The Passing Spectacle Vol. III, No. 5

 A Pawn Turns Triumphant

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Almost everyone I spoke to in St. Louis during my brief stay volunteered their opinion that this was Circus Flora’s best production ever, an opinion to which I am happy to add my voice.

At the curtain call of the final Saturday night performance of Flora’s latest production The Pawn, Adam Kuchler received a roaring ovation.  That response represented a personal and singular triumph for this comedic box juggler.  That’s right a box juggler.

These are not, however, random, unrelated facts.  They are inextricably linked together, each providing the rationale and opportunity for the other.  Neither could not have occurred without the other.

In The Pawn, Kuchler portrays the title role, an inanely joyful character who fumbles his way through a game of chess in which he is ostensibly a minor player, as if he were the leading character, and as it turns out, he is.  Encouraged by narrator/writer Cecil MacKinnon’s invitation to “make something” of his [first] move, he eventually runs away with the show.  The reason is that he is the most fully realized, most artfully integrated character of any Flora show that I have ever seen.  It is an example of that rare phenomenon which occurs when part and performer come together to produce theatrical magic.

It is all the more magical given the roster of top flight circus stars that fills out the cast, in various roles beside their specialties:  The Flying Wallendas, The Flying Cortes, The St. Louis Arches, Ian Garden, Jr.’s spotted camels, the novelty hand-balancing act of Kate and Pasi, each of which also drew enthusiastic ovations after their acts and at curtain calls.  Against that line-up Kuchler still emerges as the character with whom audiences fell in love.

His opening gambit is an extended comedy classic of self-inflicted wounds and humiliations that he tries to toss off in order to save face but only manages to dig the hole he has dug for himself, deeper.    And having discovered the warming glow of the spotlight he proceeds to find himself involved more and more with each of the other acts, on one occasion at least saving it from the mundane.   Nothing dampens his sense of his own importance, as he poses and preens, shifting his weight from one hip to the other, an arm raised in supposed triumph.  When one defeat becomes inescapably obvious, one of the Arches pats him on the back, as if to say, “It’s okay.”  That little gesture summarizes our relationship with him as well.  His performance throughout is so charming and endearing that when he comes on to do his signature box-juggling act in the second half of the show we are completely on his side, but hardly expecting the level of skill, which even here is masked by comedy, that he delivers triumphantly, earning that roaring reception we spoke of earlier.

To Kuchler’s great benefit the narrative of which he is a major element is pretty clear cut, the conflicts and tensions easily apprehended and the entire story is as fully captured visually by the costuming of Nina Reed and on occasion the lighting of Christine Ferriter, as it is by the scenario devised by Cecil MacKinnon, all of which helps us to understand why it has been such a well received show.

There were three generations of Flying Wallendas on the high wire during this production, grand-daughter  Ysabella Wallenda-Cortes being the youngest at just twelve years old.  It is always a thrill to watch Tino, his children Alex, Alida and Aurelia along with recruit Trevor McNabb make their way across the wire in their trademark pyramids no matter how many times I have seen them work, but at this time I was seated next to people for whom the Wallendas were a new thrill, of the scariest kind.  The woman next to me, squirmed and tried to avert her eyes, squealing “Oh, no!” each time they picked up a new prop or started across the wire.  The appearance of the bicycles elicited a particularly terrified expression.

Also on the high wire this time was Claire Kuciejczyk-Kiernan, who a week later became Alex Wallenda’s bride.  I can’t help but wonder if she will be adding a few more hyphens to her name and become Claire Kuciejczyk-Kiernan-Wallenda-Zoppe.  Imagine a ringmaster introducing her single trap act if she does.

The Flying Cortes have added several innovations to their act, along with three women, all of which adds up to a very flashy act even as Robinson, the catcher continues to nurse a torn ligament in his wrist.  On that remarkable final Saturday night performance Alex completed the elusive triple and ended the act by bouncing off the net back into two different trapeze bars, an exuberant finale that fully captured the joy and triumph the occasion represented.

The St. Louis Arches are in something of a transitional stage, as any act based on young performers must experience, as they graduate and go on to other things.  The latest of the Arches who is about to leave is Kellin Quinn Hentoff-Killian, Jessica Hentoff’s youngest offspring.  I’ve often written about watching young performers grow up in the ring, but there is no one I have watched for as long as I have Kellin.  In early issues of Spectacle I have run photos of him, barely of school age, day-dreaming in the ring, making up with cuteness what he lacked in focus.  Today  the thing that impressed me the most about his work in the ring is that he seemed to be everywhere, tossing and catching the other Arches with non-stop energy and lazer–like focus. He is the very essence of the Arches’ most distinctive feature.  He and they are indefatigable.   Kellin is about to continue his training as a unique juggler at the Canadian National Circus School in Montreal, following his brother Keaton who will be a third year student there this year, as well.

Although there is not a “clown” per se in The Pawn, it is far from bereft of comedy, and it isn’t only Kuchler who is responsible for providing it.  One of the most delightful and amusing acts was a hand balancing act that combined some foot juggling.  This unusual combination was presented by  Duo Kate and Pasi, a young Finnish couple making their American debut.  In addition to the novel combination of skills it is set up as if Pasi, the porter of the act, were an ordinary member of the audience.  So successful is he in acting the clumsy goof and producing the broadest kind of laughter that the couple keeps the audience guessing well into their act and through some impressive displays of strength.  So here again is another example of how much a sense of character and acting skill are significant to circus performance.   Audiences seem to prefer and respond more enthusiastically to a recognizable persona than they do to an anonymous automaton who makes little or no attempt to relate to the audience.

Ian Garden, Jr. responds to the audience in quite a different way.  He knows the audience is there and does his best to engage them, even as his rare pied camels gambol about the ring in a display that would have made any troupe of liberty horses proud.  Combine the rarity of the camel’s physical appearance and Garden’s showmanship in a one ring setting and you have Circus with a capital “C.”  Garden is quick to point out that his charges are very young, almost babies at just three years of age.  He also notes that there are only forty-three of the breed in America at the present time.

Since a set of chess pieces includes a knight, S. Caleb Carinci-Asch has the perfect set-up for his bareback riding display.  By the way, at one point he actually rides bareback, sans pad of any kind.  His repertoire includes a back flip on a single horse and a second  from one horse to another.

Circus Flora prides itself on being an ensemble piece.  Some of the staff and performers, like the Wallendas, have been with the show for years.  As such there is one number that I find a special visual treat—the big juggle.  This includes as many members of the troupe who can juggle three clubs and that turns out to be a large number, including several members of the Arches, Cecil MacKinnon, herself, Jessica Hentoff and many of the Wallendas and other featured performers.

With so much in which to take delight  it is no wonder that Flora patrons enjoyed these performances so much.  There were three standing ovations for individual acts on the night I attended and another at the curtain call.  But it is the quality of the acting that has raised this show above others from the recent past.  With the addition of that theatrical imperative The Pawn more surely realizes the ambition of Flora’s founder Ivor David Balding of melding circus and theatre.  How ironic, yet fitting, that it should be with the last show he produced before his untimely passing.

 

Kelly Miller Recalls Small Town America

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Visiting the Kelly Miller Circus can sometimes seem as if you are stepping back into an earlier time in American life.  That was surely the impression I got when I saw the show in West Creek, NJ, a small town that amounts to little more than a village, located on what was once one of the major highways that took tourists from northern New Jersey and New York to Atlantic City in the shortest time possible.  As a super highway replaced that route, life more or less passed West Creek by and left it suspended in what now feels like pre-1940 America.  But this is the audience John Ringling North II feels most at home with and most dedicated to bringing the thrills and excitement of the circus to in much the same way his uncle’s version of the Greatest Show on Earth did to the largest cities in the 1950s.

Miraculously the show was crammed onto a tiny open space behind the local volunteer fire company, with modest private homes hovering about it creating the impression that the circus was  a backyard show, with a special charm and ambiance that is unmatched in most other contemporary tented circuses.

That charm is reinforced and established so firmly by the first act on the show’s bill, Ryan Holder’s display of seven tigers.   Actually the feeling of nonchalant neighborliness is established the moment one enters the big top.  The big cage is set in place and the seven tigers lie about in undisturbed contemplation as the audience gathers.  The impression left is of a pack of large house cats at their leisure dozing in the fading afternoon sun.

The cats are sent out just before the performance begins, only to return at Holder’s command, but his style of presentation does nothing to jar the pleasantries already established by the cats and their relationship to their presenter.  Twenty-seven-year-old Holder has learned to smile and take in the audience as he has matured as a performer, but there is little of the flash and sparkle that so many other presenters are at such pains to produce.  Instead he projects a boyish charm with which it is easy to be completely at ease.

He uses no props in the act so it moves along very expeditiously, the animals responding to the merest cue, jumping, rolling and eventually walking or bounding on their hind legs.  It is a very pleasant presentation that makes the tigers more sympathetic than terrifying.

Holder is followed quickly once the cage is disposed of by a pair of Mongolian contortionists, Amina & Zaia.  The young women move gracefully through their choreography, and although little that they do is extraordinary, little West Creek is seeing an act that is rightfully billed as “First Time in America.”

Juggler Nicolas Souren is up next.  Dressed in nothing more showy than a pair of jeans and assisted by a young woman whose styling is a bit self-conscious, Souren makes his way through five balls and clubs, and six rings, ending with eight rings which he neatly collects around his neck.  Once again here is an act presented with little or no flash, but  briskly paced and impressively sure-handed.

That missing flash is provided for in spades by Carolyn Rice and her spectacularly dressed menagerie of llamas, goats and dogs.  This act has a comic patriotic theme enlivened by the llama dressed as Uncle Sam and a goat as the Statue of Liberty, both of which are weirdly and comically effective in their impersonations.  The canine element keeps the pacing fast and furious.

We are next introduced to a human clown John Sayre who works under the moniker J.P. Ballyhoo.  Bulked up to exaggerated proportions he presents a spoof of the strong man act.   Sayre has been trained by Kelly Miller’s departed star clowns Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs.  Their hand is quite evident in both his props and moves.  He now needs to become his own clown.

It is interesting that the little girl seated across the aisle from me was terrified of the clown and crawled into the security of her mother’s arms, burying her head in the woman’s bosom.  But so far from intimidating or frightening was Sayre’s performance that on his second appearance the girl was able to sit in her own chair and even manage to watch without even a hint of a tear.

Fridman Torales’ chair stacking act continues the pleasantries thanks to an easy to follow  mise-en-scene and his convincing acting  as he tries to reach his son’s balloon which keeps escaping his outreached hand and requires the addition on another chair.  But it wasn’t only Torales’ acting that impressed me, the young boy who played his son provided the motivation his father needed to keep climbing higher.

John Ringling North II’s  one obvious attempt at recreating his uncle’s kind of spectacle is an aerial ballet titled “The Carousel Waltz,” utilizing music from the soundtrack of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musica Carousel.  The props and the décor as well as the costumes carry out the theme quite well, but three or four web girls do not make a very dramatic impact.   But they are only there to support Rebecca Ostroff who works on silks in the center.   The act was devised and developed by Danny and Tavana Brown, the latter also being responsible for the impressive costuming of the elephant number and the finale.

Raul Olivares, who has been promoted to performance director despite the fact that he speaks nary a word of English is a long-standing favorite with Kelly Miller.  His wind-up toy elephant (or El Tore on alternate years) is a sure-fire comedy favorite that is both disarmingly dear and amazing and as a result never fails to amuse.

Ball bouncer Abrham Gebre had just arrived from Ethiopia when I caught the show, another victim of the prodigiously slow immigration department.  This is easily the best human act in the show, whose novelty must surely impress small town America as much as his skill impressed me.  He ends his act with an innovation that was new to me as well.  He incorporates a free standing ladder into his juggling routine.  Here is another act that JRN II can boast as being “First Time in America.”

Rebecca returned for a solo flight on the single trapeze ending in the classic iron jaw swivel.

Thanks to the French Foreign Legion theme of the mixed exotic display, Mike Rice’s Legionaire’s cap was able to mask his stoic visage.  But for some can-can girls wearing the worst costumes in the show, the display was quite sparkling and good looking in all respects, mixing camels and zebras.

In his second solo entrée clown John Sayre had practiced all the right moves and is helped by some good looking props but he can’t sell it, which tells us something about clowning.  Dressed as a fisherman he ends up being eaten by a fish.

From time immemorial elephants have meant circus to audiences across America whether in small towns or large cities, and here they are presented and routined by Armando Loyal in classic, fast paced style.  The act is nicely dressed by a set of dazzling costumes that help provide a touch of glamour.

The concluding act is usually Lamount’s fire-breathing display of volcanic proportions.  But the local fire department would not allow open flames, so he substituted a display of juggling light wands and orbs, which ultimately managed to produce a rather surprisingly effective kaleidoscopic effect, sending the West Creek audiences home with plenty to talk about.

It all adds up to a pleasantly diverting and at times startlingly entertaining circus designed for small towns that could just as well please audiences in more metropolitan venues.

 

Circo Hermanos Vazquez  Geared to Hispanic Audiences, But Entertains All

by Kim Campbell

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On a rainy Tuesday night in Chicago, families began to arrive at a large lot on 26th street just as the sun began to go down.  They were greeted by a big pink and blue circus tent packed with all of the usual circus fare; popcorn, candy, programs, blinking toys and churros. It was time for the all-Spanish speaking big top circus that has been growing since it began on a ranch in 1969.

Circo Hermanos Vazquez is from Mexico with two divisions in America (East and West coasts). The East Coast tour currently has set up their tent in the primarily Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen on the south side of Chicago. They will be performing from July 4th to August 3rd before heading off to Atlanta, Georgia.

The show was a traditional circus affair, with a few bonuses, such as a live orchestra playing on a cleverly constructed elevated platform above and behind the performers, a state of the art lighting system, a careful blend of art acts versus thrill acts and a Latin flair for costuming which was evident throughout the production.

Aldo & Juan Vazquez looked dapper in their black ringmaster costumes with silver buttons as they ushered on Ballet Hermanoz Vazques, a group of dancers in the Vegas showgirl tradition who swooped down glamorously to escort the international cast into the ring.  A hula hoop solo routine by Alexa Vazquez was the first official act, followed by an aerial motorcycle and trapeze duo that was suitably daring. After that it was a blur of one exciting performance after another, including acrobatic dog stunts by the Familia Pompeyo, a talented young diabolo soloist from Germany named David Confal,  and a foot juggler from the Czech Republic named Klaudie Legronova Bremlov.

The accomplished Klaus Dieter’s black and white Arabian liberty horses arrived in the ring alone at first like a wild herd and were soon joined by Klaus who conducted their beautifully choreographed dance. Then there was Extreme Swing, an exciting Russian swing routine that involved performers leaping through hoops on to a vertical net. There was a contortionist group named Trio Bellisimo comprised of nimble ladies from Ukraine, and a flying trapeze act with several shocking feats performed to the neck-craning audience’s amazement.  Intertwined between all of these well-paced performances were the highly amusing antics of a couple of classic clowns, Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs from the USA. Steve & Ryan are incidentally blogging their tour with this circus. (steveandryan.blogspot.com).

More clowning was provided after the brief intermission, by the Chilean clown Carmelo, playing a drunk interloper, who arrived in the stands and broke up all of ringmaster Aldo’s attempts to go on with the show until Carmelo had his own chance to perform.

In all respects, Circo Hermanos Vazquez is a stylish, high-tech, and well-paced production that did not disappoint.

 

Kim Campbell is a freelance writer and circus enthusiast who lives in Chicago.  Although her only circus art involves juggling three balls poorly, she has grown fond of the circus ever since her children took it up years ago and speak of nothing else.  Other topics she likes to write about are food, fitness, the arts and travel. To read more about her adventures in Chicago, her blog can be found at blog.kimzyn.com or  follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kimzyn