Monte Carlo Festival Review Vol. V – No. 1

A Celebration of the Best Circus Has to Offer

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The 40th edition of the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo was intended to be a celebration of both the legacy of Prince Rainier III, who began the festival in 1974 and the circus itself. Many times during it ten hours of performances divided into two five hour marathon spectacles, it succeeded in doing both.  The exuberant cheering, the foot stomping on wooden floors, and the innumerable standing ovations were all testaments to the classic circus’ ability to thrill, to inspire and to charm.

Most of the performers appearing in this year’s shows had won the Golden Clown award in previous appearance at the festival, so in many ways it was also an embarrassment of riches (especially in regard to the comedy, but more of that later).

In the first program alone there were eight golden encores: the pas de deux from the Chinese acrobatic troupe of Guangzhou, the Casselly family and their elephants, Martin Lacy’s lions, hand balancers Sheherback and Popov, the strap act Flight of Desire, the Sokolov Troupe of teeterboard artists, Flavio Togni’s liberty horses, and juggler Kris Kremo. The second performance featured the Chinese girls’ diabolo act, the Pellegrini Brothers hand to hand balancing act, Alexis Gruss and his horses, and the sensational hoop divers from China’s Pekin Troupe.    Throughout both programs the star clowns Fumagalli and  Bello Nock in collaboration with Silver Clown winner Housch ma Housch, provided the comedy.

Other notable acts were the roller skating Duo Pilar, aerialist Anastasia Makeeva, Rosi Hochegger’s dogs, Hand balancer Encho, The Peres Brother hand to hand act and the Flying Tabares.

The Chinese pas de deux was presented by the couple that first introduced this remarkable novelty in which the female partner balances,  en pointe in toe shoes,  first on her partner’s shoulders and then his head, often while bent over backwards into a standing split.  It  is beautifully realized as both a ballet and an acrobatic display.  The entrances and exits of every pose are exquisite expressions of human physical beauty.  Since its introduction the act has been much copied but never quite equaled.

The Casselly Family from Germany presents what is easily the most amazing elephant act in the world and features the circus world’s newest super star, 19 year old René, Jr., who exudes showmanship from every pore.  He manages to be utterly charming without seeming to push for approval, yet commands admiration for his every move, some of which are nothing less than spectacular, like his pass under the belly of an elephant (a trick appropriated from djigit riders|) and his triple somersault to the back of an elephant after being shot from the teeterboard by a second African pachyderm.  No other act elicited quite the celebratory mood of the event.  It should be finally noted that not a single hook was used during the entire act.

Martin Lacy, older brother of Alexander who is appearing with Ringling’s Legend tour, offered an abbreviated version of his act that included eleven female lions and the one dominant male. When this horde of cats scatters after a controlled display or when they are encouraged to bounce off the bars of the cage, the presentation is an undeniably exciting display of pandemonium.  Lacy is later joined by two other trainers, past winners Nicolai Pavlenko and Massimiliano Nones, paying tribute to the late Prince Rainier III who especially loved big cat training.

Intriguingly, Lacey did not wear one of his spectacular costumes for his presentation, opting instead for a non-descript tuxedo, the jacket worn unbuttoned, perhaps as a way of signaling that this was not his real act but something he put together for the occasion.

One of my personal favorites of the festival  lineup is the hand balancing act of Shcherback and Popov, which they perform to a recording of Gene Kelly’s “ Singing in the Rain.” What makes the act so delightful to me is the perfect matching of the song and its dynamics to the moves of their hand balancing.  The result is both charming and breathtaking, the latter simply because their tricks are so amazing and accomplished with so little effort, performed with an irresistible joie de vivre and a smiling insouciance that is all but impossible to resist smiling in return.

It is all so easy-going that we are caught by surprise by the power of the presentation, and it stands in delightful contrast to the somewhat self-conscious drama imposed on the other  such accts in the lineup.  This is one of the few acts in which the artists worked with smiles on their faces, except, of course, for the eleven member Chinese girls’ diabolo troupe, whose radiant smiles and ditzy dance steps suggest a joyful playfulness that is absolutely infectious and entirely welcome.

Add to that a level of skill that keeps reminding us that these are typical Chinese perfectionists whose skills include a bewildering display of unbelievable catches following various tumbling exercises. It all adds up to a celebration of art and skill.

The Flight of Desire strap act is a truly dramatic aerial display that features heart stopping drops and catches, and a synergy between the couple that produces a palpable impact and builds to a surprisingly strong closing trick.

The Sokolov Troupe has transformed their wildly entertaining teeterboard act into a Baroque drama based on the play and film Amadeus.  Its theme is beautifully realized in all aspects of the presentation in costumes, music, dance and gestures, all of which is topped off by an extraordinary level of skill that highlights a triple to the chair and two beautifully executed turns by acrobats strapped to either a pair or a single stilt, culminating in a closing trick that defies description, for it includes a flyer who lands in a chair held by a man on stilts standing on a Russian barre.

Flavio Togni’s liberty horse display was presented in an uncharacteristically slow pace that underlined the control and sensitivity of the horse to their trainer’s commands. Togni, too, underplays his role, relying mainly on vocal commands for cues.  A particular impressive move is the three horse weave, that would defy human ingenuity.  Further emphasis of the command and control is the straight lines the twelve horses maintain even while rearing in unison.  With the equine ensemble dismissed the solo horses impress with their strength and agility, one of them doing a pair of jumps known as “airs above ground,” in which all four feet leave the ground.

Juggler Kris Kremo, known affectionately as the “gentleman juggler,” demonstrated just why this is so. He handled hats, balls and cigar boxes with his inimitable finesse and understated effort in a performance that is an audience favorite.

Alexis Gruss’ liberty horse display begins with six horses in two groups of three who weave a pair of braids from ribbons attached to their harnesses from above. One braid has the red and white colors of Monaco and the other the tri-colors of France.  The solo horses present a display of impeccable training, as Gruss makes his affection and admiration for the horses touchingly plain to see.

The four Pellegrini brothers present a traditional hand to hand balancing act that includes some powerful three and four man displays of strength and control. They work to a very dramatic musical accompaniment that includes a chanting vocal chorus that just manages to stop short of pretentious.

Whereas the Pellegrinis work bare-chested in white slacks, the Peres brothers wear contrasting black and white pants, with something of the same sort of dramatic musical score which here seems to fit their stunningly dramatic poses.  No wonder these two acts as well as Encho worked so easily together in the gala performance, presenting something of a three ring circus in a single ring. (See photo.)

But for true drama—both artistic and gymnastic—nothing beats the 18 member Beijing Acrobatic Troupe. Their hoop diving, like their sisters in the diabolo act, have been with Ringling’s Legends for the past two years.  No matter how often I have seen them work, and it has been many times in various venues, I never tire of their martial suggestions in their choreography and the  tightly controlled approach to their diverse and confounding hoop diving displays that culminate in the three metre high leap by one of their number.  It is nothing short of jaw dropping.

The first act finale of both programs is filled by the Flying Tabares. Two troupes totalling thirteen flyers combine to work on a double rig that allows for nary a moment that is not filled with movement.  There are none of the traditional waits between flights typical of traditional flying acts.  The result is non-stop action that concludes with a pair of passing leaps performed in black lite.  Before then we are treated (at various performances) to between one and three successfully completed triples and a number of other catches.  No stinting here.

Encho, who in addition to having previously won here, was a recent hit with Circus Sarasota, is another of those who uses very dramatic music, his approaching a dirge-like character, to accompany his exploits in hand balancing. The music suggests an element of danger that is not really present, but he does present impressive feats of strength and muscular control that includes his eight block drop while maintaining a hand stand.  He also works on taller than usual sticks and ends on a telescoping mast.

Laura Miller combines work on an aerial lyra and a fish tank. Her most notable contributions to the festivities is her exuberant splashing and sprays of water, all of which ends in a fiery blast.  How’s that for drama, boys?

The Cat Wall troupe from Canada presents an act that is gaining in popularity and exposure. Two trampolines are set, one on either side of a transparent wall unit that runs from the back of the ring to the front.  On this rigging five artists, including one woman, bounce, leap and somersault off the trampolines over, through and onto the top of the wall in a non-stop and varying series of flights, all to the rhythm of a jazzy score.

Duo Pilar’s roller skating routine is about as good and daring as this kind of act gets, although there is no distinction that sets it apart from other such acts.

Anastasia Makeeva is surely the most stylishly dressed and choreographically interesting solo aerialist. Her work on cords, sometimes used as a cloud swing, is a compelling mix of daring moves that are also elegant and dramatic.

Rosi Hochegger’s dog act not only fills the ring with action and humor, but is so brilliantly routined that it continues to build most entertainingly.  Adding an element of extra charm to the display is a two-dimensional set  of doors and windows through which the dogs enter and exit most amusingly.

Then there is the matter of the clowning. I never thought I would say this about any circus, but this festival had much too much comedy.  Instead of comic relief we need relief from the comedy or in many instances what was meant to pass for comedy.  Out of the thirty-three individual acts booked for the festival, no less than seven were clowns or comedy acts.  With each of those seven allotted on average at least two appearances  over the course of the two programs, that means that almost half of the entire festival performances were given over to comedy, and when you add to that number the clown band’s appearance, the ballet’s astounding eight appearances, you have more than half the time under the big top devoted to something other than featured acts.  In the second program there were  especially long waits between anything of substance.

Of course Bello Nock, Fumagalli and his brother Darius, were winners of past Golden Clowns, but all too often they were forced to perform turns they could do in the aisles or on the ring curb to cover rigging changes. In addition  to these two star clowns, there were also ventriloquist Willer Nicolodi, juggling parodist Steve Eleky, The Starbus, contemporary pantomimes, Housch ma Housch, a clown noted for his vocal effects, and the classic clown ensemble the Rastelli, whose bad taste brought comedy to a new low in Monte Carlo.

Only Fumagalli got to do his familiar but lengthy spitting entrée, The Bee and the Honey. Bello’s most successful comic turn was his bungee act, in which he incorporated to great effect strongman Encho, but his work with a group of farm animals, while it had the potential to be hilarious, scored for its charm.

Bello and his daughter Annaliese got a better workout at the outdoor performance, given free to the public on the grounds of the palace, after a parade from the chapiteau on Saturday afternoon. Here Bello worked with the Wheel of Whatever It’s Called Nowadays, and he and Annaliese revived his family’s signature sway pole act.

One interesting side note which was made little of was the fact that all three major clowns all sported unique hairdos.  Only Bello and Fumagalli’s were their own, however.  An attempt to work the three into a drop dead comedy trio, however, was disappointingly low-key, to say the least.

Along with all this there was Kelly Huesca, whose sand sculpture portrait of the late Prince Rainier introduced a note of strongly felt nostalgia and thanksgiving for the festival’s founder and patron saint.

After all is said and done, however, despite some miscalculations in programming, this festival was the greatest assemblage of circus talent we have seen perhaps since the Golden Age. And when it came to the gala performance, at the festival’s conclusion, imagine two of the world’s finest equestrians sharing the ring, the greatest elephant act inexistence, three of the most impressive hand balancing act working simultaneously, the strongest acts from China, Russia and the Ukraine, three great clowns and other outstanding acts all working in the same ring, often at the same time, a true celebration of circus artistry.

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