Passing Spectacle Vol. IV, No. 6




 Magmanus Takes Circus Skills into New Realms

Magmanus Circus, 5, by Ian Douglas


Created and performed by Magnus Bjǿru and Manu Tiger, directed by Jay Gilligan, music by Magnus Larsson, prop makers Ulf Poly Nylin and Adam. At the Skirball Center, presented September 25 and 26.

Watching Magnus Bjǿru and Manu Tiger   perform their show at the NYU Skirball Center it struck me that what truly defines the so-called New Circus new is not the form in which it is presented. It is no more or less capable of telling a story or touching an emotion than the traditional circus. What sets it apart from traditional circus is the unique skills and properties which it manipulates to discover and present something that it truly “new.”

There is in Attached one prop that traditionalists will instantly recognize: a teeterboard, several of them actually, one of which is used in the style of the Korean plank and several miniature versions which provide the movement needed to create a unique juggling display. There are also some traditional skills on display: hand balancing and juggling. But both the props and the skills are used in ways the go beyond the manner in which they are employed in a traditional performance. (Notice that I am shying away from the use of the word “circus” in describing what all this unique activity has wrought.)

The skill level, is not, truth be told, particularly impressive, but they are put to use in the service of a performance that also employs a uniquely shaped vessel and a number of variously sized boxes and a set of costumes that uses velcro to a delightfully comic effect.

7, Magmanus Circus by Ian DouglasObviously every moment of Attached turns out to be filled with charming surprises, and I can’t think of a more appealing reason for going to any performance, be it a traditional circus or a something labeled “New,” than to be continually surprised.

The two men whose bodies and names make up the company’s name and the entire cast of Attached, Magnus Bjǿru and Manu Tiger are from Sweden, and they have been performing, perhaps a better word would be “exploring,” movement and objects together since 2009. As they point out in the program notes “ the contrast of our physical appearance (the tall and the small) emphasizes the different nature of our personalities, which we have discovered complementary both on a professional and personal level.” That contrast recalls the physical contrasts of some of the greatest comic duos, and there is an underlying comedy that rarely needs more than a glance between them to alert us to the humor in their off-beat relationship not only with each other, but with their props as well. Simply standing next to each other, they are well ahead of the game from the get-go.

(This is, by the way, one of those rare experiences when it is important to give notice to the prop makers as I have done.)

5, Magmanus Circus by Ian Douglas


A friend of mine insists that two people cannot be a circus. They are a troupe or a company. Whatever label is most appropriate, these two people fill a hour most entertainingly, even when they are bustling about the stage setting up all those unusual props creating what amounts to be a Rube Goldberg perpetual motion contraption that culminates in the tiniest, but the most amusing effect of the entire show.






UniverSoul Circus Puts Heart & Soul in to Circus

by Kim Campbell 

The big top is red and yellow, two colors that pop up often in the pan African flag spectrum. Nearly everything about the UniverSoul show celebrates urban and global culture, from the frequent strains of hip-hop tunes between numbers, to the colorful African themed costumes and acts. For the past twenty-one years, UniverSoul Circus has been entertaining audiences in the United States (and once in South Africa at Nelson Mandela’s request) with lively performances from around the world. But UniverSoul is an American based circus, founded in 1994 by Cedric Walker in Atlanta, Georgia.

The tuxedo clad, dapper ringmaster, Lucky Malats, isi himself from South Africa. He comes from a circus family and has been performing with UniverSoul since he was eleven years old. Sporting a bejeweled microphone, he pumps up the crowd with his easy patter and invitations to dance. His sidekick, Zeke is older and shorter and mimes most of what Lucky is saying, mirroring Lucky’s actions to the two thirds of the crowd that mainly sees Lucky’s back.  It is strange that most of their action is oriented towards one side of the big top as if they were on a stage, because the view is really 360 degrees. But fortunately, the circus performers themselves did not display the same constraints and provided a more fully rounded experience.

After the crowd was warmed up by a colorfully clad whistle blowing clown, the first act of the show began with a rousing dance, limbo & stilts number called Color Me Caribbean. The music was Calypso and the costumes were colorful pieces that created a carnival atmosphere, complete with a giant dancing puppet, but the truly impressive feature was the four stilt walkers who were not simply doing tricks but actually dancing and leaping, joyously moving in ways that are rarely seen on stilts.

The liberty zebras came next, in an act called “Black & White”, with a buxom lady in go-go boots wielding the whip deftly, dancing it lightly in the air to give direction but never landing it on so much as one black or white hair. Seeing liberty zebras (instead of horses) trotting in rhythm to their mistresses’ commands was not just eye catching, but interesting, especially since zebras are notoriously difficult to work with. This was followed by “Trinity”, a group of three young contortionists from Ethiopia who gracefully pushed the envelope of what seemed possible, combining their elegant twists with interesting acrobatic configurations in a seemingly effortless way.

The three elephants were next and performed a classic act, with kneeling, standing on pedestals and rearing up on each other’s backs. Although there was nothing original about the act, the sheer size and presence of them was impressive enough to calm and focus everyone in the tent. Being in the same tent with elephants is a rarified experience nowadays, with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey vowing to phase them out by 2018, it remains to be seen whether other companies will follow suit or will take advantage of the demand for circus animal demands that may arise as a result.

This was followed by the Navas Brothers on the Navas Wheel, otherwise known as the Wheel of Death. The huge rotating structure became their playground as they spun on it, creating gravity-free moments of floating which caused sounds of glee from the spectators. Eventually they displayed their virtuosity by walking on the outside, jumping rope and even completing a dramatic somersault.

After intermission, the action moved even higher up in the big top to the Wuhan Flying Trapeze artists, a group of young people from China who took flying trapeze and tricked it out with tiers, cradle and straps, allowing for three or four-part flips from hand to hand that are precise and graceful to see. This act was followed by an energetic act called “The African Dream”, complete with dancers from West Africa in tribal inspired costumes, and six Chinese Pole acrobats from Ethiopia doing a perfectly choreographed number on the pole, flipping over and under one another in ever increasing spiraling configurations. The act ended with a three high on the ground from the West African performers.

Following that lively number was a magic act where Lucky claimed royal lineage and a search for his queen ensued. A series of lovely dancers from the show approached him onstage to vie for his affection, only to be turned into caged tigers. The act was a heavy handed attempt to show us magic tricks, and frankly the plot didn’t work so well, since it was out of sync with the times in its approach to women and animals.

Fortunately, it was time for the “Globe of Death” next, a steel contraption that eventually housed four motorcyclists zooming around each other in concentric circles and doing insane stunts such as taking their hands off of the handlebars, or criss-crossing each other’s paths. My favorite moment in this act was when the motorcyclists exited the globe and each visited an area of the ring, removing their helmets and pumping their fists in the air victoriously as the crowd cheered. The man on my side of the ring was probably in his 40’s, and a little portly, but he felt like a rock star, and we were in sufficient awe of his capabilities.

In the end, the final act was a surprising one. It was not a joyous recap of all that was wonderful about the show, but rather an introspective statement about humanity, a modern dance piece titled “Your Life Matters”. Ringmaster Lucky asked the children in the audience to stand up and repeat the Ringmaster’s pledge. He then went through a series of statements about how no matter how tough life is, or how people treat you, you are important and your life matters. This was clearly in response to the recent campaign Black Lives Matter, which was in itself a political response to the recent and ongoing cases of police violence against young black men in particular. It was also a commentary on the urgent situation in urban centers like Chicago involving gang murders. The modern dancers from previous numbers entered the ring, dressed in white gowns, one carried the American flag, two others carried banners one of which read “Peace” and the other said “Love.” While they danced, young men lay on the ground as if shot dead. A woman in red emerged and grieved their loss, beckoning us to mourn them, too. By love, peace and equality they are resurrected as the strains of words by Martin Luther King Jr. could be heard over the moving music. It was a powerful and much needed statement and their performance impressed me deeply.

UniversSoul is the most interactive circus I’ve seen. Volunteers were drawn from the crowd to participate in an adult dance off, a group Soul Train Line and even a rousing kid’s dance contest. In between acts, cherished songs like ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ roused the tent full of school children to sing, and Fresh the Clowns, a group of young track suit sporting clowns with colorful wigs enlivened things in the aisles by starting dances and singalongs. All of that enthusiasm transferred smoothly to the performances, resulting in a high level of appreciative amazement from all and making the experience a wonderful communal event. It was also full of surprises, impressive acts and a mix of urban and global culture that make it a valuable component of our circus heritage.


Hovey Burgess Enjoys a Spectacular 75th Birthday

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The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus honored circus legend Hovey Burgess on the occasion of his 75th birthday with a gala spectacular featuring Hovey’s favorite acts which included many performers he has taught and nurtured in one of his many teaching positions including Clown College, the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and the Ultimate Clown School.  Hovey taught not only his specialty juggling, but circus history and other circus arts as well.  In addition to the performers who appeared at the gala, Hovey has been instrumental in launching the careers of an illustrious list of people who have made important contributions to the circus on their own right.

The money raised by this special event went, at Hovey’s request, to fund the numerous activities of the Bindlestiff Family Variety Arts.

The all-star line-up of performers, hosted by the Bindlestiff’s Stephanie Monseu, included Phil Marsh, Jen Slaw, Kris Olness, Dick Monday, Carla Rhodes, Zero Boy, Valeriue Benoit-Charonneau and Tristan Nielsen, Michael Davis and Keith Nelson. A portion of the second half of the program was devoted to Hovey’s latest interest, burlesque.  This art was demonstrated by Trixie and Boo Boo, Tara Quinn and Pinkie Special.  The trapeze trio of Kris Olness, Tanya Gagne and Michelle Dortignac closed the show.

Contributing to his legendary status, and the among the things Hovey considers his most significant achievements, is what is considered the definitive book on basic circus skills, as a teenager in 1950 he created a juggling innovation, the reverse seven ball bounce, known as the lift bounce that is now performed by artists all over the world.  Perhaps his most significant contribution to the history of circus, however,  is Circo dell’Arte, a company whose participants included Judy Finelli, who co-founded the San Francisco Circus Center,  Cecil MacKinnon, who is a founding member of Circus Flora and has directed all of its annual productions since its inception, Larry Pisoni who co-founded the Pickle Family Circus and is the father of Gypsy Snider, founder of the 7 Finger Co., and whose own impact on the contemporary circus continues to be significant.  “I did not set out to become a circus legend.” Hovey says, “ I simply wanted to do what I loved and make a living at it. I love Circus.”



Circus Juventas Revives an Old Circus Spectacle

by Rihannon Fiskradatz


Circus Juventas’ annual summer spectacular concluded on August 16th with a flurry of confetti and a bittersweet final bow that saw the exit of several senior performers who’ve been a part of the school’s programming for more than a decade.  1001 Nights was a “cirque-ified”  retelling of some of the most well-known of the Arabian Nights tales. It included many of the canon’s most familiar characters: Scheherazade played by Angela Rancone, who operated as the show’s narrator, telling her life-saving tales through choreography that often appeared to control the movements of other characters onstage.  Aladdin (Noah Posey) and Jasmine (Rabiya Sehgal-LaRocque) acted out their romance in a aerial pas de deux and even rode a high-flying magic carpet!  Sinbad (Donald Bluhm) was followed around by a gaggle of giggling fangirls and was more apt to sign autographs than slay monsters in the production.  Ali(a) Baba (Kayleen McQuillan) and her many thieves performed stunning acrobatic feats while granting Aladdin access to their glittering cave of wonders.  And the Genie (Iain Knopp-Schwyn)–a wide-eyed, blue-tattooed, goofball of a powerhouse–earned his freedom in a Jafar)-destroying display (Dominic Lemieux that culminated in his holding aloft six of his fellow performers, who altogether weighed more than 1000 pounds!

For the month of August, the Circus Juventas big top was filled with raucous bazaar sellers, acrobatic street rats, contorting white tigers, glittering jewels on aerial apparatuses, dancing handmaidens, clowning royalty and jingling belly dancers.  Everyone seemed to agree that the opulent Middle Eastern aesthetic of the production generated some of the most elaborate costumes and vivid sets the school has seen in its twenty-one year performing history.

Now, with another celebrated, sold out run under their belts, Circus Juventas has put their genie back in his bottle and is looking forward to the start of their calendar year – and, of course, to starting initial production on next year’s show based on Alice in Wonderland.