The Passing Spectacle Vol. IV, No. 1

 Circus Awards Created

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Mary Jane Brock accepts the award for the Big Apple Circus

The First Annual Celebration of American Circus was held on Sunday, January 4, 2015, under the Big Apple Circus big top in Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center .   It was presented by Circus Now in collaboration with the Big Apple Circus and 7 digits de la main.

The Honorees were as follows:  The Big Apple Circus, winner of the Community Impact Award presented by Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President and accepted by Mary Jane Brock, vice-president of the Big Apple Circus Board of Directors.

Gypsy Snider, winner of the  Evolving Circus Award  presented by Diane Paulus, director of Pippin on Broadway and Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna on tour.  Snider provided the circus choreography for the Broadway show.

Philippe Petit, winner of the Elevating Circus Award presented by Michael Moschen, MacArthur Award winning juggler.   Petit is renowned for having walking the wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and the film Man on Wire that documented that extraordinary feat.

Entertainment was provided by the Anastasini Bros. of the Big Apple Circus, The Ricochet Project and Nicolas and Charlotte from the 7 Fingers Company.

The event was hosted by Mark Gindick and Stephanie Monseu, and directed by West Hyler.

Brock, who was instrumental in making it all happen, referred to the event as a “Christmas Miracle,” given that the organizers managed to fill the tent with what was essentially the bulk of the New York Circus Community in less than two weeks notice.

A Look Into the Future or an Alternate Present

Circus Now presented an International Contemporary Circus Exposure at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts of New York University, January 8-10.  Each evening presented a different sampler of contemporary circus selections.  I was unable to attend all three evenings, and only attended the first evening’s program, but had previously encountered and written about several of the performances given on the Friday and Saturday evening.

The program on January 8 opened with Cie Nuua’s Lento, performed by Olli Vuorinen and Luis Sartori do Vale.

What to call it?

Well, it’s definitely contemporary. That much is certain.

But circus?  Except for a few back flips and some tumbling which could be eliminated without any appreciable impact on the performance there is little or nothing about the Finnish group Cie Nuua’s performance of  Lento to suggest circus, at least not as I have come to know it.  Okay in the end they do form the outline of what might be a circus tent.   But by then it seems rather irrelevant.

Perhaps its modern dance.  Even here, however, that’s pushing the definition of dance quite a bit to get a fit.  But for some choreographed moves to keep balloons from floating out of reach, there really isn’t much technique of any kind, other than normal human movement, required to accomplish these moves.

That leaves performance art, an area of physical performance whose parameters are so broad as to be all but non-existent, so that in effect literally anything goes.

Now I am not one much given to attaching labels to things, but when one sits down before a performance titled circus, certain expectations are raised and when they fail to be met, one tends to be distracted from the other possibilities of the “performance,”  for instance its visual interest, its manipulation of other-worldly light bulbs that seem to defy every law of nature, and its complicated routines of movement that dictate who takes what string when.     (There are helium-filled balloons at the end of each string, which adds a certain note of urgency to the movement.)

Some may associate balloons with circus, but only as souvenirs, not as the circus itself.  So it is difficult to think of this as an art form that requires skill, technique and style.  This has only imagination to recommend it.

Dean Evan served as the evening’s Emcee, appearing between the individual offerings.  He is a white-face oxymoronic talking mime, who regaled the audience in a manner reminiscent of the Red Bastard, delivering vulgar, borderline obscene remarks in a terrific voice smacking of Shakespearean training.   His confrontational style was something of a breath of fresh air, as he obviously didn’t take himself nearly as seriously as the rest of the program.

Two brief offerings from the new vaudevillian company Parallel Exit provided a considerably lighter element to an evening of self-conscious poetry.  Their first offering was Everybody Gets Cake, performed by Danny Gardner and Brent McBeth.  It drew its humor from dueling iphones, texting and selfies.

Their second appearance consisted of three framed heads, not talking but grimacing to a classical musical score.  Not very effective or particularly funny.   I missed Joel Jeske who collaborated on the creation of the first piece with the two who performed it.  As demonstrated in earlier viewings the company’s work succeeds much better in a more intimate space which is where I last saw them at  59E59th. Judging from a recent review in the New York Times of an extended version of this show at the very same 59E59, however, the longer version of the work was only partially successful there as well.  I’d like to see them get back to more song and dance.

The final piece of the evening was Ockham’s Razor’s Every Action…performed by Alex Harvey, Steve Ryan, Grania Pickard and Hamish Tjoeng.

Ockham’s Razor is a company based in the UK, which, according to their own description, “specializes in creating physical theatre on original pieces of aerial equipment, creating stories from the vulnerability, trust and reliance that exist between people in the air.”  In Every Action they work on a counter weight system, a single rope stretched through two pulleys spaced about 6 feet apart, so that it can work as two separate corde lisse ropes, Spanish web, or, when hanging from the section of rope spanning those previously noted 6 feet, a cloud swing.

At times performed without music, at other times to a lilting score, there is often a lovely playfulness to the work.  It is as if a bunch of kids have decided to explore the possibilities of the apparatus they have stumbled upon unexpectedly.  This leads to a series of discoveries as to what games they can play on the apparatus.  Eventually this exploration goes on a bit too long having rung the last drop of spontaneity from the work.  As for telling a story that has a beginning, middle and end, the work seems incomplete, but along the way, however, there is some nice interplay between the four participants, as they co-operate, challenge and taunt one another.  The most interesting character is projected by the single girl, Grania Pickard, who bides her time until she seems determined not to be outdone by her masculine friends.

 

 

Nine Hours of Circus at the 39th International Circus Festival

of Monte Carlo

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The competition of the Thirty-Ninth International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo was presented under the huge big top in the Fontvieille section of Monaco from January 15 to the 18th, presented as two separate programs, each performed twice. The competition, as always, turned out  demanding as much from circus fans as it did from its artists considering that the two performances represent a commitment of nine hours spent under the big top.

This year’s event opened on a sad note, following the death of Kevin Ferrari, one of the motorcycle daredevils who were to participate in the festival.  He died as the result of an accident during the final dress rehearsal of his act.  To honor Ferrari, the first evening, opened with a moment of silence.

This was followed by a parade of the dancers from the Ballet of the Bolshoi Circus of Moscow.  The name Bolshoi should not be assumed to have any association with the Russian ballet.  The style of the former is a far cry from the classical style of the latter.  In their first entrance they present a fashion show whose highlights are one or two dresses that might have been designed by the iconic French designer Erte.

When the circus itself began we first saw the Yakov Ekk Troupe, a group of six Cossack-style riders, including two women, one of whom performed the pass under her horse’s stomach.  One of the men performing this trick had to be assisted at both performances before disaster befell him.  The troupe eventually took home a Silver Clown thanks to their energetic but unsurprising performance of this style of riding and later, in the alternate program for their work in a far more exciting and accomplished jockey display.  This included a variety of flips on a single horse and from one horse to another, the latter accomplished by the topmounter in a two high stance on the lead horse.  Their most exciting moments were produced by three riders simultaneously mounting a single galloping horse, landing first astride and then in a standing position after a running start. It is a joy to witness this classic circus act that is nearing extinction in favor of the less demanding silks.

Club juggling by the Empress Troupe proved uninspiring despite the fact that the participants often stood atop tall spires, or sat in a swing.  It was made all the more disagreeable by the aggressively ugly costumes and the raccoon-like makeup.

Fumagalli and Darius opened their repertoire of comic turns with slapstick tumbling on a table.  During the course of the two programs they also brought out once again their classic entree the King and the Bumble Bee, in which Fumagalli becomes increasingly intoxicated and dangerous, spraying water at any target within reach including members of the audience, all of whom seemed to adore seeing this ancient bit of comedy once more.  What is especially impressive about both Fumagalli and Darius’ performances is the sense of spontaneity they are able to bring to them no matter how many times they have performed them and the audience may have seen it.  I love the sense of mischief Darius projects whenever he is in the ring.  Together their work is the epitome of professional clowning and unsurprisingly they walked off with one of the Gold Clowns.

Two women, whom I was told were part of the Ekk riders, appeared again as the Black and White Duo, working on silks.   While their routine was not very remarkable or exciting their versatility was impressive.  Whether that weighed into the deliberations of the jury I cannot say but they were awarded a Bronze Clown.

Elvis Errani also won a Bronze Clown, but in my estimation he should have been rewarded with a Silver or his very impressive work with three Asian elephants .  What made his work truly extraordinary is that the elephants went through their routine cued only by Errani’s vocal commands and body language, no prod, bull hook or wand of any kind.  The animals were as casual and precise in their responses as a human might be.  The most telling interlude involved one of the elephants walking over three girls lying prone with barely a few feet between them for her to place her foot.  Her moves were cued by Errani standing outside the ring in the aisle, topping off the walk by a two legged stand which was held quite some time until told to proceed.  Here was an animal display from which others could learn and take inspiration and could do much to blunt the criticism associated with the use of the bullhook.

I was somewhat surprised that the Balagan Troupe who worked on the Korean plank was not recognized by the jury for a top award.  Always spectacular and physically demanding this kind of act invariably manages to be exciting, but perhaps the costuming, which was little more than street clothes, tended to dampen enthusiasm for this deserving and youthful troupe.

Clowning has always been one of the weaker aspects of the Monte Carlo Festival.  That element has been strengthened considerably this year by the appearance of Fumagalli.  But one clown does not a festival make, and so Boris Nikiski was been given the difficult task of filling in where further comedy was needed.  Although he made several appearances throughout both programs his one success was with a hand balancing parody that concluded with a surprisingly adept version of this skill played straight.  Apparently Nikishkin had started out to be a hand balancer but his comedic sense got the better of him, and he took up clowning with, judging from his work here, mixed results.

This bit of folderol was followed by the no nonsense National Acrobatic Troupe of China, four men and one woman working on a telescoping platform.  Exquisitely controlled down to their elegant finger tips and toes, these five artists are the jewels of a creation that partners balletic form and style with acrobatic strength.  It is, for me, about as poetic, as the circus can or needs to get, and on top of that the formerly dour acrobats of China here turn out to be dazzling charmers.  The topper is a feet to feet full split by two of the men, one on his back, the other on his feet.  They took home the Gold Clown, one of four given at this festival.  Check out the photos for confirmation of these comments.

After intermission Marcel Peter’s lions were presented by Musa John Selepe.  Three of the seven were white.  Two of the others were majestic males who looked on from above with bored disinterest while the three whites were put through some perfunctory paces.   In some ways the most interesting part of the exhibit was the trainer, who, judging from his manner may have been performing before the public for the first time.  Since this was the only cat act on the bill it appeared in both programs, and since I saw each one twice it was interesting to watch the trainer grow more comfortable with his role as a presenter, although by the last time I caught the act the male was far more interested in one of the females and would have nothing to do with the helpless trainer who simply abandoned that series of tricks and moved on to the finale in which the last male rode on the back of a motorcycle with him.

The powers that be at the festival have finally concluded that it is more interesting for the audience to watch the breakdown of the cage by the ten members of the ring crew than it is to be annoyed by some not very amusing clowning.

Few circus troupes these days put themselves before the public without sporting some sort of theme. The Kolykhalov Troupe working on fixed barres placed at different heights, seemed to have adopted the theme of Johnny Depp meets the Zombie Pirates.  Dressed in pirate gear and made up to look like zombies the eight gymnasts and diving champions  treated their apparatus between their spinning flights as if it were a ship’s rigging, all of which only slightly distracted from the daringly spectacular turns on the barres, often ending in twisting landings on mats, more reminiscent of the Olympics than the circus.  The jury was impressed enough to award them a Bronze Clown.

Young Pranay Werner, who was plucked by Princess Stephanie from the Next Generation Festival, presented an impressively complicated diabolo act.  His act may need to develop further but his stage presence is more than equal to the task of being a pro.

With that we come to one of the most amazing acts of the festival, the aerial pas de duex of the National Circus of Pyongyang.  In this presentation the young female balances a tray of glasses on the end of stick that is balanced point to point on another stick held in her mouth.  While maintaining that balance she performs some acrobatic moves with her partner, including standing on his shoulders on one foot en point.  Finally the two take to the air where she is further manipulated by her partner all the while maintaining the point to point balancing.  Since Asian acrobats always complicate things often beyond belief, she ends by being held upside down by her partner while juggling four balls in addition to controlling all her other burdens.

At this point in the program, exhausted from the tension of the previous act and the nearly four hours already spent in our seats, Alessio brought on his parrots.  Could there be a more difficult spot to fill?  Hardly.  Yet this man and his beautiful exotic birds palpably lifted the audience’s spirits as surely as the birds do their wings, and we are all uplifted by the delight of these splendid creatures flying and swooping down over head.

Revived, we were ready for the onslaught of another troupe of Chinese acrobats, this one from Tianjin in a massive and amazing display of Icarien games (or foot juggling) whose style of presentation and costuming seems modeled after the terra cotta warriors of China.  This eighteen member troupe has its youngest members forever flying through the air, ending with twists or somersaults on their partners’ hands and feet stacked sometimes five and six high.  The dynamic choreography and martial movements add further excitement to the breathless performance that seemingly keeps getting more and more impossible.    This group of Chinese won Silver.

In the second program we met Priscilla Errani, (members of the same family tend to make multiple appearances here) whose sexy performance as the Spider Woman had her hula hoops spinning most spectacularly. But don’t worry; despite the revealing costume and props, it is still an act about hula hoops doing what hula hoops are meant to do.

From one sexy presentation designed to appeal to one segment of the audience we moved on to another sexy presentation that would certainly have delighted other segments of the audience.  Two buff young men, Duo Silver Stones, stripped to the waist, wearing skin tight silvery leather pants worked their way through a physically demanding performance on the aerial straps without so much as raising a drop of sweat, but producing an increase in the heart rate  of many onlookers.  Despite the sex this was unquestionable a very strong act and was rewarded with one of the six Bronze Clowns.

The amount of exposed flesh was reduced considerably with Erik Nieman’s Bolero-based performance on the low wire.  His repertoire included a very secure backward salto, and an attempted layout that was fudged a bit on his third and marginally successful try.  I did like his rapid foot work and overall style and apparent security on the wire.

An enormous change of pace and one of the festival’s truly unique highlights was provided by Anastassiya Fedotova Stykan and her exquisitely trained and gorgeously presented horses, a black Dutch Friesian and a dapple grey Andalusian.   Her display of dressage while both mounted and unmounted came to the festival from the Nikulin Circus of Russia.  Astride she works only with a bridle and light crop, not mounted merely with the crop.  In both cases most of cues are delivered verbally, almost imperceptibly, but one fascinating aspect of her performance was watching the horses’ ears turn to catch her commands.  Here was one of the rare instances that seemed to violate pop-theory that the band followed the horses instead of vice versa.  These horses seemed to have an innate rhythmical sense.  It was certainly the most breathtaking display of dressage I have ever seen.  Ultimately the effect is that of a witch casting a magical spell over her animals.  But they are not mere robots, but playful creatures that love to romp and gallop and even display a bit of rivalry between them.  One highlight of their performance was the grey’s execution of the difficult capriole or airs above ground.  As far as artistry unique to the circus goes, there was no question that this had to win a Gold Clown, and so it did, along with many other prizes.

Another Bronze winner was the rola bola act presented by the Meleshin Brothers, whose jazz-inspired performance culminated with one brother supporting a second rola bola on his head on which his brother managed to stay upright and in control.

One of the great thrills of attending an international festival of this caliber is the opportunity it affords to see acts that are available to circus fans in few other venues around the world, none of which, if you happen to live in the U.S., is America.  One such act unquestionably is The Flying Mirror Trapeze of the National Circus of Pyongyang, which sets the Gold standard wherever it appears.

This act is totally unique in every aspect: its ever increasing skill level, its apparatus, the speed and style of presentation.  In the latter case there is hardly a moment when one flyer or another is not being thrown from one catcher to another in an extended series of saltos, twists and pirouettes.  The rigging is a combination of a casting act and an aerial Russian swing.  Two catchers, held in a sling, stand back to back in a position midway and somewhat raised above the swing at one end and a catcher in a traditional flying lock at the other.  The flyers may be caught by any one of the three catchers at times as they seem to fly past them.  The quadruple somersault has become a casual element of the troupe’s repertoire that doesn’t even rate an announcement.  That distinction is reserved for a record flight of 14 meters (approximately 45 feet) from one end of the rig to the other by passing the middle station now removed.  This is accomplished by one of the young women in the troupe.  The final astounding moment is provided by one of the young men, following the same extended route before tucking into a quintuplet that was caught on the first try at the second performance and quite understandably brought the house down with a cheering, standing ovation.

With the Shatirov Troupe on the Russian barre it was déjà vu all over again.   We’ve been through this sort of recklessness on the very same apparatus with Anna Rodion in 2006.  Like Rodion, this troupe’s principal female was willing to risk serious, even career ending injury to impress the jury with a quadruple front somersault to the barre, this even after her backward salto was a near disaster requiring two spotters to keep her upright.  The Rodion Troupe did in fact win Gold, but here the Shatirovs took home the Silver Clown.  Their busy display adorned with folk dancing and numerous flights was, despite the awkward ending, an enjoyable display of this beautiful skill set.

Billed only as Costin, this young man worked on the trampoline, presenting a comedy act that makes the most of a diving board for knockabout antics.  It was a complete, if entirely familiar, demonstration of this particular genre of acrobatic comedy.

The Pronin Troupe employed a set of double Russian Swings, one at each end of their rigging.   Here again the men and single woman were outfitted as the seemingly ubiquitous pirates, albeit, somewhat better dressed than the earlier band of brigands. What was most impressive to me about their work was that rather than seeming to be launched or propelled from one swing to another, they seemed to float across the space, landing with the soft sure-footedness of cats, with nary a jolt to mar the fluidity of their flights.  What was missing from the act were any landings on a partner’s shoulders, nonetheless they, too, took Silver.

One aspect of the festival that always impresses me is the quality of the production values employed throughout which enhance each artist’s performance enormously and presents them in a manner they are unlikely to enjoy in other venues.   In that respect it is not just a competition, but a fully realized circus performance.