The Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 6

 

Circus Flora’s Trip to the Moon

 Features a Sensational Lineup of Circus Stars

Now in its 27th season, Circus Flora has steadfastly adhered to its mission statement which reads “to create an American classical circus with a narrative that engages audience members personally and emotionally.”   To achieve that goal this year the show’s creative team has fashioned a production they have called  A Trip to the Moon,  a title that pretty  much says it all as far as narrative is concerned.

Based on a 1902 French film, George Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune, the plot’s  characters and some of the images that take three dimensional form in the show have been inspired by those which appear in the film and are projected onto a screen which forms the scenic background.  So we are treated to mushrooms growing at an astounding rate,  dotty astronomers and their ever-present telescopes, and strange animals that look like mutations of those we might see here on earth. The latter are a product of the imagination of the people who present the animals:  Lisa Dufresne and Carlos Svenson.

More importantly, however, in addition to the plot there is that classical circus noted above to be taken care of as well, and this one comes with a collection of stellar acts that need little or no set up to engage the audience personally and emotionally, so that the narration this year, more than some others, depending on your point of view, is either an extra delight or a minor distraction.  Ultimately it is the acts that give this production its excitement of which it has plenty to share.

These acts include the Wallendas, the Flying Pages, Johnny Peers’ Muttville Comix, Lisa Dufresne’s miniature stallions, Duo Ardeo on the aerial straps, juggler Kellin Quinn, Carlos Sevenson’s goats, the inimitable clown Rob Torres, and the indomitable St. Louis Arches.

Consider, first of all, the Wallendas.  They  have a purity and elegance to their work on the high wire  that always manages to choke me up with emotion no matter how often I seen have their act, and this year’s visit involved five different performances.    There is, however, more  than usual humor and good natured kidding around in their work this year, which attests to the versatility of Tino Wallenda, who is perfectly willing to play the clown even on the high wire. At one point he is the man in the moon, cheese head and all.

The rest of the family, and this year’s troupe was made up of family members only—Tino son  Alex and daughter Aurelia—goes along with his comedy with good humor, adding to the pleasure of their performance. Alex Wallenda has grown into a charming performer, who is obviously enjoying every moment of his time on the wire, and Aurelia is, if possible, even more  ethereal than ever.  It is all rather playful until the Wallenda hymn signals one of their trademark pyramids making its way across the wire.

The Flying Pages, made up of an all-girl ensemble of flyers designed to match the characters of the film,  provides a performance that is pure show biz, delightfully amazing, considering that women on the fly bar  these days tend to provide more decoration than thrills,  and spectacular at the same time, thanks to the fact that the four women look enough alike to give make the act look like something straight out of the Follies.  Willy  Pages catches no less than six passes, another detail almost unheard of with today’s flying acts.  He joins the bevy of beauties on the fly bar for a final tableau that adds another dash of showy schmaltz that can’t help but light up a smile .

For the record the girls are Charlie Marie Leonard, Elizabeth Ann Mishann,  and L J, and their repertoire included splits, single forward saltos, one and a half and full layouts, a double twist, a half cutaway, and the passing leap.  Since Willy had not worked with any of the girls before this engagement, the act was put together in the two weeks they spent together  during rehearsals as the show was being put together.

Johnny Peers and his sixteen dogs are indefatigable hams for whom every trick always manages to lead to a laugh, so that the result is non-stop hilarity.  Johnny is always the clown he started out in the business to be, from his pre-show warm-up to the astronomer he portrays as part of the narrative.

Duo Ardeo, Andrew Adams and Helena Reynolds, present a performance filled with passion on the aerial straps that is endlessly fascinating as the couple entwine themselves around each other in  a series of catches and holds that have a sculptural quality to them.

Those mini stallions of Lisa Dufresne  have been rigged up to look like male lions, with very convincing manes, but what makes them so much fun to watch is how seriously they take themselves.  They are the  Napoleans of the animal world.  They may look adorable to us, but in their minds theyat are the biggest studs going.  One of them en

Lisa Dufresne with one of her minis

Dufresne also works a full-sized, black, Friesian of magnificent proportions, putting it through a fully realized gorgeous performance of dressage.

Kellin Quinn has grown up as a member of the St. Louis Arches and is now working as a solo juggler.  His character, a mad scientist has been to some extent inspired by a scene in the  film upon which the show is based.  A good deal of it, however, he already had in his performance, which he descirfbes as new American style.  It cincorporates spinning clubs around his body as well as keeping them in the air.  As a result he is in cosntant motion, so that it’s a trick for the audience to keep track of where all his clubs are at any given moment and being surpirsed by where he ends up catching them.

This new edition of the St. Louis Arches is considerably taller and older than they have been in recent years, and as a result their acrobatics are more athletic and spectacular.  Fans of Circus Flora have watched these kids grow up and seen some move on to professional careers, which must be a source of pride and pleasure.

Carlos Svenson’s goats are another group of weirdly fascinating creatures who have sprouted spectacular plummage, so that they seem perfectly at home in their aerie perches, creating another fascinating and amusing visual treat.

The one figure whose responsibility it was to hold the narrative together was the clown Rob Torres.  I was lucky to catch his final performance before he was replaced by Michael Preston for the final four performances of the season, which I also saw.

It was, to say the least, a very different show after that change of casting. Both clowns played “An Ordinary Man” but in addition to moving through the demands of the plot, Torres  also added a number of clowning pieces I had not seen before and invariably he brought down the house.  Torres, you will  hopefully remember, works with a little box in which he collects applause.  It is amazing how quickly the audience catches on to what that box is all about and what is required of them and, even more importantly, how enthusiastically they play their part.  If you have never seen this work, you owe yourself an enormous treat.   He will be with the Big Apple Circus’ new production this coming fall.

Michael, on the other hand, is more actor than clown.  His Ordinary Man was limited to moving the plot forward, and as a result  the character became stronger and his business took on more significance since they were not overshadowed by any clowning, although I must say I enjoyed the spoof of the strap act he added near the end of the show.   Otherwise  it was  Johnny Peers, who  resurrected some of his old clowning bits to provide the required laughter.  This is not to say one of the shows was better than the other.  They were just very different.

 

Kelly Miller Circus A Charming Step

in Direction of an Earlier Era

Armando Loyal and the KM elephants.

 

Fresia Eckelman and Uncle Sam

There is a fascinating irony wrapped up in John Ringling North II’s ownership and artistic management of the Kelly Miller Circus.  Although he has attempted to revive the spectacle of the circuses produced by his famous uncle by prominently displaying his name on all the show equipment and re-instating the North Starlets, the show’s aptly chosen slogan “America’s One Ring Wonder,” literally illustrates how far the show is from “The Greatest Show on Earth. “  The starlets now number four instead of his uncle’s forty or more, and the act that draws the most enthusiastic reception is the performance of the show’s two clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs.  Not that there’s anything wrong in that.

The one ring is a charming throwback not to the spectacular 40’s and 50’s but to a period when the circus was much more intimate and friendly and homespun.  So the peanut pitch, for instance, seems perfectly in keeping with this style of showmanship, rather than a crass interruption designed to extract a few more dimes from the patrons, and in the mouth of a true pitchman, it can be made to seem an amusing reminder of a tradition popular in a more innocent era.

The pitch does not presently live up to the level of entertainment such an harangue has the potential of becoming, as  we have seen in another evocation of an earlier time, the Broadway musical Sugar Babies, where it was delivered as a comedy sketch (“You say you want more for your money? Tell you what I’m going to do.”).

Ringmaster John Moss III’s delivery is rather too earnest and seems not to understand how funny the pitch can be made to be with a slightly more ironic and flamboyant delivery.   And as far as the coloring book sale goes, the two clowns have taken what could be an onerous task and turned it into a public relations coup—for themselves.   Thanks to their work in the ring, they draw an appreciative crowd to their sales table at intermission. The reason for that, of course, is the work they had previously done in the ring.

Ryan Holder

The show opens with Ryan Holder’s presentation of six tigers.  This is a very nice act, efficiently presented.  Holder is becoming more comfortable in his role as presenter, but it’s time he and the show realized how much more effective he could be by promoting his youthful, fresh-faced good looks.  There is just nobody like him presenting such an act that I know of, and his potential for being a heartthrob  is boundless.  Someone needs to take him in hand and encourage him to smile more and be more confident about using showmanship to enhance his performance, which is missing just this one quality.  Someone should at least teach him how to take a bow and acknowledge applause.

Steve and Ryan cover the breakdown of the cage with their duet on trombones and the “You can’t play those trombones there” entrée.  They are as impressive musically as they are in straight clowning, and what a welcome and exhilarating sound they produce, taking us back in another way to those days when tradition ruled the circus.

Otherwise most of the featured acts turn out to have a rather limited repertoire of tricks up their sleeves.  In one instance the entire act is limited to just one trick repeated with minor variations several times.

The Rice’s zebras are introduced somewhat inexplicably by Carolyn Rice in a multi-colored Afro wig.  Mike still looks rather angry about having to do this in front of an audience, but there was one hint of a smile, so there may be cause for hope for more.  His four zebras work their way through an unusually controlled display, despite this particular beast’s penchant for being rather obstreperous.

Raul Olivares, whom I believe has been with the show since John North took over, certainly is the most energetic and enthusiastic artist, presenting first a display of juggling that works its way through the entire catalogue of juggling skills. Later he turns up with his trained dog which this year is impersonating a tiny bull, to Olivares’ matador.

Perhaps the show’s most significant nod to tradition is the clowning of Steve and Ryan.  Whereas American clowning on the smaller shows has devolved into joey’s running around pointlessly while blowing whistles, Steve and Ryan are producing clowns whose entrees not only have all the traditional elements of a good gag, but are actually funny.

Steve and Ryan Make Their Entrance

I love their entrance in a comic vehicle they have built.  They are dressed in black and white outfits with bowler hats, imbuing the act,  despite its slap stick nature, with  an odd air of dignity, rather like Laurel and Hardy on whom the act is based.  It is a quality the pair is always able to maintain, producing a wonderful incongruity.  As carpenters they are able to make maximum comic use of a number of tools of the trade, producing with an electric skill saw a surprising and hilarious effect as the mayhem escalates.

The show’s excursion into spectacle results in a jungle themed display that features Rebecca Ostroff on the single trapeze, and King Lamount, a fire eater and juggler who eventually brings on the North Starlets.  This display does manage to fill the ring more effectively than such would-be extravaganzas of the past.   It and many of the other acts are very nicely costumed, which I believe is credited to Tavana Brown.  It all ends with a volcanic eruption of flames from Lamount.

Two of the more fully realized acts are the Fusco family’s Gauchos of the Pampas, and a mixed animal spectacle presented by Carolyn Rice, thanks to some outrageously dressed llamas, which earns an enthusiastic reception from the audience.  The show’s three elephants are presented by Armando Loyal.  They are ridden by the North Starlets, a combination that makes for a very good act.

The closing display is a perch pole act, with two very small kids, who are happily lunged, on top of very high poles. It is presented by the Rosales family.

The show’s finale is a somewhat static celebration of the circus’ 75th anniversary.  It consists mainly of a giant cake, chefs Steve and Ryan and the cast dressed in splashy party wear.  A rather timid blast of confetti provides the blow-off.   But by then we have had ample opportunity to indulge our taste for nostalgia and feel well satisfied.

Some Back Biting Going on Here

 

 

Canadian Circus School Annual Presentations

Continues to Move Circus One Step Closer to Theatre

Pour le Pour le meilleu et pour le pire

In the evolution of the annual productions staged by the Canadian National Circus School (École le Nationale de Cirque) its recent production, Pour le Pour le meilleu et pour le pire (For Better or Worse) certainly sports the most polished theatrical sheen of any show in recent years.  It reminded me, in fact, of Tommy Tunes dazzling Broadway production of the musical Nine.

No cause for complaining about the preponderance of the color black here.  The entire set, props and all the costumes are blindingly white, with a dash of gold here and there, all perfect for the wedding celebration being depicted.  It is easily the most thoroughly and professionally dressed show I have seen at the Montreal school.  The setting looks like another Tommy Tune musical The Will Rogers Follies.  Typical of that theatrical genre the stage is backed by a flight of stairs, rising to an impressive height, and the various levels are used to present an ever changing series of strikingly theatrical tableaus.  In addition to all that the production features a wildly eclectic selection of music ranging from the classic to the operatic and moving through Ricky Martin, the Village People and Bette Midler. The act staged to an aria from the opera Carmen, has brought me to the conclusion that operatic music is often a terrific accompaniment for circus acts.

The show begins with the Wedding March which segues seamlessly into the theme from the movie Rocky, a brilliant way of encapsulating the theme of the show through music. It is the director Alain Francoeur’s idea to depict a wedding party being crashed by a circus.  Otherwise  this is more or less portrayed through a series  of exciting theatrical images and some questionable sequences as for instance when all the men stand in a line upstage on top of the staircase with their backs to the audience and simulated urinating, presumably to  match the  crudeness of the film Wedding Crasher.  I suppose that will break up the decorum of any wedding party.   It is also  Francoeur’s  brilliant innovation to use a long banquet table on casters as a fabulous prop that literally elevates the action on to another level, so that the show not only expands horizontally but vertically as well.

The idea of a wedding reception is further established by having the cast enter bearing an assortment of traditional wedding gifts of silver.  The proceedings are presided over by a priest who turns out to be the show’s clown.

The individual acts often begin as solos by one of the graduates and then accelerate into mixed duets as the soloists are joined by a mate from the second year class. (The school is mainly a three year program.)  The acts develop a catalog  of romantic involvements, from a first meeting (Francis Perreault on the Cyr wheel) to flirtatious wooing (Olivier Poitras on the Chinese pole.)  This act to Bizet’s music ends with Poitras holding a rose in his teeth which he throws down in the middle of the empty floor, only to have the entire love-sick cast pounce on it. Other acts depict various courtships (Pier-Olivier Doucet on the corde lisse and François Bouvier and Katharina Droescher on the tight wire).  There is also a comic battle of the sexes with clowns Olivia Weinstein and Ty Vennewitz (the erstwhile priest).  Weinstein enters in a wheel chair and is pushed around by a young man on a unicycle, ultimately to be unceremoniously dumped off the banquet table and out of her chair, provoking a full and miraculous recovery, whereupon she tears away the priest’s full length skirt.

Maude Parent is a vision of the lovelorn on the lyra, and finally there is consummation (Morgan Tisserand and Pierre-Antoine Chastang on the double trapeze, which includes some hand balancing and contortion on and off the trap.)

In between there are outbreaks of pure circus like the brilliant hoop juggler Kyle Driggs whose unique act is so intriguing and special it could play anywhere to appreciative audiences. (Driggs could also find employment as a male stripper judging from his erotic dance solo.)  While Driggs does his juggling act the entire ensemble is seated at the banquet table upon which they produce an effective rhythmic accompaniment. Driggs’ work is made even more fascinating with the introduction of a bright red umbrella.

The circus thoroughly usurps the wedding celebration through a wild and prolonged charivari that contains just about every conceivable circus skill all of which are presented in a mélange that is ten times more bewildering and thrilling than a three ring circus.  Two young men on the Korean plank present one of most impressive of the thrills exhibited here

Skills presented in the charvari include a variety of  aerial work, the Chinese pole, banquine acrobatics, the Korean plank, twirling hoops of all sizes, tumbling, hand balancing and partner acrobatics.  It is all highly frenetic, almost frantic, an exhausting and exhaustive catalogue of skills.

This visually exciting production, which continually startles with its stunning theatrical effects and impressive soloists, also featured the choreography of Eric Miles.   How lucky we are to have been invited to such a memorable wedding celebration, along with a talented roster of guests.

As much as I enjoyed and perhaps more importantly admired the production a nagging question keeps lurking behind those feelings.  Who is the real star of  this show?  The individual performers or the director?

 La Vie En Swing

Even without the director’s helpful program notes it is not too difficult to figure out where we are and what is happening in La Vie en Swing, the second of the Canadian school’s two productions that make up its end of the year program.  Presumably the inspiration for the production came from the music of the swing era during World War II.  The show’s action begins with a vintage four engine bomber, created by the men of the ensemble, which buzzes about the ring, establishing not only the period we are about to visit, but the circular movement pattern  that is dictated by the ring itself and soon proves inviolate.

We next find ourselves in an airplane factory, its conveyor belt assembly line working full blast, “manned” by the women of the company.  In contrast to the presentational style of the previous show, this production is far more representational, which like the ring itself tends to be a limiting factor.

From there we move to a canteen when the airmen and female factory workers meet to dance, to flirt and fall in love.  Lest we forget, we are at war, and we witness the terror visited upon the civilians by the bombing raids.  To convey this, the choreography has the company continually circling the stage in frantic, panic-stricken gestures alternating with stolen flirtations.

The first of these precious moments is realized charmingly in biker Maxime Poulin’s circling (what else?) of the stage propositioning, one after another, a number of women who end up slapping his face and sending him on circling once again, mixing in acrobatics and comic maneuvers with his propositions.

On a tight wire Alexandra Schmitz stuffs some fabric under her dress to suggest she is pregnant, introducing one of the more perplexing segments of the show.  As she begins to move on the wire, a couple arranges a half dozen or so baby dolls on the ground behind her.  The babies eventually morph into adult-sized babes vaulting into the ring and engaging in some broad slapstick antics suggestive of unruly babies, even as the girl on the wire attempts, with diminishing success, to compete with their antics.

In the next act, such distractions become even more troublesome, at least for the hapless soloist. Erika Nguyen on the lyra has to compete with  a black and white classic Bob Hope/Bing Crosby film which is being screened  behind her.  While Bing serenades Dorothy Lamour, the poor girl on the wire doesn’t stand a chance.  Obviously this is being done deliberately to double the image, although why the director would choose to make it so difficult for the soloists I can’t imagine.  It is a disservice to the performers.  The only explanation I can suggest is the director Sharon B. Moore doesn’t trust the young artist’s ability to hold the stage.

A charivari next takes over the ring filling it with tumbling, vaulting. hand to hand work and some banquine acrobatics, meant to be suggestive of an exuberant dance hall encounter.  Here, too, the action tends to seem rather repetitive.   This segues into the very romantic love making in the hand to hand balancing act of Renaldo Williams (Jessica Hentoff’s former student) and Naomie Zimmerman-Pichon.  It is quite daring in both the acrobatics and its eroticism, and it is also rather moving.

Juggler Jimmy Gonzalez enters to send the lovers on their way to bed, and from his duffle bag pulls out seven balls.  He moves very well and the novelty of his presentation is, in fact, in the movement and in the places he tucks the balls (under his chin, in his arm pit, etc.) until one or another is needed for further use.  He works mainly with three in varying, unusual, and novel patterns.  Eventually he does six very high in a more traditional manner.

The airplane returns followed by another celebration, which is interspersed with the club juggling of Gabriel Beaudoin, which he mixes with comedy and acrobatics.   But with the fits and starts it seems a rather disjointed act bursting upon the scene once now and then when we least expect it.

A double trap act presented by sisters Giulia and Lucia Tateishi Destro, has a lovely haunting quality thanks to its musical accompaniment and some very exciting moves.  I do wish, however, such acts did not end with the artists grabbing hold of their lunge cable and being dropped to the floor.  This, it seems to me , gives it all away, as if to say what went before wasn’t all that dangerous after all

Laurence Tremblay-Vu , working on a springy low-wire has his own set of distractions to work against.  A rowdy group of protestors, held back by guards, keep trying to storm some unseen target.  They keep rushing the wire and being repulsed by guards while Tremblay-Vu attempts to hold our attention with his dance steps, which are interesting to watch if you can keep your mind on him, although there are no big tricks in his routine.

Following some violent tumbling executed at breakneck speed and some film footage of wartime devastation, Jérome Sordillon works his impressive strap act while scenes of the war’s aftermath are projected onto the upstage screen.  One of his moves elicited a genuine “wow” from me.  His ascension into the clouds, however, seemed a bit much by way of providing an uplifting ending. But I suppose it was the only way to go.

Photos for Canadian national Circus School by Roland Lorente