Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 7

 Michael Jackson One

    Hits the Jackpot in Las Vegas


The first thing fans of Michael Jackson should know about the new Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson One, which premiered recently at the Mandalay Beach Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, is that it more than lives up to the spectacular level of showmanship for which Jackson was justifiably famous.  It maintains the standard of inventiveness and excitement for which his live performances were especially noted.  And since Michael himself is in many ways—vocally, visually and ultimately three dimensionally—present throughout the performance it is finally the most spectacular exercise in necrophilia one is ever likely to encounter in any medium.

I can’t say I was ever into Michael Jackson’s music.  My interest in pop music ended with the Beatles.  But this unique performer must be given credit for the innovative style of his live performances and videos in which his music and moves were rhythmically and stylistically intoxicating.

As the real star of the show Jackson appears throughout the performance at various stages of his career and life.  In effect he grows up and matures as a performer before our very eyes.  The closest we come to a complete reincarnation, however, is produced by an amazing bit of technical wizardry in which a three-dimensional hologram image of Michel appears dancing with the live ensemble, only to disappear occasionally in a puff of stardust and reappear moments later in his characteristic dance steps.

The show really begins the moment we enter the theatre’s lobby, where we experience first-hand what it must have been like for Jackson to live his life as a target of aggressive paparazzi.  We are greeted by a pack of hungry photographers dressed in red leather trench coats and Jackson’s trademark hat.  Their literal in-your-face assault on our privacy continues in the seating area as well until the show begins and the images of outrageously lurid headlines from tabloid newspapers are projected on to the auditorium’s walls.

The paparazzi

Once the performance begins, it is obvious that this production has also taken theatrical technology and circus skills unto a fascinating new level of complexity and excitement.  The wall trampoline, for instance, which first showed up in La Nouba more than a dozen years ago and has since become fairly ubiquitous, has been complicated by stacking the trampolines and placing others along side these and within the wall openings.  Other landing points are provided by a series of vertical poles.

The stage is set at the opening with a structural scenic element dubbed Mephisto, and it doesn’t take very long before the action, provided by both the technical aspects of the production and the human acrobats build to a level of excitement that is nothing less than exhausting, as layers and layers of images and stimuli of all kinds bombard us from all directions, non-stop.

Some semblance of forward movement is provided by a mise en scene in which four so-called misfits or Heroes embark on a journey of self-discovery, until each has become the beneficiary of one of Jackson’s icon sartorial accessories: his glove, glasses, hat and shoes.

Each of these items is also the subject of variously brilliant pieces of spectacle.  The hat, for instance, provides the inspiration for a dazzling display of hat juggling by a troupe of young Chinese.  The solo dancer who eventually earns Jackson’s shoes is featured in a dance sequence in which he, in effect, out Michael’s Michael, insofar as moving as if he is no longer earth-bound.  The glove inspires a charmingly ingenious section created by a light show that is simply terrific.

The show’s press materials make note of the production’s “epic” proportions, and it is hardly an exaggeration.  I could go on for several more pages listing the technical and theatrical innovations and the creative use of circus skills that help breathe life into this spectacular tribute.  Suffice it to say the company’s description of the production is as apt as any I could provide.

I would, however, like to credit some of the featured circus performers.  Jenye Butterfly, who works on a shortened pole to the music Dirty Diana, is nothing short of fabulous.  There is Jonathan Perez on theSpanish web, who early in the show provides the first breath-catching novelty on this kind of rigging.  The four misfits whose skills range from martial arts to eccentric dance are Jade Xu, Gabriel Amaral Batista, Xavier Mortimer, and Amanda Crockett, whose creer we have been following since this publication began.


The four "Heroes"


By the time we encounter of the Zombies of “Thriller,” the entire audience has been energized to the point where there is nothing left to do but  participate in the orgy of activity, and thence the excitement takes over the entire theatre from stage to the last row of seats.

Heading the list of principal creators of this remarkable show is Jamie King, a multiple Emmy award and MTV Video Music Award nominee, whose work has been greatly influenced by his early years working  for both Prince and Michael Jackson (with whom he toured as one of four dancer on the Dangerous world tour).  He also worked with an array of superstars including Maria Carey, Shakira, George Michael, Asian superstar Rain, Elton John, Diana Ross and even Ellen DeGeneres.  The musical director is Kevin Antunes, and Francois Seguin is the production designer.  The costumes are by Zaldy GHoco, and no less than seven people were responsible for the extensive chofeography that runs through the show.  There are Travis Payne, Parris Goebel, Rich and Tone Talauega, Sid Larbu Cherkaoui, Ivan “Flip” Velez and Olivier Simola.  Two additonal designers, Ben Potvin and Andrea Ziegler, are credited with having created the acrobatic choreogrpahy.  The designers of the acrobatic performance are Germain Guillemot and Tob Bollinger.  David Finn is the lighting designer and Pierre Masse designed the acrobatic equipment and rigging.  One might that that this would be a cse of too many cooks, but since each has lent his or her own unique talent to the overal composition, the end product teems with creativity.

Jenye Butterfly as Dirty Diana

Photos by Aaron Felske, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil



Circus Smirkus’  Oz Incorporated Takes Us to Another Land (Not Necessarily Oz)

Both Circus Juventas and Circus Smirkus staged a version of The Wizard of Oz this summer.  When producing a show based on such a well known and much loved story, especially one whose film version has indelibly burned certain images and music into the popular consciousness, there are basically two totally different ways one can go .

I was not able to see the Juventas version, but judging from the description of the scenery and special effects I was provided with by Dan and Betty Butler the St. Paul-based youth circus took a very different approach to the material than that of Circus Smirkus.

Smirkus Artistic DirectorTroy Wunderle and Creative Director Jesse Dryden, along with musical composer Tristan Moore, have tilted any  expectations  anyone might walk in with by calling their show Oz Incorporated.  Frankly the “mega corporation” that Dryden speaks of in his program notes are rather difficult to discern.  I could not identify any image that suggested such an diversion.  What does work, however, and works beautifully at that,  is their allowing the audience to apply their own imaginations to the images from Oz and turn them into something magical.  Take for instance the Munchkins.  They are created by hand puppets the entire cast wears, as they lie flat on their backs, chattering away, rather like a scene from Sesame Street.  Its cleverness and comic effect is utterly charming.

Then there’s the problem of Glinda’s entrance.  This Glinda doesn’t arrive in a bubble she blows soap bubbles with the help of a young lady from audience.  It took me a while to catch on, I admit, but once I did I was delighted with the creative solution.

The Wicked Witch of the West is played by Sam Gurwitt, an interesting bit of casting.  His duel with Sarah Tiffin’s Glinda to see whose magic is the strongest is another amusing plot twist.  Other leading characters are played by Alyson Mattei (Dorothy), Liam Gundlach (the scarecrow), Sam Ferlo (tin man) and Chase Culp (the cowardly lion).  Troy Wunderle is the Wizard, who appears rather early in the proceedings, and Toto is played by a rather tall girl, Ashley Kim, who does a brief contortion act to musical hints from “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,?”  another of those charming surprises with which the production abounds.

The palace guards go through their paces on unicycle. The monkeys fly on various aerial rigging and torment anyone who comes within striking range of their mischievousness.

It all adds up to a show abundant with unbeatable ingredients: the unflagging enthusiasm and energy of youth, clever and amusing staging and presentation, and finally some very strong circus acts.  It is a combination difficult to  top.  Certainly it has not been by some of the professional circuses that I have seen.

Bekk McGowan and Morgan Pinney

One of the strongest circus acts  is an aerial perch act presented by Bekk McGowan and Morgan Pinney.  It features a number of difficult tricks which are handled with great confidence.  The wonder of this act is that, like the entire show, it was created in just three weeks of rehearsal.  Other highlights include Noah Nielsen’s very exciting and impressive diabolo display. The big juggle, a very strong, beautifully staged ensemble act, is one of the most arresting acts both for its visual impact and the high level of skill exhibited. Eyal Bor  keeps eight balls in air for a single revolve while Nathan Biggs-Penton manages six clubs with ease.  They are surrounded by a large portion of the cast lying flat on their backs tossing three balls, a bit of understated spectacle than is visually exciting.  Finally Nick Zelle is surely the most versatile of the cast, displaying such skills as hand balancing and corde lisse,

The biggest ensemble act is a complex trampoline display that combines a bit of Chinese pole and just about everything  but the kitchen sink, as well as most of the company creating a wildly exuberant chase the serves as the first act finish.

Other highlights include a three point wire act that is part tight wire and part bounding rope. Three girls—Mattei, Ariana Wunderle, and Sorrell Nielsen, handle the tight wire nicely while the boys—Nielsen, Brin Schoellkopf, and Keenan Wright-Sanson have fun on the bounding rope.

The director’s signature quiet moment comes early in the show and  involves some of those soap bubbles blown by Tiffin and a young assistant from the audience.

One of the more unusual aerial acts was performed by Una Bennett, Marieke Dailey, Emma Rogers and Emily Wunderle on diamond shaped rigging.

Throughout the proceedings the joy that  these young artists take in their performance is written unmistakably on the genuine smiles that set their faces aglow, not only when they are working, but when they are watching each other as well.

Dorothy is ultimately sent home by the simplest of theatrical tricks: a helium-filled balloon rising to the pinnacle of the tent’s cupola, as Tristan Moore’s music floats along with it.

Speaking of Moore, his contributions to the overall effect of each number and character are enormous, while Matt Williams’choreography makes everyone look like a dancer and as a result they all seem to be having the time of their lives. His staging of the finale is infectiously delightful.

The costume designer is Katrin Leblond; the scenic designer and prop master is Elisha Schaefer, and the lighting designer is Anthony Powers.  The sound designer is Jason Eckenroth.  Each has contributed  tellingly to the ability of this production to transport us to another land.

I saw  Oz Incorporated in Brattleboro, VT.  It was the first time in the many years I have been following this wonderous troupe that I saw the show in this location.  But it was not the circus’ first visit there.  It was the twelfth year in a row it has played the town on the same lot, a testament to the kind of welcome Circus Smirkus enjoys and deserves.

Photos by Robert Sanson


Monkey: Journey to the West  at Lincoln Center is a Visual and Acrobatic Spectacle

Monkey: The Journey to the West, the 16th Century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en is considered one of Chinese literature’s greatest and most enduring texts.  This multi-volume work from the Mong Dynasty recounts the epic tale of a Buddhist monk’s 17-year journey west to India via the Silk Road, Central Asia, and Afghanistan in search of the sacred Buddhist scriptures which he intends to bring back to China.  He is given three disciples who are entrusted to protect him.  One of these is the Monkey King. Their journey is filled with adventure , heroic deeds, menacing villains, magical characters, comic pratfalls, and a mischievious central character.

The story of Chen Shi-Zheng’s efforts to reintroduce this work to western audiences is an interesting journey in itself.  “I wanted others to know this story of  a bad boy growing up and finding his place in society,” Chen says in explanation of his dogged quest.

In early 2008 Jean-Luc Choplin, director of Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet, and Chen discussed the possibility of creating a new production of the classic.  Choplin introduced Chen to British musician and songwriter Damon Albarn, lead singer of the band Blar.

Albarn was powerfully taken by the story and agreed to write the music for the proposed production. What Albarn came up with is, by his own description, comparable to the work of  Olivier Messiaen and John Cage.  “This is composition,” he said, “not songwriting.”  Along with western instruments the production includes traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa, zhongruan and zither.

The next recruit to the project was Jamie Hewlett, who ended up designing the entire production (500 costumes and scenery) including its animation and projections, whose locales include magical venues like the Red Volcano City and The Kingdom of Women.

The resulting work, which has been conceived and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, is a combination of circus, animation, and music. Even in its compressed form the novel’s numerous adventures remain an episodic stage spectacle that makes huge demands on the actor playing the role of Monkey.  He must be trained in Beijing Opera, martial arts and acrobatics.  And beside all that he must be able to sing.

The production which played at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater for a limited engagement during this past June, featured the twenty-two member Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Co.  The show’s aerial choreography and coaching was provided by Heather Hammons, with original aerial choreography the work of AntiGravity/Caroline Vexler.  The very impressive martial arts choreography, which was performed by five exciting masters, was designed by Zhang Jun.

The circus acts are very skillfully worked into the various episodes of the journey very effectively.  These include foot juggling, Chinese poles, tumbling, slackwire, corde lisse, hand balancing, and  hula hoop.  These skills  appear in both fully developed, extended versions and short snatches along with intricate displays of contortion, orb juggling, and  plate spinning.

While the spectacle is impressive from moment to moment, the problem is that none of the episodes build to a dramatic finish before we move on to the next.  The overall effect,  consequently, is dramatically rather flat.  In the end  the sojourners are each rewarded in a predictable episode somewhat reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.  Of course we know the Chinese epic came first.

As the pilgrums move from encounter to encounter, the displays of martial arts are particularly  impressive.  The actor playing Monkey is quite a master, facing numerous aggressive challenges.  The role was shared by Wand Lu and Cao Yangyang.  His tests come in droves, not single footed.  They are the most exciting moments of the show, but even these fail to reach a dramatic conclusion musically or otherwise.

But even the names of the nine scenes or adventures which crowd this epic: The Birth of Monkey and his quest for immortality; the Crystal Palace of the Eastern Sea; the Heavenly Peach Banguet;  Buddha’s Great Palm;  The White Skeleton Demon; The Spider Woman; The Volcano; and finally Paradise, suggest the grandeur and sweep of this visually impressive spectacle.

Photos by William Struhs and Marie Noe”lle Robert

A Free Circus? In San Francisco? 

Impossible, but True

By Judy Finelli

We in America have heard it a million times before: circuses in America cannot be run as nonprofits because support for them doesn’t exist. In the first place, the argument goes, the circus isn’t considered an art form, so one can’t scrape together the money in this challenging economy. Blah, blah, blah. End of discussion. The only problem with this mind-set is that at least two people – David Hunt and Abigail Munn – would not take “No” for an answer. I learned from talking to Munn that although initially many people were in favor of getting a free circus into the parks, it has been a struggle to stay there. Initially the economy looked pretty dismal, but a booking at a winery party launched the company and corporate bookings have helped keep the group afloat, but getting those foundation grants has indeed, in some cases, been challenging in the extreme. The happy result, however, is that Circus Bella is now in its sixth year. And now, although they have an enviable list of private donors, corporate bookings and the recognition and support from foundations, Munn also told me it is a relentless task to find the money each year. But for circus performers used to creating, I think they will discover those new ways to bring home the bacon. While it might seem far-fetched in this economy that a free circus (no less) would survive five seconds let alone five years, Hunt and Munn are dedicated to the circus and love it – believing the old adage: “the difficult takes time, and the impossible simply takes a little longer.”

The result? The San Francisco Bay Area has its very own free (!) circus thanks to them.

And what a circus it is! Without an ounce of pretension or tricky special-effects, this circus provides the traditional with modern twists – gold paint and red velvet exists side-by-side with hip-hop and plastic. This year’s offering, aptly enough entitled “Shine!,” lives up to its name. The radiant performers present a full circus experience with style and purpose, delivering their commitment to uphold the tradition and message of a circus in an increasingly confusing, technological world. Homeless people, high-tech hipsters, and Pacific Heights matrons can enjoy the show and take away what each needs: whether it’s a smile of shared recognition of the human condition that instantly neutralizes angst or a reminder to get back to basics and remember what is really important, this circus will cure what ails you.

Opening the show are those irrepressible and irresistible Prescott Circus Theatre performers, joined at the Bayview Opera House parking lot by hip-hop artists and a rapper. The Prescotts opened the show with a high-energy, traditional African stilt dancing act with Derique McGee’s drum accompaniment. Dancing on two stilts, then one stilt, they fearlessly execute kicks and jumps as if they were standing on the ground. In this way they prepare the audience for this anything-can-happen show.

The ringmaster (or Ring Leader as it reads in the program), resplendent in an electric purple jacket, is Natasha Koluza, acting as the necessary link between the audience and the action in the ring. As ringmasters have endured for a couple hundred years, she is beleaguered by the clowns, but tolerates them as a necessary element of anarchy in a perfect circus world. Her delivery is flawless as she communicates clearly to the audience what they are seeing, with enthusiasm and awe. She returns later in the show to perform her hip-hop inspired hula hoop act with aplomb and assurance that the act will conquer. And conquer it does.

The show itself, which I caught at the beginning of the season, and the last show of the season, had also undergone a significant improvement which is a testament to the company’s continuing efforts to refine the show once it has opened. The roustabouts, some of whom are the performers, wear fake mustaches, glasses and noses ala Groucho Marx. They perform the charivari and an acrobatic number as well as run props and assist each other. Demarcello Funes, a second-year roustabout who started with the Prescott Theater and Oakland School of the Arts, gets some laughs as a guy who is constantly getting distracted by the pretty women of the circus.

Hunt tears into his slack rope number with an off-beat sophistication and Sinatra-esque flair. This adds necessary balance to the afternoon and anchors the show. He has studied with Masha Dimitri and Meret Ryhiner (former partner of Gregory Fedin of the Big Apple Circus) and can be seen sporting a tuxedo on the slack rope in Water for Elephants. He brings the element of stability to the show, and as founding member, shows the audience the pride he feels.

Dwoira Galilea delivers a classic – and classy – contortion number. With fantasy make-up and fanciful costume, she might be a sea creature or visitor from Venus. But she is flesh and blood as she exhibits an unusual degree of controlled balance in handstands, on one leg, and in extreme backbends. The construction of the act flows and also contains many personal stylistic touches – a foot casually positioned under her chin in a backbend, a bent knee while balanced, and the full extension of a hand – each serve to make the act her own. She is the queen of her inviting, self-created world.

New this year is the welcome addition of the Gentile family – Orlene, Carlo, and their children complete with stage names, Gianluca (“Gianni Magi”), Giulia (“Trixie Love”), and Gioia Mei (“Tatlo”) – in an inspired combination of Risley and antipodism. It is a unique act for many reasons. Carlo and Orlene studied foot juggling in China after learning the basics with Mr. Lu Yi at Circus Center. Orlene’s act is a blur of speed and timing as she spins and manipulates a giant jar and table with her legs. Her husband Carlo, who also studied in China, has also added Risley to his antipodism skills, flipping his children heavenward. At the closing day of the show I witnessed a glimpse of the complex negotiations parents of performing toddlers must go through. The children rose to the occasion and delivered a rousing act. The audience got a chance to see a circus family act in the making.

Co-founder Abigail Munn brings a wealth of experience to her aerial act – everything from modern dance training and new burlesque (that she also helped to create), along with her appearances with Circus Zoppe. All of these elements combine to add depth to her classic trapeze act. She performs with an insouciant air, as if to imply all her years of acquiring these skills can be tossed to the wind. But of course, we know better. Watching her work is a joy. Not quite like eating a hot fudge sundae, but being a few words damn close.

And then there are the clowns – Jamie Coventry (“Covs”) and Tristan Cunningham (“Didi”). The lanky Coventry, portraying a bumbling, well-meaning, magnificent failure of a clown, teams up with Cunningham, an earnest, ebullient, and mischievous clown, who proudly wears her heart on her sleeve. As travelers from nowhere and everywhere, they negotiate the audience, suitcases in hand, looking for a home, easily making friends as they circumnavigate the ring. They never mean to cause trouble, but trouble always seems to find them. Suddenly, they find themselves on the wrong side of the ringmaster. But they do make good attempts at aping the rope walker and becoming acrobats. We know they will mess up and get it wrong just as we would if we were up there. But we wait to see how they will flounder. But because these clowns are operating on all eight burners, they have that figured out also.

It is the live jazz band that provides the show with its rhythm and spirit.  There is nothing like live music, no matter how you slice it. The band is made up of pros who perform their original music and improvise with pizazz.  Rob Reich is the musical director and composer.  His band consists of Ian Carey, trumpet; Ralph Carney, reeds; Michael Pinkham, percusion; Rob Reich accordion; and Greg Sgtepehsn, trombone.  Their occasional special guests include Sylvain Cantor, reeds; Beth Goodfellow, percussion; Tom Geigger, reeds; Henry Hung, trumpet; Carren Johnston, trumpet; and Dina Maccabbe violin.

If you like your circus pure, sincere, and traditional, Circus Bella is your show.  For a small cast they deliver a complte afternoon of sparkling entertainment.  May Circus Bella thrive and enjoy five more years.  No! Make that 50!

Photos by Gary Thomsen


The Awakening of Angel Deluna,

  an original Circus-based Musical

A New York Musical Theatre Festival  workshop production at the Pershing Square Signature Center, W. 42nd St., NYC.

Angel and her partner Michelangelo are star aerialists with the Deluna Family Circus until at one performance, he drops her, apparently, we learn somewhat later, because that hadn’t practiced that afternoon.  Flash forward a goodly number of years into the Depression (what else?) during which time her flamboyantly named previous partner has taken to riding the rails before he decides to go back to the Deluna Family Circus, where he finds that Angel has herself been grounded all these years.  The constant use of the term “flying” is a bit annoying to anyone familiar with the circus  in that  Angel and her partner worked the still trapeze when she was an aerialist.

Now, taking the name Ollie Blatsky the ex-aerialist is hired on as a clown despite the fact that money is scare and paydays few and far between.  He soon discovers that old man Deluna has died and inexplicably (there are a lot of inexplicable plots twists in this sad little drama) had left his circus, not to his son, but to some sneaky magician who wants to sell it and get out.

Another annoying little bit of plotting involves the fact that the circus is now more carnival than circus and Angela is fixated on the show’s antique, classic carousel, whose animals and carvings she communicates with and from whom she receives sustenance.  Someone by the name of Michael, whom Angel believes to be the Archangel Michael, arrives to take the carousel away unbeknownst to Angel.  Michael’s unseen boss is named Gabe, whom Angel further believes to be the Archangel Gabriel.  At which point one must wonder, is this woman nuts or what?

Along with her nutty behavior, there is the unanswered question as to why her partner decided to run off after he dropped her, hardly a normal behavioral pattern among circus performers,  and even more puzzling is the question of Papa Deluna’s will and why his apparent heirs simply shrugged and took their disinheritance in stride, until it is revealed that the will was a forgery by one of the minor characters.  Once that is resolved, Angel and Ollie eventually get back on the trapeze and “fly” once more.

Obviously the author Judylynn Schmidt  knows little to nothing about the circus  including its language or culture.  She has also written the lyrics which tends to retell the background plot several times over.  Finally when all is put to rights the company sings, “All that matters is your heart of gold.”  It is unclear whose heart is of gold.  Unless it is Ollie’s, in which case why is Angel the title character?    So I found the entire thing annoying and the leading character’s behavior simply cloying at best and wimpy at worst. She is certainly not the kind of character that can carry a musical.  More than a musical what she needed was a good psychiatrist.

But then, none of Lee Ellis’s music is very exhilarating anyway.  The one exception is a number for the clowns, which really has nothing much to do with the plot.

Director West Hyler’s  program notes about the relationship of aerialist partners is more interesting than anything that happens on stage, although he does try to bring a sense of the circus to some of the numbers, one for the clowns and another that involves some quick-change magic.  In this he is aided by the choreography of Kate Griffler.

The show’s one saving grace is Tanya Gagné, a genuine and very talented circus performer, who is called upon again and again, each time with a change of wig, to bring some sense of performance and excitement to a rather tepid musical book that borders on the inane.