The Passing Spectacle Vol. III, No. 3

 

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Bello Does It Again

I have probably seen more of Bello Nock  in more different venues than any other circus performer living or dead, and yet, his work never fails  to seem as fresh and exciting as the day I first encountered him on the Big Apple Circus and went backstage and naively asked if he spoke English.  It’s been a long and happy relationship ever since, renewed time and again as it was this past spring at the New Victory Theater on West 42nd St. in New York City, with the same sense of delighted surprise I experienced when he answered my dumb question by saying “Of course.”

Part of what makes the pleasure of his company possible is that Bello has an amazingly vast and varied repertoire as we  have seen him demonstrate in his several tours with Ringling. During those four different productions Bello repeated very few of his unique turns that mix daredeviltry with comedy .  Lately he has brought his wife Jennifer into the mix in a very important role.  She has become his writer and director.  Mix her fresh approach to his style of clowning and Bello’s own infectious persona and you have an unbeatable combination, even, or perhaps especially, when he is more or less the whole show.

In the current version of Bello Mania, Bello is supported by his daughter Annaliese, Angelo Iodice, Andrew Pratt and most tellingly by Matthew Morgan.   The latter plays the show’s host, who has happily  been given material by the writer/director that compliments Bello’s brand of comedy perfectly.

Annaliese has a solo aerial turn that she debuted with this production, and works on the high wire with the one of Bello’s young interns Andrew Pratt.  Iodice, who works under the stage name AJ Silver is an old rodeo hand who on the stage specializes in fancy roping in one appearance and the boleadoras  and whips in another, providing another of the show’s well timed changes of pace.

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Bello opens the show with his break-away bicycle, and from there reprises his most successful turns on the trampoline, the high wire, his William Tell gag and the sway pole, but they (as well as the other featured acts)  are introduced into this cleverly seamless production so amusingly that they seem to take on new life.  For instance the balloon used in the William Tell piece eventually provides the motivation for Bello’s climb up the sway pole.

Matthew Morgan  is another of those talents I have watched grow in experience and effectiveness as a performer.  Readers of Spectacle first met him when he was with the Happy Hour, the three man comic ensemble which was also the incubator for  Mark Gindick whose continued growth is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of the “Passing Spectacle.”  Before joining Bello and company Morgan starred in the Australian tour of Spiegelworld’s Absinthe.  He also plays the Gazillionaire in that production’s Las Vegas outpost.

Jennifer Nock has found the perfect way to use Morgan’s talents in a couple of sketches, one in which Morgan starts out gathering a company of volunteers to perform a version of Romeo and Juliet.  That, however, soon devolves into a game of musical chairs and a familiar bit of unlikely balancing.  In another skit, “Are You Smarter Than a First Grader,” he does a marvelous take off of Jeff Foxworthy and Bello plays the contestant pitted against a real first grader with which the audience at the New Vic is of course teeming. It is a delightfully daffy bit of comedy in which Bello gets to add a bit of comic  acting to his resume..

The show’s astute knowledge of its audience is evident even before the performance proper begins.  As the audience gathers an animated series of games, “Guess the Celebrity,” and a “Pop Quiz”  keeps the audience from getting antsy and well set up for the captivating comic capers that are to follow.  That same visual interest is maintained throughout the show thanks to David Miller’s clever projections and visual effects.

Judging from the kids’ reaction to Bello he may have found a venue that will require an annual visit.

 

 

Two Years After its Premiere Amalŭna Has Evolved

It has been nearly two years since I saw and reviewed the premiere of Cirque du Soleil’s Amalŭna in Montreal.  In my original review I suggested that at least a half hour needed to be cut from the show.  The version that played in the parking lot of CitiField, the home of the NY baseball Mets this past spring was indeed considerably shorter than the premiere version.

(Readers can access the full review by visiting the Passing Spectacle page of Vol. I, No. 6.)

To make the kind of cuts needed to accomplish that extreme revision, the creative staff has cut two major acts from the program.  One was a charming two person unicycle act that opened the show and an extended version of the tight wire act first performed by Julian Posada, who would be familiar to readers of Spectacle and more specifically to audiences  of Circus Flora , with which he worked before moving on to Cirque du Soleil.

I would certainly make no brief for keeping the tight wire act, because even with the addition of two other performers it lacked the kind of dazzle we have come to expect from the acts on any Cirque du Soleil show.  But the cuts have tended to make the first half of the performance particularly seem  a bit thin.

Worst of all the clowning has remained pretty much as it was at the opening.  In the interim it has grown even more objectionable, both for its lack of good taste and secondly for its tediously unfunny length.  It could have been cut with no discernible harm to either the show’s theme or dynamics.  Of course that would have left the show with no comic relief, but the present clowns offer neither relief nor comedy.

I think the show’s excessive number of characters and the time allotted to their development adds little to the development of the drama or the level of excitement.  On the contrary these moments tend to be repetitious and extraneous.   They are intended, to add to the overall spectacle, but spectacle without substance seems rather hollow, and such is the case with Amalŭna.

One of the two bright spots remains the extraordinary performance of Victor Kee as a lizardly version of Shakespeare’s  Caliban (the show is a female version of the bard’s Tempest).  His juggling display is breathtakingly swift and almost magically sure-handed.  Until he gets to his brilliant solo he also an amusingly wicked character that slithers through the proceedings with a deft touch.  His performance is worth the price of admission alone.  There is nobody else in the world like him, despite his many imitators and acolytes.

 

The other highlight of the show remains the daring display on the Korean plank, whose flights and landings are nothing short of spectacular.

The running order and performers of the current version of Amaluna seen in New York  were as follows:

Icarians and Water Meteors: Xinyue Chen, Zhao Qian, Gaoyun Zhao

Yanling Zheng, Min Zhuang, Yulun Wang, Lei Fu, Sijiang Liu

Storm: Vanessa Fournier, Maxim Panteleenko

Peacock Dance: Amy McClendon

Cerceau: Andréanne Nadeau

Water Bowl:Ikhertsetseg Bayarsaikhan

Uneven Bars:Laura-Ann Chong, Amara Defilippo, Melissa Fernandez,

Summer Hubbard, Renée Koehler, Melanie Sinclair, Brittany Urbain,

INTERMISSION

Korean plank: Tom Ammirati, Aaron Charbonneau

Julian Moreno Granda, Maxime Sabourin, Olivier Sabourin

Balance Goddess: Lili Chao

Chinese Pole: Evgeny Kurkin

Juggling: Viktor Kee

Aerial Straps: Virginie Canovas, Kylee Maupoux, Marina Tomanova

 

 New Aussie Company Goes Knee Deep

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Easily the most unique trick I have seen in a circus, or possibly anywhere, is a trick that opens the performance of the United States premiere of  Knee Deep, a production of Casus, a four person troupe of acrobats that recently arrived at the New Victory Theatre in New York City from Brisbane, Australia. What they do is walk on eggs.  Without cracking a shell.  And just in case we missed the subtlety of that feat, an enlarged image of  it is projected onto a screen at the rear of the stage via close-circuit television.   At the start of their performance it is just a single person who manages this extraordinary trick.  Later in the proceedings, another performer climbs aboard the shoulders of a compatriot and together they balance on a table whose four legs are set on four bottles which in turn are delicately set on four eggs.  No yolk.  At least not until one is purposefully dropped and splattered to prove they are real.

In between these two seemingly simple feats, the four amazingly flexible not overly muscled acrobats create a series of variations on two, three and four person pyramids created out of various holds and lifts.    One of the four, Jesse Scott, had been a member of the much admired circus company Circa for three years when he decided he wanted to start a circus company of his own.  Along with three friends, Emma Serjeant, Lachlan McAulay  and Natano Fa’anana, he did just that and the result is Casus, which he says means “a culmination of circumstances.”  Knee Deep is the company’s first show.  “We are trying not to do typical acts you see in every circus but to push the boundaries and create new acrobatic moves.” And so they have.

The program notes suggest that there is story telling involved in their work.  I frankly don’t see it, but in attempting to move away from typical acts their work has the same relationship to narration as doodling has to creating a work of art.

But let’s first consider what a so-called “typical act” looks like. Someone or a group  attempts a trick; it is completed, held,  applause is accepted, a breath is taken, and the artists begin again moving through a series of tricks in escalating difficulty until the act concludes with the most startling or spectacular (they are not always the same) trick in their repertoire.  Not so here.  Instead it is rather like physical doodling, with an unending series of  twists and bends and lifts and climbing.  Like a doodle each “trick” keeps evolving, assuming a new shape, adding new lines and curliques and shading.  Sometimes this happens between just two performers,  or it might be three or even four all intertwining, combining, reforming, changing,  a continual morphing of human form as the numbers change, but there are no real endings, signifying time for appreciative applause.  Such conclusions  are arrived at only in what might be called “typical” solo circus acts: silks, an aerial sling, straps, the trapeze, but even these tend to be  more complicated and restless, changing forms like an amoeba.

Even at 60 minutes this tends to be exhausting, because there are so few opportunities to rest and relax for either the artists or the audience.   It would be as if I were to write a review that was one long sentence with modifying phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause for page after page with no rest for the eye or brain until you had reached the final and most welcomed period.  If you were to diagram this sentence as grammarians of old were wont to do and watched the diagram progress, at any given moment the result would look like a glimpse of any passing moment in Knee Deep.  Perhaps that is what the title means.  It is knee deep in complications, and like my sentence, its core of meaning, its subject and verb is lost in the welter of modifiers, those phrases and clauses.

That is why we have periods and paragraphs, to separate one idea from a another to help us understand where a discussion is going without exhausting our readers.  The same is true of the kind of traditional circus acts the company distains, where there is space between each trick and time to process it in our brains.

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Towards the end of the hour, when the troupe of four acrobats has run out of variations to ring from their acrobatic interactions, there are some recognizable circus acts that are performed with less complications, notably a solo strap act, another on silks, a hand balancing display and some play with hoops, but even a multi-person trapeze act is filled with novel moves and innovations,  eschewing the traditional format.

All these marvelous moves are performed to a score of jazz music that is perfectly suited to the riffs and seemingly improvisational relationships created by this unique company.

 

 

 

Unlikely Comedy From Two Different Sources

There is a fine line separating pathos from comedy.  Two recent one man shows, Mark Gindick’s Wing Man and  John Kennedy Kane’s My Life in the Basement skirt that line with mixed results. Both Gindick and Kane, recognizing their “otherness”  mine their personal pain and vulnerabilities for jokes and laughter, Gindick as a silent clown and Kane with a purely verbal assault.  One must admire the courage of both comic performers as they expose  autobiographical aspects that others might prefer to keep private.

Neither is about to indulge in self pity, but Gindick’s performance which he has both created and performs tends at times to take a more sentimental tack  that  at times comes dangerously close to being maudlin when it comes to his family.

While Kane’s family also plays significant roles in his monologue they are presented with gentle humor which is quite endearing without plunging into sentimentality.  But Kane is also far more pitiless in probing the aspects of his life that produce enormous laughter at his own expense.

One of the problems with Gindick’s piece is that it seems to have a split focus.  “Wing man,” according to slang dictionaries, usually refers  to a friend a woman brings along on a date, it may also be taken as the masculine equivalent  of a  third wheel.  Some of Gindick’s comedy, therefore, is based on his difficulty in getting women to respond to him, a problem he attributes in part to  his somewhat short stature.  Here he is the little guy, somewhat akin to the Little Tramp for whom nothing seems to go right, especially with women.  Unlike Chaplin who always managed to emerge victorious in the end, Gindick does not.  The best that he can do insofar as arriving at that sort of happy resolution  is to toss aside his earlier struggles and engage in an unmotivated bit of soft shoe on bubble wrap, to which the audience is invited to join in.  It is a delightful moment but has nothing to do with what has gone before.

Towards the end of the performance it becomes clear that the Gindick character is also suffering from the loss of his father at a relatively early age, and then the tone and mood take a turn away from the strictly comic to something much  more serious.

Kane’s ending is also somewhat problematic because he abandons his outrageously comic adventures and finally dips into more serious content  that concludes with a hint of impending tragedy, leaving the audience stunned.

The version of Wing Man, which I saw in Brooklyn at the New York City College of Technology was the second incarnation of the show that I have seen.  Here it was much more technically sophisticated, with the scenic backdrop almost as animated as Gindick himself, which may be as much a liability as it is an asset, since we tend to be so fascinated with it, we lose sight of Gindick’s character.

That is something of a problem because in effect both performances were, in reality, mini dramas, and as such character development is an essential ingredient.   This is accomplished by having a character react to a variety of situations.  In this Gindick is at somewhat of a disadvantage in comparison to Kane, because of their differing  approaches to performance.  Kane deals with it by narrating  his many comic misadventures with  hilarious results.   On the other hand, however, in the theatre it is more effective  to show rather than to tell.  Since Gindick is a mime he cannot tell us about any such encounters; he has to first  create  them so that he can  then react to them.   It’s a tricky thing for a solo artist to pull off, so Gindick invites “guest artists” to make cameo appearances. These  include Nik Wallenda on film and two others culled from the live audience.

The second thing a good piece of theatre, tragic or comic, should provide for the audience’s satisfaction is  some sort of resolution, but as befits their status as  works in progress, neither  comic has an ending that seems based on what has gone before.  Gindick simply throws everything that has come before to the winds and assumes  a happy mood as if none of what he has gone through has had any effect on him whatsoever.  Kane’s  hint of tragedy to come, undercuts his narrative’s real resolution, which is the fulfillment of his dream of being a ringmaster for a major circus.  Instead he launches into what is really the beginning of another play.

There is little in the theatre that is as challenging as a one-man show, and for Gindick there is the added challenge of silence.  For Kane it is the necessity of  dramatizing through narrative.  And then, of course, there is the challenge of autobiographical material.   But both men have met their challenges with undaunted courage and provide in the process some provocative moments of effective stagecraft and others that could benefit from rethinking.