The Passing Spectacle Vol. III, No. 1


 Monte Carlo Festival Marches On

                                                                                                                                   2014-01-17 00.19.06

When I first started attending the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival fourteen years ago, it reigned supreme in the circus world.  There were only one or two other festivals, all located in France.  Eventually China inaugurated festivals which alternated between two cities.  Then along came Budapest.  Now there are too many to count with the addition of those in Russia, Italy, Spain, Cuba and others I cannot immediately identify.

Despite all this competition for talent, one would think that Monte Carlo would still be the most desirable venue for circus acts to showcase themselves.  It pays the talent for their appearance and covers their travel expenses which most of the others do not.  But that advantage would hardly seem to be the case judging from the 38th edition of the Monte Carlo extravaganza.  The lineup of acts was not only the slimmest in terms of number of acts, but also the quality.

Given the festival’s insistence on a high level of animal care and husbandry, it is difficult for the organizers to book more than one display of exotic animals that meets its standards.  Consequently, Tom Dieck, Jr.’s mixed cat act appeared in both programs, as did La grande cavalerie of Cirque Lidia Togni presented by Vinicio Canastrelli Togni, both with unchanged presentations.  The elephants of the Joy Gartner family  also worked both programs, with two different routines, however.

Judging from what we have seen in the festival in recent years, effective, i.e. funny, clowns are becoming as rare as the wild animal acts.  This year one Russian duo, Kolganov and Belogorlov, appeared no less than six times, repeating two of their entrees twice in the two programs.  The repetition was made all the more difficult to endure thanks to the fact that they never drew any laughs, and they had obviously never heard of the axiom that brevity was the soul of wit.

Finally there is the matter of illusionist Hans Klok.  My friend, the late Chuck Meltzer, insisted that magic displays had no place in the circus because no other circus act involves fakery.  There is no faking a triple salto or a seven ball cascade, but magic acts are by their very nature nothing but fakery.    Nonetheless one of this year’s featured attractions was the aforementioned Hans Klok, who not only performed his complete act with some variations in both programs, but was also accorded special attention thanks to an appearance in the opening segment of the show.  No other artist was granted such a featured spot.

Thankfully there were also some novel and exciting treats in what remained in the rest of the lineup.  One of the two Gold Clowns went to an act some American circus fans would be familiar with.  The aerial strap act called Desire of Flight was with the Big Apple Circus last season.  The Russian duo’s act is both stylishly beautiful and thrillingly daring.  They work very high in the big top, which gives their performance an added excitement. Their lifts and carries are gracefully executed, and their drops are nothing short of breathtaking.  There is not much more one could ask for in an act of this sort.  But they provide one last thrill as the woman finishes in a free fall to be caught in the arms of her partner who carries her off.

The Sokolov Troupe works on the teeterboard.  The act’s equipment  and several of the fourteen member troupe date back to the Kovgar Troupe which also thrilled audiences at the Big Apple Circus a few seasons back.  As a result of its heritage all the big tricks that astounded audiences back then are still in place.  Their  three and four high columns, a triple to the chair, a single on a pogo stick and a double on stilts, are all executed brilliantly without a lunge or any mechanic.  The act ends with a trick that defies description as well as the imagination.

Like the Kovgar Troupe who cast its act as if it were a painting by Marc Chagall, with the central figure a fiddler on the roof,   the troupe’s new theme is based on the character Amadeus,  who is, in fact, the featured flyer.  The theme is supported by Mozart’s music, 18th century costuming and even a set of candelabras. What we have is a beautifully realized collaboration of circus and theatre.  In all respects it is tops in style, daring, and skill.

Being a sucker for such stylish pairing, I very much enjoyed a ball bouncing act called Have A Ball, presented by Mike LeClair and Karen Bourre.  The two meet on a park bench, and verbal conversation and flirtation is replaced by ball bouncing.  It is all enormously charming as their “conversation” escalates to a thirteen ball bounce played out against music from the Thirties.

Speaking of charm, Rosi Hochberger’s dogs and later a horse had me smiling throughout her two acts. Both the dogs:  golden retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs, and Australian shepherd dogs, as well as the horse: a Danish Knabstrupper, white with black spots, were  obviously well trained and seemed to enjoy being in the spotlight.  The dogs were presented against a set piece representing a European village with lots of doors and windows for the dogs to enter and exit through, always full speed ahead.  They were presented with a minimum of human intervention.  The horse act centered around the animal’s bedtime ritual.

One of the most impressive displays of strength and balance was presented by the Chinese duo from the  Suining Troupe.  They worked on a double staircase with platform at top. One of the partners balances on a single column of four blocks which he knocks away and lands in a perfect hand stand. The act concludes with the porter walking down the stairs on his hands with his partner balanced in a hand stand on his neck.  The display of strength is enhanced by Zen-like chanting.

Certainly the most unusual act in this or any festival was a complicated combination of trampoline and risley presented by the Wuhan Acrobatic Troupe.  What made it so novel was the complicated rigging which included  a revolving giant arm with a platform at either end where a porter was stationed to receive the flyers who were either propelled upward by a trampoline or one of the other acrobats. The most exciting moments in the act came when the flyers were propelled to the topmost section of the revolving arm where they were caught in the classic risley position.

Of all the acts that repeated, the one most worthy of a second viewing was the thirty horse cavalry  of Cirque Lidia Togni presented by Vinicio Canastrelli Togni .  Dressed in white tie and tails the ringmaster put  twenty-four stallions: six white Lippizaners, three Palominos, nine black Friesians, and six Argentinian black and white Criollos and six Shetland ponies through their paces, which ultimately  results in each of the different breeds circling the ring in concentric circles in opposition.  Given the size of the troupe of horses, the gorgeous music and Togni’s elegant style it all added up to an experience one is unlikely to encounter again any time soon.  Following the ensemble work a solo Lippizaner performed the classic capriole or airs above ground on the long reins.

Many of the acts in the festival adopted a theme they carried out through their costuming and music. The Dobrovitskiy  Troupe from Rosgocirk State Circus Russia presented a casting act that was set to the music of the 1950’s.   Two bearers leaning out of belted harnesses threw three flyers, one of whom is male, back and forth as if they were rag dolls.  Most impressive were several passing leaps in which two flyers passed each other in midair, between catchers.

Another Russian Troupe, the Vavilov, representing the Moscow State Circus, offered an act reminiscent of one last seen in Barnum’s Kaleidoscape.  The flyers were propelled from the ground to a swinging, elevated platform and then flipped off to  land on a matt or be caught banquine style by their compatriots.  This group came to the festival with a group of dancers from the same circus.  The eight girls helped dress this act which had a zombie theme, lots of gory makeup and decaying costumes.

The girls also provided Anastasi Makeeva with a very dramatic opening to her act, before she ascended to the cloud swing.  Dressed in a sexy red chiffon number that might have been designed by Vera Wang, the dancers helped her appear out of a cloud of red chiffon.  Aloft Makeeva was less impressive than her introduction.   Dressed as robots, the dancers also presented a ballet on Segways, which proved to be rather interesting.

The Josef Gartner family elephants appeared twice, once in each program, in two different presentations.  The first featured the very youngest members of the family, attempting to be vaulted onto the back of one of the elephants. What with seven kids, three adults and five elephants, the ring was crowded to the point of chaos.  In their second appearance the family went with the mature and more accomplished members of the family.  The highlight of the act was a blindfolded elephant picking his way—very gingerly—over one of the trainers.  In this outing the elephants wore futuristic headgear and created several interesting group poses.  No bull hooks were used by anyone, anywhere in the act.

The Faltiny family was being honored in this year’s festival, and were thus accorded three different appearances in the ring.   In the first they were on unicycles in a fairly routine act except for the finale in which one of the women balanced on a slack wire held between two of the men on giraffe unicycles.  To top it all off she rode a small unicycle herself.  Their second display was an even more standard club passing act.  In their third appearance, a solo male member of the family presented a unique free standing ladder act, its novelty coming from the size and shape of the ladders themselves.  He closed his act balancing an illuminated cube on his forehead, while walking up a free form ladder and then kicking a ball up into a basket held within the cube.

Duo Kvas was a pair of young male hand to hand balancers.  Their act was a classic version of the act made famous by numerous other pairs.  Their distinction, not necessarily an advantageous one, is that they worked on the floor rather than a raised platform.  In their closing trick they balanced head to head without the use of a donut.  The porter rose from a squat to an upright position with apparent ease.

Hans Klok, whose persona and  style seem modeled after Siegfried of Siegfried and Roy, made his way through one illusion after another in an overly familiar style heavy on the s and m.  During the course of his act, Klok submits himself to various forms of torture, only to escape in a flash, replaced by a female, now suffering the same violent fate from which he had just escaped.   In his first appearance almost everyone of his illusions was based on the same escape and replacement technique.  He did, however, end his first appearance submerged in a tank of water, escaping in the nick of time before his lungs burst. In his second appearance he ended up in a straight jacket, suspended by his feet, escaping just before an iron jaw chewed him to pieces.  Klok came to Monte Carlo from Las Vegas where he has worked his act in a more appropriate venue, the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino.

Tom Dieck, Jr’s. cast consisted of  five tigers, two white male lions and two ligers.  One of his tricks, according to press notes, was modeled after one originated by Alfred Court, although I have never seen any pictures of it being performed.  In it a liger walks inside a large wheel while a tiger walks along the outside moving it back and forth a few yards.   All in all this was a very fast paced act with only a few other tricks.  Its greatest problem was the layout of the ring.   Several large  props were positioned along the back, and the big cats were lined up on seats in the front blocking the audience view.  Dieck does attempt to add an element of humor by having to remind one of the cats of his cues.

Duo Daring Jones , David Jones and Rebecca Birge, an aerial duo from the United States worked on the still trapeze, and although they expertly performed the drops and catches one expects from such an act they received little attention.  One of the problems was that the music did not support the final trick, which left them with a flat ending.

Adding some variety to the program David Burlet gave us a plate spinning act that was strangely devoid of the kind of hysterical humor that usually characterizes such an act.   Three  Patagonian sea lions were presented by the  Otaries,, Conchi Munoz and Gary John, in an act that held little surprise, and like some other acts, seemed to have no real ending.   Miss Munoz was the third party with the Trio Munoz, a traditional  European clown entrée.  What amazed me with this act is that after receiving a tepid reception, they asked the audience if they wanted an encore, and the audience graciously obliged with another round of luke-warm applause.  Nonetheless the encore was produced.

Two of the Bronze Clown winners were solo females.  Contortionist Sasha,  eighteen year old American Alexandra Pivaral from Las Vegas, used three canes to twist her way through a series of amazingly fluid moves and poses, finally to shoot an arrow with her feet.  She ended by balancing on a mouthpiece. So fast and extreme were her poses that at times I thought I was looking at the beard of Davey Jones in the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

Eliza Katchatryan, the twenty-six year old Russian, walked the high wire on point, lunged for part of the time in the second part of her act.  Working on point is a novelty that is seldom seen and seemed to make a big impression here.   For me the oddest part of her act was the tiny air blower stationed at one end of her wire which she used to blow her long hair and flimsy skirt as if she were a high fashion model on a photo shoot.

The strangest act of all was offered by Robert Muraine, a grotesque eccentric contortion/dancer, whose style of dance is known as “crazy popping works” or so the press notes tell us.   His performance proves there is still room in the circus for the seriously bizarre.

And thus it was that the festival managed to explore the circus from the gloriously thrilling to the grotesquely puzzling.