San Francisco Bay Area Circus:
The 2015 Watershed, Part 1
by Judy Finelli
In 2015 the Bay Area enjoyed a veritable explosion of circuses, variety arts stage shows, and cabarets. It wasn’t just the number of performances alone that amazed me. Rather it’s more that these shows represented a new level of excellence, risk-taking, creativity, and experimentation. Some of these shows had already become perennial favorites, while others were new, refreshing surprises. American artists have made a quantum leap to a new level. I predict that, over time, shows like the ones I discuss in this series will change attitudes – and that circus art will garner more respect as a result.
I’ll begin by citing shows that have become welcome Bay Area traditions
Circus Bella, which this season sported a brand-new look, new costumes, and a unifying concept from guest artistic director, Hélène Turcotte, provided free shows in parks throughout the Bay Area, attracting fans of all ages and from all walks of life. This year Bella added the physical comedy and Chinese pole climbing of Ross “Fireman” Travis, who rescued aerialist Abigail Munn’s cat from the top of the pole, despite his protestation, “I don’t do cats!” Calvin Kai Ku returned as a big hearted clown who invites acrobatic trouble – even deadly land sharks – wherever he goes. The Gentile Family returned as well with their special blend of antipodism and risley tailor-made for their ever-popular (and increasing) family act. I choreographed a “Big Juggle” for Bella this year, and attended three shows during their summer season, in addition to their annual winter appearance at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. At the JCC show, two of Serchmaa Byamba’s contortion students sparkled brilliantly as they presented a polished duet. Tristan Cunningham returned as the clown, Dee Dee, who fails in her longing to be an astonishing superhero, but succeeds in capturing the hearts of her audience. Natasha Kaluza once again wowed the audience with her Hip Hop-inspired hula hoop act.
This past holiday season Tandy Beal and Company returned with their crazy, mixed-up version of “The Nutcracker,” entitled appropriately enough, “Remixed Nuts.” The show featured the preppy-nerdy clowning antics of Jamie Coventry, and (again) Hip Hop hooper Natasha Koluza, award-winning clowning from the warm, wicked, and wise Iman Lazarezu, and a variegated host of great dancers, all spiced with holiday surprise confections!
If one were looking for an unusual night out, he or she had to check out “Frank Olivier’s Twisted Cabaret and Pandemonium Vaudeville Show.” The show played in San Francisco throughout 2015, and further shows have been scheduled for San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland for 2016. The cast of dozens of demented characters played by Olivier is a tour de force featuring juggling, unicycling, comedy, singing, and dancing. If you’re looking to walk on the variety wild side, this is the show for you.
Youth circuses have also joined the striving towards excellence. Prescott Circus Theatre is training in preparation for a wonderful spring and summer show guaranteed to raise spirits. Circus Center’s Youth Circus presented a dynamite holiday show to close out 2015. Kinetic Arts Center’s “Circus Spire” Youth Performance Troupe also produced inventive and highly-skilled shows during the past year, and have even more engaging shows planned for 2016.
When Circus Center hired Steve Smith as its new Creative Director, it took a giant step forward towards a new level of professionalism. Steve’s influence is easily manifest in the wonderful addition of CC’s “Cabaret,” a brand new entertainment aimed at adult audiences. The Center’s newly-renovated theater is transformed into a nightclub, complete with tablecloths, smoky lighting, and a wait staff serving drinks. A smashing jazz combo and chanteuse (and sometimes a clownteuse) complete the mood. Expect the unexpected. You may be by entertained by tap-dancing jugglers, aerialists, flamenco dancers, or wacky comedy. The sold-out shows prove that Steve’s instincts are on-target.
Circus in the Bay Area is not only alive and well, it is thriving. All of the great artists and theaters I’m discussing in this series are producing unique, captivating, and powerful shows – all without the massive government support enjoyed by circuses in countries like Canada, France, Russia, and China. Circuses imbued with guts, dedication, passion, love, sweat, and tears can go far to make up for a lack of financial aid.
Raising the Bar:
Acrosanct’s Audacious Debut Turns Up the Heat on the Contemporary American Circus
From time to time, all people struggle to find themselves. No one, no matter how extraordinary, is exempt. These acrobats find themselves; in the air, upside down, and in each other’s arms. – ThisiSacrosanct
San Francisco’s new elite-level acrobatics performing troupe, Acrosanct, debuted an audacious, three-months-in-the-making show. Acrosanct’s goal is to present performances that “inspire audiences by unleashing acrobatic potential through tradition, technology, structure, and space.” This captivating company was hand-picked by Master Lu Yi, the former artistic director of Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe from China and Circus Center. These engaging acrobats, many of whom began studying circus arts with Circus Center’s children’s classes, ultimately progressing to Master Lu Yi’s Youth Circus, burst forth with a ferocity that grows out of a sincere passion to perform. Dubbed ThisiSacrosanct, a play on the words acrobatics and sacrosanctity, the show was an exploration of the quest for identity – in this case, both for the audience and the troupe. With this opening show, the company successfully displayed a clear style and focus: irreverent, adventurous, startling, and yet vulnerable.
Ostensibly entering from the same exterior world as their audience, the performers parked their bikes, formed a line (a la “A Chorus Line”), and removed layers of street clothing to reveal form-fitting leotards, leaving the quotidian world behind. This was how they established an intimate connection with their audience, a confluence not often found in the largely technique-driven world of acrobatics. Acrosanct offers the best of both worlds: top technique and emotional depth – with an adventuresome vigor. Acrosanct’s performers launched into each unusual act with high-octane ebullience and vibrant enthusiasm.
The opening charivari, featuring the entire company, felt more like a well-choreographed modern dance piece infused with lyrical, sometimes slow-motion, acrobatic elements, than a conventional acrobatic display. The total effect was breathtaking.
After the charivari, eight performers dazzled the audience by carefully constructing side-by-side four-highs! Four-highs, in my experience, were only performed in “Eastern” European teeterboard, or Russian and Chinese acts. [I’m unaware of any other American acts currently performing four-highs. I’ve Googled it, and have come up blank. If anyone is aware of any Americans performing four-highs, please let me know.] These stereo four-highs stand both as a kick-ass pair of tricks, and as a shining promise for future teeterboard acts.
Chloe Axelrod followed with variations on her signature, rapid-fire lyra act, wryly commenting with candid stream-of-consciousness wisecracks and musings as she ripped into each section. Her ability to combine aerial artistry with controlled speech is in itself a testament to her advanced aerobic capability. Chloe’s exceptional flexibility, strength, and speed fuses with exciting, original transitions between tricks, keeping her act fresh and alive. With Chloe nothing is ever conventional or complacent. The audience always needs to watch closely, so that it will be fully rewarded by her ever-surprising artistry.
To their credit, Acrosanct attempted a bounce juggling act with Althea Young and Miles Stapp. It had a fluid feel, introduced a welcome offbeat rhythmic element. I encourage them to develop this intriguing idea further, and exploit their unique, rebound-friendly flooring.
Chloe Axelrod returned with a droll number called “Chair Play,” in which she blithely explores the many positions a body can assume in relationship to a chair. She performs headstands, handstands, backbends, and contortions using the large spaces in the backrest and below the seat. She makes merely sitting feel woefully mundane by comparison. Her anti-couch potato statement is downright inspirational.
The supremely confident Bradley Henderson appears for his virtuoso cyr wheel act. Encompassing an impossible-looking series of daring movements, Bradley incorporates muscling over the wheel itself into a front balance in his demanding exercise, while simultaneously keeping the cyr momentum seamlessly flowing and balanced. He uses the momentum he creates with the revolving and heavy, spinning cyr wheel to fling his body into large revolutions, counterbalancing the wheel, heightening the suspension of gravity, and leaving the audience gasping in disbelief.
Althea Young reappears with touching vulnerability, grappling with her apparent fears and apprehensions as she prepares to tackle her aerial straps act. Hers is an act which demands a high degree of strength and leg-flexibility necessary for handling an exacting array of front and back levers, roll-ups, and roll-downs. Discovering that her strength is even more powerful than her act, she conclusively triumphs, highlighted by the rest of the company encircling her with glowing candlelight.
Acrobats Bradley Henderson and Ron Oppenheimer return for an impressive Chinese pole display in which they spring from pole to pole like dragonflies, displaying great strength and a flexibility which is masked by their airy defiance of gravity. Gravity takes a hike in this act as they cavort and find all available ways to suspend and balance on the poles. Here gravity is not considered the enemy, but rather a playmate in a game to see how many tricks can be performed while resisting its unwavering pull.
Arguably, the most exacting – and unforgiving – Chinese discipline is the hoop-diving act. Also known as “the swallow game,” hoop-diving mimics the flight of swallows in and out of the circular holes in fences. An acrobat diving through hoops has very little margin for error. That margin is measured in centimeters between the acrobat’s body and the rim of the hoop. Even the tiniest of errors can collapse the stacked hoops. Bradley Henderson, Ron Oppenheimer, and Miles Stapp accepted this challenge with style and professional assurance. If the hoops collapsed, their generous and gracious acceptance of the unplanned mishap placed the audience at ease. They dove in tandem, solo, forwards, backwards, upside down, and upside down backwards without missing a beat. They brought the audience along for the ride during each cascade of swoops, leaps, and dips. I observed the audience visibly attempting to nudge them smoothly through each move by sheer force of will. We forgive their errors and rejoice in their triumphs.
The teeterboard act, featuring Bradley Henderson, Marina Mendoza, Steven Delaney, Vangelis Chaniotakis, Luke Pieper, Miles Stapp, and Toni Cannon, was a masterstroke of staging ingenuity. Mr. Hollander composed it so that the board, tower, and crash-pad were rotated a quarter turn with each trick, providing an excitingly fresh perspective on the customary profile view of the act. Once seen, one wonders that it wasn’t previously attempted. Marina Mendoza owns this act by executing a marvelous variety of twists, somersaults, and assured landings, along with other leapers, culminating with nailing a high-low hand-to-hand. Her joy and confidence are reflected in her serene, focused expression. It is interesting to note how often I’ve seen this serenity on the faces of Chinese acrobats, lending credence to the efficacy of the Chinese method. Any tradition that has produced stellar acrobats for (perhaps) five millennia must inspire an unshakable poise. The cross-cultural influence is complete as Marina becomes a Chinese acrobat in spirit. The rest of the cast are similarly transformed.
ThisiSacrosanct is unique in contemporary circus, because it is in my estimation the only example of Americans reinterpreting the ancient form of Chinese acrobatics. This synthesis has birthed an altogether new entertainment hybrid that is intense and exciting. From the rock-solid foundation of Master Lu Yi’s Chinese tradition melding with the contemporary artistic vision of director Jaron Hollander, Acrosanct has discovered a singular style and identity. It brings to mind Plato’s Cave and questions about the true nature of reality. The audience sees the elongated shadows of the acrobats on the walls of the studio. However, unlike the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, the audience can actually see the acrobats. They are not mere shadows but the living embodiment of the Form of Youth celebrating itself. These artists are athletes trained to a rarefied level. This cannot be faked. One either has the goods or one doesn’t. Acrosanct’s got the goods.
Acrosanct, 1800 Illinois St., San Francisco, CA, June 13, 2015.
Master Lu Yi, co-founder and artistic director; Ayla Agarwal, co-founder and executive director; Jory Bell, co-founder and board chairperson. Directed by Jaron Hollander; Nathan Holguin, stage manager; Zoë Klein, lighting designer; Katie Whitcraft, light board operator; Annika Barnes, costume designer.
Acrobats: Bradley Henderson, chief acrobatic officer; Chloe Marvel Light Axelrod; Annika Barnes; Tom Delaney; Ali Harrington; Marina Mendoza; Luke Pieper.
Youth Acrobats: Ron Oppenheimer; Miles Stapp; Althea Young.
Editor’s Note: Part II of this review to come in future issue.