The Passing Spectacle Vol. IV, No. 3


 Catch Me! Out Runs the Ordinary

 Catch Me! 3_

On a recent, remarkably busy weekend in April circus fans in and around New York City had their pick of four different shows to see.  There was Flip FabriQue’s Catch Me!, the 7 Fingers’ Sequence 8, the Bindlestiff Cirkus Cabaret and Tanya Gagne’s Wau Wau Sisters aerial show.  The only event I was unable to attend was the Wau Wau Sisters’ Minge World.  Here are reviews of the other three offerings.

I never thought I would see the day when I would write a review of a circus show in which the hula hoop presentation was one of the most interesting acts in the show, especially when, as in this instance, the rest of the show is filled with spectacular acts that continue to push the boundaries of their individual skill sets further and further from what is normally seen.

This all happened when yet another Canadian circus troupe brought their wares to the New Victory Theatre in New York City.  The six performers who make up the company Flip FabriQue, like so many other new circus artists, happen to be from the Province of Quebec where, as Mary Rose Lloyd, the New Vic’s director of artistic programming suggests, “there may be something in the water, and if there is it is a tradition of exceptional training for circus artists.”

Flip FabriQue’s show is called Catch Me!, and it is performed by five men and one woman.  The young lady is the hula hoop artist who also presents a very accomplished lyra act.  Like everyone in the cast she is multi-talented.  They would have to be for six people to produce a 90 minute show without any repeats or filler acts.

Unfortunately there is something of a split personality forced upon them by the fact that to find work companies like theirs are often booked into the family-oriented portion of an arts center’s subscription series, which means they have to appeal to kids as well as adults.  In order to keep the kids on their side they occasionally lapse into a preciousness that I don’t find very appealing.  Aside from those thankfully rare moments this is hardly kid stuff, and when they drop the cutes the artists are not only charming but amazing performers.

One of the other skills they have pushed beyond anything I have seen before is an act with dueling diabolos, in which Jérémie Arsenault and Bruno Gagnon seem forever to be plucking flying diabolos out of the air in the most unusual postures.    Diabolo manipulation  seems to have a limiteless vocabulary, and practitioners are forever ringing in new variations, and as I am learning, apparently so do hula hoop artists.  If a simple set  of three or more balls can send a juggler off on a fantasy, so can a few hula hoops in the hands (and feet and neck and body) of someone with limitless imagination.

Jade Dussalt’s hula hoop act, which I mentioned at the outset, is nothing short of magical, as she seems to have one of her hoops hanging in mid air while she attends to keeping others spinning about one part of her body or another.  It is much closer to a manipulation or juggling act than the sort of physical gyrations usually associated with such a performance, although it does end with the de rigueur closing trick setting numerous hoops spinning about her body.

A strap act by Hugo Ouellet Côté is equally as impressive as the two previously mentioned, especially when one considers that all these people are multi-talented.  They all participate in floor acrobatics which feature some very exciting banquine throws, catches and leaps.  The transition movements between the acrobatics reminded me of the Mark Morris’ ballet I had just seen on PBS the night before, all quite exuberant and exhilarating.

Most fun is a number in which each member of the company grabs a big red beach ball as they dance to Barry Manilow’s rendition of “CopaCabana.”  It is campy spoof of Broadway, and it manages to be both funny and charming, two qualities that do not always go together, but the effect, when they do, as they do here, can be quite winning.  Someone slipping on a banana peel may be funny, but it is definitely not charming.   This number provides the show with a welcome touch of comic relief.  The difference here is the naiveté or insouciance that characterizes the attitude with which it is all done.  Another number in which they all don sleeping bags is more slapstick, a poor man’s version of Mummenschanz, but it, too, has an element of charm to it.

Françis Julien’s specialty is guitar, which adds another level of interest to the show.  His duet with the ball juggling Arsenault  is a fascinating collaboration of two art forms channeling each other. Arsenault was also impressive earlier in an intricate ball bouncing routine with Gagnon.  Unfortunately I felt that Julien’s yo-yo maniupulation was way too small and intimate to have much impact, especially as presented in a near-black out, with only flashlights as illumination.

But that miniature moment is replaced by the wall trampoline, which fills the stage with riffs that are nothing short of spectacular.  The entire company participates but the featured artist here is Christophe Hamel, who finally has a chance to dazzle with his gyrations on and off the wall and trampoline.

Catch Me! has been directed by Olivier Normand, with décor and accessories by Élyane Martel


7 Fingers Pushes the Envelope with Sequence 8

Cast,small, Sequence85507©Lionel_Montagnier-lpr

Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers) production Sequence 8, which opened in 2012 and recently visited New York at the cavernous City Center is a sequence of eight acts that range from the highly accomplished to the breathtakingly brilliant, performed by a cast of eight, which explains the title.  Between the major acts there is a great deal of filler material, mainly acrobatic dance that is mostly interesting, as well as some self-indulgent interludes that make no sense at all except to delay us from getting to the next big wow.  With so much choreographed movement it is increasingly apparent that dance, once considered a decorative feature of the circus arts, is now an essential ingredient, at least in the hands of director Shana Carroll and her husband/collaborator Sébastien Soldevila.

Despite the moments of self-conscious poetry that grow out of the non-acrobatic staging, I am happy to report that the show does exhibit  a sense of humor, and occasionally reveals that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is not above poking fun at its pretentions.    However, such self-knowledge doesn’t keep the show from dipping into a bit of foggy (literal and figurative) pretentiousness now and again.  The problem is that you can’t have it both ways.  Either it’s a joke or it is not.  Once you say it’s all a joke we must assume it is a joke going forward as well, so ultimately there is no legitimate exploration of human emotions, as the Playbill notes suggest, that we can take seriously.  The only real exploration here is a physical one, and a very intriguing one at that, discovering what more can be done with every piece of apparatus and rigging that comes into play.  This exploration makes for some fascinating adventures that take circus skills into new territory.

In the Russian barre act, for instance, Alexandra Royer seems to be exploring new ways of moving on the barre, and when it comes to performing the usual repertoire associated with this skill she nails every flight embroidered with doubles and twists, with astounding confidence.

Because of this exploration it is rare that an act begins with the artists directly attacking their apparatus. This is especially true of Ugo Dario and Maxim Laurin’s approach to the Korean plank.  There is a good bit of physical doodling with the apparatus before they get down to the serious business of sending each other aloft where they execute various twists and revolutions, which prove to be the most physically exciting of the show.

Laurin also presents one of the more innovative performances in the show on a still trapeze.  He impressively puts his body through a complex series of uninterrupted and fast paced moves that often reflect enormous kinetic energy and physical daring.

The most truly extraordinary act is Eric Bates’ phenomenal display of cigar-box juggling , a skill at which he is said to be one of the best in the world.  No argument here.  What is fascinating about his performance is that, thanks to his long legs, it incorporates huge physical moves into the choreographed miniature ones normally associated with box juggling in a way that is nothing less than breathtaking.   At the conclusion of his performance with his props, we are informed with tongue in cheek, that he has written a book titled “How to Live With the Boxes You’re Thinking Outside Of.”  Later in the show another touch of humor is added when Bates amusingly spoofs himself with a set of over-sized boxes and a spectacular bit of break dancing.  In all ways he is one of the great and unalloyed delights of the show.  As it happens he is also dressed in a style that is the least passive-aggressive of his compatriots.

The least rewarding and most suspect moments come when the show makes a move toward importance and meaning through some heavy handed symbolic interludes.  One involves Ugo Dario getting himself wound up in a bunch of black tape that has been strung about the other members of the company.  It’s all about getting tied up in complicated relationships, don’t you see.

In another such interlude,  three members of the company spread across the down stage area, stand stock still and begin to peel off layers of clothing they have added for just this purpose until they are down to their underwear.  But if this is meant to expose one’s naked vulnerability, don’t you have to get naked?  Anything else is a cop out, which is inherently less than honest.

From there, however, we move into one of the more exciting, true circus turns in the show, a display of Chinese hoop  diving.  Once again we are confronted with interesting variations on the traditional, until the final leap by Devin Henderson.  His partner in most of this is Colin Davis, whose lanky frame would seem to disqualify him from such a skill, nonetheless he is wildly successful as is the entire act.

Shortly after the hoop diving, we are at the mid-point of the performance and Colin Davis steps downstage to inform us that we have come to the moment wherein we would ordinarily be given a chance to take care of necessities.  But there is to be no intermission, even though in effect ,we are actually taking one without the opportunity to leave our seats.  Instead there is a comic quiz game (a favorite gambit of 7 Fingers) and Devin Henderson has a chance to be something of a clown with his mates, running up a Chinese pole set upstage right to ring a bell at its top.  It is good for laughs, but the entire episode could have been used to re-orient us to the show after we had really been given a break so that we could return refreshed, because, frankly, without that break the last twenty minutes or so are exhausting, not only for the cast but the audience as well.

The individual acts arrive somewhat more frequently in the second half of the show.   The hand to hand act of Camille Legris and Tristan Nielsen is packed with a series of dangerously hair-breath catches that can leave one breathless at the audacity of it all.

Devin Henderson, a product of the Circus Center in San Francisco and Master Lu Yi, attacks the Chinese pole with a brashness that once again leaves us gasping  at its wild inventiveness and tireless energy.

By this time in the show one is likely to be exhausted from watching such a boundlessly energetic performance, but there is still Alexandra Royer continuing that wild abandon on the lyra.

When we are finally able to catch our breath the cast coalesces into a tight circle  in the middle of the stage, where Davis softly  asserts that what we have just experienced is just “a bit of us for all of you.”  A bit?  Let’s not be modest.  Ultimately the most impressive thing about Sequence 8 is the extraordinary energy and versatility of the cast.  Not only do they all have highly developed multiple circus skills, they dance, act and manage, when necessary,  to be funny as well.    And all that talent is wrapped in eight gorgeous packages stacked into an amazing sequence  that is always entertaining and often provocative as well.


The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Begins 21st Year

 Promoting Variety Arts


A familiar cast of characters including the co-founders of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Keith Nelson as his clown character Kinko and Stephanie Monseu, as Philomena the ring mistress, make up the cast of the Cirkus Cabaret.   Many of the acts I have seen and reviewed before, most recently when I saw the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus this past summer at the Bard College  Spiegel tent in upstate New York.  What made this cabaret special was that it was a celebration of the beginning of the Bindlestiff’s  21st year at promoting live performances of the variety arts: circus, sideshow, dance and music.  During the past 20 years it has grown from a cabaret show produced in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn to a company that has won support from various sources of public funding as well as private foundations and like minded individuals.  The company is currently set to produce a series of cabaret shows at Dixon Place in Manhattan’s lower East Side.  These will be staged the first Monday of each month with the exception of August and September at 161A Chrystie St., New York.

In thinking about the performance at the Connelly Theatre also located in the Lower East Side,where the cabaret was staged, I was struck by the use of an umbrella by two of the performers.  That got me thinking about how versatile umbrellas are as an important theatrical prop.  Mark Gindick used a black umbrella in a delightful version of “Singing in the Rain,” and Kyle Dreggs used a red one in his juggling fantasy.

Most often black umbrellas are used to invest a scene with somber sadness, as for instance in the funeral scene in the play Our Town.  It is almost something of a cliché how often cinematic funerals are staged in the rain and the ubiquitous black umbrellas add to the sense of deep mourning and grief experienced by the characters.  Gene Kelly turned that cliché on its head in his glorious staging of the title song from the film musical Singing in the Rain.  The point here is that he puts the umbrella aside and lets the rain thoroughly drench him as an expression of his undiminished joy.  That same feeling is present in Gindick’s version that adds a bit of broad comedy to the dance, eventually sharing his joy and his drenching with the audience.

Dregg’s use of the red umbrella has the opposite effect.  It is an expression of joy from the very moment it is unfurled, adding a whimsical, rather poetic quality to the juggler’s manipulation of clubs and hoops he incorporates into his performance along with that red umbrella.  It is difficult to imagine a more charming and graceful juggling act than this.

The other performers in the cabaret, besides Nelson and Monseu,  were Susan Voyticky whose versatility was displayed in her work on the Cyr wheel, the lyra and in a hand balancing act with her partner Matthew Greenfield.  The music was provided by Sabrina Chap whose comic outrage is released in her songs and the percussionist Matt Talmage.  Oddly enough the one act I had never encountered before in any of the many Bindlestiff shows I have attended, or at least not for quite some time, despite the fact that he is a Bindlestiff regular, is Magic Brian, whose raucously overbearing magician is not only hilariously funny, but surprisingly adept as it turns out in finally pulling off his most spectacular magic trick.  Glad to have finally caught up with him.  His performance, like all of the Bindlestiffs, is a treat.