Passing Spectacle Vol III, No. 4

An Orgy of Circus Spans the Spectrum

of Spectacular Experiences

For ten days in late May and early June I participated in an orgy of circus going—six shows in two spurts of three in three consecutive days, covering the entire spectrum of circus experiences from the traditional to the contemporary, featuring artists ranging from seasoned pros to daringly inventive newcomers.  (And then a book project intervened and demanded my immediate attention, hence the tardiness in getting this before you.)

The New Jersey Connection

In the first group of three I started off on a Friday night with a Shrine circus produced by the Hanneford organization, moved on to the Cole Bros.  Circus of the Stars Saturday afternoon, and then on Sunday finally got a second look at Ringling’s blue unit that incorporated  its reaction to the tragic accident that had occurred a few days prior.  It was as diffuse a group of circuses as one can imagine, their differences fully on view in their separate performances.


Hanneford/Shrine Lots of Glitz and Glamor


Pat Cashin and clown car

Pat Cashin and clown car

The Hanneford company works hard at retaining the glamour and glitz of the traditional circus.  Its production values rely heavily on strings of colored chaser lights and yards and yards of marabou and adds a touch of sexiness from the performance of Angela Martin on the swinging trapeze and the eight showgirls who dress several of the well costumed production numbers.  Its program features what amounts to a compendium of classic circus turns heavy on the animals:  Bruno Blazak’s tigers, Chip Arthurs with elephants, the Castles’ bears, presented by Jimmy and Tepa Hall, Ian Garden, Jr.’s  camels, and an assortment of Maya Panfilova’s domestic cats.  There were no dogs but there were opportunities for pony rides and photo ops with a pliant python before the show and at intermission.  Even in so unglamorous a sports venue as the Mennen Arena in Morristown, NJ, Struppi Hanneford and Co. managed to give the environment a sense of theatrical wonder.  On top of all that ringmaster Billy Martin is about as smooth and unflappable a guide as there is in the business.

The clowning is, as per usual in a Shrine circus, provided by the Shriners themselves, but in this case they were given a considerable comic boost by the participation of professional clown Pat Cashin and a comic car, whose clever maneuvers provide the otherwise non-existent humor and even a few laughs.

The program itself is well paced and provides lots of variety thanks to the many artists doubling in brass, as they used to say.   Eric and Wendy  Agular do a hand balancing turn before they close the show with their caged motorcycles.  Kevin Sandrak contributes an impressive display of contortion and then returns as the center piece of an aerial ballet, working on an aerial cube.

Kim Sue Bertini makes three appearances, first showing her foot juggling skills, and later with the family unicycle display that work along side of  the MacIntyre family also on unicycles.  The MacIntyres who also present some hula hooping, and Kin Sue she rides one of the elephants presented by Chip Arthurs.

A quick change act is offered by Struppi’s  jack of all trades Benito Aguilar and his wife Dulce.

The Halls’ bear act, which drew the biggest response from the folks sitting near me,  is a catalogue of all the tricks ever conceived for these amazing animals,  but I do wish Tepa would consider changing her costume.   Its time.

Photo by Paul Gutheil


Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars Upholds Tradition


After a downpour on Friday night, the Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars, looked especially appealing on a sun drenched afternoon, demonstrating how difficult touring a tented circus can be for all involved.  Despite the challenges, Johnny Pugh and Elvin Bale take care to preserve what were once time-honored circus traditions like the aerial ballet, in this instance more of a display of various aerial skills than a synchronized routine.  There are also two big animal acts which the public has decided are essential ingredients of this kind of circus.  The elephants, presented by Tim Frisco, were a crowd pleaser as was the bIg cage full of tigers (five white and one gold) presented by Vicenta Pages.  There is nary a horse to be seen in the ring, but Vicenta’s husband, a member of the bareback riding Donnert family is carrying two such broad backs to keep in shape.    The other animal act, another predictable favorite, was the dogs presented by the Fassio family.

Obviously a lot of thought and effort went into creating the rigging used by Lana and her son Nik and by German Fassio in their separate hand balancing acts that also qualify as aerial displays, since their apparatus is set high above the ground.  Now if they could just do something to light these acts adequately they would be quite effective.

The Ponce Family flying act was certainly one of the fastest such acts I’ve ever seen.   It began with a few  flights across the span before it was  back to the fly bar without engaging the catcher.  These were followed by an attempted double by one of the girls, which she missed at the performance I caught, and it was not attempted again.  Instead it was on to the passing leap which closed the act.

The costuming of the ten girls in the aerial ballet “Puttin’ On the Ritz” was very well co-ordinated, and the variety of specialties involved in the display made it one of the most effective displays insofar as  filling the entire arena with color and movement.

The show’s elephants are from Carson and Barnes’  Endangered Ark.  Their act, which included two babies, was fast moving and included the tricks that all good elephant displays seem to have in their repertoire these days.   Dale Thompson closed the show as the show’s new Cannonball, and Chris Connors was ringmaster.


Ringling’s Legends Retains its Excitement

And then it was on to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose performance of Legends provides ample evidence of the company’s ability to absorb a tragic event of enormous proportions and to go on without seeming as if there is a hole in the presentation.  The ability to make such an adjustment should remind us just how sizeable and extensive the show’s productions continue to be, despite criticism to the contrary.  All told it is a big, fast paced, exciting show that earns a very enthusiastic reception throughout, and all of the acts have retained the luster they had shown earlier in the season, but I thought Alexander Lacey’s interaction with his cats seems to become more playful each time I see it.

 Some Comparisons

Some comparisons engendered by the three shows beyond the obvious seem inescapable and noteworthy.

For one there is the matter of style involved in presenting a cage act.  Bruno Blazak with the Shrine show is a whirling dervish, constantly pirouetting and dancing his way through each prop re-arrangment.  In comparison Vicenta Pages is positively sedate, a model of restraint and understatement.   Blazak is in constant danger of being taken in on a charge of overacting  (for those who recall the Dragnet spoof) and Pages is so watchfully protective of her youngest female cats that she hardly takes the time to style.  She tells us the young female is in constant  danger of being attacked by the other females in the group who don’t seem to like the newcomer very much,

Vicenta who is twenty-two and has been performing since she was fourteen is also the mother of a very active two year old daughter.  She says she is at something of a crossroad with her act.  The current cats, but for the newest, are aging fast from the constant strain of two shows a day, every day, except when there are three, and she has to think about retiring and/or replacing them.

Asked what she wished audiences had a better understanding of in regard to her work with the tigers she said she wished the public had a greater appreciation of the time and patience she expends getting to know her animals and what a privilege she feels it is to be working with them and helping to preserve this endangered species.

Judging from most of what I saw another endangered species seems to be funny clowns, at least ones who are actually able to produce laughs.

A ringmaster’s primary asset is his voice.  Chris Connors,  Billy Martin and Ringling’s Johnathan Lee Iverson are all blessed in that department, but with the strenuous vocal demands placed on his voice by all the singing he is required to do Iverson’ role is most demanding.  That is why the Felds are providing him with a vocal coach, which he says has made a huge difference in his production.

On to Canada

The second of my three day circus marathons took place entirely in Montreal, Canada, with two separate versions of the Canadian National Circus School’s annual productions, and Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show Kurio, the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Taken together the two show from the circus school represent the most interesting, inventive and exciting new circus productions I get to see each year, except, in this case for the new Cirque show, but more of that a bit later.

The fun at Tohu, the remarkably accommodating building that is home to the school’s productions and other visiting circus productions throughout the year, begins before the doors to the auditorium are opened.  The first year students present a kind of agit prop extravaganza that weaves its way through the gathering audience in the lobby, placing the artists as close to the audience as it is possible to get without knocking them over, although it is the spectators’ responsibility to get out of the way.  The production that served as a preface to L’abri, the first of the two shows, had even more of a political flavor than usual, what with its banners, shouted slogans and placards reading “Cirque Liberte.”

L’abri Thrills with Surprises and Skill

RL1_6545 ---½ Roland Lorente - Abri

L’abri, itself, has one of the oddest beginnings I have ever encountered here or anywhere else for that matter.  Melvin Diggs and Manae Miikeda present a thrilling Russian cradle act (I never heard the term before, either.  It means the porter, who stands upright,  is held in place by a heavy belt.)  Diggs, by the way is a product of Jessica Hentoff’s St. Louis Arches, and his work here and throughout the show with another Arches alum, Sidney Bateman, is nothing short of amazing, considering not only where they come from but the level of skills (that’s plural) to which they have ascended.   Later in the production Bateman is featured in a display of diabolo into which he incorporates a great deal of acrobatic moves that make his catches all the more exciting.

The two team up for an act that also combines solo jumps and leaps through Chinese hoops with acrobatic catches, revealing their acrobatic roots under Hentoff’s tutelage.

But as for the Russian cradle, it is almost as if the director Gioconda Barbuto didn’t quite know how to integrate this act with its heavy rigging into the context of the production that follows on its heels.  So it is presented as a kind of preface.

Translated the show’s title means “Shelter,” and there is a rudimentary structure at the rear of the playing area with two doors widely spaced apart.   It is eventually used to great effect as a wall on which the cast walks, usually perpendicular to the ground.  This is, in other words, a highly inventive way of using a wall, the most recent iteration of a trampoline wall, but in this case sans trampoline.

Many of the numbers presented by the graduating students are featured within larger numbers, with the supporting figures appearing in half light, upstage or quickly removed, so the soloist can hold the space by him or herself.    This is true of the tissue act of Laurie Adornato, and Justin Buss, who adds considerable excitement to a group act on the Cyr wheel.

As always the ensemble is enhanced by second year students, and the large cast is effectively seen in a charivari that has an inexplicably violent character to it and a more exciting banquine number that just keeps topping itself and ratcheting up the thrills.  The show also incorporates a clown who appears periodically throughout the work, which is very effective insofar as developing a character and building the humor that provides a welcome comic relief.

One of the production’s many novelties is the rarely seen woman performing on the aerial straps. Kertta Pussinen makes a persuasive case for just such a presentation.

This production also featured two other young artists whose work I have been watching for some years now, this time in Circus Smirkus.  Lindsay Culbert-Olds and Kia Melinda Eastman present a very mature version of the duo trapeze act that they have been working on for some time with Smirkus.  It is now beautifully polished and expanded from the signature trick that has been a part of it from the beginning and  remains its finale.

One of the acts that impressed me greatly was Olivier Sylvestra’s turn on the German wheel.   Like all the students here he has been the beneficiary of a good deal of dance training, and he moves through his routine as smoothly and gracefully as Fred Astaire might dancing with a hat rack.   When the apparatus and the artist move together so effortlessly and so gracefully they provide a pleasure that always produces a smile of delight that brightens my face.

The swinging trapeze is becoming one of the school’s signature pieces, thanks to the instructor Victor Fomine.  It is here demonstrated with pirouetting precision by both Seth Scheuner and Emma Stones in separate performances.

There were also two different sets of hand to hand balancing acts,  the first well presented by the mixed pair of Nicolas Jelmoni and Charlotte O’Sullivan.  The second such act is presented by two men, Mishannock Ferrero and Emile Pineault.  Their manner of interacting raises an interesting question, as to the subtext of their performance.

Most such male duo’s present their lifts as individually isolated displays of strength, usually from the porter while the top man maintains his balance regardless of the twists and turns involved.  Such is not the case here.  First of all their persona is the least theatrical of anyone in the cast, as is their costuming.  They go at each other with an alarming level of violence, exhausting each other in a rivalry that puts each to a test of endurance.  What that all means is certainly open to interpretation.

In both this production and its companion piece La Matrice Morphée or Morpehus’ Matrix, I was impressed over and over again by the level of excitement contributed throughout the pieces by the musical selections that accompanied the various segments.   Obviously both directors have a vast knowledge of music, which they use to great advantage.  A refined musical taste and extensive knowledge of the musical catalogue, both classical and contemporary, are essential qualities a director of contemporary circus must possess in order to produce the maximum excitement in his productions.


La Matrice de Morphee Combines Cultures

RLO_7522 --« Roland Lorente - matrice

Whereas L’abri was contemporary in style, the second the of the school shows La Matrice de Morphee, created and directed by Michael Watts, is a combination of fantasy, its characters an eclectic  collection of figures from various mythology cavorting about a leafy bower, and contemporary hip culture combining to create a much lighter, more playful tone than the previous evening’s offering.

Once again, however, it is filled with invention and novelty, in its apparatus and the variations it manages to ring from familiar acts.  At one point a low slung piece of rigging, in the shape of a triangle, is employed in the exhibition of a number of circus skills simultaneously, all of which are performed to a music accompaniment  from Mozart’s Requiem Mass, which is one of the most exciting pieces of music I have ever encountered in a circus performance.

In another act Chinese hoops are again employed by an acrobatic duo (this time a male and female).  The individual leaps usually associated with this skill set are complicated by acrobatic catches and throws.  Once again the skill level is simply breathtaking.   This act is performed by Dominic Sullivan and Marta Henderson with the same dazzling results as those produced by Sidney Bateman and Melvin Diggs the night before.

Émile Mathieu-Bégin’s turn on the unicycle is a delightfully amazing performance that has humor and some remarkable skills, as he concludes his time in the spotlight by riding across a 2 X 4 set between two tables of average height which he jumps on and off of with startling regularity while on the unicycle, of course.

And then there are those performances that score by virtue of raw skill or vibrant personality.  In the latter category Daniel Sullivan (another of those talents we have watched grow and mature at Circus Smirkus) proves that personality is as important in a circus performer as it is in any other kind of performing art.  His work on the lyra, or aerial hoop as the Canadians prefer, is totally winning in all respects.

As always these shows often find new ways of enhancing solo turns, finally without upstaging them.   Noëmi Fallu Robitaille’s work on the corde lisse gains from the support it receives in the shadows. Johan Prytz’s impressive aerial strap act also gains from its theatrical staging.

Impressive turns by Cooper Stanton on the swinging trapeze further underline the school’s superiority in this area, as does the trapeze duet performed by Anouk Blais and Guillaume Mesmin.  Sascha Bachmann adds a touch of novelty to her hand balancing act by the use of numerous pommels that change height as needed.

The most exciting segment of the show, insofar as skill and daring are involved is delivered by a trio of young men, Zackary Arnaud, Pablo Valarch and Boris Fodella soaring, twisting and cannonballing on the Korean plank, which distinguishes itself from the standard teeterboard, by using only two acrobats at a time, one on either end, propelling one another aloft for a series of acrobatic gyrations, only to turn to the board from whence he took off and thus sending the other skyward.

Two young artists presented variations of the possible on the Cyr wheel.  Eric Brown worked at the top of the show performing to a dynamic percussive score, and Lea Toran Jenner drew the anti-climactic spot following a big ensemble dance number that is one of the best pieces of choreography that I have seen in a circus performance, proving that dance can be as theatrically and musically exciting as other circus skills.  It is so dynamic that the show should have ended there, but did not, bringing Jenner on in a difficult situation.

All in all, these were two thrilling and rewarding evenings watching young artists demonstrate their readiness to take their place in world circus.


Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios Answers its Critics


The third and final participant in this second circus orgy was, fittingly, Cirque du Soleil’s latest production, Kurios, the Cabinet of Curiosities, for which of the six circuses visited, except for Ringling,  can match the financial resources of the Canadian juggernaut needed to stage such an overwhelmingly beguiling spectacle?  (Although I must say the Canadian school’s productions don’t look as if their directors were required to rein in their creative energies due to financial considerations.)

Kurios is inaugurating its international tour in the company’s home town of Montreal.  It is the show that answers the company’s constant complaint from its critics which insists that all of its shows are the same, and by now we’ve seen everything it’s got to show us.   Well, here is something that is not simply new; it is mind-bendingly creative, lively and as different from all that has come before it as it is possible to be.

Even before the show starts we are instantly intrigued by the stage set, an endlessly fascinating collection of the sort of curios one is likely to find in the attic or basement of a mad scientist or relentless tinkerer.  The stage looks like one of the Bindlestiff family’s fondest visions come to life, filled as it is with curiously complex mechanical and pseudo-scientific contraptions  which only a madman could have conceived.  And when the action begins, the wildly original characters, an assortment of bizarre prodigies, provides even more to delight the eye and imagination.

The band enters from one of the side aisles, marching in single file around the tent, a miniature train riding along the tops of their hats, and as they move along, the train passes some exquisitely detailed similarly scaled replicas of tiny villages and town squares.  As it develops further, the opening parade continues to spill more and more visual delights onto the stage.   The choreography and overall effect are simply dazzling, establishing the unrestrained sense of humor that is to follow, act by act, moment by moment, promising an endless string of surprises that range from the absurd to the bizarre.   Each of the acts that follow is staged as if it were a surrealistic vision pulled from the 19th Century.

To create this delightful aura the real stars of the show, as it turns out, are the creative people (of which there is an impressive number) who made it all happen.   The list of contributing artists runs to over twenty persons, including credits that could only be found in a Cirque du Soleil program.  These begin with Michael Laprise, the writer/director and Chantal Tremblay the creative director and move on through such specialists as acrobatic choreographers (there are four of these) three acrobatic performance designers and an acrobatic equipment and rigging designer (Danny Zen) through the usual suspects like a lighting designer (Martin Labrecque), a sets and prop designer (Stéphane Roy), costume designer (Philippe Guillotel) two composers and of course make-up artists and sound engineers.  Obviously a show like this is not hatched from one creative brain but is a collaborative effort with contributions coming from many sources.   Lacking such collaboration that produced this profundity of details ranging from those of that miniature train and its environment to the enchanting invisible circus performance could not have seen the light of day.  What it all reveals is  a charming sense of humor that is almost entirely missing from all other Cirque productions,.

And speaking of humor, another of the persistent criticisms of Cirque shows is their lack of effective clowning.    This has been solved here with the appearance of David Alexandre Després.  He makes several  appearances in the show adding light touches of humor with each, but his comic masterpiece is a pantomime in which he woos a woman from the audience, but not before she is accosted by his pet cat, which he himself portrays in a brilliantly hilarious spot-on imitation of all felines.

The acts themselves which are showcased within this fabulous structure are relatively ordinary in that versions of them can be seen in most other circuses.  But here they are presented with such an amusing or startling manner that they not only seem fresh and new, but often something of which our dreams are made.

One outstanding example, I think, very much captures the atmosphere and level of invention that runs throughout the production.  A standard chair-stacking act is set at an elegant dinner table around which are seated several characters whom we have seen earlier in the show.  As Alexey Puzyryov begins building his tower of chairs, the lighting draws our attention to the top of the tent where we see an exact replica of the scene below, hanging upside down from the ceiling.  The mirror image continues.  As Puzyryov climbs higher the chairs above are “stacked” in a descending pile, creating a mind blowing image that causes the audience to react with a roar of delighted surprise.

This show’s version of the Russian cradle is presented as if it were being staged in a 19th Century street fair or carnival.  Anne Weissbecker’s aerial act is performed on a revolving bicycle instead of a standard trapeze.  A rola bola display by James Gonzalez, once he has taken care of the usual preliminaries, works on a swinging platform, adding both an element of surprise and a level of difficulty most acts like this do not convey.    Another surprise is contributed by Nico Baikas’s magnified hand puppets.

After intermission the tone changes considerably, presenting two company acts that are Cirque’s acrobatic signature.  The first takes place in a flying net stretched over the entire stage, its tension allowing the acrobats to bounce high into the air where they perform mid-air gyrations.  The second big act which closes the show is a display of banquine the likes of which we first saw and were knocked out by in Quidam.  It is no less thrilling here.  In between the Tomanov brothers who have been wandering through the proceedings as a pair of Siamese twins dressed like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, lose their cleverly devised connection and present a soaring strap act.

Throughout it all the music is an enormous source of pulse-quickening energy and irresistible rhythms that make it hard to resist tapping one’s foot.  The music has been composed by Raphaél Beau and a pair who eschews details altogether and lists themselves simply as Bob and Bill.  The musical program begins with two percussionists drumming on all sorts of funky surfaces, foreshadowing the ingenuity and inventiveness that is to come from all departments of the production.

Even the souvenir program, which is definitely worth the price, is a work of art to be savored at one’s leisure as it succeeds in recalling the show’s tongue-in-cheek grandiosity and charm in yet another inventive medium.