The Passing Spectacle Vol. IV, No. 4

 

Ringling’s  Xtremely Complex Staging 

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When the American circus first became a three ring affair, commentators half joking suggested that one needed to see the show more than once to take it all in and have a complete picture of what had been presented.  Over the years fans often took that suggestion to heart and in multiple viewings sat in difference sections of the arena to fully appraise the performance.

To some extent that situation also applies to Ringling’s current production Circus Xtreme thanks to the configuration of the arena floor near the end of the production when there is so much going on. Depending upon where one is seated, it is nearly impossible to see everything in one sitting.  The Parkour, the wall trampoline, the bikers, the dancers, all going at once makes for a dizzying display of more circus than one can take in a single gulp.

In the end arena we get a close up of the wheel and a fascinating perspective on the wall, but a somewhat obstructed view of the bikers.  Along the sides one gets a more panoramic view of it all, even if some of it is rather distant.

The second viewing turned out to be an enjoyable experience for my entire family  (whose opinions I don’t ordinary solicit, but in this case it seemed appropriate to ask for their feedback since I had already recorded my own first impressions).  My son who has been going to the Greatest Show on Earth ever since he was a very young boy and who, on some occasions when I was reviewing for a daily newspaper, actually was a pinch-hit reviewer   My two granddaughters, whose favorite part was the elephants and the dancing, and even my wife who joins me only periodically at a circus, but has very strong opinions, all found the show exciting without a let down throughout the one hundred and forty minute performance.  No circus could ask for a more positive consensus.  And I have to concur.  A different physical perspective gave me an emotionally different response as well after seeing the show twice.

A Curious Irony

During much of the era when three rings were a requirement in American circuses, circus classicists, mainly European artists,  insisted that to fully appreciate the artistry of each act, they had to be presented without distractions to their right and left.  And so it eventually came to pass, with the passage of time that the classical American circus was indeed presented in one ring, one act at a time.

As it so often does with the passage of time, the pendulum that measures our lives is beginning to swing back in the opposite direction.  I am increasingly finding that the contemporary circuses that I see require more than one viewing to fully comprehend what has been seen because more often than not, the performances of featured artists are blurred by distracting action which in a traditional theatrical setting would be considered scene stealing,  all of it taking place in one ring so that we do not even have the partitions of ring curbs to help sort out the action.

I found it necessary to see the new Ringling show Circus Xtreme more than once from different vantage points, not because of distractions but  because of the layout of the rigging and props. Changing locations made a big difference in the show’s impact on me.

I did not get to see the two annual shows presented by the Canadian National Circus School more than once, but I wish I had because both are exceedingly complex, with a great deal of movement,  often creating a split focus that sometimes left me unable to recall what I had seen with any surety because there was so much going on, with competing acts offering wildly different stimuli.  Nonetheless, to the best of my ability to  sort it all out in one sitting, here goes.

 

A Visit to Canada’s Circus City

Les Étinceleurs

The first of the two shows presented by the Canadian National Circus School was titled Les Étinceleurs (The brilliant Ones) or in the words of the creator and director Johanne Madore,  les  Étinceleurs are “Virtuosos of the body who through their prowess lift us to the stars!”  If only the performance  had continued in the vein of the pre-show activity, the lifting would have seemed so much lighter. As the audience is finding its seats, a pair of young men  begin playing on what has come to be known as the Korean plank, an apparatus similar to a teeterboard, but used in such a way that each of the performers is stationed at one end of the plank and is alternately the flyer and upon landing the propellant of his partner at the other end.  As far as I could determine neither is credited in the program.  Presumably they were not graduating students and their spectacular work on this apparatus could not be fitted into the performance proper.  Too bad.  Because they provided the most genuine thrills and “uplift” of the evening with their amazing flights that included numerous twists, saltos and pirouettes.   Significantly they work without any musical accompaniment, which worked to further disassociate them from the rest of the evening which is freighted with post modern music, much of it from Steve Reich, keeping most of the performances heavily earth bound.  Even Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, was orchestrated in such a way as to seem as though it were a dirge.

The sound design is rhythmically repetitious, like a percussive vamp, that quickly tends to grate to the point of annoyance. It is portentious at best, intolerable at worst.  It put me in mind of the mind- numbing torture one might experience as a prisoner of war in solitary confinement.

Once the performance proper begins, certain props dominate the visual landscape:  cubes begin to emerge everywhere,  sometimes solid, sometimes hollow frames, sometimes  worn on a performer’s head .  At one point early in the production all twenty-four members of the cast are seated on identical cubes and move through choreographed waves of synchronized movement, like a water ballet.  It is one of the most effective  and stimulating visual effects of the production.  Later there will be ropes and voluminous skirts added to the cubes.

Putting all this aside, as one must to get to the individual performances, Arthur Morel Van-Hyfte begins with his demonstration of trapeze dance, a form that has more or less eclipsed traditional still trapeze work  where a trick is performed, acknowledged and then one after another is offered as complete works.  In dance trapeze, movement is uninterrupted, the artist moves from one configuration on the bar to another continually as if in a fluid sequence of dance moves.  Van-Hyfte’s version of this fascinating style of aerial work is quite impressive from the very beginning, thanks to an exciting entrance, through to its conclusion.

Alexie Maheu-Langevin is next up, a young lady who attacks the Chinese pole as if it were a rival to be conquered.  The resulting tone is somewhat comically aggressive.  While she does her thing on the pole, some individual juggling and diabolo work is also on display, causing one of those distractions noted earlier.

The first of the evening’s voluminous taffeta Kabuki –like skirts appears on Benjamin Courtenay, who works on aerial straps.  Obviously the macho image created by young men on this apparatus is here undercut by the skirt.  Much to Courtenay’s credit the contradiction does not diminish his effect.

Jérémy Vitupier and  Antonin Wicky are the two clowns who are the show’s iconic image.  Like the pair on the Korean plank, they appear in the prologue simultaneously taking over the downstage area while the others work upstage.  They are intended as the show’s connective tissue, as they appear fleetingly throughout, with minor comic effect.

The diabolo act presented by Olivier Belzile is one of the highlights of the production.  He has advanced this particular specialty to a remarkable level, giving us moves that include having the diabolo spin around his body; these moves that we have not seen before are nothing less than jaw dropping.

The Spanish web, or here more accurately corde lisse, is becoming one of the most popular acts taken up by young performers, both male and female.  We see both in these two productions.  Here Selene Ballesteros-Minguet presents a fairly familiar display of this skill.

Patrick Tobin is the featured artist on the upstage tight wire, but strangely has to compete with a younger rival downstage before the stage his surrendered to him exclusively.  His work mainly involves intricate footwork with a few leaps which are, similar to the previous display, familiar.

Perhaps the oddest performance was rendered by hand balancer Nicole Faubert, whose novelty consists of working with one foot wearing a ballerina’s toe shoe, which I could not discern having made much difference to her performance.  In effect  the point shoe was (pun intended) pointless.

Another large skirt appeared on the lithe form of Thula Marton as she worked her way over, around and through an aerial hoop.  She was followed by Marilou Verschelden, who briefly made her way around the stage on a German wheel.

Another of the show’s most impressive displays was presented by Ronan Duée  and Dorian Lechaux who performed some remarkable acrobatics while on a unicycle.  Here was something truly out of the ordinary and exciting as a consequence.

The show’s closing act was another one on the Spanish web, presented by Guillaume Paquin, whose performance and music was a pleasant respite from the otherwise heavy-handed musical program.  Somehow Paquin made us forget all about the time consuming knot making that is so much a part of this kind of act and his performance came across as engagingly balletic and almost poetic.

Eventually, as I have suggested , the production also becomes a story about  ropes, not just  those on which some of the performers work.  They soon become rather ubiquitous on the ground as well as in the air, and are used cleverly throughout the proceedings to move and position those similarly ubiquitous cubes into place or struck altogether.  In fact, the director’s use of props is equally as fascinating as her manipulation of people, a theme which I will speak more of later.

L'Art de la fugue

L’Art de la Fugue  (The Art of the Fugue) was the second production of the school’s annual presentation, offered on a separate evening and on alternating evenings during its nearly two week run.   Obviously, from the title, the director took her inspiration from the musical form known as the fugue and the work became an homage to J.S. Bach.  In the fugue  a theme or themes are stated sequentially and in imitation and are developed contrapuntally so that they can be heard both separately and simultaneously.  (Think of “A Fugue for Tinhorns” from the musical Guys and Dolls.)  It is a form that can be effectively applied in the circus and in this instance it is a perfectly realized creation.  Both the director and the individual artists share the success equally.

The performance begins with a very dramatic and intriguing act that incorporates a light bulb, a moveable chair,,and a Chinese pole.  The light provides the perfect eerie setting for this act in which both the artist, Baptiste Clerc, and the chair move up and down the pole through a series of maneuvers that are utterly fascinating and often quite surprising as well.  This unique and original presentation provides the first theme of the fugue-like production.

We are quickly in the air again following the opening act, this time with Ezra Weill on the Spanish web or corde lisse.  His novelty is his hat, a soft, felt bowler favored by clowns.  Hat, rope and artist make an appealing trio as they change positions and relationship.

A hand balancing act, provided by Tatiana Weltzien-Straathof, like the one in the first show, is not nearly as interesting as what has gone before and Aaron Marquise’s eccentric little clown dance that follows.

There is nothing ordinary about Elvind Overland’s turn on the still trapeze.  Sporting a full beard he looks like a backwoodsman and his vocalized grunts and squelched screams do little to dispel that impression.  But it isn’t just the artist’s wild, untamed character that makes his performance so interesting and often downright exciting.  It is what he does on the trapeze bar, beginning with his sensational opening which consists of a standing flip from the ground to a landing on the trap that has him hanging upside down by his toes.    And he proceeds from there.

Fabian Galouÿe’s work with the diabolo is climaxed with his tossing and catching four spools high into the air.  This rather predictable act is followed by Charlie Mach’s slightly mad presentation in which he flings himself about among four chairs, with astounding suppleness and continuously surprising flips and landings.  It is certainly the most unusual act of either production, and its unique quality is enhanced by the silence in which it is played out.

Speaking of chairs, this production like the previous evening’s effort is obsessed with props.  Mach’s chairs are just four of the many, both full-sized and miniature, that show up throughout the production.  So do another set of skirts, on a group of men, of course.  One could hardly expect it to be the other more traditional, way around.

Oddly enough, despite the eccentric nature of some of the acts, the artists who present them, and the absurd costuming,  this show often evokes a rather remarkable emotional response , perhaps because of the artists’ obvious and full-hearted  commitment to their work.    This is evident even in the ensemble’s  banquine  and the trios and duos that often present themes in counterpoint to each other and in contrast to the soloists.

There is minimal ground work, but for the ensemble work, and our attention is soon drawn aloft, as Korri Singh Aulakh is literally thrown up to the bar of his swinging trapeze from within the belly of the group.  Once aloft he presents a gasp inspiring routine of spectacular twists, pirouettes and flips performed outside the bar  before returning to his seat, none of which would be conceivable were it not for the fact that he is lunged with a safety line.

This year’s fascination with the Spanish web or corde lisse is on display again, somewhat clouded by the smoke that provides the mysterious atmosphere for Charles-Eric Bouchard.

In contrast to the swinging trapeze, Hugo Duquette offers another version of trapeze dance, another series of mid-air dance moves around and over the trapeze bar.

A quartette of men in skirts, second year students rather than the graduating soloists, throw themselves through a series of ground acrobatics providing in the process another variation on a theme and an elevated level of excitement.

One of the most satisfying performances, both artistically and musically was Rachel Salzman’s graceful and mesmerizing performance on the Cyr wheel, all the elements combining to produce an emotionally charged experience.

This was followed by a bit of clowning I never thought I would see from the Canadian school.  The solo clown Aaron Marquise, picked someone out of the audience and attempted to coach him through a rather tired parody of a movie western shoot-‘em-up.   We don’t need to come to Montreal to see this kind of clowning.  It is, thanks to David Larible, prevalent in just about every traditional circus in Europe. The poor man chosen the night I saw the show was completely out of it.

That extended bit of foolery was washed away by Jason Brugger’s impressive work on the aerial straps, bringing the production to  a strong and graceful conclusion.

As I have been suggesting throughout this and the earlier review props are a very important elements in the overall design of each production.  In both instance their manipulation by the ensemble, or should I say the director,  provided intriguing showcases for the graduating soloists.

 

Back to the Traditional

Paul 13

 

At the other end of the spectrum of circus experiences is Cole Bros Circus of the Stars and Kelly Miller’s One Ring Wonder.  No intellectual themes to decipher, no complex staging techniques to make one’s way through.  They are both  a straight forward series of circus acts presented in an uncomplicated manner.  In fact some of the acts are so good one might almost wish that they were presented in a more elaborate or sophisticated style.

Svetlana Gololobova’s illusions, for instance, are so good they would be even more effective (that is to say enjoy a greater response from the audience) if they were presented on an elevated platform with better lighting.  Otherwise they almost get lost in the high grass of the lots the show plays and the tent poles obscure the remarkable illusions she and her company produce.  I had made a similar suggestion about her one finger stand a few years ago.  Proper lighting, announcements and music are needed to remind audiences of just how special these acts are.  Sometimes they even fail to get a musical exclamation point with a grand chord at their conclusion.  All too often they just fizzle out.

I must credit the costuming with adding a great deal of zip to all of Svetlana’s acts, which include the aerial ballet.  That act is made up of eight women, six of whom work on aerial ladders .  One gentleman is featured along with Svetlana and Petya.  The costumes, the work of Bonnie Bale, are first class in all respects.

The same goes for the props used by the Nergers in their cat act.  Their repertoire of tricks is fairly standard, but they are framed by a complicated set of revolving stages and platforms that make them look special.   Although here, too, the act seemed to end without the usual “tah-dah” chord, which is an invitation to the audience to reward the performers with their applause.   The twenty minute act featured twelve golden tigers and two white ones.   An act this long can tend to sag, and so it needs the added lift at the end to elevate the level of excitement.  Then the Aguilar family on the highwire can start on a high, instead of having to literally fight their way up to the wire.  This act was one of the fastest paced  acts of the show and kept the energy level from flagging with an impressive series of tricks.

The Cole Bros. show does have a problem maintaining its level of excitement throughout, however,  especially when the clowns take over with several interludes that tend to be more frenzied than funny.   Comic relief doesn’t need to be that deflating.

For major thrills this year’s performance once again featured what the show calls the Thunderdrome, three men racing motorcycles in a steel globe that adds an extra challenge for the riders by splitting into two hemispheres with a gap in the middle.  The show closes with a new human cannonball, “The Romanian Rocket,” Captain Christopher.

The Frisco family presents a very lively and fast-paced elephant act that is always an audience favorite, and upholds the cultural treasure of elephants being a vital part of the traditional American circus.

In a curious quirk of touring tented shows, Cole Bros. spent nine days in three different venues in Central New Jersey, of all which were within ten miles of each other.  It did outstanding business in North Brunswick for three days, less impressively in a three day engagement in South Plainfield, and concluded with two days in Edison.  I happened to see the show in South Plainfield, sitting next to a retired gentleman who was alone.  He told me that he was seeing the first circus of his life.  He said he would be back again next year, hopefully with other members of his family.

The pacing on the Kelly Miller show was always especially  brisk and lively this year.  Even the clowning by solo joey Fajolino, who plied the tried and true in a manner that kept the show moving along without its becoming frantic.  In another curious turn of events, I saw the show in my hometown, which during the 21 years I lived there before marrying and moving away, had never hosted a circus of any size.   This time out, the tent was packed for three performances on a Sunday in early June.

The show featured many new acts, some of them, in the tradition of John Ringling North, were billed as First Time in American.  Two hold -overs continue to click with audience.  Ryan Holder  presented seven tigers, one of whom, a white, was merely a seat warmer.  I thought the act somewhat less advanced than what I had seen just last year, with fewer tricks and much shorter.  Perhaps the cats were young and newly added to the act.  Many are dismissed and sent home quite early on in the proceedings.

The other returnee, a young performer from Ethiopia, joined the show mid-way  into last season’s tour.  Bounce juggler Abrham Gebre is easily the best act in show.  He  has been given the featured spot next to closing.  He works at a very high level of skill, concluding with an eight ball cascade/bounce. He also controls five or six while on a free standing ladder.  He is already seasoned enough to boost audience response by badly missing that trick on first try.  That kind of seasoning I can do without.

Another favorite act is a canine revue presented by Ducky Darla.  She might be called a producing presenter.  Her acts are always enhanced by clever and amusing props and costumes which create a pleasantly comic theme.  Here it was a day at the beach, and in addition to the dogs she also added to the watery effect with a trio of ducks who waddled across the ring and her llama tricked out to look like a life guard.  Her husband, Mike Wesley, who is not quite as personable as Ducky, presents three camels and a pair of zebras, who circle the ring by carving out several different patterns.  The animals’ dressing is what adds a bit of panache here.

Club and ring juggler Nicolas Souren is once again working very hard to pull off keeping eight rings aloft before catching them around his neck.  One of the things that impressed me about his act was his costume, a beautifully tailored suit worthy of a Chicago gangster, which helped carry on the Roaring Twenties theme incorporated into this portion of the show.

The new additions to the performance begin with ringmaster Rebecca Ostroff, who also returns as a featured aerialist in JRN II’s aerial ballet, another homage to his uncle.  Ostroff also handles the peanut pitch in a considerably lower key than it has been rendered in past years.  It has gotten so off-handed I wonder why it isn’t just abandoned altogether.  This is one traditional that would pass, at least in this quarter, unmourned.

New this year are Zaya and Mendee  Masters of Flight another of those First Time in America presentations, working on aerial straps.  It is a nice act that gets audiences gasping each time they are hoisted aloft.   Zaya later presents an equally pleasant contortion act.

Sebastian  from Finland,  a First Time in America ventriloquist, gets most of his laughs by using some audience assistants who simply move their mouths on cure just like his real dummy, a flamboyant bird and pop-up  cat.  This act is modeled after that of Willer Nicolodi whom we have seen in Monte Carlo, Circus Sarasota and the Big Apple.   Imitation is all too pervasive among circus acts.

Solo clown Fajolino. works the seats, during the tear down of the big cage, and then once in the ring does a gag trying to crack a safe.  When he finally finds the right combination a miniature cop (Sammy) chases him from the ring.  His comic choreography with  three men from audience  who were quite happily into it, won a hearty response.  His closing use the Village Peoples’ recording of YMCA is a  sure-fire audience pleaser.

Aerialist Kimberly Souren presents a series of toe and heel catches following a variety of twists on the swinging trapeze, concluding with another can’t -miss finish, the  helicopter spin.  In comparison to the so-called trapeze dance seen in Montreal , is firmly in the traditional mold.

Anna Louise, a dancing African elephant, is presented by Tom Demery who uses an umbrella or a fly-swatter as “guide” to get his partner to swing and sway amusingly.

In speaking about his own involvement with the show John Ringling II said that he is no longer raising cattle on his ranch in Ireland,   Most of the land on the ranch has been leased to another person, who raises cattle.  “We have kept the show horse part of the ranch with eighteen horses.”  His wife Shirley,   their daughter and her fiancée take care of that operation, giving North more free time to travel with the show.

In contrast to his uncle’s famous travel itinerary scouting acts, the younger North says he looks at You Tube.  “So I don’t have to do that kind of traveling.”  He is now with the show seven months of the year. In fact he is more here than home in Ireland. “I enjoy it,” he professes. “I like being on the road.  Shirley is not an American citizen so she can’t stay as long.   She was here the first ten weeks of the run and when on board she helps with the dog act.  The ventriloquist and the ball bouncer were two  acts he acquired through You Tube.

As for elephants, he says he hopes to keep them on the show as long as he can.  “I like elephants.  We have lots of protestors, but  I’ve never seen them stop anybody from going in to see the show. The trouble is they get laws passed and they convince mall operators  to keep us out.  We lost one of our  best in the Chicago area.  .  We’ve joined something called the Cavalry,  a group of lawyers who will represent any animal acts.  They are located in Missouri and almost everybody has joined.  They seem to be pretty aggressive lawyers.  They need to challenge all the lies the animal people put out there, with pictures that are fifty years ago..”

As for liberty horse acts, there are so many places you can’t work then because of the condition of the lot.  He is looking forward to having ponies on the show next year.

 

Acrobatica Infiniti & Beyond

By Kim Campbell

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There had been whispers all over town for months.  Tana Karo was coming home from her tour abroad, and was starting a circus in Chicago, a nerd circus. Even from overseas, she was working out costumes and planning appearances. Chicago’s large group of professional circus artists lined up with ideas in hand, ready to join the ranks of superheroes and fictional characters necessary for her vision of a geek-based circus . The time was right…geekdom and popular culture have collided in recent years, making cosplay almost hip, and the multi-million dollar industry of comic book conferences a must-attend event for anyone aged four and older.

The appeal is huge, and Tana and the others at Acrobatica Infiniti wanted to explore their characters’ nerdness with action and comedy, something that historically had been lacking at the comic book conventions.  Filling that void delighted audiences at their debut earlier in the year at C2E2 and on May 29th at Vittum Theater where they premiered their first full length show with a roster of about ten performers.

Through the guise of secret identities, Acrobatica Infiniti produced a highly entertaining cabaret style circus show, with the charming host, award winning juggler and self-professed nerd, Aji  Slater, who kept things rolling and connected. In between acts he hoisted volunteers from the audience,  cheerfully deconstructed the symbolism of comic books as a tool for change (hint, Godzilla=nuclear attack) and reminded the audience of our personal connections to geek culture, even going so far as to have a few amusing speed dating sessions with chosen audience members during set changes.

Then there were the characters themselves, starting with the antihero Deadpool, played by Mr. Spring, and ending with Deadpool being hotly pursued by the rest of the cast for his transgressions as the clown interloper throughout the night’s proceedings. Deadpool may have been a pest, but he was an adroit hand balancer and a highly skilled partner acrobat with his nemesis, the Incredible Hulk, played by Battulga Battogtokh.  The Hulk also proved his strength by juggling bowling balls. Villainous moments occurred too, as when the Dark Phoenix, also known as Camille Swift, arrived on trapeze with an intensely powerful routine.

The heaviness of the villain was soon alleviated by the high energy of Sailor Moon, played by Ashley Sylvester, performing her stunts on hoops, followed by Natalie Abell as Wonder Woman,  in a powerful rope act. Next up was a comical duo, the Joker and Harley Quinn, performed by Bryan Talaga and Tosha Kindley in a diverse act that included impressive juggling, mind-bending contortion and romantic tension which culminated in a session of knife throwing. Julie Marshall appeared as Aqua Girl in a hilariously badass performance on her giant anchor aerial device, and Aji transformed himself into Dr. Who, causing a breakout moment, performing the Time Warp in the aisles among a few audience members before he settled down to doing hat tricks with volunteers and performing his own impressive hat juggling maneuvers. When the mirth got to be too much, Priss of Blade Runner appeared in her edgy 80’s garb and showed us how a replicant (or robot)  handles the trapeze. She was played by the capable Kae Devyn-so capable that she performed one-handed with a broken wrist and no one was the wiser. Princess Peach, played by Rachel Karabenick, busted out of the game Super Mario, liberating herself with sweet irony to the No Doubt tune of Just A Girl while performing a Chinese Pole number that illustrated just how strong a girl can be. In between the hijinks, a team of industrious Minions tooled around, tidying up rigging and props and occasionally getting caught in the fun. They were played by Jim Triz, Carmen Kingsley, Alex Z. and Jason Wasikowski.

The final scene was full of comic book capers, with the whole cast trying to oust the slippery Deadpool, with physical comedy leading to impressively integrated acrobatic mayhem and many laughs. This young show started with a bang and will clearly go through many permutations-given the number of involved character performers who were not in attendance for the debut . There are tiny wrinkles in the flow that will be ironed out by experience allowing the story to evolve. But what works well is the concept, which Tana describes as her desire to “bring a twist to a traditional circus format by mashing it together with comedic fictional characters that many people recognize and love.” Perhaps of equal interest is her intent to “tell a backstory that may never have existed: to imagine a possible ‘behind the scenes’  narrative with our favorite characters.” Although the show has not fully achieved that comedic epiphany yet, I have little doubt it will, and my bet is the  company will do it on the road in the next year or two, making the rounds of conventions in the US and reaching a non-circus savvy audience, a privilege many more traditional circuses would be pleased to have.

 

The Beat of a Different Circus

by Judy Finelli

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A Review of the Acrobatic Conundrum’s “The Language of Chance,” directed by Terry Crane, music by Pietro Ravanni, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, California, March 22, 2015

When the van I was riding in pulled up to the Dance Mission Theater I had no preconceptions about what I might experience once inside. So, when I entered the main theater space, I was instantly thrust into an unfamiliar world. Rows of large balloons lined either side of the playing area. The lighting was enigmatic. The mood was one of ambiguity. I knew then I was in for the unexpected.

Out of this obscure landscape, and in order to calm the disorienting sensation it created, appeared a sympathetic figure to establish a reassuring rapport. Terry Crane, in his role as director, wisely chose to use physical comedian Ty Vennewitz, whose off-beat, eccentric charm effortlessly placed the audience at ease. What followed was a seamless blend of top-level craft and evocative dance/movement. The Acrobatic Conundrum has achieved an impressive, slow-motion, acrobatically-infused, signature dance style.

Two contrasting, yet scintillating concepts unify this work and lead the audience through their abortive quest for purpose. After abandoning their fruitless quest in the first half, the performers become susceptible to risk, coincidence, and collective discovery.

Terry Crane, on aerial rope, begins the performance with a prologue entitled “Words Fail,” a collaborative effort between Crane and KT Niehoff. In this inventive aerial act, Crane is both victim and victor as he wraps, unwraps, and spins ostensibly out of control, centrifugally guiding the audience into a vortex in which texts rule humanity, the theme of the first of the show’s two main segments.

The first piece, “A Book is Not a Ladder,” inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story, “The Library of Babel,” is the tale of a monumental collection of written words found to be indecipherable. The performance is an increasingly frantic search for meaning, with the circus artists rummaging through an avalanche of information, and tearing through endless printed pages. The result ultimately finds they are eternally confounded by the utter futility of the attempt. At one point an ominous wall of printed pages rises up from the floor of the stage, creating an entangling web hovering over the performers, further emphasizing the oppressive nature of words. Paradoxically, in this alternate universe the more one reads, the less one knows. Here the acrobats search for meaning, transforming themselves inside out. However, despite their vigorous efforts, meaning eludes them.

This is dramatized by the atypical aerial sequences, super-sustained acrobatics, and hand-balancing artistry. Nicolo Kehrwald performs his ambidextrous and cantilevered one-arms with flexible grace. The second half of the evening, “Secret Passages,” created by Vashon Island’s UMO Ensemble Executive Artist Elizabeth Klob, is a delightfully circuitous odyssey of “missed connections and serendipitous endings” building towards a triumphal single column 3-high. By the time the artists have successfully constructed it, they have thoroughly beguiled their audience. The audience I was a part of made this clear by their thunderous ovation. There was no ambiguity in their hunger for this groundbreaking company to return to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The message I took away from this show was that, in the first half, the artists were thwarted in their search for purpose, while in the second, these same artists accidentally discovered that purpose by looking inward and reaching outward towards one another, as though what they were looking for had been there all along. They just needed to put more effort into connecting with each another.

The Acrobatic Conundrum collective seeks to break down the traditional barriers between circus, dance, theater, and poetry. I can attest to their success in this endeavor. I didn’t so much remember individual circus “tricks,” however spectacular, because they didn’t deflect viewers’ focus from the singular vision. Rather it’s the sum of the emotional thrust that lingers.

I marveled at the climactic 3-high featuring strong woman (and impressive hand-to-hand base) Erica Rubinstein as base; Terry Crane, middle; and rope aerialist-singer Carey Cramer, the top-mounter. Jacki Ward Kehrwald, contortionist and duo straps artist, displayed a lavish sequence of expert technique, as did her aerial straps partner, Nicolo Kehrwald. Ty Vennewitz, who greeted the audience, exhibited quirky expertise using a cyr-wheel as a hula-hoop and wryly spinning real hula-hoops on all four extremities. The Acrobatic Conundrum’s use of symbolism, emotional intelligence, and poetic insight is thrilling.

Anyone longing for a unique theatrical experience, featuring a masterful group of artists who trash formulaic and traditional methods, and take astonishing physical risks with precision, narrative, and perception, must see this extraordinary company perform.

Would someone, please, explain to me how only six people managed to perform this work in such a way as to appear to be twice their number?  Those six people are Terry Crane, founder of the Acrobatic Conundrum – aerial rope, Cyr wheel, hand to hand; Carey Cramer- aerial rope, singing; Nicolo Kehrwald –  hand balancing, duo straps; Jacki Ward Kehrwald – contortion, hand balancing, duo straps; Erica Rubinstein – hand to hand, strong woman; Ty Vennewitz – hula hoops, humor, Cyr wheel.