The Passing Spectacle Vol. III , No. 8

The 7 Fingers Company Continues to Refine

its Recipe for New Circus

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Sidney IKing Bateman in Cuisine and Confessions.

 

Cuisine and Confessions. Presented by Les 7 Doights de la Main (My Hand has Seven Fingers, or known simply as the 7 Fingers Company).  Directed by Shana Carroll and Sebastien Soldevila.

As its title makes clear there are two parts to the 7 Fingers’ new production Cuisine and Confessions. The confessions come in the form of monologues or soliloquies and their subject is invariably food.  There is some food prepared during the course of the performance as well, and that might account for the cuisine, but for me the real treats here are not of the edible sort but rather those derived from circus skills.  Ultimately, if one were to take away the monologues what remains is a rather good circus.

As far as the monologues go, I must confess to being at somewhat of a disadvantage, since the premiere performance which I caught in Montreal was, for the most part, spoken in French.  But judging by the body language, the vocal performance and the audience reaction they come across as being rather self-conscious, as if the speakers were asking, “What am I doing here in the middle of a circus, talking about my mother’s omelets or a mentor’s banana bread?”  This was confirmed by a couple of monologues delivered in English, which I, of course, understood completely.  (The cast is multi-ethnic and each person spoke in his native language.  In addition to French and English there was another in Spanish.) The subject is generally the significance of food and the partaking of it in our personal lives.  This is conveyed by words rather than acrobatics.  At the performance’s climax, the two are intermingled,  verbal sections alternating with acrobatics, but even this attempt fails to make a unified whole of the show’s two parts.

The setting is a well equipped, practical kitchen that includes a refrigerator and working oven, out of which pops a serving of the aforementioned banana bread.  Other monologues whose subject I was able to guess concerned the creation of the Waldorf salad, and family gatherings around the kitchen table for food, and talk of football and politics.   Another extended verbal section seemed to be a spoof of a TV cooking show

There is some attempt to make use of kitchen implements insofar as circus is concerned.  Pablo Pramparo, who moves through the performance with the grace and choreographed moves of a dancer, does some fast-paced juggling of several large whisks and a large stainless steel bowl.  In another attempt to integrate the setting into the acrobatics, a kitchen tablecloth is pressed into service for some not very interesting work on what amounts to corde lisse.  The most interesting aspect of the setting is the way in which several pieces of furniture function like cleverly designed nesting dolls.

This concept, mixing soliloquies and acrobatics, is very similar to that which the company employed in Traces, for which Shana Carroll was also the co-director.  That show became an international hit and enjoyed an extended run off-Broadway in New York, but by then the verbal part of the performance was considerably under-played.

Once the speaking is dismissed, there are the acrobatic displays, some of which are quite thrilling on several levels.  For one thing the show certainly makes a star out of Sidney IKing Bateman and to a lesser extent Melvin Diggs, both of whom are products of Jessica Hentoff’s St. Louis Arches, acrobatic troupe.    They have several extended solo segments that display extraordinary hoop diving and diabolo skills.  In addition they also stand out in the choreographed acrobatic ensemble work that otherwise dominates the performance.

A workout on a Chinese pole by Matias Paul  is one of the featured acts.  Coming near the end of the show his acrobatic segments are broken up by extended sections of monologue delivered on whatever little breath the artist still has in him after each riff of exhausting physical work on the pole.

Another act, which I have seen before continues to puzzle me;  in it two young men, Mishannock Ferrero and Emile Pineault, perform a most aggressive form of hand to hand balancing.  It is the act’s subtext that continues to baffle me, as it seems sexually charged with sado/masochism.

Other than these notable performances, there really are not many other individual acts although the group acrobatics and dance moves are beautifully integrated creating continual visual interest, even at times inserting persons from the audience into the activity. Much of the acrobatics involves banquine style throws and catches.   I really liked the continually evolving choreography a great deal, producing the same kind of visual interest as a kaleidoscope.  Here two distinct arts, dance and acrobatics, are merged into one unique form in a way that is never possible with the verbal and acrobatic.

I’ll take the cuisine.  Leave the confessions to your priest (or whomever).

 

The Golden Dragon Acrobats Spruce Up

Traditional Chinese Circus Acts

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There was a time when a visiting troupe of Chinese acrobats had us in complete awe with their display of jaw-dropping skills that seemed to balance on the very edge of impossibility.  Today, thanks to the Chinese government’s more open relations with the West we have seen many amazing troupes of Chinese acrobats in Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the Big Apple Circus , and others.  As a result we have become quite used to watching the incredible skills of these artists in displays of traditional Chinese skill sets.  Thanks to this new level of familiarity the Chinese acrobats may be suffering a bit from overexposure.

Chinese acrobats are trained from a very early age to be proficient in all the basic circus arts: acrobatics, contortion, juggling.  More often than not they perform as members of an ensemble.  Solo work is relatively rare for a Chinese circus performer,  but for the exceptionally talented and physically gifted.  These soloists usually present  traditional set pieces like contortion while balancing up to five chandeliers of crystal glasses, foot juggling, and displays of extraordinary strength and physical control.  But as members of a troupe these specialists  will also show up in several of the ensemble pieces just as they do, for instance, in the Golden Dragon Acrobats show Cirque Ziva, presented by the New Victory Theater on West 42nd Street, New York City, as its month-long, holiday treat.

There are only four soloists in the current show.  Most are ensemble pieces, featuring various artists in short featured spots.   This reflects the Chinese culture which values the community over the individual.  It is still a Communist country after all and has been for a very long time, during which the cultivation of circus arts took their present form.

Although the show curtain is decorated with traditional art work featuring serpentine dragons, and the costuming are similarly traditional, the show has been spruced up with bright colors on the clothes, dramatic lighting effects and music which often puts one in mind of the new wave music favored by Cirque du Soleil

The performance opens with an ensemble number in which the cast is seen riding and manipulating a variety of what I shall call “wheelies”: German wheels and Cyr wheels in various sizes.  From there we move quickly to another ensemble piece in which six women, wearing foot long finger extensions line up one behind the other to create a living replica of a many-armed goddess.  Although their movements are confined to their arms and fingers ,the effect  is quite striking visually.

Continuing the ensemble manner of presentation four young women perform  an act of choreographed contortion on a raised platform.  They quickly give way to the first soloist, Ping Gao who begins her performance by executing a standing split.  When her leg is raised above her head she places a chandelier of crystal glasses on the sole of her upturned foot and then folds herself  into a full back bend.  She then proceeds to perform various acrobatic moves all the while maintaining the chandelier in its original position.

This is a classic act of Chinese acrobatics and is the one that usually makes a star of its performer.  There is not the slightest trace of strain or effort in all of this which concludes with Gao balancing five chandeliers, one in each hand, foot and the fifth on her forehead, easily the most remarkable act in the show.

She is followed by four women who display another sort of balance, holding in their mouths a short stick on which a second stick is balanced point to point.   Of course it is never enough in Chinese acrobatic practice to merely maintain the balance while walking about, the women soon twist themselves through an assortment of acrobatic moves, none of which disturbs their delicate balance.

The second soloist is Zhi Yang who performs a short piece on a shortened version of a Chinese pole.  I found this act  not particularly arresting visually or skill wise.

Another of the classic Chinese acts brings the male ensemble back for some fast paced hoop diving.  It is all accomplished with impressive alacrity and rising  (both literally  and figuratively) difficulty.  Here is one of the examples in which the growing ubiquity of the Chinese has diminished the effect of all this somewhat.  There is a Chinese acrobat in one of the Ringling units whose final dive is nothing short of breathtaking.

A group of women next present a display of juggling, using soccer ball sized orbs.  This ingenious and amusingly staged act soon gives way to three women who manipulate the same sized balls working in the risley position.  Ultimately, an unnamed soloist bounces one of the balls up the steps of a long pole with a basketball-like hoop at its top, working her way through the steps with amazing speed and accuracy before she sinks the ball in the hoop.

A charming, but  brief, bit of hat juggling provides the nearest the show comes to a comic change of pace. This quickly gives way to the company’s men free wheeling  about on what amounts to unicycles without posts or seats.  Not only do they jump from one such wheel to another while both are in motion but they finally jump over several bodies to get to the second wheel,  something I don’t remember having seen before.  As a finale to the first half of the program the men jump rope in mounting complications while on wheels.  This group handles this particular skill more efficiently than another group of Chinese, apparently a second level unit, that appeared with the Big Apple Circus a few years back.

A more recent addition to the repertoire of Chinese acrobatics is the art of rope spinning to which, of course, are added acrobatic moves complicating the difficulty and raising the level of expertise and the enjoyment of watching the men pull it all off.

The most unusual segment of the show, and something I have never seen in a show like this places two featured acts, Ya Ru Wang on silks and two unspecified men performing hand to hand  balancing next to each other on the same stage at the same time, to the benefit of neither.  As it turns out neither act is particularly accomplished.  Perhaps that is why they were placed in such a close juxtaposition.

Another of the traditional acts with which we tend to associate Chinese acrobats is foot juggling.  Here it is performed by soloist Ya Nan Hou, who first works expertly with a large bowl and finally a small table.

One of the more charming ensemble numbers was presented by seven female members of the ensemble in a display of diabolo juggling that was appealing in all aspects.

For me Hui Yuan Zhui’s  tower of chairs was something of an anti-climax as  his work in this kind of act was neither  novel  nor acrobatically impressive, all of which was undercut by his begging the audience for a response.

Once the stage was cleared it was back to the most traditional, but popular of Chinese acts, the lion dance, saltos over waving flags and finally the entire ensemble aboard a single bicycle, ending with the snapping of fans as a final salute to tradition and the Western audience.

 

 Seven Champions Combine to Create a Show

360 Allstars at the New Victory Theatre in NYC is a 55 minute show that runs 75 minutes, the last twenty minutes of which are devoted to repetitious filler and the longest curtain call ever devised.

Those first 55 minutes are occupied with solo performances by each one of the seven member cast: Peter Sore on the BMX bike; a competition between break dancers Youssef El Toufali, aka B-Boy Super G and Jared Graham aka B-Boy Leerok; Sam Perry on the beat box; Basketball free styling (aka juggling)  by Ration Daniels; Rhys Miller on the Cyr wheel; and an extended drum solo by Gene Peterson.   The last 20 minutes are devoted to group numbers with each performer more or less repeating what he had done before now in collaboration with the others, which really adds nothing new.

The show’s title is derived from the fact that everyone in the cast is a champion in his respective field of endeavor.  Toufali won the UK B-Boy World championship; Graham, along with two others won the 2010 Hip Hop International World Dance Championship; Perry won the Perth Fringe Festival Music award for Best Music Performance in 2014.  Peterson won the Australian National Drum Play-offs; Sore is the winner of the BMX Flatlanding World Championship twice.

Each of the acts, whether solo or part of an ensemble, were given with lots of energy and showmanship and occasional flashes of  pleasant humor, but nothing that really knocked me out skill wise.  All in all a pleasant, if not altogether thrilling, evening of unusual entertainment.

 

 New Film Aims to Change Public’s Perception of Circus

by Kim Campbell

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In Grazing the Sky, the new contemporary circus documentary, the viewer is taken on a journey to many lands, through several years of circus schooling with many budding performers and a poetic vision of the power of circus. The film is unlike any other circus documentary in that it explores all of this in a non-linear way, taking a more organic approach that sometimes verges on the surreal. For example, the film opens with a scene from Eryka Nguyen of Ecole National de Cirque in Montreal soaking in a presumably cold bath and recuperating from unspecified injury while her voiceover describes the end of the world. At the end of the film we discover that she was talking about the end of her world as she knew it before she made a life changing decision to go to circus school.  Shortly after her bathtub appearance we do not see her again for quite some time, as the scene soon changes to a scene of snow at night, or is it stars?  More likely it is bits of chalk dust, because the next shots are close-ups of two men chalking up to begin their partner work on the aerial cradle.

 

This sort of ambiguity could be distracting and frustrating, if not for the fact that the camera shots are gorgeous.  The artists involved are beautiful and talented people whose stories soon begin to unfold, as the film keeps switching scenery in the fifteen different countries in which it was shot.  Perhaps most alluring is the way the film balances the personal stories of the artists while displaying their growth and struggles as developing artists. There is also attention given to their relationships with their partners, with their families and with the institutions of which they are a part .  All of this is enfolded in the simple but beautiful themes of flying, belonging and beauty.

Another important theme of Grazing the Sky is the revolution taking place within the circus industry over the past few decades, as circus schools open up opportunities to all qualified performers. Early in the film the subtitles inform the audience of this with a simple statement: “Until 20 years ago, circus was only open to those who were raised in circus families.”

Grazing the Sky was produced by Horacio Alcala, Carlos Batres and Aitor Echeverria Insausti based on an original concept by Patrick Flynn. Horacio says they made the film for a wider audience to change people’s minds about what circus is, to help them appreciate the commitment and sacrifice of the artists as well as how the industry has changed over the years. He first became interested in the lives of circus performers when he worked in production at Cirque du Soleil.

Horacio explains how all of the pieces of the circus world fit together in his film, “Our documentary is built from the muscles and skin of the artists and the skeleton of the public and private institutions: they are complementary and cannot exist separately in the universe called circus.”

 

Another goal of the producers was to demonstrate that circus is not in decline but rather revived by the interests of new students, the newer institutions that support circus arts and the people who have invested themselves in it as a career. They believe that understanding this can awaken the circus spirit in the public’s eyes.

 

How the circus spirit is conveyed in the film begins poetically with the end, and then flashing back to Eryka and cycling through the stories of eight groups of students as they study at Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque in Brussels, Vertigo in Turin, Ecole National de Cirque in Montreal, the Academy for Circus and Performance Art in Tilburg and the Ecole de Cirque de Quebec in Quebec.

We see Jonathan Moss describing how something always seemed to be missing from his education and how he struggled in his youth for direction until he discovered circus and the Cyr wheel in particular. If the footage of him performing on the Cyr wheel in various settings, including underwater, are not enough to inspire the circus spirit in the masses, there’s always La Meute, a cultish and sometimes hilarious group of men out of Stocklhom  who perform exclusively in their tighty whities. They describe their group dynamic in great detail, explaining how for them circus is primarily a social support system and a way of life. We get an in depth look at the earnest Chinese pole performer and hand balancer Fadi Zmorrod during his studies in Turin as he learns the skills he will need to make the social circus school he is establishing in the Middle East thrive. Saar Rombout of the cloud swing turns up to tell her story of growing up shy in the Netherlands and by the end of the film we see her collaborating in Lisbon on a breathtaking suspended dance performance while hanging along the edge of an apartment building.

Of course, the film isn’t all triumphs. It genuinely portrays some of the ups and downs of circus life, including difficult issues such as injury and loss.  We follow the recovery of Antonio after a catastrophic injury to his spine following a circus accident on the cradle. Antonio and his partner Max rebound and comeback to performing after much hard work and months of recovery, all the while facing hard facts about risks. We also follow the retirement of Damian when he decides to leave the professional circuit along with his wife in order to give his kids a less itinerant upbringing.

When asked what surprised Horacio the most about working with circus artists for five years while shooting the film, he replied “I realized how humble the performers are; they are nothing like actors or dancers. Acrobats are from the real world. I felt they have their feet on the ground although they always want to fly. I was surprised how focused they are in what they believe in.” This same observation will surprise the audience as they watch the lives of these passionate performers unfold.

 

The film can be purchased online or seen in a screening in your area which can be arranged by visiting  http://gathr.us/films/grazing-the-sky