The Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 9


Uncensored Circus…and a Few Other Things, All of Which Are Equally as Uninhibited

There is more flesh than circus skills on display in the new entertainment called La Soiree at the Union Square Theatre in New York City, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  In fact if you’ve had enough to drink, and the management is more than accommodating in that regard, it is practically perfect. La Soiree, you see, is a hybrid if ever there was one—part circus, part cabaret, part burlesque, part sideshow.   Never mind unities.  Each part contributes a unique feature to keep us amused for a good part of the evening.

The English Gents

The circus component of this heady brew is provided by an act billed as the English Gents, Denis Lock and Hamish McCann, who present an impressive display of hand to hand balancing.  For those in the audience who are more interested in masculine pulchritude than circus skills, they eventually strip down to their Union Jack adorned briefs to howls of appreciation from the audience most of whom are just a few feet away from the eight foot in diameter playing circle in which all this takes place. In a way those screams are really part of the show. Without them Hamish’s slyly shy facial gestures would be lost, which would be a shame (although shame is hardly a consideration here) for it is the Gents’ comic attitude and gestures that really distinguish the act from other such presentations. We always knew circus acts were subliminally sexy, and here audiences are given license to indulge their lascivious interpretations of these acts that propriety and good manners would elsewhere forbid. McCann also presents what proves to be the highlight of the show whatever it is that turns you on.  His pole dance routine is a stunning display of controlled strength, packaged in a truly  beautiful, almost balletic, presentation.  This sort of act, by the way, has been lifted out of the circus and become a very popular competitive sport known as pole dancing.

La Soiree 2We get a bit more of circus and a lot more flesh from Stephen Williams, who has turned a strap act into a wickedly suggestive slosh in a bathtub wearing only a pair of wet jeans, eliciting  howls of appreciation for his six-pack. This act has become a standard in these shows, but Williams is more playfully dangerous than the pretty boy type usually cast in this act, which gives it an even greater sexiness than usual, and the rubber ducky contributes a suggestion of wicked play.

The one circus act that seems a bit out of place here is Jesse Love’s hula hoop juggling. Hers is certainly the most unorthodox approach to this prop that I have seen, and the school-girl costume may as the press release suggests, tip “a cheeky wink to the twisted soul of burlesque.”  As they say, “You’ve got to have a gimmick.”

La Soiree 3Clarke McFarlande, whom we first met several years ago as half of a delightfully bawdy concoction called Planet Banana, here turns up as Mario, Queen of  the Circus, a character that has evolved out of his work in that earlier show.  As unabashedly and outrageously  foul-mouthed as ever, he is a reincarnation of Freddie Mercury, lip syncing the music of Queen while juggling.  It is an amazingly successful combination of forms. “And Another One Bites the Dust”  is perfect for his clever, complex manipulation of five balls.  Later in the evening he turns the show into a mini-rock concert as everyone rises to their feet, and sways in time to “We Are the Champions of the World,”  during which he is  sent over the heads of the audience in a mosh-pit-like move. La Soiree 2

La Soiree 5One of the show’s greatest assets, insofar as producing laughter is concerned, is Mooky Cornish, a clown who is able to produce those laughs without pushing, pleading or going over the top.  She does an extended bit with a young man she selects from the audience and produces an unrehearsed version of first Romeo and Juliet and then West Side Story.  Her assistant on the night I caught the show could not have been better.  Totally uninhibited and without an ounce of embarrassment he was the perfect Romeo and Tony for Mooky’s Juliet and Maria.  The most marvelous thing about the performance was that while they both played it almost entirely straight without hamming, mugging or camping it up, it still managed to be both hilarious and triumphant.  It just about brought the house down.  I hope she is as good at selected her co-star every night.

Representing the sideshow is Miss Behave, who has been a part of these shows since they began.  Encased in a rubber dress, she is said to be the last female sword-swallower in the West, or if you prefer “an oral anomaly” as the press notes would have it.  In her first appearance, by way of an appetizer, she swallows a pair of scissors.  Besides swallowing sharp objects, she varies her performance at one point by sticking her head inside a latex glove which she has inflated making her look like a crazed rooster until it finally explodes. Miss Behave is, like her own appetite, an acquired taste.  Everything she does, like putting a cigarette out on her tongue for instance, is intended to shock.  Her blow-off trick is swallowing what amounts to the leg of a small table.  As she herself says, “It’s not so much a question of how (she does it) but why.”

The cabaret element of the show comes in the package of a chanteuse, billed as Meow Meow.    Her marvelously smoky voice and her high sense of tawdry glamour transport us to the Left Bank and Montmartre.  If only she would have stuck to presenting her songs more or less straight as she does in her rendition of “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” without reaching for broad comedy, she would have been a welcome change of pace, letting the lyrics and her delivery carry the comedy.  Instead she very nearly sabotages the second half   of the show by getting all twisted up, literally in the arms and legs of several men she has taken on to the stage from the audience. The problem with such “volunteers” is that you  can never know for sure what you are going to get  from performance to performance, but even with the most complient this struggle seems destined to failure.

From burlesque there is Ursula Martinez hailing from Spain via Croydon.   Martinez is something of a slight of hand magician who combines her magic with striptease.  Her specialty is making a tiny red hanky disappear only to have it reappear, as the act progresses, from whatever piece of clothing she is still  wearing.  When she is completely naked that hanky still manages to disappear even when there are no sleeves (or anything else) for it to disappear into.  And then it reappears—from  somewhere in her own anatomy.  I leave it to you to guess where.  In her second appearance, fully clothed she sings and provides a rudimentary knowledge of bawdy Spanish that is unblushingly hilarious.

The show has been ensconced in the Union Square Theatre off-Broadway, NYC, where we last saw Traces on a proscenium stage.  Here the orchestra seats have been removed and folding chairs are set on a flat floor.  Table service is available on the raised stage to the rear, which is backed by a red velvet curtain that circles half way around the rear of the miniscule playing space.  The acts either take place on that previously noted raised circular platform eight feet in diameter or atop a baby grand piano at stage right. Late in the evening the bar service plays a more and more significant part in creating  the wildly unrestrained audience reaction of hooting and screaming, which I suppose is also part of the experience, especially as the show itself begins to run out of steam.  Although it reached its high point in the second half with the pole act, it continued to linger around with less and less to keep us amused.

The table service and the two bars conveniently located behind the last row of seats are readily available.  For many, the lubrication of libations may be a necessity to fully enter into the decadent spirit of the show, which, even stone cold sober, seems quite real as opposed to being manufactured, and that  is a result of the cast and their uninhibited performances.   

Mother Africa Vibrating with Energy

In January 2013,  I saw a show in Paris called CirkAfrika.  It incorporated a number of circus acts into a format that seemed more interested in imitating The Lion King than anything else.  Some of those circus acts turned up again in the Mother Africa production of Circus Der Sinne (Circus of the Senses) at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd St., in New York City where it will stay in residence throughout the holiday season ending January 5.  Thankfully, however, there was no attempt to channel the show that had been in residence directly across 42nd street for so many years. Instead it is a celebration of true, rather than ersatz, African culture through the liberating skills that come from the circus.

Merherete Yeshewamebrat Kassa

Merherete Yeshewamebrat Kassa

The performers of Circus Der Sinne, received their training at director Winston Ruddle’s African Acrobatic Academy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which has an open door policy—anyone can join, watch and audition. Young people who exhibit significant talent are invited to study a suitable artistic discipline and participate in a program where all materials, meals and daily transportation to and from the school are paid for by the Academy. Over the years, Ruddle has trained over 150 young African performers, and for most of them, the African Acrobatic Academy is an opportunity to escape the poverty of their homeland. It is easy to see in their performances how the young artists’ dedication to their art form and cultural heritage translates into an effusive and inexhaustible joy in  performing. Additionally, the Academy supports social aid projects in Africa, such as Karl-Heinz Böhm’s Menschen für Menschen (“Humans for Humans”), which provides social aid to Ethiopia.

The energy level exhibited by all the indefatigable performers, acrobats and dancers alike, is exhilarating.  Seven musicians, who are on stage throughout the performance, back up the large cast with rhythms infectious not only to the dancers and singers but also to the audience as well.  I saw kids dancing in their seats, unable to sit still while the drums swept them up and carried them into movement.

Of the most impressive acts, there is Baraka Juma Ferouz, who rides a series of unicycles of varying heights until he needs a ladder to get up onto the next to last.  However,  it is the finish trick that really impresses.  A young boy brings out a unicycle so tiny its seat is only eighteen inches off the ground and the wheel cannot have been any larger than a half dollar piece.  But he rides that across the stage with ease as well.

Contortionist Ersi Teame Gebregziabher, who works to the appropriately eerie sounds of a solo flutist, twists his body into the most bizarre shapes and forms I have ever encountered in such an act.  Once twisted he assumes an almost non-human posture both in the resulting shapes and his movement.  He also exhibits extraordinary balance as he manages to keep upright in these unlikely positions.

Omary Ramadhani Omary and Fadhili Ramadhani Rashidi

Omary Ramadhani Omary and Fadhili Ramadhani Rashidi

A pair of male hand to hand artists make their way through all the most difficult moves of this genres in an almost effortless display of strength. Omary Ramadhani Omary  and Fadhili Ramadhani Rashidi work their way through their repertoire with little of the dramatics sometimes associated with such an act.

The most exciting performance came from the risley act of Tomas Teka Alemu and Tamrat Yemane Ayalew (one of whom is a young boy perfectly suited physically to such a role.)  Besides being tossed about as if he were nothing more than a sack of flour, this young man also has a lot of stage presence, which he underplays magnificently.  The duo concludes its performance with a succession of thirty-one back flips without a break, reportedly setting a new world’s record.

Another expert act was Ibrahim H. Mussa Tulwo, who takes his rola bola display through the most difficult tricks associated with this skill, including jumping rope and standing above five cylinders  rolling in opposing directions.

These acts demonstrate with complete confidence the high level of professional skills to which these young performers have been brought by their trainer and director Winston Ruddle.

Yusuphu Ramadhani Fuko

Yusuphu Ramadhani Fuko

There is also a dizzingly fast diabolo display by Wubshet Amare Sahale; foot juggling by Sewasew Alemu Truneh; and hand balancerYusuphu Ramadhani Fuko, who presents a chair stacking act.  Merherete Yeshewamabrat Kassa manipulates hula hoops, and stilt dancer Jean Marc Kouassi Agbogba provides a bit of African culture with his costuming. These acts are interspersed with a number of dance numbers, the most interesting and rousing is a miners’ dance that consists of complicated rhythms produced by the dancers slapping their bodies and stomping their feet.  Tap dancers Clive Madlala and Mdudozi Magagula provide another dose of high energy physicality.  These performers never seem to want to stop, and  audiences may not want them to.




Frequent Flyers Join Appalachian Springs Concert

 by Cindy Marvell

Appalachian Spring could be thought of from many angles: Aaron Copland’s seasoned composition, Martha Graham’s hauntingly inspiring ballet, or a new circus opportunity for an aerial fling transcending time and space. This latter type of phenomenon is most likely to materialize at a university, as it did this fall when Frequent Flyers Productions collaborated with the Boulder Ballet and the Boulder Philharmonic to create a multidisciplinary meld of motion and music.

Smith 06

The proscenium of Macky Auditorium on the campus of University of Colorado soars to dizzying heights. Once you climb up, you might just stay there for the duration. So this aerial dance required performers to give up the floor work and rely on airborne techniques. The ballet dancers favored group configurations and gestures rather than leaps and lifts. A more traditional form of aerial dance would be able to use swing techniques to catch the glory of the climactic moments of freedom. Here the idea was to rise to the collaborative occasion.

Double hammocks came into play as a fabric rig stretched out in tent-like formation.  A lyra occupied the center spot as if to complement the searching centeredness of Copland’s music. Fabric o,ne could say, has come a long way since the days of Martha Graham, yet one would have to work to feel quite the sense of freedom, quirkiness and longing her choreography imparted. Yet this version offered more complex gifts that expanded the mythology in a way traditional on-the-ground practitioners could only imagine.

smith 01Given the dual nature of this collaboration and its divided planes, the dancers were able to capture the staccato rhythms of the piece while the aerialists basked in the serenity underlying its tuneful revelry. Such basking required sustained strength and some creativity starting with how the rigging came together. Rigger Jeff Rusnak developed an imaginative map of the set, not exactly based on the one associated with the Graham company’s rendition. As anyone connected with the Mackey production will point out there was no aerial dance in Graham’s version, lamentably. It has taken over half a century for the lord of the dance to see the circus light.

The delicate and uplifting tones of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra lent themselves to the airborne dryads which gamely ascended the fabric as dancers cavorted en pointe below.  Lynda White, Daniel Nolasco and Stephen Pohuski were among the flyers. Graham would probably not have envisioned incorporating aerial terms like meathook, helicopter, or 360/580 drops when she suggested in 1944 that Copland name the original piece Appalachian Spring after the poem, but she might have gone with woman in the moon, lion in the tree, sleeping beauty and scorpion.

This ballet’s choreographer Alex Davison, who has performed as a dancer with the Boulder Ballet and the Edward Villella company in Miami, probably knows a bit extra about circus arts since his father Peter Davison is one of the champion jugglers from the trio Airjazz. In fact the dancers seemed to move with an intricacy of form as if they were part of a human juggling pattern.

“Because of the way the aerial equipment was rigged, a physical frame for the stage was created,” Alex Davison explains. “Through the movements of the dancers within that frame, different ideas in the piece were pictured. For instance, in our idea of the Greek gods, having the aerialists as a frame or context for the dancers on stage was a very visual and immediately understandable representation of the power and dominion of the gods over man!”

Davison also notes that, given the number of players in the orchestra plus ballet & aerial companies, this was probably the largest ensemble production anyone on stage had been involved in thus far. During a Q/A on the night of the performance, participants found it amusing when the conductor asked for a description of the activity since he lacked familiarity with it given his angle directing the orchestra.

Smith 02There was a lot to see from any angle. Danielle Henricks, a mainstay FFP performer, initiated the idea to incorporate hammocks on the side diagonals similar to those used in aerial yoga. The dizzying height from which these were strung almost made it a different technique, however. Hendricks recalled that once the audience filled up the space the distance from the floor seemed to decrease and somehow the slightly wobbly frame became relatively stable. Fabric, when stretched far enough to cover the length of such a stage, acquires swag that is a bit tricky to overcome.

Aerial dance choreographer Nancy Smith summed up the staging elements as they related to the resultant effect:  “The choreography needed to reflect strength, grace, beauty and some indifference to the people below. We pulled from movement vocabulary for traditional fabric climbs, locks, and drops, as well as static trapeze duo work for the center lyra. We also needed to ensure that the dancers would be safe working at 20-25 feet from the ground for 26 minutes without coming down, so resting poses were built in.”

This unperceived challenge in no way detracted from the ethereal quality Davison, Smith and Co. sought to create. The expertise of the practitioners brought a surety and artistry to the moves and pauses that harmonized with the whole. The lyra solo performed by Valerie Morris encapsulated the awe and technical expertise the audience experienced as she engaged in a silent drama of gestures with a ballerina below that Graham could hardly have objected to.

Smith describes Davison’s concept that the soloist would represent a young woman coming of age amid the at times buffeting waves of family, society, and spiritual influences: “We linked her solo to a lyra solo directly above by translating the ground movement into the aerial vocabulary for continuity.” One of the Boulder Ballet’s guiding lights, Ana Claire, Davison’s “ballet mom,” commented on the strong sense of ensemble that worked around Emily Speed to create this powerful and memorable exchange between dancer and aerialist.

While the ballet costumes conveyed a more pastoral ideology, aerial designs gave flight to the fawnlike image of airborne nymphs. At the start of the piece, the nymphs seem more in listening mode as if the music gradually fills their senses until they become harbingers of lyricism down to the last slide on an X formation as the tempo modulates. Lovely descents via hand loops should have earned some extra miles for Frequent Flyers’ next orchestral excursion.

Davison speculated the success of the entire endeavor, which was sold out to the point that I attended the dress rehearsal rather than risk contraction in the 2000-seat hall, indicated future such collaborations might be viable. The Boulder Phil had proposed this idea to Nancy Smith as a somewhat novel one given the iconic nature of the music and the fact that the aerial moves would have to be entirely off-the-ground. She was ultimately pleased with beauty of the result. “The challenges presented to us were like the grit in the oyster that created the pearl!”

FFP fans were able to see the group again in the Scrooge show Dec. 7-8 at Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder. Recently another “next generation” moment occurred as Haley Sutcliff, daughter of hoop dance teacher and performer Kristina Sutcliff of O Dance, joined FFP’s youth aerial ensemble in a performance at the Boulder Theater off the Pearl Street Mall. In addition to their performances, FFP runs a massive outreach program, sometimes for neophytes who might never have thought to try aerial.

Last year, Kira Truthdancer, a Boulder expatriate from Berkeley, CA decided to expand her repertoire of juggling and contortion skills by joining FFP’s Ratcracker for some spiffy production numbers and low flying trapeze. Rehearsals generally take place at the circus warehouse FFP founding director Nancy Smith has developed in a complex off Valmont in Boulder. The Aerial Dance Festival, a yearly event in July/August, attracts several hundred aerial coaches and students for a two-week intensive training and performance.