The Passing Spectacle Vol. IV, No. 2

 

Ringling Extremely Busy in Pursuit of Younger Audiences

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Ringling’s Circus Xtreme may not always be extreme, but it is rarely less than hyperactive and boundlessly energetic.  The sense of improvisation that characterizes most of the dance and movement that races through the show often verges on the chaotic. So hyped up is the show that it is perfectly willing to have a young woman shot from a cannon mid-way through the first half, (an act normally programmed next to finale) without fear of its seeming to be anti-climactic.  There’s plenty more excitement where that came from. Circus Xtreme literally has energy to burn and but for a few rare calmer moments the show is relentlessly determined to move younger audiences, particularly those of a pre-adolescent persuasion, at whom the show seems aimed, to the edge of their seats.

As is the norm with a Ringling show nowadays, this one revolves around a theme whose connecting tissue is provided in an early speech and song, both delivered by ringmaster David Shipman.  These clues are  somewhat difficult to pick up in part due to the hurly burly of the song’s heavily percussive instrumentation and the actual volume at which it is transmitted.  I did manage to pick out a couple of key words, something about a search for adventure and excitement.

The music behind all this frenetic activity is contemporary rock, invoking a style of dance that is not quite hip hop, but one that has everyone doing their own thing.  Not much in the way of patterned movement here except when it is a matter of traffic management.  The dancers’ energy is expended in the flinging of arms and the stomping of feet rather than in polished dance steps, all of which, incidentally, has taken three choreographers to devise.

The show begins with what turns out to be the second most serene act in the show, a troupe of six Bactrian camels, ridden, at the performance I saw by five Mongolian women, much in the style of their equestrian counterparts.  While the women throw themselves around the camel’s humps, the animals themselves project an unperturbed solemnity that borders on the comic, and never break their measured pace.  It’s a novel act in that we almost never see the two hump version of this creature and certainly never being ridden by women performing various acrobatic moves between those humps.

Not long thereafter Gemma Kirby is shot across the arena, and before we can catch our breath, the highwire act of the Danguir Troupe takes over, adding more suspense and daring to its repertoire of highwire exploits, thus managing to keep the tension taut with their exciting leaps over and on to the shoulders of their partners and a new three-high pyramid of four daredevils stacked upright one atop the other as they cross the wire.

The Danguir troupe, like several other acts in the show, is familiar, being a carry-over from the previous Red Unit production.  Another returning act is the multi-talented duo of Alex and Irina who project even more energy than last time out, especially during their rides around the arena floor in a boat-like vehicle.  Their first solo act is the novel tap dancing on skis which is set on a circular platform quite far upstage (I would not ordinarily use that term in a circus arena, but this layout is played as if it is a thrust stage, so that if you are seated in the far end it makes for distancing that dampens the act’s impact.)

Six bungee women in fluorescent costumes that glow under black lite suddenly drop out of the sky.  Their movements prove as fascinating as looking through a kaleidoscope, providing another sort of surprise.

The best new acts are provided by a troupe of Mongolian artists whose varied program consists of juggling iron balls, banquine and complex pyramids supported by the strong men of the group.  Most exciting is the series of banquine throws and catches, sometimes culminating in three and four high columns.

The clowns’ major offering of the evening, aside from their participation in the dance segments and a mountain climbing contest, is, a parody of the Mongolians demonstrations of strength, using several large inflated beach balls that prove their undoing.

The elephant act is the most unusual I have seen in a Ringling show perhaps ever.  It is another one of those rare moments when the action slows down to a more sedate pace.  The act consists of four elephants demonstrating various tricks interspersed by a commentary rendered between the ringmaster and the trainers describing the elephants’ training and care.   It is somewhat out of character with the rest of the show, but its purpose is clear and admirable.

In the second half, after another bit of exposition, the show moves into the nether reaches of the sea for its next adventure.  There an aerial display places four girls in a woven cocoon-like globe in which they do various acrobatic moves and poses.  This is flanked by two soloists on straps, and four mermaids who flap their huge tails from their trapeze perches spaced above the arena floor.

Any danger of the show’s becoming too sedate is dispelled immediately by a soloist on the wheel of destiny or whatever it is this popular device is being called this time out.   Bernado Ibarra Nino is a heroic figure on this apparatus, and he whips the audience to the required frenzy with his daring.

While Nino is at work, the big cage is being set for Tabayara Maluenda’s 16 cat act.  It is big, in every way possible.  There are sixteen tigers filling the cage and none of them turn out to be mere seat warmers.   At one point Taba has fourteen of them lined up in a semi-recumbent posture.  It is quite an impressive feat keeping all that energy under control without any fights or recalcitrant behavior.  The final two remaining cats do the hind leg walk backwards and finally the leaping cross.

Alex and Irina are soon back in the ring with their pack of frantically eager poodles.   This act may be programmed too late in the program to deliver the kind of high required at this point, but it soon takes us into the most active and arena filling pair of acts of the show.

BY way of transition to this segment a sprung floor is laid down at the farthest end of the arena, where a troupe of acrobatics who will soon give an exciting display on a pair of wall trampolines placed on either side of a two story structure out of which the troupe bounces in and out of in rapid fire turns.  This act is another hold-over from the previous Red Unit, but seen this time, from the end arena, it looks much more visually interesting and dynamic.  This finally gives way to a group of BMX bikers who flip on and off a set of severely curved ramps, usually landing spectacularly on one ramp or the other, somewhat obscured from the end arena by the trampoline set-up.   By the time they have run their course the ever mounting excitement will leave audiences limp.

The creative staff for this production consists of director Michael Schwandt, associate director Meisha Lee, writers Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen   Amy Clark is the costume designer, Josh Zangen the production designer, with lighting design by Peter Morse and Jesse Blevins.  Music credits have Ron Aniello as song composer and Michael Himelstein, lyricist.  Choreographers are Preston Mui, Oskar Rodriguez and Caitlin Wheeler.  Music director is David Killinger.

P.S. In light of Ringling’s recent announcement that it would phase out the use of elephants in its performances by 2018, the current elephant act makes a lot more sense and seems intended as both a transitional step and an attempt to allay the acknowledged concerns of audiences regarding the care of the elephants.

 

 

Circus Oz  Asks Us to  Wait…There’s More, But Its Different

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Circus Oz, hailing from Australia likes to go as far as it can to break as many rules and violate accepted theories of what constitutes good circus presentation. To begin with it has never been known to take itself very seriously.  In its latest export But Wait…There’s More that sense of irreverence has turned rather dark, both literally and figuratively.  The lighting is just this side of murky, and the show has dived into a theme satirizing today’s rampant consumerism and contemporary man’s insatiable demand for “more stuff.”  This theme is made most obvious in the bar-coded costumes the troupe wears at the end of the show.

By way of breaking with tradition, the show resists ending with a display of high energy, in-your-face excitement.  It ends instead with a slow waltz while the troupe leaps on and off a pair of Chinese poles as if they were on a sedate merry go round.  The company spins in time to a lilting little tune that sounds like something out of A Little Night Music or a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers elegant pas de deux.  It is quite lovely, really, but hardly the thing to bring an audience to its feet.

I don’t mean this as criticism.  Circus Oz not only dances but marches to a different drummer as well.  Most of the rest of the show pulsates to a rock–based score, but in another violation of expectations,   in an opening hula hoop act Lilikoi Kaos assumes a rather languorous pace instead of the usual dizzying pace such acts maintain, until the very end when all pretense of grace is thrown to the winds and she takes on bunches of hoops thrown at her with none too gentle tosses from her compatriots.

In the flying act that concludes the first half of the show, the company is not above mixing pratfalls with more lyrical flying in which a woman (Spencer Inwood) is the catcher.  In fact this act very much characterizes Circus Oz’ approach to circus.  Did I mention it refuses to take itself too seriously?

It often mixes skills in a most unpredictable way, combining, for instance, trick bike riding and an aerial strap act, or turning an unusual equilibristic turn into a macabre bit of magic.  Then there is the former hula hoopist (Kaos) who suddenly becomes  an escape artist, frantically wriggling free  from a straight jacket right after  a charming little dance performed side by side by a another pair of acrobats while jumping rope.

The sole bit of outright parody grows not out of another act in the show but is a take-off of a cliché from traditional circus, the battling lion act.  Here a riderless bicycle kept on a lease is whipped through its paces before it falls in exhaustion and has to be put down.

Kyle Raftery’s unicycle act and Scott Hone’s turn on another bicycle are never quite solo acts, but are woven through maneuvering of the ensemble.  The one truly solo act which has no ironic edge and is not played for laughs is the impressive static trapeze routine of Spence Inwood again.  (Almost everyone doubles and triples in brass, in this ensemble, either working various acts or providing musical backup.)  Another completely solo act is Nathan Kell’s hoop diving, but here the twist is provided first  by the fact that he is diving through a television screen and later through smoke rings.  Once he has left the real world his movements change dramatically.

Perhaps the most surprising act is a bit of juggling performed by Olivia Porter, who prior to this moment has seemed the drowsiest character in the cast.  Her manipulation of small, soft balls often involves her feet and a good bit of contortion, as well as balls that mysteriously roll out from the wings and through her legs before being incorporated into the juggling.  These rolling balls and many more dropped from above add enormously to the impact of the act.   Here is a unique act that is not only unexpectedly skillful, but visually intriguing as well.

Candy Bowers is the musical emcee.  The acrobatic ensemble, which consists of five men and five women, is aided and abetted in their mayhem by Ania Reyholds, the musical director and keyboardist, and Ben Hendry on drums.  Others in the ensemble are Matt Wilson who is both performer and musician, the Jack-of-all-trades Sharon Gruenert and Dale Woodbridge-Brown dancer and baton twirler

This said, it may be somewhat unfair to judge this production from the performance I saw at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre, since the show was being staged without the scenic elements that were originally designed for its environment.  The company’s setting and major props were being held hostage by the labor dispute that prevented ships from being off loaded on the West Coast.  The company had to scramble to find some approximation of their setting and large props like tumbling mats on the coast where they began their United States tour.

Judging from the photos that one can find in the photo gallery, the original setting played a significant role in establishing the ironic tone and even some of the broad comic strokes that always enliven Circus Oz productions.  Nonetheless the human elements of the production soldiered on and seemed undaunted by the improvised setting.   The show must and did go on.

 

Circuscope Magnifies a Tiny Realm

By Kim Campbell

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By mid-February each year, as winter rages in Chicago, people tend to turn inward for solace. When the days are a blur of ice and snow, we have to look inside for color and life. We often take more pictures of the food we cook, and rejoice in tiny cups of espresso or cat videos. So it’s no wonder that the folks at the Actors Gymnasium have gone a step further, focusing on the microscopically small and elevating it to a full blown contemporary circus production called Circuscope, which will warm audiences until March when the thaw begins.

Circuscope verges on the brilliant by focusing in on a tiny world. It begins with a large eyeball on a movie screen looking through a microscope at the world of amoebas and other improbable organisms.  Algae, tardigrades, protozoa, zooplankton, bacteria and viruses all vie for attention, using everything at their disposal, which usually consists of various alien appendages, like flagellum and cilia. Their oddness is captivating when combined with circus skills such as  aerial acrobatics, tumbling and contortion, transporting the imagination and the art form to a fresh realm.

Directed by Vanessa Stalling, the show is a splendid collaboration between the Actors Gymnasium Teen Ensemble, with about 20 teen performers, and a small group of professional circus artists. In the latter group there is the hilarious and clever Molly Plunk, tight wire artist and joyous clown, who portrays a lady tardigrade (a tough microscopic creature also known as a water bear) in pursuit of friendship with the reluctant, perplexed and ravenously hungry guy tardigrade, Dean Evans. Dean’s background in mime, improv and physical theater make him a highly amusing talent to behold as he struggles to get by in his perplexing environment.

Leah Leor, a professional aerial artist and teacher at the Actor’s Gymnasium is delightfully bizarre and captivating as a pink-wigged and tassel-covered flowing creature on straps. Tommy Tomlins, a Teen Ensemble alumna, begins her act in a silk hammock cocoon as a plant-like creature, intriguing Dean the water bear, and morphing into a beautiful butterfly, eventually flitting down to the earth to interact with the Teen Ensemble’s tribe of purple other-worldly creatures in a high energy and beautifully choreographed juggling routine.

The Teen Ensemble does a number of acts that are rather advanced as well as innovative. For example, they perform a synchronized rope act that involves nine creatures creeping down sets of ropes from the rigging above, a clever and powerful way to choreograph an entrance. In another scene a group of teens wave a flagellum-like array of pool noodles around on stage making fascinating formations while others perform partner acrobatics in the foreground. Perhaps the most boisterous and entertaining scene in the ensemble occurs when a troupe enters with day-glo painted drums and begins a wild beat that is thoroughly enjoyed by sea monkey-like creatures hanging from the rafters who pass a small girl around suspended mid-air by her foot. The act then turns even more surreal when it becomes fully black lit and the glowing creatures swing and flip around on trapeze-like structures and straps.

The comic relief of the clown creatures, played by Molly and Dean between the acts, is the glue that holds it all together.  While unflappable Dean searches endlessly for food, he more often meets with danger. Molly happily pirouettes behind him, rescuing him from hazards, and even helping him achieve his goals, as when Dean discovers that waving to the audience causes them to wave back, which is perfect because Dean considers hands to be food that he quickly gobbles up. After a few incidences of this, people become less likely to wave back. But if Molly waves, no one can resist her. So Dean waves her hand to trick people into waving back so he can have his snacks. Later, at the rear of the stage, there is a black light scene where the two dance and intertwine, when suddenly white fish appear (hands in white gloves of course) and Dean devours them all greedily. These are the sort of antics that work so well to tie the story’s themes together, creating a fully-formed and high-energy show.

The costumes, by designer Delia Ridenour, add much to the scenes, helping each creature’s unearthly nature emerge through color and movement. The imaginative props, designed by Bec Willett, also facilitate the overall impression of being in a different world. Black lights, laser creatures, echoing sounds effects, underwater noises, ruffles, wings, fringe, and day-glo elements all combine seamlessly with the performing talent to complete the overall effect of wonder. The electronic music is the appropriate high-energy soundtrack for the production, as are the few instances of live music provided by the Teen Ensemble, adding moments of joy and reverie with singing, drumming and acoustic elements.

The creativity of Circuscope is apparent at every level, and it delighted the crowd on opening night. The director and producer’s willingness to combine live music, to mix professional performers with advanced performers, and to include dance and a semblance of a story can only increase the public’s interest in circus as a vibrant genre of the performing arts.

Circuscope can be seen at the Actor’s Gymnasium in Evanston, Illinois until March 22nd. Shows are at 7:30 PM on Fridays, at 4:30PM and 7:30PM on Saturdays, and 3 PM on Sundays. Tickets can be purchased at www.actorsgymnasium.org.

To see a trailer for the show visit:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DCI04OpghE