Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 5


Ringling’s Gold is Totally Electrifying

The real stars of Ringling’s Gold Unit, which carries the same title, Fully Charged , as well as much of the same music as the previous Blue Unit,  are Rick Papineau the scenic designer, and Sam Doty, the lighting designer, who have taken the title literally, and as a result  the ring always seems to be exploding, shooting off sparks and otherwise electrifying the proceedings to the point where we hardly notice that some of the acts are somewhat less than exciting.

The staging by Fred Tallaken, who serves as  both director and choreographer, carries that sense of explosive energy forward even further, as the cast seems forever charging into the ring in full force to convey the impression of a “rockin’ party.”

Anton Franke





As he did in the previous version of the Gold Unit, Anton Franke and his father Viktor who serves as his straight man pretty much hold the show together when it isn’t exploding or showering us with fireworks.   They provide all of the show’s  laughs and effectively involve us as more than passive spectators.  Anton’s light show is probably the most fascinating and novel part of the entire production.  His father, who assumes the role of a pompously officious stage manager, effectively makes himself into a stuffed shirt worthy of the amusing disasters Anton visits upon him.  The latter’s computer-like robot device is lots of fun, and he inserts himself into a trampoline act with well-earned comedic results.  Anton opens the second act on a drum set which keeps getting smaller and smaller thanks to his father’s efforts, until he is reduced to banging away on garbage can lids.

The one act that seems most like one of the acts from the big show’s version of Fully Charged is billed as Mr.  Power.  In it strong man Tulga juggles telephone poles and later teams-up with Duna for an impressive hand balancing act.

The animal acts: mixed exotics, mixed dogs and elephants are all presented by the Carden family.  Cathy handles the first two of these with great aplomb and Brett puts two or three elephants through their paces with little wasted effort.  The number seems to change according to circumstances.  Three are pictured in the souvenir book, but two worked at the performance I saw in Atlantic City.  The third was the elephant that got shot by a drive-by shooter.

The most versatile troupe in this compact unit is the Lopez family which does no less than three different acts: a knife throwing turn that always leaves me squeamish, a much classier act on the high wire and finally three of them jump on motorcycles and spin around a steel globe, twelve feet in diameter.

The Vavilov troupe also doubles in brass, presenting an effective display of banquine acrobatics on the ground and later off an elevated swinging platform.

The young Smaha troupe of jugglers present a fairly routine club passing act.  Its most impressive trick is the act’s closing, as one of the men manages to collar  a barrage of about twenty-eight rings launched by his two female assistants.  Anton manages to insert himself into this act as well, juggling fire torches which concludes with the elder Franke  getting hosed by a foaming fire extinguisher, with which he had intended to squelch Anton’s antics.

One of the more fascinating acts for me was a strap act I had previously seen in Paris’ Cirque Demain festival.  What made the act seem strange then was that Sergey Novikov works off what appears to be a mattress covered in shredded sheets.  On first sight the act seemed to have little, if any, commercial promise, but here it was with Ringling.

It certainly is a novel version of the standard strap act , but what makes it truly unique is that every so often Sergey releases the straps and drops onto the mattress with a thud.   These  drops seem to undercut whatever potential for thrills the act might have had and robs it of any semblance of finesse, so that it just comes off as oddly different.

Dean Kelley is the host clown, providing the unflagging enthusiasm that energizes the pre-show Dance Party; the ringmaster is David Shipman.

One last innovation that should be noted is the director’s turning the unraveling of toilet paper rolls with a leaf blower into a production number, filling the air with no less than six such abstract sculptures.  Now that’s fully charged.


Canada’s Seven Finger Takes Us into the Psyche

Reviewed by Judy Finellio,

as seen at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California, May 5, 2013


Circuses can be set in a variety of places. This fact alone proves that circus is as flexible and adaptable an art form as any other. I’ve seen shows set in haunted mansions, Coney Island, and   the Medieval Age of Robin Hood. I’ve staged circuses set in dreams and Belle Époque French cafés. But from the cornucopia of imaginative ideas of Seven Fingers comes a new idea along with 1) artist’s loft, 2) bomb shelter, and 3) Purgatory. For here is a circus staged in the human psyche.

Hold onto your hats – and check your ids, egos and superegos at the door. And mind that sub-conscious compulsion to lick the mailbox – for Seven Fingers’ “Psy” rips the lid off the polite veneer of society exposing the raw underbelly of the psyche with all its raging neuroses, hang-ups, fears, and phobias using top-level circus skills, dance, and refreshingly unself -conscious acting chops along with a heavy dose of inspiration from the fertile mind of direct/writer Shana Carroll.

In this stunning and surprising show, so many superlatives come to mind that it is difficult to know where to begin: for starters, the talent is wildly impressive.

The performers enchant and dazzle while illuminating the human condition. And I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see a show that actually had something of value to say. Often what you get is eye candy, which isn’t that bad now and again. However a steady diet of the stuff just doesn’t satisfy the same way this show does. This is not a “comfortable” circus to watch, but it is a rewarding and thought provoking experience, one that also happens to be great fun. The visuals are exciting and compelling. Nothing gets in the way of what this show reveals about humans in all their glorious frailties. The show begins with some wry facts about the brain and mental health in general as it applies to the population and also ends in “normal time.” Wendy Parkman -we founded the SF School for Circus Arts in 1984 – commented to me how much she liked that aspect of the show.

Opening the show is Guillaume Biron (“Michel Michel, Who Hears Voices”) who does a static solo trapeze act as he obeys the commands in his head and establishes the de profundis mood for the audience.

Héloïse Bourgeois has insomnia and after a restless night performs a sumptuous act with veteran 7 Fingers artist, William Underwood (“George the Paranoiac”), on Chinese pole, they assume wildly imaginative juxtapositions: she stands on his feet when he is upside down, and he balances her in a handstand on his head as he descends the poll, to name just a few. Anyone who has ever had insomnia has empathy for her as she tries to catch some z’s putting a pillow to a wall and absurdly closing her eyes while standing up.

Mohamed Bouseta (“Danny the Manic”) is an integral part of the teeterboard act and hand to hand acts, displaying just the right combination of wild yet controlled energy.

Julien Silliau (“Johnny the Addict”) shows the poignant plight of the addict who can only metaphorically run himself in circles trapped within his massive and difficult to control German wheel. Mr. Silliau displays his versatility in hand-balancing and juggling as well.

Tom Proneur-Orsini (“Smith/Mr. OCD”) lends his excellent hand to hand, hand-balancing and group juggling skills to increase the impact of those acts.

New-Wave juggler Florent Lestage (“John? Joe? Jim? the Amnesiac”) exists in the world of Magritte, but could also have stepped out of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory with a wildly creative revelation of the essence of juggling: animating objects and imbuing them with life. His world is one in which newspapers conceal props, clubs appear from nowhere and an impish cane snags those clubs in mid-flight only to be tossed into a pattern with four clubs in which all five objects are juggled. His tossing while turning continuously, creating a blurring of movement and object manipulation is nothing short of mesmerizing and perfectly illustrates his memory plight.

Olga Kosova (“Suzi, with Intermittent Explosive Disorder”), is provoked and flies into a frenzy of aggression as she hurls into a fit of baton twirling and lethal knife throwing. Later in the show, acting the pugilist in a boxing ring, she scores with a rope act providing a bewildering array of spins, wraps and drops supported by her anger and angst-driven strength.

In a sea of superlative acts, another marvelous offering features Danica Gagnon-Plamondon (“Lily the Agoraphobic”) on swinging trapeze, executing a volley of positions, drops, pirouettes and a double pirouette. All this is performed with a look of bemused relief as she escapes from the world ascending into the “safe” aerialist’s domain.

Naël Jammal (“Jacques the Hypochondriac”) does a unique combination of hand-balancing and reverse mask-work with enough cantilevered positions to satisfy Frank Lloyd Wright. This is a truly astonishing equilibristic creation and strikes the right note of unsettling frame of mind.

The finale boasts a teeter board display featuring a unique way to announce the triple somersault at the end of the act performed by Gisle Henriet (“Dexter, with Multiple Personality Disorder”) who also lends his skills to the hand-balancing and group juggling acts. Gisle’s acting ability allows a glimpse into his tortured mental state. He is joined by other company members who show off their acrobatic skills with twisting doubles, even landing on the roof of the set.

The set is marvelously versatile. It can become psychotherapist offices, compartments inside the brain, rooms to transition between, landings for acrobatic tricks, you name it. One ingenious set piece is a gigantic triangular staircase on wheels which can be revolved, balanced on its back edge and serve as a teeter board tower. And the spoken word modern musical score during the teeter board act puts the icing on the cake and raises the entire show to a powerful crescendo. It is perfection.

What makes this smorgasbord of neuroses so delightful is its understated specificity. The performers communicate what they are feeling through a simple glance or a plaintive gesture. I’m told that the show has gone into (temporary hopefully) retirement. We wish this hiatus to be as brief as possible as we are all so desperately in need of this kind of circus therapy. The audience seeing the show with me gave it a rousing, completely spontaneous standing ovation.

[Full disclosure: Shana Carroll was an apprentice in the Pickle Family Circus when I directed from 1987 through 1990. Her story plays a bit like a movie script – except that it actually happened. In 1989, with only a few weeks until opening the winter show in December, the featured aerialist up and left. I needed to replace her; she performed the aerial act with a double cradle partner. Shana would also need to do pantomime, expressing in physical theatrical language her clandestine love for a busboy. She would become the “daughter” of the evil controlling magician, John Gilkey. The aerial act was a celebration of their love after they had broken her father’s hold on her. Looking over the cast, the choice was obvious – Shana should play the magician’s daughter and learn that aerial act. She had three important things in her favor: talent, charisma and passion. She saved the show and went on to do a solo trapeze act in my dream circus, got more training in Montreal at the National Circus School and was scooped up by Cirque du Soleil, became a co-founder of Seven Fingers, and recently choreographed a circus sequence for the Oscars. Her partner in crime, Gypsy Snider, is up for a Tony award for choreographing the circus sequences in “Pippin.”]

Clearly, Seven Fingers is one circus force to be reckoned with.


A Pot-Pourri of Circuses  Provides Plenty to Ponder

I had a jammed packed couple of days a couple of weeks ago that included visits to the Salaam Shrine Circus, produced by the Royal Hanneford Circus, Struppi Hanneford, producer, in Morris Plains, NJ.  May 16, 2013.  The next day I went south to Trenton, NJ for an interview with Elliana Grace (Hentoff) on the Ringling show which I visited again a day later with my family, and finally Cole Bros, Circus of the Stars turned up a stone’s throw away in North Brunswick.

Struppi Hanneford produces an impressive package that looks like a complete show instead of a group of acts jobbed in for the occasion.  Lots of special lighting effects through the show as well as bubble machines and costumed show-girls help frame some of the featured acts and add pizzazz to the production numbers, like the handsomely costumed elephant display and the patriotic finale.  Some of the costumes , especially those designed and worn by Angela Martin are rather over the top. The Calypso aerial ballet is complete with amusing décor and a bevy of aerial beauties supporting the featured artist., Adriana Parker.

But speaking of costumes, I do have some misgivings about costuming of aging female performers.  Trunks cut to the waist and only marginally more discreet than a thong, tend  to accent some pretty hefty thighs.   Let’s try for age appropriate.  Such costumes can still be spectacular without the aforementioned display of flesh.

Cage acts, despite the magnificent animals, can present a problem for the presenters.  They tend to be rather slow with lengthy waits for the animals to take their time getting into their tricks.  What to do to fill all the resulting dead air?   Some of the presenters tend to over compensate.  One I have seen in Europe a few times, took to tap dancing to cover the waits.  Here the presenter has taken to flitting and twirling about the cage as he pushes and pulls the props into place.  It is a style I find more annoying than appealing.  Otherwise his six tigers respond quite smartly to their cues once the stage is set, and they perform with confidence, even in a wire walking display.

The Extreme Espanas presented two thrill acts, the motorcycles on the inclined highwire, an act which is fairly placid and the far more exciting motorcycle raceway in the sky, which culminates in a truly sensational closing trick replete with special effects.

Billy Martin is the ringmaster,a role he assumes with stylish efficiency and his wife Angela works the swinging trapeze with equal stylishness.   Together they are Hanneford stalwarts with good reason.  They are among the very best out there.

The obvious crowd favorite were the Olate dogs who elicited screams of delight  from young and old, in their now patented level of hysteria.

Barry Lubin’s Grandma appeared as special guest star and chose to use two entrees that included volunteers from the audience, which presented something of a problem given that the audience was almost in accessible, especially if Grandma were to remain Grandma in pursuit of said volunteers.    Grandma is most fun when having to deal with the unexpected, for that is when Lubin’s wicked sense of humor always comes to the fore and provide unexpected laughs, and there were several such opportunities here.

One of the most impressive acts was Jonathan Rinney on the rola bola, doing tricks I have not seen before from that particular skill set, some of which involved skate boards.    “How about that!” as Billy Martin would say.

If one can turn a blind eye to the costuming of the presenters, Castle’s performing bears are quite amazing, especially since it is an act rarely seen these day.  Their balancing tricks were quite impressive and rendered with delightful ease, the high bicycle in particular.

The act that wows the adults is the quick change artistry of Dulce and Benito, all the changes accomplished in a blink of an eye and rather nice costumes at that, which is not always the case in this kind of act.

Rounding out the program were the Espanas on the Wheel of Destiny, made all the more amazing and difficult by the fact that once on the outside of the wheel the performer had to duck to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling.  There was also some routine juggling and some novel unicycling, and of course those wonderful elephants, beautifully packaged and presented by Chip and Dallas s.


The thing that struck me about the Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars was  how joyless it all seemed.  Some of the acts could not even work up the enthusiasm to smile, and some were literally just walking through their presentations, not even bothering to style or acknowledge the audience.  I am reluctant to mention names here , but I couldn’t help wondering if these individuals are so disillusioned about  the circumstance that they no longer care.  And what made their manner so odd was that the reaction from the full house was quite appreciative.  What more do they require?   The most perfunctory part of this performance is always  the parade, which in this edition amounts to the curtain call.

The elephants, however, especially the young ones like Baby Hugo have plenty of personality.

This it seems to be is a management problem.  Someone needs to keep the artists on their toes and not just phoning it in.  Say what you will about Ringling, but there is not a person who is not flashing their most dazzling smiles and acknowledging the audience and playing up to them every moment they are on.  Everyone is performing full out, leaving nothing backstage.  Its all out there

In contrast, I must say the Cole Bros. clowns, although as broadly slapstick as it is possible to get, at least did their acts  (“Fireman Save My Child,”  and ”The  Clean-up Crew”) with enthusiasm and energy and got some real laughs thanks to some clever props.    We have José Kellan Bermudez to thank for much of this.  He always gives 110 percent and then , for en encore, gets shot out of the cannon.

The high wire act of the Tabares had some very novel tricks, and  although mechaniced, they performed  them convincingly.  But once again I must question the costuming. Their dreary wardrobe at the performance I saw was black with a splash of white here and there.

The illusions presented by Lana are very good but need to be presented with more style.  The lighting certainly does not help and walking on that plastic ring carpet in high heels is not simple feat in itself.  Despite all that Lana does smile during both this act and  her silk routine.

The show could also do with a bit more production and special effects, which would  spruce it up, and make it more of a special event.   Due to an inefficient sounds system, the music was nearly inaudible and the announcements indecipherable.