style and grace.

Emily Weiss & Menno Van Dyke

That sense of style which the entire performance has to such a wonderful degree is continued in the presentation of Menno and Emily, who are all style and exquisite form in their juggling tango, which is most interesting when they both get involved with the juggling rather than having Emily merely becoming an obstacle around which Menno must manipulate his props.

Style, you see, is one of the watch words of the show, and it is surely maintained by the duo billed as Desire of Flight, which is one of the most elegant and exciting duos to be seen working the aerial straps in the world.  Their flights are fast paced and filled with dynamic action.

The Dalian Troupe

The performance concludes with the Dalian Riders. I have seen this troupe of Chinese female acrobats several times before and they never cease to amaze and delight, doing tricks normally done on horseback and some others that top anything ever done by equestrians.

This is the kind of performance one leaves feeling as if we are leaving an enchanted place.  We have been charmed, thrilled, delighted and even transported.  A heady mix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Takes Its Inspiration from the Mean Streets of Columbia

 

Basically there are two approaches to arranging a circus program.  One can either begin by putting his or her “Best Foot Forward” or end by “Saving the Best for Last.”  Of these two Circolombia has chosen the first approach.  As a result I found myself liking the show less and less the longer the performance ran.  What came after a remarkably stirring opening number became more and more repetitious with fits of wildly exuberant the dancing filling the space between acts as the skill level steadily declined.

The show which is titled Urban and was having its U. S. premiere at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City, opened with a display of banquine acrobatics that was often gasp inducing, what with its remarkable catches following spinning, somersaulting flights, all of it accompanied by a throbbing hip-hop beat that had the theatre pulsating with energy and excitement.

This was followed by a very strange act in which a young man who was either trapped or had taken refuge in a barrel, managed to move himself about the stage as he sang of his early life and “what happened to take him to the dark depths of his soul.”  The latter comes from the program notes. It put me in mind of the character of Porgy from the opera Porgy and Bess. I can add nothing further to what is provided by the program to  explain why he is in the barrel and what keeps him there because his song is sung entirely in Spanish with no attempt to take those of us who were not conversant in the language along with him.  Oddly a later song did provide some English subtitles to help us fill in the gap.  But here no such luck.

This rather dark interlude was followed by my second most favorite act of the show and certainly the brightest and most lyrical, a charming display on the bounding tight rope presented by Angel Caycedo Casierra and José Henry Caycedo Casierra, the later being the troupe’s artistic tutor and company captain.  No wonder it was the most “artistic” piece of the show. It was performed to an irresistible salsa beat, which seemed the perfect accompaniment.

The rest is presented in a style that is meant to convey the grittiness and the feeling of being on the mean streets.  That it  does with undeniable energy and power, with only momentary pauses for a change of pace during some brief, quieter moments.   The poetic expressions supposedly engendered by these moves, however, seem a stretch found more in the program notes than in the execution.

The troupe, as may be apparent by now, is performed by a group of young graduates of the Escuela Nacional Circo Para Todos in Cali, Columbia.  The hip-hop music that pulses throughout much of the show perfectly captures the attitude that has helped these young men and women survive.  Appropriately the  banquine display captures the daring and abandon they have learned on the streets, and the jump rope display reveals them at their most playful yet still thriving on rivalries.

Everything tends to move fast, with little relief from the relentlessness of it all.  The dance work would be better appreciated if there were not so much of it, and it was focused on the really spectacular moves.

The show’s two aerial displays provide the most effective changes of pace, but unfortunately they are rather short-lived and the skill level is not very impressive.  The company’s two women, Dina Valentina Romero Londoño and Maritza Constanza Melo Zambrano, work on the four sided trap, the single trap, double point lyra, and the straps.  A hand to hand balancing act is another brief display.

In addition to the banquine and rope jumping the show’s other big company act is a teeterboard display.  A couple of tricks to a three high column and another with a double to a chair from the teeterboard showed some advanced skills, otherwise all the flights were to a mat.  These attained an impressive height, and all the landings were sure and solid.

The show’s darkest act, both literally and figuratively, involved a Cyr wheel, which was almost obscured by a stage full of smoke effects.  The lighting began with a glow of red light that soon conflagrated into a full fledged fire, matching some rear projections, all of which is  supposed to be evocative of the holiday The Day of the Dead, celebrating family and friends who have passed away.

Before the performance proper begins see images of a young boy who seems to be hitching a ride on a bus with a rope tied to its rear bumper.  We watch his ride as if we are on the bus peering through the rear window.   It gives us a taste of the recklessness that is to follow.  During the show we are taken on a similar ride, and the  show ends with what amounts to a celebration of survival.

Urban is presented by circolomiba, artistic director and creative producer Felicity Simpson.   Theatre director Mark Storor, musical director Ryan Wilmott, movement director Katie Pearson, circus advisor Kristian Kristoff.   The performers trained at Escuela Nacional Circo Para Todos in Cali, Columbia.

 

Editor’s NoteI often spoke with Circolombia’s producer/director Felicity Simpson whenever we ran into each other at the circus festivals in Europe. The more I came to know her the  more eager  I was  to have a sit-down interview with her.  That finally came about a few years ago in Paris.  The result was published in the print version of Spectacle magazine in Vol 7-4, in 2004.  For those who missed that piece and as a way of putting the above review in context I am publishing it here once more.

Felicity Simpson speaks English with a crisp British accent.  She also speaks four other languages, is based in Europe and is the founder director of the Columbia (as in South America) circus school.  She has been a world-class performer with her late partner Hector Fabio Cobo Plata, performing what she calls an “intrepid tango.” And with him she also formed a circus company in Brazil, appropriately called the Intrepida Troupe.  She has an uproarious sense of humor and is so charged with outspoken energy, even in what might pass with others as a normal conversation, that it is a wonder she is able to be contained by so mundane an object as a chair.

Not surprisingly she comes from a theatrical family, the variety stage on her father’s side.  At the time she was growing up the European circus was steadily going downhill and her parents took what work they could find in other forms of entertainment and strongly advised their daughter to steer clear of the circus.  But she was hardly a shrinking violet, and her mother put her into the opera, appearing with such greats as Pavarotti.  She was, however, at that time nothing more than what the opera calls a “supernumerary.”  Eventually, at the age of fourteen, she took up the unicycle and left England for France where she joined, contrary to her parents’ warnings, a small circus and attended the Fratellini school of circus arts.

The school’s style turned out to be too reserved for her taste, especially after seeing a Mexican performer come bounding into the ring screaming “Rrrriva! Rrrriva!”  (I’m not quite sure how to duplicate in print what Simpson can do in person with that typically Spanish exclamation).  The Mexican was anything but understated or cold blooded.  She describes his performance as filled with passion.

That’s all it took for her to decide “to South America I shall go.”  Only it was to Brazil rather than Mexico.  “I must have taken the wrong plane, or I didn’t understand geography very well,” she offers by way of hilarious explanation.

She ended up going to a circus school in Brazil.  “The whole concept of circus schools was very novel at that time.  I was already a unicyclist and wanted to learn other things so I went there, and it was exactly the same style as the states, very shiny and very clean.  There was nobody going rrrrrrrrriva!  So I decided to make my own troupe, which I called Intrepida Troupe.  It still exists today.”

She hired eight of the National circus school’s first graduates, “and we started putting circus into musicals, into rock shows, opening rock show events, and it was a great time because we were opening the market for new circus.  It was hard though because inflation was high, so we did workshops for rich kids and anyone who could pay.  It was there in some of the workshops we did for various town halls, that we saw this extraordinary artistic potential of street kids.  These kids were literally throwing themselves into it and not whining if they hurt themselves a little bit, which is quite a blessing after working with middle class kids.

“But then we also realized that after the two weeks or two months we spent doing workshops we’d leave and had actually done more harm than good.  You go on, and they stay there with the same situation.  We were doing this before Cirque du Soleil.  Intrepida Troupe ran the first workshops that were financed by a group which later became Cirque du Monde [see also page 35] in Brazil where they saw us working.  This was in 1985.  Cirque du Soleil began in 1990.”

It was also in Brazil that Simpson met the man who would become her performance partner and the father of her children.  Actually, he was Columbian, but like her came from the theatre world.  He did, however, do stilts, and together they created their Intrepid Tango, she on unicycle, he on stilts, or more precisely she was the porter on the unicycle and he was the flyer on stilts.  “I’d lift him on a giant unicycle.”  (It’s easy to see why it was called “intrepid.”)

In 1989 they were invited to participate in the Paris festival.  Their act was, she explains “a satire on Latin lovers and Latin TV basically.”  It also sounds a bit like a new take on the French apache dance as the following suggests: “There was the tango, and then he would strip my clothes off and throw me to the floor and then there was the revenge, which turned into an acrobatic samba and I’d lift him in different lifts, two leapfrogs and a somersault.  And then I’d kill him, and he did a very beautiful split on stilts.  And then I’d drive right between his legs and crush his “willy.” [That’s British]  It was very funny.”

And successful.  “Straight from that we got a lot of contracts, and so we left our troupe and went to work as you do here in Europe at places like the Tiger Palace, and a lot of German variety.  That was fine, but my partner, Hector, wanted to go back and give something back to his country because he was very involved in the social side of circus, so he retired with the idea of making a circus school for marginalized children.”

In contrast to what Simpson had been doing previously in Brazil, his idea had a long–term perspective, “to not just do these workshops that you could do all over the place, but to take the kids all the way to a career.  We wanted to see if that was possible.  We’d seen the potential.   Then I got pregnant, and every time I got pregnant I’d write up a proposal.

“We were funded as a non-government organization by the French.  We came back to Paris, the center of Europe, and received substantial funding and started off, but put it off for a little bit to do it properly.”  That meant first conducting an “identification” or fact finding mission.  “We went to study the Columbian circus market, to see the employment potential, to see if there was a market for the students we would be turning out.  We didn’t want to train them for jobs that didn’t exist.  We knew the international market and what was happening locally.”   What they were doing she says was “market research on a humanitarian level, looking for local partners and [trying to determine] what the situation out on the street was like.”

That went over well with their funders, and in 1992 they won a grant to fund a pilot project which got underway in 1995, starting with community workshops in much the same way they had worked in Brazil.  “And the response from the kids was far beyond all our expectations.

“That was the end of our artistic career in a way.  We would go away for the occasional gala.  It drastically changed our lives.  In 1995 we started the workshops.  We covered 1200 kids in two years.  The best of those kids we brought to the professional school we started in 1997, with the very strong collaboration of the National Circus School of Cuba.”

Next the circus school won the national lottery in the UK.  (Not the usual way.  They won an award administered from the income of the national lottery.)   The National Lottery Charities Board has an international section, and the school was the first project to be chosen to receive a grant, which was “quite a bit of money,” enough to open the professional arm of the school.

“It was very expensive to open the school because all the Columbian artists had left.  If they were any good they were in the States or Europe, and since there was no pool of teachers, we had to bring them in.  The professional school had an international mix of teachers: French, Brazilian, Argentina and above all Cuba.  The Cubans are fascinating because they were trained by the Russians, and have their own Latin style.  They’re wonderful.”   And then mixing that with Columbian street children,  you have quite a “cocktail.”

Since 1996 the school has also been engaged in teacher training.  “That’s important, because our mission as we started the community workshops was not to create the same problem we had made in Brazil.  If we are going excite children, we’ve got to give them continuity and give them an opportunity to get into the professional school because we are selective there.  On the streets we take everybody, and they do the basics.

So what about those kids who are not talented but still want to continue?  For them we made community circus clubs (workshops), and we train trainers to look after those workshops.  We did that with the military police.  They have to do one year of military service, and we have to be selective of our trainers, so we went in there and asked them who wanted to do some gymnastics.”   Seven hundred said they did and were put through a two month training period which whittled the group down to 70, then 50 and finally 25.  “At the end of our course we had 11 good trainers.”

There is also a fourth element to the program Simpson started in Columbia.  “And it is a very logical program, which no other school has got yet [except for Australia’s NICA whose director just happens to be a great friend of Simpson.]  It is important, Simpson insists, because it is a way of connecting the school’s graduates to the professional circus world.

The school’s first graduates completed their program in December of 2001.  “Then,” she adds, “I created a circus agency for our graduates (not a company, there are too many of them around), which is called Cirque Columbia.

The circus school of Hungary also acts as agents for their graduates, but Simpson points out, that the Hungarian school is a state school and they may give the performers maybe five percent of their earnings and keep the rest.   “Ours is about professional insertion into the market, getting them the right contracts and seeing where they’re going to be performing, and at the right price.  If you’re going to make a social circus school, which is professional, and people have never seen our graduates, since it’s the only one in the world,  they might start thinking ‘Oh, they come from the street; we can pay them less.’  So it was important to establish the right price.  And,” she adds, providing her own vocal bold face, “it gives us money for our project, so we make their contracts, and in the first year they have to give back to us 30 percent.   In the second year, it is 20 percent, and the third year they are free.  I actually based it [the payback formula] on the Brazilian football school contracts.

“When a child comes into the school at the very beginning, he signs a six year contract with the school.  During the first four years study we give him food, transportation, education and a uniform and then at the end of the four years he has two years where he has to give back.  If they choose to stay with us after that they pay [the standard agent’s fee of] ten percent.  From that first group I’ve got six on the cruises earning 650 Euros a week.  Two shows a week.  Some are working in Puerto Rico others in Latin America.

Simpson does not think it a good idea for schools to create companies from their graduates, which, in her opinion, is a mistake many major circus schools make.  It was the downfall of the Brazilian circus school when it first got started, and it has had a negative effect in Europe as well.  “It has really affected the market over here.  And the kids aren’t in touch with reality.  They’re completely on a different planet.  When they come down from there, it’s like being an artist leaving Cirque du Soleil after five years.  What’s next?  It doesn’t really help them.”

Simpson’s partner in both the school and as an artist,  Hector Fabio Cobo Plata, died on the day of the school’s first graduation. “I had a hard time in 2002 and 2003 restructuring it and getting the right people there to hold the reins, because I am based in Europe now for the security of my three children.  Security is a big issue in Columbia.  The second biggest business after drugs is kidnapping.”

Despite that personal and professional setback, Simpson has persevered.  In 2002 she staged an international encounter of circus and social workers.  “We brought together all the renowned and acknowledged pioneers in this field from all over the globe, people who have had at least ten years experience in the field. People like Reg Bolton.”  People who work in different fields with different beneficiaries:  women’s circus, street children, abuse victims, prisoners, incest victims, “people like ourselves and Cirque du Monde.”  Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas projects, she points out, are paying for many of the projects in the states and all over the world.

The group discussed many topics like ethics, missions and values, long term versus short time projects, communications, various constraints, and “we all laid into Cirque du Monde for just putting up flags all over the world.’  We told them they were doing a lot of harm.

“Social circus world needs looking after.  Circus is a dangerous métier.  People do voluntary work, but not everyone’s a trainer, especially when they take out the flag of humanitarianism.  You get this humanitarian tourism.  Like in Africa.  Why are you training those people to be circus performers?  There is no circus culture in Africa so why train them to be circus performers.  You’re got to create a market.

“You’ve got to think about where you’re going, and since then, I’m very happy, because they [the people at Cirque du Monde] have started to give more attention to the instructor training program which is done in collaboration with École Nationale de Cirque [see page 10], and they are also involved in a program for instructors of social circus.”  So there are standards being created and honored.

Today Simpson is the executive director of the circus school in Columbia, whose current enrollment is seventy-seven.  “The world is very small now,” she says and so she is able to live in Europe and keep in touch via email and two or three trips a year, during which she stays for about two weeks to a month.  She is also working to strengthen the board there.  Her job now is more geared toward looking after the artistic side of the operation and teacher recruitment.  The curriculum is established.

In regards to circus in South America she notes that the contemporary circus movement in Brazil has really taken off.  “But they don’t have many platforms to perform in.  The traditional circus continues to do well.”  Her original company,   Intrepida Troupe, continues to perform.  There is also a dance-circus company.  The problem for the new circus, she observes, is that “if they maintain the artsy-fartsy approach there’s not enough of a middle class to support them.  You do have to entertain people first.  Sometimes they forget that, in France, too.  Have you noticed?”

In France, many of the new companies are aggressively funded by the state.  “And they didn’t even need a public,” she points out, with more than a touch of sarcasm. “It’s detrimental to creativity.”

That, apparently is something Felicity Simpson has never had to worry about in regard to her own career.

 

 

Mark Gindick Aspires to Follow in the Footsteps of  his Idol.

Editor’s NoteThe following interview appeared previously in the print vetrsion of Spectacle., Vol 6-2, 2003.  It is reprinted here as an introduction to the review that directly  follows.

 

I first saw Mark Gindick work in a production called Happy Hour in 2003. Of his performance then I wrote: “His diminutive size suggests the leprechaun, while his piercing dark eyes suggest the Lothario, a wonderful incongruity that suggests a cross between a chipmunk and a Chippendale dancer.”

By that time the Scarsdale native had already attended Clown College and completed a year’s tour with Ringling.  He had, however, originally started out majoring in film at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Purchase, N.Y.

“I was raised on the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and all that stuff,” he explains.  “And that’s what I wanted to put into my movies. Cause I love that stuff.  My dad raised me on that.  We would watch a movie together, and he would say, ‘Are you paying attention?  This is real entertainment right here.’

“I went to the Big Apple Circus every year with my dad, starting when I was about five.  Every year he would take my sister and me out on something called an adventure.  We each had our own adventure day.  My adventure day was usually going to the Big Apple Circus.  We would spend the whole day and go on a boat ride before or after, but we would always end up at the Big Apple Circus, and I’d watch Grandma, and I’d say, ‘That’s funny.  That’s funny stuff.’

“Since I wanted to put that stuff in my movies, I wanted to be able to do it right, and so I said, ‘Okay I’m going to go to Clown College’ and then come back and put that stuff in my films.  But when I went to Clown College I found I didn’t want to be behind the camera any more.  I wanted to be in front of it.  I caught that performance bug.  So, although I went to Clown College with the intention of coming back and putting that kind of stuff into my movies, I got sidetracked.”

He spent a year with Ringling, after which he decided he wanted to finish his college degree, but instead of going back into the film department, he became a drama major.

“The first real show that I did was my senior project from SUNY called How to be a Man.  It was a physical comedy, an instruction manual on how to be a man.”  A voice-over read the instructions that Gindick acted out, demonstrating for the audience how to sit like a man, walk like a man, how to go on a date like a man.

Michael Bongar, an ex-Ringling clown himself, now an agent and producer saw the show and later came back with Barry Lubin.  That was the start of two important relationships that have proven instrumental in Gindick’s career.

Bongar produced How to Be a Man in an off Broadway theatre with Lubin as artistic director. “He didn’t want to be called the director,” Gindick says.  “It was already put together.  He just fine tuned it.”  That was in 1999-2000.

Eventually Gindick teamed up with his best friend from Clown College, Matt Morgan.  Together they were doing some writing, putting together gags and trying them out at open mike nights in various venues around New York City.  Before long they ran into another friend from Clown College, Ambrose Martos.

The three started hanging out and jamming, doing little 20-30 minute shows at Gotham City Improv.   Someone from chashama, a theatrical production company, saw the show and offered them the opportunity of appearing in a brand new performance space the organization was about to open on 42nd St. A year of work followed, fine tuning and polishing the material, eventually under the eye of another artistic advisor Richard Crawford the trio had brought to “keep from killing each other,” before it became Happy Hour.

One of the things that most impressed me about the show was its choreography. A lot of it had been done by Gindick and Morgan. Of it Gindick says, “My secret is I really want to be a dancer.  Matt Morgan is a great dancer.  A lot of what we do starts with the music.  It gives us character and rhythm, which is what comedy is all about—rhythm.  His girlfriend at the time happened to be New Jersey Nets Dancer.  She did the initial choreographic work and from there it was, ‘Let’s take this really hip dance and put clown on top of it.’ ”

Bongar and Lubin have continued to be positive forces in Gindick’s career.  “I’d call Michael [Bongar] and say I’m going to write a Christmas show because I need some money and he’d say, ‘Okay write a Christmas show.’  A week later he’s sold it.

“Barry and I, we hit.  Richard [Crawford] would say stuff, and I would say, ‘Okay that’s interesting,’ but when Barry would advise me I would say, ‘Right on!  That is exactly what this needs; I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.’  We were made for each other.”

So much so, that Lubin convinced Gindick to stand in for him as Grandma on certain performances with the Big Apple Circus and elsewhere. Most recently the Big E.

“It’s funny how it all came full circle,” Gindick says of his life, having gone from meeting Grandma on his adventures with his father to actually being Grandma, himself.

“In the beginning it was, ‘This is the way Grandma walks; this is the way Grandma bumps into a wall,’  really elementary technique stuff and a lot of theory on what Grandma would and wouldn’t do.  That I had to learn right off the bat.  But then we went back to what we had discussed when I first agreed to do it, which was that I couldn’t pretend to be Barry.  Grandma is Barry.  So we had to figure out what Grandma was going to be for me.  My Grandma is totally different from Barry’s.  As soon as I try to be Barry I’m dead.  There’s that relaxed state that you have to be in on stage where you don’t think anymore.  Unless it’s thinking as Grandma.

“Being Grandma has been an awesome experience for me,” Gindick says, “because my clown is a lot more erratic, neurotic and nervous, whereas Grandma is just totally layback and chilled.  It’s a learning experience to just go out there and do nothing.  That’s what Grandma is awesome at doing. That’s what Barry is brilliant at.”

So now what’s next?

“I want to be in Bill Irwin’s market: stage, theatre, films but with physical based acting.”  Is there really such a market as Gindick has described?  And if there is, has Bill Irwin got it pretty much sewed up?

Whatever the answers to those questions may be, Irwin has been a generous role model to people like Gindick whom he has advised. “Bill says, “Do it and they will—eventually (hopefully)—come to you.”

 

[See further thoughts on these last questions in the Editor’s Fanfare.]

 

In order to move closer to realizing that ambition Mark Gindick has appeared in some films, continued to work with the his Happy Hour mates and won three Golden Nose Awards, given out by Christopher Leuck’s Downtown Clown Workshop.  He has also been working on his one man show called Wing-Man, which last year was named the Best One-Man Show of the United Solo Theatre Festival, where he presented that show’s last iteration this past fall.

Perusing Gindick’s background it is not too difficult to understand where a good portion of the present Wing-Man has come from and developed out of.

 

 

Going It Alone

 

Creating a one-man show and making it work is difficult enough without the added challenge of doing it without spoken words.  The solo artist has to create other characters and situations to react to, for without them he has absolutely nothing to do, and as a clown or physical comedian, he has to let us know what he is thinking about these characters and situations without speaking.  This is the challenge Mark Gindick has set himself up to face for most his professional career, and in Wing-Man, his latest such effort, he has drawn from several past attempts and has tried to find a way to make them all work together.  If it does it does so as an exercise in self-revelation, and it begins with his father.

As one can tell from the above Mark’s father has played a significant role in the creative development of his son.  Perhaps unwittingly he nurtured his comic sense.  Unfortunately he died of cancer when Mark was just seventeen.  The hole he left in Mark’s life is painfully evident in this current work.  The references to his father may have been consciously added as a way of adding pathos to the performance, but the loss is so deeply felt and so evident in Mark’s work that it is somewhat uncomfortable for an audience to deal with.   Near the end of the performance, Mark or his alter-ego here is handed a sealed letter from his father.  He—and we by extension—assume,  or at least hope, that it will contain some sentiment left unspoken during his father’s lifetime, something that will help ease the loss and provide future inspiration.

Alas, it turns out to be not a love letter left behind filled with all those things he was unable to say while was he alive.  In a wild reversal of expectation (both his and ours) the letter turns out to be nothing more than a mundane reminder to complete some little task.  Here, I presume Mark was going for the Chaplinesque slap in the face and more pathos.

That moment, however, is not the only reference to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the eternal loser.  Early on in the proceedings, Mark sets up a kissing booth thanks to some cleverly rigged props.  He is selling his kisses for one hundred dollars a pucker.  Not surprisingly there are no takers, neither real nor imagined.

Eventually to sweeten the prize a bit (literally) Mark sets a trap and baits it with a heart-shaped box of candy.  This proves no more successful than his cut-rate prices, and so he finally removes the trap in despair and is about to throw the candy away when a bit of pragmatism gets the better of him.  He takes a piece of candy for himself, just so it won’t be a total loss.  This was for me one of the most endearing and human moments of the show.  That candy represents some minor consolation, however, scant it may be.  This wonderfully observed moment is one that, I think, could profitably be developed further.

Before he decides to dismantle his kissing booth, Mark takes a detour down a path he his trod several times before in his career.  He revives his “How to Be  a Man” sketch.  What he does with it here seems less effective than his early version.  First of all having the kit marketed by Nik Wallenda may work for a group of circus insiders, but I wonder how universal Wallenda’s recognition really is, and I think what he really wants to hit upon are universal and easily identifiable images and feelings.  But the worst part of the bit is that I had to have some of it explained to me, like ignoring the warning not to run with scissors in your hand.  I’m not sure I understood the bit with the package of powder that was popped into his mouth, either. Koolaid, perhaps?

Those of us who have been following Mark’s career have seen other elements of Wing-Man before.  But that is how a clown must work.  I interviewed David Larible ten years ago, and he posed the question: “How are you going to practice comedy?  To practice comedy you need an audience. And you see…this works.  I keep it.  This I take out.”  Creating a new act is an enormous risk, but one Larible felt he had to take.  But he pointed out, “There are few, if any, clowns that have a big repertoire.  Normally clowns have two or three routines and they go with that their whole career.”

So here Mark also brings back another gambit he has played before.  I first encountered his electric guitar riffs in the Downtown Clown Revue.  They were used quite extensively in his most recent stint with the Big Apple Circus’ production of Dance On.  It’s the kind of thing that every kid from five year olds to adolescents do, and so there is not much novelty or comedy to be found in it at this point, and it is a gambit he should consider dropping or changing radically.

Another section of the current show brings back a mimed ride with a girl he takes from the audience on a roller coaster ride. I first saw Mark do this piece with the New York Goofs.

What is new and seems worthy of greater exploration is the use of Facebook, an instantly recognizable element of popular culture, as what amounts to a character in this little drama of self-actualization.  To speed that process along Mark visits a psychiatrist, played (with subtly concealed prompts) by a member of the audience.  This, too, works very well and is another segment of the performance that might be expanded by exploring the difficulty a silent clown has communicating with a therapist who keeps asking questions that seem to demand spoken answers.   Less successful is an attempted suicide and its resultant hallucinations.

There is a good deal of music used throughout, and the pieces are very well chosen both for the messages they convey and the reactions they are able to prompt from our hero.

In the end instead of wrapping his troubles in dreams, Mark wraps himself from head to toe in bubble wrap, a wildly funny and highly symbolic conclusion that has the same uplifting effect on his audience as it has on Mark, himself.

 

 

Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular is Just That: Spectacular

 

Perhaps it was the fact that Cirque du Soleil had taken over the Radio City Music Hall these  past two summers and filled it with electronically produced images that inspired the folks who recreate and reburish the Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, to do the same.  In any case in addition to the standard favorites that are just about irreplaceable, this year’s production has literally enveloped the proscenium arch, the theatre’s trademark golden arches and in fact the entire theater with images that are animated that dance and fly across space, that peek out from other images and images that twinkle and glow.  All that is in addition to sections that made up of film sequences produced in 3-D and require special glasses to fully appreciate.

This year, in addition to celebrating the coming holiday season especially as it is enjoyed in the city, the show is also something of a tribute to the Rockettes’ 85th anniversary of tapping at the Music Hall.

To get this ninety minute spectacle onstage and clicking like a wonderful mechanical toy requires the participation of a lot of people.  The show has been conceived, directed and choreographed by Linda Haberman along with no less than five assistant choreographers , three companies provide special effects, two costume designers: Frank Krenz and Martin Pakledinaz, and, of course a partridge in a pear tree, who turns out to be writer/lyricist Mark Waldrop.  There are also eighty Rockettes, only thirty-six of whom are onstage at one time, but given the heavy performance schedule the show plays from mid-November to just after the New Year, they work in shifts.

The indestructible pieces include the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers and the Living Nativity that closes the show after a series of decidedly secular numbers like Here Comes Santa Claus that fills the stage with a collection of Santas shaking hand-bells that goes on into infinity.  There is also a tour of the city aboard a full-scale sightseeing bus in New York at Christmas and a version of the Nutcracker performed by plush animals.

The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers number, a marvel of precise movement and a droll sense of humor,  has surely attained the status of classic, it being the longest running number in the Rockettes’ repertoire, dating back to their first appearance in 1933.  Otherwise the celebration of the Rockettes’ anniversary is rather muted and brief, relegated to the side stages and nothing more than a showing of some old costumes from various eras.

Santa’s Video Game, new this year,  is an eye-filling extravaganza, to put it mildly.  It combines animated film, live action and special effects to create the impression of a living video game.

But it the entire experience tthat makes it memorable.  With its setting in the awe-inspiring Music Hall itself, nothing tops this spectacle for holiday-oriented theatrical magic.

The experience concludes with a man-made snow storm as one leaves the theatre, the effect is of walking through a snow globe back into the real world.

 

 

 

 

Unsafe at Any Speed

by Judy Finelli

 

The circus cannot grow as an art form without experimentation and, I might add, without taking risks.  At 64 years old and having seen countless circuses since 1952, (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus under canvas, yet) I have seen all kinds of circuses from all different countries at different periods: many editions of the Russian circus under Soviet regime and after glasnost, many editions of the Chinese circus, plus countless offerings from many other countries, some successfully reinventing the art form, others preserving the tradition. But I didn’t know what to expect when I made the trip to the Sons of Cayuga… a.k.a. the Royal Russian Kung Fu Circus Training Academy of Heaven Mountain, to see Pretty Light, Part 2–Soft Lights.

The first thing I noticed─coming from the parking lot of the school next door─was a string of─ well─”pretty lights,” which happened to be part of  the title of the show I was about to see.  I took this as a good omen, a sign that at least one detail furthered the theme of the evening. Upon entering the building, I was hit with another feeling─it was a feeling that is a bit harder to put into words, but I will try. As close as I can come, it was the feeling of yeast bubbling and dough rising somewhere. Anytime I have gotten this feeling, I have seen a great show. The mood in the room was one of excited anticipation. I noticed that the young circus community turned out for this show and that was another signal to me that I was in the right place.

I would not be disappointed because this was exactly the kind of show I had despaired of seeing in the Bay Area: a group of extremely talented young people, with passion, energy, imagination, and top-level skills creating  a unique circus entertainment. New, fresh, exciting and needed. I say this because I kept thinking that the American circus needed that kind of “depth charge.” I have seen so many shows in which the circus might even be enjoyable, but the show itself played it safe and stuck to the tried and true tradition. Of course, there will always be reinterpretations of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and productions of Swan Lake. Such shows, while they might be classic or worthwhile, even, marvelous in their own way, nevertheless  do little to further the art form itself.

One thing that really worked in favor of making the evening memorable and moving was the lack of pretentiousness about the whole thing. Translucent plastic puffy shapes lined the entrance corridor, beams were exposed, more translucent plastic triangles stood bouncing light and sound, a round mirror reflected light from a lighting fixture onto the aerialists. The ambience was strictly low-budget. This tended to add to the feeling that the show was put together by guts, not cash─that, as well as the drive toward excellence.

Tim Barsky conceived, wrote and directed the piece with Fleeky Flanco who, along with Dominik Weiss and others, started the Cayuga place.  Barsky defies categorizing. He is a combination of virtuoso beat boxer/beat poet/schlemiel/intellectual/performance artist/actor/humorist/social commentator but above all one hundred percent kinetic energy with imagination to burn. He took the audience by turns through the Weimar Republic, far into the future, into a Lebanese DJ’s sensibility and into each act. One thing that works beautifully for the show and helps unify the evening is this: what the circus performers do with their bodies. Barsky, however, does it  with his voice alone. In that department, he rules and sets off the acts beautifully.

There were only seven acts, and the evening passed quickly. Instead of watching performers do everything they knew, the audience got to see a judicious selection of seven.  Another thing that gave the evening more of the character of a dance concert was the completely unique choice of music. Harp music, the aforementioned live beat boxing and a full Chinese orchestra recording made for an eclectic mix.

The first female performer, Chloe Axelrod, did an act with a wooden chair that, in less imaginative hands, might seem deceptively simple but showed contortion, balancing skill and controlled acrobatics. The mood was sustained and meditative, internal and contemplative–a journey into the psyche, quite successful as a mood piece.

The next woman performer, Sylphie Curren, exhibited extreme control with a hula hoop and acrobatic moves all done with extreme flexibility, control and extension (check out that develope a la segonde). She moves in and out of the acrobatic positions while the hula hoop seems to be kept going by some unseen force and has a life of its own in Curren’s hands.

Fleeky appeared with an indescribable prop – part miniature German gym wheel, part contortion barrel, part perch that he calls a skeleton barrel. He did a one arm with the apparatus precariously balanced to one side, did unexpected front bender slides backward through the apparatus and rolled across the stage inside the wheel. The exploration took it into unchartered territory, making it edgy and unsettling.

Sasha

Two acts that perfectly captured the spirit of the evening were aerial acts. Each stood as a stark contrast to the other. The first was a Zen/butoh-inspired straps act by Sasha Harrington. Sasha, in a stunningly original costume, reinterpreted the straps concept,  using the straps as a means to catapult her body through a variety of asymmetric aerial tumbling/capoera-like moves as she worked low enough to be able to use the ground in her act. She is blessed with an amazing physical instrument–long expressive arms and legs that she uses to create a spellbinding mood. Her extreme flexibility and strength elevated the act into another dimension. She has an enchantress demeanor that is made all the more effective by her purposely ambiguous facial expression.

And then came a reinterpretation of an aerial ring act by Chloe Axelrod. She performed the act defiantly and jubilantly, as if to say: “you’ve seen aerialists spin before? Okay, I’ll spin ten times faster! You’ve seen aerialists do moves? I won’t stop for a second, will never show you a move you have seen before, and I won’t even give you time to breathe!” She had a beautifully simple costume that allowed her maximum movement and never got in the way of the lines she made with her body. Her fully articulated musculature was a testament to her dedication and was awesome to view.  The act was about the journey through the positions, not about making a succession of poses, and the positions she chose looked wholly original and startling as she exuded an intense joie de vivre in contrast to Harrington’s enigmatic presence..

Fleeky returned with his bench and blocks, and Tim joined him in what can only be described as a jazz-inspired blend of hand balancing and beat boxing. That act also embodied the evening perfectly as Tim built and enhanced Fleeky’s suspenseful drops.

Last up was Chrissy Lux with an act that is probably unique in all of America. He does a straight ahead presentation of a Chinese plate spinning , three plates in each hand, with rolls, forward bends in which he rotates his shoulders in complex ways to keep the plates spinning. He finishes by doing a handless backbend and picks up a flower with his teeth. Because U.S. audiences have rarely seen this act before, it must be said that it takes years of painstaking practice to be able to keep the plates spinning and “alive.” In China, this act is most often done by women, although men also do sometimes spin plates. Chrissy releases his inner Chinese girl by doing the act in flawless drag. So an already unique act is made even more so.

Audiences can go to the Sons of Cayuga to see the unexpected, the risky, the daring, the audacious, along with high skill level. The place attracts performers who strive to push beyond the expected. I am happy to say that with shows like this, the experimental circus is alive and well in San Francisco.

Photo by Gary Thomsen