The Passing Spectacle, Judy Finelli Vol. III, No. 6

Where There’s Smoke . . .

Circus Automatic’s “In the Tree of Smoke”

by JudyFinelli


Circus Automatic is a San Francisco-based company that previously performed at the unpretentious Sons of Cayuga Circus Space. For this production, it rented the Great Star Theatre in the City’s renowned Chinatown. For audiences who have grown weary of eye-candy shows devoid of meaningful content, this show offers bountiful food for thought. Along with communicating something vital, Circus Automatic treated their audience to a smorgasbord of top-level circus art. I define “top-level” as acts displaying technical excellence, featuring rarely-seen tricks, or showing originality of presentation. In the Tree of Smoke, which has been produced and directed by Fleeky Flanco, exhibits all three, despite its modest ticket price. The show makes up for what it lacks in budget and special effects by its creativity.

The “set” is composed of rows of shiny black balloons attached to a black curtain. This underscores both subtlety and inventiveness. The balloons are surprisingly effective. Beginning with Fleeky Flanco’s triumphal entrance riding in a shopping cart to Chloe Axelrod’s tour-de-force aerial cerceau, the audience is confronted with the reality of the endangered state of circus art in San Francisco. In fact, the program notes inform the audience how frustrating it feels to perform a difficult circus act for a modern, jaded audience. In this milieu, performing circus art becomes a subversive act of defiance. This show serves as a wake for a San Francisco that has vanished and been replaced by million dollar condos. The impermanence of the set contributes to the disconcerting mood.

The show begins with a full-screen Japanese anime video clip that establishes the theme. A winged, pre-teen female creature in a dystopian civilization controlled by storm-troopers is injured. Her freedom is lost because she can no longer fly. Two friends, disguised as storm-troopers, find her, inject her with a healing serum, and drive her to the edge of town, freeing her to fly away. This theme is echoed by the circus artists who long to fly in a city that no longer values art.

Fleeky Flanco immediately establishes a dialogue between performer and audience that reverberates throughout and is sustained by the other performers. His contortion-barrel act elicits surprised gasps and laughter from the audience. He achieves an especially high degree of rapport with his audience as they respond to tiny facial expressions and gestures. Audience and performer train one another.

For her segment, “Dreams Like Blood,” Katie Scarlett mines her subconscious memories as she features her impressive beyond-the-splits flexibility on aerial straps. Her facial focus is inward as she draws you into her psyche. Her costume of red and black is extremely effective because her legs in red tights seem to extend to infinity. Scarlett’s flexibility and strength alternate as she wraps and unwraps herself in the aerial apparatus. This act requires a high-degree of stamina which Katie displays effortlessly. The music by The Chromatics adds depth to this excursion into the unconscious.

“Better Use of Leisure Time,” features Chloe Axelrod watching TV. She uses this potentially mind-numbing activity to explore the wooden chair she sits on. She serpentinely slithers around it, balancing and contorting upon it, proving that circus artists use every available moment, never wasting a second.

Inka Siefker would have been dubbed a true contortionist back in the days when the term was reserved only for those performers who could actually touch their hips to their head in an extreme backbend handstand. Displaying flexibility wasn’t enough back then. Such performers were referred to as “close benders.” Besides incorporating twisting movements a la the African contortionist tradition into her act, Siefker performs a trick that is at least 3000 years old: from a handstand in which she exhibits an extreme backbend, she draws a bow and arrow with her toes, aims, and shoots a target. She also accomplishes a Marinelli Bend on cobra-shaped mouthpiece, holding it for a few seconds. I look forward to her eventually combining the two tricks and shooting the bow and arrow while in the Marinelli Bend. I have never seen an American do this. I once saw a young North Vietnamese woman rehearsing this at the Moscow Circus School in 1970. She indicated to me that working on the trick was quite painful. Ms. Siefker named her act “Poison,” and I wondered if she envisioned the arrow tip dipped in poison.

Although there are no clowns per se in the show, a moment of inspired madness erupted as Chloe Axelrod, Bree Rock, and Katie Scarlett orchestrated a live send-up of the perennial movie house song: “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.” The three women, dressed as a sandwich, soda can, and popcorn bag, dance as they signal intermission.

Another leitmotif, besides the transformation of San Francisco from a bohemian city of poor, struggling artists into an upscale metropolis of multi-millionaires, is an observation about the space program. In the 60s when I was a teenager, I sensed that as a nation, the space program, culminating in the moon landing, was a profoundly transformational event. Our dreams became wrapped up in the possibilities of space travel beyond the moon. Who knows what we might have discovered? Would we have found out that in our universe there are other beings? Would we have discovered other universes beyond our own? In the end, Kennedy’s beloved space program was starved by the choice to expend enormous sums on warfare, and our collective dreams as a nation were dashed. Today, the 1% can well afford to dream, but the rest of us need to concentrate on mere survival. Circus performers purvey dreams, bestow poetry, and reveal to audiences the potential of humanity – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Bree Rock does what at first appears to be a straight-ahead, wry burlesque as a sweetly sexy crawfish complete with red claws for arms and sparkly red costume. Bree turns the tables on the act as she crosses the line into performance-art territory. She sings a plaintive, experimental lament of the plight of the lonely crawfish, using “Fishergirl Intro” by Benjamin Baruch Ambrose; “Crawfish” by Fred Wise and Ben Weisman, performed by Elvis Presley and Kitty White; and “Sunday Morning,” composed and performed by herself as the soundtrack. I had never imagined what it must be like to be a crustacean before, but Ms. Rock‘s sensitive delivery compelled me to consider what it would be like for a crawfish among millions of other crawfish – to bemoan her fate and support the notion of the circus artist as an endangered species.

Micah Walters provides a pivotal balance to the evening with his acrobatic dance to music by world renowned composer Brian Crain. He reinterprets the old vaudeville acrobatic dance genre, turning it into part modern dance and part free-floor gymnastic exercise. Through his controlled movements, fluidity, flexibility, and grace he creates a rarified mood of meditation and liberation. The quality of his style is unique. Many have attempted, but no one else has succeeded in unifying abstraction with concrete technical skill in this way. The audience is pulled out of itself and into his spellbinding suspension of time.

Flanco reappears, as he serves as anchor for the evening, with the skelly barrel – an apparatus he conceived and designed. This skeletal device does multiple duty as it can be used as a Klischnigg barrel, mini German gym wheel, unstable hand-balancing prop, and means of locomotion across the stage, all aspects which Flanco explores. The hand-balancing capability of the apparatus is particularly effective because the prop rolls, necessitating constant corrections in order to stay inverted.

Flanco also performs a hand-balancing segment on stacks of blocks. The surprise at the end – a one-armed handstand on an end-to-end stack of blocks becomes a cliff-hanger as Fleeky uses his free arm to break away the blocks and land on the table in an arms plié. His equilibristic skills symphonize the entire show.

Fulfilling the old adage, “think globally, act locally,” In the Tree of Smoke brings the evening close to home with an ode to troubled performer/director Tim Barsky. Chloe Axelrod, on aerial hoop, performs a moving, sustained display of flexibility, timing, and sinewy grace, integrated using her signature ability to substitute fluidity for stop-motion positioning. Using Barsky’s original music, she transmits a message of compassion and gratitude, hoping to reach him through a vibrating universe. Circus artists revere those, such as Barsky, who share their almost-religious faith in the transcendence of their art form.

One could fault the production for attempting to say too much; however, having seen so many circuses that say too little – with the exception of the Cranes – I welcomed, with open arms, this show for having the zeal and hutzpah to reflect the realities of life in 21st century San Francisco. The packed houses and enthusiastic applause generated by this show convinced me I was not alone.


Hatchery of Talent: 

Circus Bella’s Here We Go!

by Judy Finelli


Circus Bella appears in Abraham Dover’s “Picklewater Free Circus Festival” each summer in Union Square. I caught Circus Bella, directed by David Hunt, Abigail Munn with guest director Sara Moore,  there right in the heart of downtown San Francisco surrounded by a plethora of upscale establishments – Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, the Cheese Cake Factory, et al. Circus Bella’s gift to the people of San Francisco of a free circus  at first seemed dwarfed by these commercialized surroundings . But once the warm-up started, these edifices took a backseat to the action in and around the ring. The performers’ charivari exploded with enough energy to more than compete with the environmental distractions.

It might be difficult for some people to understand what a nonprofit is exactly. The term “nonprofit” simply means that no one owns the circus. The circus can receive tax-deductible donations, and contrary to popular belief, it must also pay taxes. The Big Apple Circus, the Lone Star Circus, and Cirque du Soleil are all nonprofits, whereas most circuses in America are for-profit entities. If not for the nonprofit world, these three circuses would probably not exist in their present forms – and this free show by Circus Bella would not have been performed for the homeless, drug addicts, disadvantaged children and their families, techies, hipsters, and high society matrons alike. San Francisco would have fewer smiles, laughs, gasps and warmth per capita. The level of energy needed to get the show going with the charivari gives audiences a boost of adrenaline big enough to take home with them.

The Prescott Theater returns again this year and launches the show into a high-energy display of African-inspired, breakneck stilt-dancing. The kids are as adept on single stilts as they are on two, and are utterly fearless in their joy.

Small but mighty, the Bella cast serves up a well-rounded, hour-long show with enough pizzazz and flair to please all ages. Everyone appears in the aforementioned charivari, tearing into pyramids, acrobatics, juggling and whimsy by equal turns. This sets the unabashedly upbeat and infectious tone and the spirit of the show.

One performer, Orlene Gentile, a veteran of Circus Bella, alternates for some dates with her Gentile Family of Risley/antipodist acrobats. The show I saw featured Dworia Galilea, a charming contortionist who brings new meaning to the word “limber” with her generous yet controlled classic poses. She alternately sparkles and soothes as she precariously balances on one hand or executes a yoga zigzag handstand without one false movement. The audience naturally relaxes into her hypnotic, meditative world which manages to be simultaneously cool and hot.

Natasha Kaluza returns this year wearing her purple ringmaster’s jacket from previous years’ shows, but is mysteriously conscripted into the clown act with the laconic Jamie Coventry and cheeky DeMarcello Funes. Is she sleeping or hypnotized? I couldn’t tell, but the clowns displayed skill and presence, and I found myself craving more as I suspected they had a lot more by way of clowning chops to give. I especially enjoyed DeMarcello’s hambone mime-clown act. He has developed an engaging stage presence by performing for a couple of seasons with Bella, after having started with AYCO’s Prescott Circus Theatre. His hambone act is a perfect example of the way a folk art tradition can be incorporated into a modern circus act.

The second half of the show conquers new circus territory by assimilating some traditional touches with more contemporary techniques. Incorporating Bella cofounder Abigail Munn’s classic static trapeze routine with a decidedly Gallic flavor, allows Ms. Munn to toy with the audience, eliciting oohs and ahhs from children who dream of becoming aerialists and alarmed gasps from adults who think they know better than to leave terra firma.

David Hunt, the other Bella cofounder, keeps the show’s equilibrium on track with his slack rope apparatus, displaying a debonair spirit throughout. His smile mirrors the smiles of the entire company – in that they are genuine, unforced, and unselfconscious.

Natasha Kolusa returns for her over-the-top hula hoop act which has enough suspense, timing, skill and showmanship to bring down the house and raise the excitement level. She somehow manages, by downplaying the sexuality usually played up by other hula hoop artists. By virtue of her persona, she magically transforms into a celebration of healthy, strong, and even liberated sensuality.  It’s a type of a study in “how to be scintillating without really trying.” She plays it straight throughout, projecting a natural, innocent sexuality, instead of merely “trying to be sexy.” Her act just keeps improving. It has the look of an act that is constantly being cared for and improved. Her act is deservedly an audience favorite.

Fresh addition to the show, Ross Travis, wisely uses Circus Bella as an opportunity to perform his Chinese pole act. This was a first for Circus Bella and it must be noted that, traditionally, Chinese pole is usually performed by a group. While one or two people perform on the pole, the other acrobats get a breather. Since the act demands enormous energy, this breather is necessary. Undaunted, Ross tackles the pole act head-on, in spite of his attempts to conceal his vigorous efforts. Ross will tour Fringe Festivals in Edmonton and Vancouver with his “World’s Greatest Monkey Show” this August through September, performing as an almost-human chimpanzee while cavorting on Chinese pole, hoops, and tricycle. There is wisdom in doing the solo pole act neutrally first before performing it in simian character for the tour.

The show closes with a “big juggle” as did the Pickle Family Circus and Circus Flora still does. It is a company act in which just about everyone passes clubs in various formations culminating in a big “feed.” With all the new style juggling permutations, the notion of a big juggle seems old-fashioned and almost quaint in light of all the changes that the world of juggling has undergone in the last decade. It can now be considered an endangered species. I always appreciate attempts to revive it.

I cannot overstress the importance of circuses such as Circus Bella. They provide performers such as Ross Travis and DeMarcelo Funes a home for applying the skills acquired through years of intense study, transforming them into original circus acts. Besides doing this, Bella also has an important apprentice program. This year 15-year old Keinan Woodson, a sophomore at the Oakland School for the Arts, got his first taste of professional circus life. Keinan began circus classes with the Prescott Circus Theatre when he was in the 4th and 5th grades of Prescott’s Satellite Program at Parker Elementary School. For Bella he performs a brief rola-bola interlude with a hoop, and it is clear from his amazed expression that he is delighted to have his moment to shine. Circus Bella allows performers like Keinan to realize their dreams. By providing this opportunity, Bella is inventing the future of circus art. Thanks to their foresight, both the circus community and Bay Area audiences benefit.

Bella’s jazz band consisted of Rob Reich – director/composer/accordion/guitar; Michael Pinkham – percussion/drums; Ralph Carney – saxophone/reeds; Ian Carey – Trumpet; and Greg Stephens – trombone.



Life, Death, Love, and Fooling Around On and Off Mount Olympus

Circus Center’s

Cabaret Metamorphoses: Tales from Arachne’s Web

by Judy Finelli

The idea of combining a 2000 year old poem with circus skills, dance, music, and singing might sound odd. After all, what could an ancient poem have to say to us in the 21st century?  As it turns out, Circus Center’s adaptation of selections from Ovid’s epic poem, The Metamorphoses, first published in 8 CE, plays beautifully for a modern audience. Add a professional creative staff, an inspired and inspiring director, choreographer, and composer, mix in some professional performers, sprinkled with a cast of gifted recreational students, and the results are stunning.

This production, directed by Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva,  is significant to me for many reasons. In my acting-school days I was told that only beginning actors or experienced actors are fearless enough to take risks during a production. In order to take those risks, one must have absolute trust in one’s director, the other cast members, and in the process itself. Or else the result is failure. For the cast of Cabaret Metamorphoses this trust was palpable;  the performers were unselfconscious, and the results complex, multilayered, and transformational. It is an authentic ensemble and gestalt in which the end-result is greater than the sum of its parts. After all, metamorphoses is a synonym for transformations. The characters are in the process of becoming.

In order to bring this world to life, the gym at Circus Center, which looks nearly as ancient as Ovid’s poem, needed to be transformed as well as the characters. A plethora of multi-colored aerial tissus were hung at different angles around the gym. This didn’t exactly give the gym a facelift, but it did camouflage some of the worst age spots.

The show opens with a violinist, Arachne, movingly portrayed by Jane Wong. A mortal and an accomplished spinner on the loom, she weaves a beautiful tapestry, proving her superior artistry. She calls out to the gods for recognition, but they do not acknowledge mortals’ achievements. She specifically invokes Jupiter, a philandering god who seduces young maidens. Though she recognizes Arachne’s artistry, Athena, the goddess of the loom, challenges Arachne to a weaving contest. Arachne performs an aerial tissue act which symbolizes her weaving. Becoming enraged out of jealousy when she loses to Arachne, the goddess condemns her to a life as a lowly spider. Arachne and the rest of her species must weave their webs as eternal punishment. Arachne’s spinning is the metaphor for this spinning of tales, symbolizing all of the other poignant tales selected from Ovid’s classic poem.  Erica Saben played Athena in this section.

Noe Zavala plays Teresias, an unlucky mortal who runs afoul of Juno, the queen of the gods. Zavala wears a long flowing white costume with black skull cap and moves as a traditional Pierrot. Through encounters with snakes he’s transformed into a woman and then to a man again. Juno and Jupiter argue whether men or women enjoy sex more. Teresias tries to be diplomatic but grudging concludes that women do. Jupiter agrees, but Juno is enraged and strikes him blind. Jupiter ameliorates the curse by giving him the ability to predict the future. His metamorphosis is particularly humiliating as he becomes stripped of his elegant mime attire and e-cigarette, revealing a diaper enhanced by Zavala’s anguished vulnerability. Teresias is condemned to wander the world as a blind seer.

Lauren Hlubny, appears as the water nymph, Echo, and Ron Oppenheimer is Narcissus, in the famous tale of a beautiful youth who rejects the love of both men and women alike. Teresias, the seer, prophesies that Narcissus will live a long life provided that he never truly knows himself. Echo, spies him and immediately falls in love. Oppenheimer eloquently conveys the pathos of Narcissus trying to embrace his own image reflected in a pool of water and drowning as a result. His rejection of Echo compels her to waste away, leaving only her plaintive voice, echoing the voices of passersby.

Jupiter spies one of the virgin goddess Diana’s followers named Callisto and is overcome with lust. He disguises himself as Diana and rapes Callisto, who bears Jupiter a son. Juno, enraged at Jupiter’s infidelity, turns Callisto into a bear – here a performing bear on a rolling globe. Juno ends by turning the poor girl into a constellation, immortalizing her. Lyra Levin effectively expresses Callisto’s lost innocence and misery as a bear that longs for human contact.

In the myth of Pygmalion, Leo Harris is a Cypriot sculptor so offended by the prostitution of some women that he swears off all women. He sculpts a statue of marble, played by Ariyana La Fey, that is so beautiful he falls in love with it. His loneliness impels him to implore Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to send him a wife as beautiful as his statue. His wish is granted beyond his imagining, because when he touches the statue, it comes to life. The marble is melted and so is his heart. The love they feel for each other is believably projected. This is what acting is all about.

Steven Delaney’s Hermaphroditus is so beautiful he catches the attention of Marina Mendoza as the water nymph, Salmacis. When he plunges into a pool of water she inhabits, the nymph wraps the youth in an embrace from which he cannot escape. She implores the gods to keep them together forever. The gods, grant her wish, and fuse them together, creating a two-sexed being. Using acrobatic language the performers passionately convey the complex plight of this conjoined pair.

Felicity Hesed as Juno, and Nicolas Strubbe as Jupiter play the couple as wildly dysfunctional. Angry housewife Felicity is a Phyllis Schlafly-inspired virago delightfully obsessed with putting up appearances and overlooking the serial philandering of her husband. Strubbe plays the king of the gods as a huckster-on-the-make: immature, clueless and controlled by his desires. He puts up with his shrewish wife, and plays along, while unsuccessfully deceiving her at every turn. These two are priceless and fun to watch as they jockey for power. Always fascinating, one thinks they deserve each other as they struggle to juggle their offspring – literally.

Iphis, played by Erica Saben, and Ianthe, played by Ariyana La Fey, are two girls in love. Even in the ancient world it would have been a problem for two women to have married. This is further complicated because one of them has no idea the other is a woman. The ignorant Ianthe excitedly prepares for a wedding as Iphis nervously tries to convey a male persona. The goddess Isis aids the union by transforming Iphis into a youth. The two end up blissfully living together. Erica and Ariyana affectingly portray the complexity of this tale without a hint of disingenuousness.

Philomela, movingly played by Sylvia Bryant, is raped by her brother-in-law, Steven Delaney as Tereus, who tells her sister, Procne (Lyra Levin), he will bring Philomela to her. Instead, as they travel through the forest, he forces her into a cabin, rapes her, and cuts out her tongue so she cannot communicate what has happened, then abandons her in the forest. Sylvia and Steven hold an end of a blood red aerial silk, whipping each other in large circles at a breakneck pace, conveying the violence of the scene. Philomela weaves a tapestry depicting her rape and mutilation and sends it to her sister. Procne exacts an unspeakable revenge: she kills their son, cooks him, and serves him to Tereus. Discovering what has been done, he goes mad. The sisters escape by becoming birds. And you thought “Silence of the Lambs” was terrifying.

This was an ambitious project, painstakingly assembled. There were a lot of circus techniques employed throughout: aerial tissu, acrobatics, tight wire, juggling, etc. None of this appeared gratuitous, but was seamlessly blended into the production, enhancing the emotional arc, rather than taking focus away from the characters. Kathryn Mederos Syossyeva, the director, gives the cast as well as herself credit for devising the production. All participants therefore owned it and shared in its success. Congratulations must be proffered to Kathryn for creating the atmosphere in which this level of work could be achieved. The acting attempted in other circus/theater collaborations is often not so much acting as it is indicating the emotions achieved, but this production is so successful because – through the biomechanics of Meyerhold – the performers use movement as an aid to reaching the necessary emotions. It works beautifully. And everyone involved deserves the credit for this singular achievement.

Once a circus “reinvents circus,” what is left to do? In its second year, Cirque du Soleil, with the show “Nouvelle Experience,” continued with its thematic subversion of social mores as it sent up global corporatization in which the circus performer exists as the antithesis of regimented conformity. After that, Cirque’s shows might be set in the microscopic world of insects, a pirate lagoon, primordial ooze, or a clown’s funeral, but the shows steered clear of those two original shows’ meaningful content. Russia’s act, The Cranes, proved that a circus act could be used to express the grand themes: Life, Death, War, and Spirituality. But these themes have not been explored by the world’s largest circus, and I have always wondered why. The Cranes brought the house down whenever I saw them. So simply saying audiences don’t want to think that hard doesn’t hold true. In the Tree of Smoke and Cabaret Metamorphoses, two circuses with something important to say were unqualified successes. I hope this trend will continue to blossom.

The musicians for Cabaret Metamorphoses were cello – Dan Lesser, saw – Hilary Von Joo, violin – Jane Wong, Felicity Hesed, flute – Ariyana La Fey, brass – Erica Saben and hand bells – Pheonix Paz.

Barry Kendall is the executive director of the Circus Center.