The Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 8

Good Acts Win Our Attention in the New Big Apple Circus

  Circuses like the Big Apple operate on two levels:  the individual acts on one level, the composite advancing the theme of the show as a single entity.  This year’s show Luminocity has an excellent line-up of acts, headed most notably by Ty Tojo, the sixteen-yearold  juggling phenom who concludes his whirlwind paced act with the backcross seven for fifteen consecutive catches a feat that no one else in the juggling world has duplicated.  You can count the catches for yourself thanks to the musical accompaniment that punctuates each one of them in his sensational

Ty Tojo

performance. Ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, who provides the show’s narrative  transitions is dressed in the manner of a doorman at a luxury hotel.  As such he keeps the show’s guests moving in and out at a smart but unhurried pace, adding considerable charm and grace to the performance, even when his dignity is assaulted. The pick pocket artist Pierre Ginet is so fast and so deft it is almost as impossible for the audience to understand what is happening as it is for the person he has taken into the ring  from the audience, which may be to the point.  Ginet circles “the victim” (and here I think “victim” is the most apt choice of word)  holding up various objects that presumably have come from the clueless person’s pockets.

Daniel Cyr

I very much enjoyed the musical accompaniment to Daniel Cyr’s unsupported ladder act.  “An American in Paris” here translates as a French Canadian in New York, but the music suits the act perfectly capturing its various builds and transitions.  The ladder was Cyr’s first act with which he became a circus performer with Cirque Eloize, the company he helped found and before he gave the circus world the Cyr Wheel.  His work with his prop is very much a dance in which the ladder is his partner in the way that Leslie Caron partnered with Gene Kelly in the film of that name. Jenny Vidbel’s dogs come and go almost before we realize they have filled the ring, racing about among the various traffic barriers that are used as props.  Her horses are on for much longer, perhaps too long, in an act that eventually provides some undeniable moments of charm. Acro-Duo is a classic hand to hand balancing act that is impressively steady and sure without a moment of strain in evidence. The Mongolian Angels are making a return visit, or at least half of it is.  One of the women is new.  Together  they  deliver a  very strong and exciting act, especially once they get the trapeze swinging in high, wide arcs.  I never understand, however, why such acts end by one or more of the performers being lowered to the ground, thus giving the safety lunge away and undercutting the act’s inherent daring.  Why don’t they use the come-down rope?

Duo Guerrero

Duo Guerrero is one of the most unusual high wire act in the business.  In this huband and wife duo, it is the woman Aura Cardinali who does a good deal of the heavy lifting. She not only supports her husband on her shoulders as they cross the wire, she infuses the act with passion and energy with her  singing.  I have seen this act stop the show cold at Paris’ Cirque d’Hiver, and they provide a burst of energy to this show as well. The Dosov Troupe of teeterboard artists who follow the Guerreros conclude most of their flights  on the mat held by a couple of  members of the troupe.  They are at their most thrilling when the flyers are caught in three-high pyramids or in a chair after a triple.  The flights of those on stilts are impressive for the precision and perfection of their landings.  In fact it is the gentlemen after whom the act is named who does the single stilt flight, nailing his landing most often with absolute perfection. And finally there is the matter of Rob Torres, a clown whom I have enjoyed immensely whenever I have encountered him in the past, which has been quite often.  His manner and modus operandi are really rather friendly and casual in each of his three appearances; nothing is pushed or hyped.  His comedy grows out of surprising turns of events as his acts progress.  His trademark applause box is an unassuming device he uses to charm us into playing a simple game with him. But then there is the matter of how these acts coalesce  into a unified whole supporting the theme which is a tribute to the “lively commotion of Times Square—the luminous heart of the world’s greatest metropolis.” The bright lights and glitter of the city are reflected in the setting and band stand of the  Big Apple Circus’ current show, but almost everything else about the production is rather sedate and casual, the result being a show with good acts, but not one the creators  intended it to be.   It’s either a case of the wrong acts or the wrong theme in which to wrap them. That relaxed mood is set in opening charivari staged by Vicki J. Davis.  It  fails to catch the pace and energy that is felt on any New York sidewalk at almost any time of the day.  There is none of that frenetic energy about this opening.   The pacing picks up perceptibly with Ty Tojo, about whom the director Michel Barette, was quoted in a New York Timesarticle as saying “Ty performs as the first act in the show because he gives it the whip of energy that we need.”  Indeed.  The problem is that level of energy is not much in evidence again. Acro-Duo, for instance, seems a strange choice for a show that is supposed to reflect the luminous quality of the city since their manner of presentation is slow and deliberate. Although Rob Torres is wonderful, his quiet charm is antithetical to the hustle and bustle of New York City.  In another show his appearances would be delightful, a welcome change from some high energy action.  Here he is more of the same. The show closes on a Times Square at New Year’s Eve celebration that is disappointingly  restrained, but of a piece with what has gone before. This is a case of a show in which the sum of its parts is less than the parts individually.

The Big E,  Short on Acts, Long on Clowning

Johnny Rocket

Apparently some budget trimming was at work at the Big E Super Circus this fall.  As a result there were no elephants, no horses, no flying act,

Ian Garden Jr.

no aerialists of any kind unless you count Brian Miser being shot out of a cannon.  (Kevin Sadrak’s aerial strap act, which is listed in the official lineup of acts did not appear at the performance I saw and was replaced by his contortion act.) There were, however, the Olate dogs, the top winner of television’s “America’s Got Talent” and some pinto camels presented by Ian Garden, Jr. (Have you noted the curious fact that no animal rights group has charged into the fray  to champion camels?  Could it be that their long history as beasts of burden in the Arab world has placed them beyond the concern of PETA and such groups?  Perhaps it’s because camels are characters in one of the most important episodes of Christianity, the Nativity.  At any rate I have never heard anyone complain about their treatment.)  Garden’s act, by the way, is well presented with some handsome trappings adding to the impact of these exotic beasts.

Olate Dogs

The Olate dog act is one of the swiftest, it not most frantic canine reviews in the circus world today, and as always the dogs can barely contain their enthusiasm for their flips and jumps, and thereby lies their charm and humor. Another act I found first rate was Sadrak’s hand balancing and contortion.  Like the Olates’ performance this one is presented with a pacing that is fast and furious with little time lost between poses. The transitions are accomplished with well executed dance movements.  His act features three dislocations of his shoulders and upper arms before he folds himself into a plexi-glass rectangle, a move that we are seeing more and more of late. The Rinny family presents their stock juggling display with lots of energy and plenty of styling.  The youngest member of the troupe handles five clubs and seven rings with ease.

The Rinny Family

The ever expanding corps of fast change acts is represented here by the Trio Bilea.  What sets them apart from other such presentations is that the woman is assisted by two males who also perform some fast changes, resulting in a flashy patriotic finale with all three in glittery red, white and blue costumes.  Prior to that moment I found some of the clothes rather kitchy and the dance movement somewhat forced.

Johnny Rocket

And then there is the clown Johnny Rocket.  Almost everything about his look and acts are variations on various aspects of other clowns.  He sports a high Mohawk hairdo that looks like a hatchet and is sometimes used as a broom.  He has appropriated Bello’s gag in which he “gets down.” From Denis Lacombe he has appropriated the bit in which he is locked into ski boots and impersonates a hyper enthusiastic  conductor.  Videos of Lacombe’s performances with Cirque du Soleil and the Big Apple Circus are available online for the taking. Johnny is assisted in his most successful, and perhaps most original comedy by a truck that seems to have a personality of its own, but not very much is made of its possibilities.  This particular act seems to go on for about 20 slow-moving, labored, unfunny minutes  during which it often seems as if nothing is going on.  To divert it from the possibility that it will all come to a dead halt Ty McFarlan, the ringmaster is forced into repetitive and labored ad-libs.  The level of desperation for laughs even stoops to producing rude sounds like passing wind. Otherwise McFarlan is a handsome, elegant master of ceremonies who holds his own amid the hyped-up technical razzle-dazzle that dresses a Hanneford production as it continues to keep pace with the new special effects  that keep on becoming available.

Trio Bilea


 Defying the Purists

 by Judy Finelli

Mountain Motion

The Bay Area Circus Festival Benefit & Berkeley Juggling Festival Combined Shows served as a benefit for art in the Alameda schools and the Medical Clown Project.  It was combined with the public show for the Berkeley chapter of the IJA. It was a full show combining several juggling genres, aerial acts, unicycling, hand-balancing, and clowning. The Bay Area might, in fact, be typical of an American egalitarian attitude inasmuch as the show contained elements of  both youth and recreational circus, as well as semi-professional and professional acts – sometimes even within the same act. This is part of what may give contemporary American circus its character. As long as audiences are entertained and an act is enjoyable, it is included in a show. In our neighbor to the north, Montreal, this is not the case. It is my understanding that the recreational students there do their shows with other recreational students, while the professional students put on separate recitals. There is more of an eclectic mixture here. Audiences seem to accept this phenomenon and have a good time not worrying about what act falls into what category. As a curtain-raiser, a group of young school children dressed in stilt-concealing costumes with glittery makeup from Cynthia Rauschert’s Skilly Circus performed a choreographed spirited stilt dance. Next up, with a “glam” interpretation of hula hoop manipulation, was “Revolva” complete with silver/shocking pink wig and day-glo hoops. She explored a “fantasy/almost rockstar” sensibility with a modern dance approach as she made the act her own. Brian Thompson juggled three clubs in the new post-modern juggling style with an intriguing mixture of old and new tricks and a breezy, off-the-cuff presence that belied the act’s complexity. I felt the act was nicely underplayed with a charmingly “cheeky” delivery. Althea Young presented a difficult aerial straps number showing a high degree of flexibility and knowledge of straps technique. I enjoyed Young’s presence and energy. I was looking for a more cohesive concept for the act (including costume, makeup and music). I especially liked her insert forward-rotating drop near the end. This trick should definitely be kept in the act. For me, the act needs a clearer concept (either a new concept or strengthening what is already there).

Jeff Raz and Dan Holzman

Keeping the proceedings moving was the Bay Area’s own “Uncle Miltie” – Jeff Raz. (For the younger readers, “Uncle Miltie” was “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle’s nickname. Berle (1908-2002) had a career that stretched from vaudeville to films and the Golden Age of Television.) Like Mr. Berle, Jeff Raz has performed a great drag routine in fluffy evening gown for the Pickle Family Circus with partner Diane Wasnak. Here Jeff is constantly interrupted by IJA lifetime achievement award recipient and juggler Dan Holzman. This is a good use of Dan’s skill set because of the variety of props he includes in his act. Dan’s constantly interrupting Jeff works well because it highlights his skills in a new way. Jeff is also delightfully bedeviled by a suitably motley assortment of clowns, some playing musical instruments – Mahsa Matin, Ben Johnson, Bruce Lindsay Glaseroff. I especially liked  Johnson’s baby character. It was a bold move that I thought paid off. Fallon Burner does a new-fangled aerial act that almost defies description. Is she a “funky chicken” as she flaps her bent “arm-wings”? I wasn’t sure, but her apparatus is certainly novel – a horizontal aerial hoop suspended by elasticized fabric strips that enabled the hoop to bounce up and down. She calls this the “Loopy Hoop.” I had not seen this before. The music contained words which furthered the “poultry” concept. I’m not sure I got all of the lyrics, but I think children would love to see a chicken perform aerially. Richard Hartnell is a pioneering contact juggler. His thorough knowledge and chops in this sphere are evident as he mesmerizes the audience with a display of trompe l’oeil art. The effortlessness with which he manipulates the spheres belies the amount of effort he has invested. The moodhe creates is hypnotic, reducing the audience to moths attracted by his flame. If meditation could be embodied in a juggling act, the result would be watching Richard Hartnell work.

Xiaohong Weng and Marina Mendoza

A professional performer and former member of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe from China, Xiaohong Weng, who has been a mainstay of training at Circus Center, and now also teaches at Sons of Cayuga partnered with Marina Mendoza in a hand-to-hand balancing act.  Marina has performed flying trapeze professionally, but is now studying to become a nurse. This act combines Xiaohong’s years of training and performing with Marina’s hand-balancing, flexibility, and controlled technique. He has the know-how to make her look her best. Nursing and hand-balancing might seem an unusual combination, but if I ever need to go to the hospital I would want Marina to be my nurse.

Frank Olivier

Frank Olivier, a veteran Bay Area performer, who is much too vital to be called an “old timer,” displayed consummate professionalism and experience with audience volunteers as he appeared to fumble through his act, careening around as a prima ballerina on unicycle, performing a pas de deux with an audience volunteer unafraid of appearing foolish, etc.  In the 70’s, I saw Red Skelton at Carnegie Hall do a comedy show. I grew up on all of his jokes. I remember most of them certainly. It didn’t matter. His timing was so good, and he was so engaging and so “there” that I could not keep from laughing. I felt that way while watching Frankie. I could not help laughing. It was up to Mountain Motion to add the frosting to this yummy cake of a show. The group is made up of Erin Stephens, Jeremiah Johnson, and Kevin Axtell, who delivered an inventive trio passing act that is hard to find in American contemporary circles. The act features Erin Stephens who burst upon the scene with her award-winning YouTube video “This Old Pair of Jeans.” I caught Jeremiah Johnson’s Street Show Act at Ripley’s Believe It or Not in San Francisco a couple of months ago. In fact the act follows a surprisingly Russian model that passing acts should be made up of strong five object jugglers. This act adheres to this concept. (I found this notion true and think such passing acts miss a lot less.) They have adopted a Roaring Twenties sensibility complete with “newsboy” costumes for Kevin and Jeremiah, and a Gatsby-esque flapper look for Erin. The act features in sync solo work and interlocking new-style patterns with balls as well as fancy club-passing, ending with a twelve club line. I believe this is a rarity in America. Their spirit and enthusiasm permeates the routine to good effect and they delivered a flawless act for a strong closer. In fact, I could not help liking the entire show, eclectic mixture of recreational and professional as it was. Some purists might insist on keeping acts sequestered into categories, but with an enjoyable show such as this, bucking all the purists and pundits succeeds in grabbing the audience and never letting go.

Fallon Burner