The Passing Spectacle, Vol. III, No. 2


 Ringling Discovers Legends Ancient and New

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The show is called Legends, and it is out to discover legends of old, but the real discoveries here are the legends being created right before our very eyes.  The newest legend this show has created is none other than ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson. His dry, throwaway delivery used with both his sidekick Paulo and the audience during the Globe of Steel act is absolutely delicious, especially to anyone who appreciates this sort of dry humor, of which I must be counted one.

As the number of Torres family motorcyclists within the Globe of Steel grows from four to five to seven and finally eight,  Iverson works the crowd up into a veritable frenzy, screaming their lungs out.  “Do you want to see more?” he asks again and again.   And each time he is met by more screams.  When it seems the roar cannot get louder,  he asks ironically, “Then why don’t you say something?”  Most of the audience is now screaming itself hoarse.  Unconvinced of their sincerity Iverson at another point asks, if they are really ready to see what he has described, bringing forth  more screams.  “Then why don’t you say so?” he asks facetiously to be met now by a deafening response.  He may not carry a whip as did the ringmasters of old, but he is a master at whipping up an audience into a state of vocalized euphoria, simply by having what amounts to a dialogue with the audience.  Judging from his delivery I’m guessing he wrote those lines himself.

The other discovery comes in the first half of the show as well.  This is Alexander Lacey.  Not the Alexander Lacey we saw during the last appearance with Blue Unit.  I am talking about the bulked-up, Alexander Lacey who has suddenly found his own sense of humor, which allows him to dance about and be more casually playful with his animals—four female lions, six tigers and one majestic male.  His performance here has set him well on his way to becoming a legend in his own right.Lacey

As it turns out, following the Torres family extravaganza, the first half of the show is more visually than viscerally exciting. What contributes to the beauty and sometimes delicacy of the first act is that it is dominated by acts made up almost entirely of women most of whom come from the distaff side of the Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe.  They first appear in what is presumably their secondary act, a display of bicycle riding that relies heavily on artful posing, augmented by the use of fans and the occasional male.  Their principal act is an ensemble display of diabolo manipulation that includes a good bit of tossing and passing of the diabolos with the catches often complicated by fast-paced acrobatics.

Never let it be said that the Chinese don’t know how to add some razzle-dazzle to their acts.  This one ends with a flashy finish that is both delightful visually, and impressive for its synchronized skills.

The show opens with six girls performing contortions in plastic bubbles hung above the arena floor. Later in the first half  the air is occupied with a pagoda of hair-hanging, which at various times involves up to eight women variously connected or suspended by their hair.  The first half also features some parades and brief flashes of the Chinese acrobatic arts and the legendary Lion dancers.

A good bit of the first half is also spent establishing Iverson’s sidekick Paulo Cesar Oliveira dos Santos’s quest to discover such legends as Pegasus, the unicorn and the Woolly Mammoth, usually at the urging of Iverson and often resulting in slapstick comedy achieved through Paulo’s acrobatic prowess.

Following intermission the second half gets under way with an amusing display of domestic animals, capped off  with the appearance of a pair of bounding kangaroos.  Thereafter the second half wastes no time in escalating into an unending drumbeat of mounting excitement delivering one thrill after another, big time, beginning with the men of the Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe and their exquisite display of hoop diving and ending with the breathtaking Riders of the Wind, with their breakneck style of Cossack riding.

This hoop diving display has been one of my all-time favorite circus acts since I first saw it at an acrobatic festival in China and later in Monte Carlo, walking off, in both instances, with the top prize for its unbeatable combination of style, grace and skillThe latter includes a somersaulting leap through a hoop ten feet high, which is the equivalent height of a basketball net.

While the flying act’s rigging is set we are diverted by a high wire riding motorcyclist. But it is the double flying trapeze act developed for Ringling by Tito Gaona that once again ratchets up the excitement level.  The catchers are at the center of the rigging, working back to back, off-set from one another slightly so that the flyers come at them from opposite directions, providing almost non-stop action.  By doubling down on the classic Mexican-style flying  Gaona has eliminated the waits common to such flying acts.  It is capped off by four flyers, with hardly a break between each one attempting triple somersaults.  At the performance I saw three of the four completed the trick successfully after which both groups completed side by side passing leaps, a great finish to a beautifully realized act.

The Riders of the Wind, a large group of riders that included both men and women storms through a classic display of Cossack-style riding in which caution in thrown to the winds as they gallop around the specially banked ring curb at break-neck speed, as rousing a finish as one could hope to experience.

And if the performances were not heart pounding enough the music provided as counterpoint to the entire performance relied on hard driving rhythms accented by a heavy use of percussion, adding another element of excitement that is all but irresistible.

Legends has been produced by Nicole Feld and Alana Feld. Rye Mullis is the director and Bonnie Vogt the writer.  The costume designer is Amy Clark and Stanley Meyer the production designer.  Kevin Wilson and Marcel Wilson are  credited with the energetic choreography.  The music has been provided by James Dooley (score composer) and Lucian Piane (song composer). Mike Hilemstein is once again the lyricist. Abigail Rosen Holmes is the lighting designer and the video and production design work was contributed by Darrel Maloney.  Troy Wunderle is the director of clowning.

Alexander Lacey Photo by Paul Gutheil


 Top Acts Add Excitement to Circus Sarasota

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Circus Sarasota’s  gift to its hometown this year included three top flight acts; one thrillingly dangerous, another gorgeously impossible and a third  that was breathtaking in another way altogether.  I am speaking of the bowsman Cornell Tell, the Chinese adagio team of Miao Chanqwei and Lin Deng , and the antipodiste Jan Navrátil.  Since these three acts provide all the thrills, surprises and amazements one could hope to find in a single circus performance let us begin with them.

Circus audiences have seen Cornell Tell before in Barnum’ s Kaleidoscape.  He begins by having his arrows slice through newsprint held sidewise and finishes with one of the most truly dangerous acts in the world in which he spears on apple sitting atop his own head.  He manages to accomplish this seemingly impossible stunt by a setting up  a series of precisely calculated shots , the last one of which releases the arrow aimed at his head.  Quite a thrill, delivered with blinding speed.

It is always particularly welcome to find an act that is not only new but entirely surprising in its own right.  This was Jan Navrátil’s fast-paced foot juggling routine whose closing trick had me literally holding my breath until he had sent a small ball into a series of ever higher baskets, placed to the right and left of a very tall prop he manipulated with only his feet.   He’s an antipodiste after all, and he succeeds in conquering this difficult feat he has set for himself with nerve-wracking calm, even as we sweat it out with him.  On his first try at it the prop nearly landed in the audience, but was caught and diverted in time to prevent a tragic disaster.

The act that received the biggest response from the audience was an adagio presented by Miao Chanqwei and Lin Deng.  The reason it garners the audience reaction it does is that it seems so impossible, yet there it is happening before our very eyes.  The female member of the act works almost entirely on pointe, in ballet toe shoes, balancing in one gorgeous pose after another on her partner’s shoulders and finally on his head.  It is a beautifully designed act that keeps getting more and more amazing as the couple’s technique (both balletic and acrobatic) takes them, in the most stylish manner possible, to ever more impossible poses.   They had been seen previously with The Big Apple Circus a few seasons ago.

Some of the show’s other acts require a bit more patience and forbearance.

The idea of combining dressage and quick costume changes is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance.  I have seen a similar hybrid, this time using an elephant instead of horse, work quite wonderfully at the Monte Carlo Festival two years ago, presented by the Cassely family.  To make it work as miraculously as a human quick change act does, a booth, large enough to conceal the elephant was placed at one side of the ring.  As the pachyderm and its female rider passed through the booth, their blanket and costume were snatched off by some hidden device and animal and rider emerged without so much as the slightest hesitation in a new blanket and costume.

Caroline Williams’ version which debuted at Circus Sarasota was far less quick or  effortless.  Each time she wanted to change costume, she had to ride through the drawn curtains of the performers’ entrance and once there do the costume change.  But it was hardly a matter of in and out.  Each change took considerable time, violating one of the principle laws of theatrics: avoid stage waits in which nothing is happening.  Fred Bradna once wrote that the deadliest thing in a circus performance is a pause. The changes were also somewhat anti-climactic, because when Williams did finally emerge, the new costume was hardly something that topped what she had been wearing previously and was therefore hardly worth waiting for.  It was just another costume.   To avoid the deadly stage wait, during one of the longest changes an audio tape of school children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was run, hardly an effective time killer in a circus.  The act obviously needs to work out some serious kinks and is not yet ready to be put before the public.

Williams’ riding opens the show and easily her best moments are produced by the horse’s knowledge of  dressage, in particular when he navigates a series of low fences with high stepping grandeur, a very lovely sight.

Since this low key act is hardly the sort one opens a circus performance with, it was up to juggler Laido Dittmar to pull the show out of the doldrums  and energize it,  which he does for the most part.  My only objection to his intricate manipulation of rings and balls is his costume which was nothing more than a white shirt and pair of white hip-hugging jeans.  There are throughout his act subtle movements adding variety to his juggling.  He ends with seven rings, which end up falling neatly around his neck.

Dolly Jacobs and her partner Rafael Palacios next present a pleasant interlude, providing a change of pace from the fast paced juggling of Dittmar.  Here is a chance for the audience to catch its breath and relax on The Wings of Love.  It is a familiar and poetic moment that always seems to leave an audience glowing with admiration for its beauty.

The low-wire artist Eric Nieman works his way back and forth on his wire with some interesting footwork, the highlight of which is a backward full layout.  For his closing trick he attempts to leap over a hurdle placed before him on the wire.  He misses on his first try and appears to have injured his hand, but after some rubbing and re-summoning his resources he tries again, this time over an even higher obstacle.  Need I mention that he makes it with ease and that the fall and injury were faked, an obvious ploy for sympathy and a way to add drama to a not overly impressive trick, albeit his closing one.  (For more discussion of this phenomenon see the Editor’s Fanfare.)

The show’s required comedy is provided first (and secondly) by Tony Alex and Jeanette, a pair of  European-style clowns who actually come from Europe.  In their first turn at bat they present a slapstick entrée set in an Italian restaurant.  Their spaghetti disaster is not nearly as funny, however, as Bill Irwin’s brilliantly hilarious version of the same set-up,  but I did enjoy Alex as the waiter cleaning off the soiled pasta that has fallen to the ground, one strand at a time.  The blow off for all this is a classic pie in the face.

In their second appearance, the couple offers what looks as if it is going to be a virtuoso musical interlude.  Instead it  soon devolves into a good bit of bickering that goes nowhere and takes a very long time in getting there.

Then there are Luciano Anastasini’s dogs whose surprise and delight ends with their entrance.  The mutts arrive aboard a scaled down train.  The tricks consist mainly of the dogs jumping over a series of hurdles that get higher and higher.  I wish the canine ensemble’s bulldog had been given more to do for he is a brilliant deadpan comedian who could produce laughs just by thrusting his mug in your face.

The Flying Cortes, which was the show’s closing act, was also perhaps the biggest disappointment of the show.  I was anticipating seeing Alexander throw his much promoted three and a half somersault to the catcher Robinson, but he never even attempted it and missed the triple twice.  The act saved face with the passing leap.  So we were sent home on a less than triumphant note.

Cirkopolis is a Ballet of Circus Arts


Unlike Circus Sarasota in which three or four excellent acts can add up to a satisfying experience, Cirque Éloize’s  new production Cirkopolis, which I saw at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, must be treated as a whole rather than a sum of its parts, because every element in it is put into the service of a single idea, leaving a single, overall impression.

Cirkopolis which has been directed by Jeannot Painchaud and Dave St-Pierre, comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to being an acrobatic ballet.  Seldom do any of the acts work alone as solo spots; they are almost invariably expanded by the appearance of other members of the ensemble company, adding either acrobatics, dance or a combination of both to the moment.

If memory serves  (and I have to rely on memory because the stage is most often dimly lit, creating a darker than usual auditorium in which it was impossible to take notes that could be read later as I would normally do) there were only two acts, a cord’lisse routine and a Cyr wheel that were essentially solos.

Most often the individuals who are featured in one circus discipline or another are eventually visited by others to expand the act’s vocabulary or enrich its visual effect, the latter is especially true of those numbers wherein the entire ensemble takes part, as for instance in a group club passing act and a display on the German wheel both of which were  visually exciting. (and brightly lit.  What a coincidence!)  There is also a beautifully choreographed display of contortion in which Myriam Deraiche’s feet never touch the ground while being twisted like a pretzel and passed around by the men of the ensemble.

Not only is the stage dimly for most of the performance,  but the performers are all dressed in a single shade of gray until late in the evening  when color begins to slowly creep into the action and the visual impact finally explodes as it does when Dorothy enters into Oz.  The performances are backed by rear projections in a similar shade of gray depicting  steel girders, giant gears upon gears slowly interconnecting.  For a lengthy portion, in the beginning of the production, the performers slog around in robotic movements like drones  caught in the wheels of industry as they turn.  This all seems like a worn out cliché to me.    That kind of industrial setting has almost ceased to exist as automation has taken over production lines and office cubicles.  The production design and its early movement patterns do tend to put one in mind of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.  But what, one is forced to wonder as the machinery clanks and bangs on irritatingly, has this to do with contemporary life.    Why stage a contemporary circus (it is after all, still called Cirque) to make us look backwards?   Through it all Ashley Carr plays a comic character who is trapped by office drudgery and eventually makes a spectacular escape.

That glorious moment is heralded by the ensemble being  fleetingly glimpsed sporting  jackets in a variety of primary colors.    Oddly enough this potentially thrilling moment is played once again in shadows.  It is not until a teeterboard is brought onstage and the ensemble goes to work on it with abandon, culminating their joyful flights with a shower of colored paper replacing the stacks and stacks of white paper which the desk-bound character had been stamping mechanically with joyless precision.  The gears and cogs and beams have been replaced by a gray circus tent, but a circus tent nonetheless.  We all need to break free of our boring, mindless labors and join the circus to save our souls.  But does that labor, at least as it is represented here, still exist?  It apparently does in the minds of the people who decide to join the circus.

Skills incorporated into the various dances, in addition to those already noted, include hand to hand (featuring Samuel Charlton and Reuben Hosler) , aerial straps (featuring Ugo Laffolay) , trapeze, banquine, Chinese pole (featuring Maude Arseneault and Mikaël Bruyère-L’Abbé)  and diabolo  (featuring Dominique Bouchard).  Altogether the twelve-person ensemble is an amazingly accomplished, multi-talented group.

So the final impression is that of so much creativity and artistry wasted in the service of a cliché, but on the other hand one must applaud the undeniable fact that there is an idea at work here.