The Passing Spectacle Vol. V – No. 4

Paramour Has More Than It Knows What to Do With

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Ever since the movement that came to be known as the New Circus took root more than forty years ago there have been various attempts to wed the circus and the theatre. In most such unions the theatre assumed the lesser role.  Only on rare occasions did an acrobat or aerialist speak lines of dialogue or sing songs appropriate to the circumstances established by the amalgam’s simple narration, the most significant aspect contributed by the theatre.

During those forty years Cirque du Soleil was the dominant creative force in attempting to create a new form of circus by daringly borrowing from the theatre. So it seems inevitable that it would be this company that would take the ultimate step in forming a more perfect union of theatre and circus in which both parties to the union would retain their most salient features.  The theatre would contribute a story line that required dialogue and an original score and lyrics sung by the soloists and a chorus, and the circus would contribute acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, and both would contribute dance, costumes and a visual setting.  The resulting arranged marriage is called Paramour. It has been lavishly produced in New York City as a big, brash Broadway musical.   Looking at all the elements that went into the show, it seems to have everything.  But if anything, it has proven that “everything” is too much for one entertainment to deal with successfully.

As a result it lacks certain important ingredients that both the circus and theatre require, the most important of which is emotion. In the theatre that commodity is provided by characters we can identify with and recognize as real human beings.   There are three major characters in Paramour, a film director, his female discovery whom he intends to make into a star and her accompanist and eventual boyfriend.  (It would be wrong to call the boy her lover because their relationship never develops to that point in any recognizable way.)  So what we end up with is an ego, an innocent and a wimp.  That is about the extent of what we know of them, so it is impossible to care very much, if at all, about them. Neither the stilted dialogue nor its delivery by the trio of actors can help us rouse any sympathy, disdain or even, frankly, interest in these characters.

But around these three ciphers the show is extraordinarily busy, filling the stage with so much frenetic activity, both dance and acrobatic, that we are diverted even further from what ought to be the center of the show. In all this, Cirque du Soleil and the circus artists comes off looking better than the theatre professionals.  What works best in the show is what Cirque du Soleil does best: providing circus thrills.

Around these truly engaging moments, there is a great deal of elaborate art deco scenery and glitzy costumes, live motion pictures projected onto, not one, but three screens, and of course the circus acts: Russian barre and Cyr wheel (both seen but briefly) juggling, teeterboard, trampoline, Chinese pole, straps, hand balancing, trapeze cradle, and Broadway style hoofing with much of the latter derived from a variety of sources like the dynamic  challenge dance in the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, plus a dancer on roller skates.  The opening is so busy and unfocused it is difficult to figure out where this thing is going.  The final bit of over-the-top extravaganza, late in the show, is a set of floating and circling lamp shades.

At times the circus acts are meant to mirror what is supposed to be happening emotionally between the characters particularly in a most effective trio, in which the female acrobat is passed back and forth between two male partners, first in a hand balancing act with one and then a trapeze cradle act with the other. Unfortunately the passion is only illustrated, never revealed by the actors who sing and dance.

The plot, which has had to be sketchy enough to allow time for the circus acts quickly moves through the film director’s discovery of the female vocalist he vows to make into the world’s most adored star. At the same time he hires her accompanist to write a love song for the film in which he is going to introduce his new star. She falls under his Svengali-like spell while the young musician tags along for the ride, hoping to win the girl after losing her.  In true musical comedy plotting, after winning and losing the girl, the boy wins the girl again and the director presumably moves on to other projects.  The setting is Hollywood’s so-called Golden Era in which Art Deco is the dominant stylistic theme.

As the evening wears on, the film director puts his discovery in all sorts of familiar film settings, oddly enough the circus increasingly wins the day. The acts get more exciting and daring and manage to rouse some measure of involvement while the acting fades into oblivion.

The most spectacular of the circus acts is the duo strap act presented by identical twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton, who, in the course of their contact sport, fly out over the heads of the audience inducing gasps and cheers unmatched anywhere else in the show.

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The finale of the second act involves a chase across a city scape made up of a trampoline and various ledges. It, too, produces the kind of excited surprise missing elsewhere, but despite the multiplicity of landing zones the images become repetitious and it goes on for far too long and disappointingly fails to produce any sort of resolution to the chase.

However there are also times when the circus acts seem only vaguely connected to the stage action, as in the case of the Chinese pole act.

Since this is, after all, a musical, we must consider the score as well as all the action. Unfortunately the songs all tend to sound the same, and the lyrics, like the book, are stilted and awkward.  And since this about movie making, the filmed sequences merely reveal in close-up the vacuity of what is supposed to pass for emotion from the characters.

The show’s many creators include Jean-François Bouchard, listed in classical Cirque du Soleil speak as creative guide and creative director; Philippe Decouflé director and conceiver; West Hyler, associate creative director scene director and story; Shana Carroll, acrobatic designer and choreographer; Daphné Mauger, choreographer; Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard Composers; Phillipe Guillotel, costume designer; Jean Rabasse, set designer; and many associates whose credits fill an entire page.

The problem I think really stems from the very beginning of the creation. This isn’t the way shows are written, by committee on demand.  They are written by people who have an idea that they have conceived, are passionate about and work in a form of isolation with perhaps one or two other collaborators  to fashion the raw material into something they hope will be discovered by someone or some conglomerate, who wants to produce it, hires the remaining collaborators and the work proceeds from there, based on the idea it began with.

 

La Verità Takes Inspiration from Salvatore Dali’s Surrealism

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The centerpiece of a hybrid entertainment called La Verità seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a reproduction of a long-forgotten, hand-painted backdrop that Salvatore Dali created for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1944 ballet Mad Tristan, based on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  The ballet, for which Dali also created the sets and costumes, was one of his many collaborations with Russian choreographer Léonide Massione.   In its time, the ballet was deemed “a first-class mental carnival.” La Verità, in contrast, today, is a first-class visual carnival.

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Beatriz-Sayad and Roland Tarquini, photo by Max Gordon

This production created by Daniele Finzi Pasca is rooted in the distinct world of Dali, with vaudevillian sequences that blur the line between dream and reality. A flurry of feathers, dancing rhinos, suspended objects, and strange costumes with elaborate headpieces move in and out of the proceedings at random.   One such headpiece is designed to look like a dandelion flower gone to seed, which in the symbolism of Salvadore Dali represents the male sperm.   Dali, himself, is represented  by the backdrop, which is a significant, if inconsistent prop throughout, as are the surrealistic costumes and imagery.  Nothing is quite ordinary, standard or traditional. Ostensibly being auctioned off to raise money for a retired home for destitute circus and theatrical professionals the drop’s role never becomes more than a source of inspiration, or something of a conversation piece.

In response to it the production presents a surrealistic and kaleidoscopic view of various forms of visual provocations. In keeping with the idea of the show as a visual carnival, some the acts seem to be only quickly glimpsed snatches of a full act, like a portrait on a sideshow bannerline.  Other acts are fully realized, as for instance the gorgeous and daring hand balancing act (don’t expect any names here, the ample BAM program distains from naming names).  Another is the lyrical hoop manipulation between Stéphane Gentilini and a woman I regretfully could not identify from the photos in the program.  (I hesitate to call the objects they play with hula hoops.  Given the manner in which they and others I have seen recently deal with this object, I think it may be time to retire that term thanks to the innovations I see more and more frequently using a similar object and which rise in artfulness above the mundane associated with a child’s plaything.) The hoops, rolling mostly on the floor, move around and over a mixed pair of performers and are eventually spun in traditional ways in untraditional positions, all of it quite hypnotically beautiful.

In fact, however, the hoop is one of the few recognizable objects that is not distorted into something entirely original, like a squared aerial apparatus on which a mixed duo continually interweave their bodies. There are no tricks just continually changing images as in a kaleidoscope.  Actually that is one of the recurring stylistic devices of this show.  There are no “ta-da” moments, just continually changing images accomplished through the interweaving of bodies and/or props and costumed characters.

Perhaps the most bizarre images are produced by a male performer who more than almost any other contortionist contorts his body in ways that are more apt to elicit gasps of horror than smiles of pleasure. To make his movements even more surrealistic he is “assisted” in his maneuvers by a puppet manipulated by three Chinese prop men.  The show’s director Daniele Finzi Pasca has used this artist before in his production called Nebbia which he staged for Cirque Eloize, and which tell us something about Pasca’s taste for the truly bizarre.

We find other traditional apparatus similarly twisted into new shapes, like an eye-shaped lyra on which several people take turns cavorting.

An innovation I found most exciting was a display involving the entire ensemble in an exhibition of pole tossing. Slender poles, approximately six feet in length and rigid enough to withstanding being thrown or slid across the floor between partners create fascinating images.

A rapid bit of ball bouncing starts out as duo but soon escalates into another ensemble piece.

Three spiral or helical ladders provide the playground for yet another ever-changing visual delight.  This is after all an ensemble company, and they all display many different skills and get involved in various acts.

Surely the most unique is bit of apparatus that works like a Cyr wheel, but looks like a giant three-dimensional letter “e. ” Because of its shape it can roll in unexpected directions, often rolling dangerously close to and over some prone bodies on the floor.

In keeping with the show’s vaudevillian antecedents, one of the most charming interludes is a woman who plays a piece from the “Nutcracker Suit” on musical glasses. Totally out of place but perfectly suited for this enterprise.

In a welcome variation on a much used theme, a pair of quick change artists, here a man and woman, make their changes covered by the maneuvers of a Lorie Fuller type dancer, with an unexpected role reversal capping it all off for an unexpected laugh.

A classic roller skating act is also enlivened by the addition of some comic touches resulting from the  reluctance of the female partner to fully participate.

A short version of a Chinese pole is used as another ensemble piece with several members of the cast presenting brief solo moments, but another classic turn, a strap act, is played rather traditionally for all the drama inherent in such an act especially when accompanied by operatic music.

There is considerable dialogue in the “dramatic” interludes between acrobatic expressions, but the dialogue is difficult to understand thanks to the heavy foreign accents of the actors. Somehow I suspect not much was lost in the verbal fog.

The show’s musical accompaniment tends toward the quiet, contemplative and sentimental rather than the razzle dazzle, until the finale when the entire company is dressed in can-can dresses, as a traditional Cyr wheel moves through their classic formations and required skirt tossings. In fact throughout the production the men are often dressed in skirts, although oddly there is no suggestion of real drag or pressing for comedy in this gambit.

La Verità has been written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, with Julie Hamlin Finzi his co- everything. (Since I saw this production she has passed away at the age of 43.) Pasca’s credits include the creation of Corteo for Cirque du Soleil and the Èloize shows, Nomade, Rain and Nebbia. He also worked on  the choreography for this show with Marie Bonzanigo, who is also responsible for the music.  Sets and props were by Hugo Gargiulo, with costumes by Giovanni Buzzi, and lighting by Pasca again with Alexis Bowles.  All these talents, Pasca’s own and those of his collaborators, have combined to produce a work that is strangely beautiful at times and always highly provocative.

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Andree-Anne-Gingras, photo by Max Gordon

The production was staged in the opera house of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it seemed entirely at home there, where it was greeted warmly by an enthusiastic well-heeled audience.

 

 The Bindlestiffs Paste Together a Low Cost Spectacle

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Keith Nelson and Stephanie Monseu

The title of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus’ latest production A Cardboard and Duct Tape Spectacular, coyly suggests the size of the budget that the Bindlestiff’s had at their disposal.  Despite such penury, however, in many ways the show is as imaginative and delightfully clever as many productions (one of which shall be discussed later) with much larger, almost limitless budgets.  “A blank check,” Kenneth Feld has been known to say, “stifles creativity.”  No such stifling here.

There may be no surprises in any of the solo turns from the five member cast, all of whom are familiar members of the Bindlestiff Family, for they are doing pretty much the same acts we have seen them do many times before and somehow continue to anticipate with pleasure once again.  But there are surprises in how comfortably everything fits together, how charmingly the cardboard and duct tape theme is incorporated into the proceedings with nary an ounce of strain showing and finally how much fun it all adds up to be.

In recent times, the company has been searching for a director who could take them to the next level of production, and I think they have found him in Daniel Passer, who it would seem is responsible for the production’s sense of humor and its physical comedy.

Few other circuses that I attend have the same sense of comradery, not just within the cast members, but with the audience, a devoted coterie, as well. They all know each other so well and are so comfortable with each other that the show exudes a warmth and affection that just about make its familiar pleasures all but irresistible.  They all seem to be having so much fun and enjoying what they are doing.  The company’s not called the Bindlestiff Family for nothing.  A particular expression of that familiarity can be seen in the way the three members of the band, under the direction of Peter Bufano, join with the featured performers to make use of those very items named in the title  to produce an enchanting bit of music.

The roster of acts includes Adam Kuchler and his exciting box juggling. He later contributes an unexpected bit of handbalancing.

Ekaterina Sknarina, dressed as a bride, helps with some aerial work on the lyra, but adds much more with a totally unexpected rope twirling routine that evolves into a jumping rope sequence involving the entire cast.

Bindlestiff co-founder Stephanie Monseu, pulls out her ladder of swords climbing act, and her partner Keith Nelson, in his familiar Kinko guise, rouses the audience to a fever pitch with his traditional plate spinning routine that is complicated by some spoon juggling as the plates begin to teeter near catastrophe.

Richie Maguire provides his acrobatic expertise to some solo ground work and is part of the club passing routine and rope jumping.

Nelson also brings out his top spinning and sword swallowing acts for a bit of risqué sensation.

I had to leave before risking turning into a pumpkin, but I know from the way these evenings go, everyone, cast, crew and audience hung around afterwards for some family-styled exchanges of gossip and laughs.

 

Royal Hanneford Circus Shrine Date Takes Us Back

to Another Time and Place

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Catherine Poema Hanneford

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And what to my wondering eyes should appear but lavender and pink ring curbs and ring carpets covering a collection of three, count ‘em, three rings. There are lavishly plumed show girls, an aerial ballet, and a veritable menagerie of performing animals, tigers, camels, elephants, pigs and pony rides that parade and primp before me.  An array of aerial rigging and lighting effects fill the arena with a spider web effect.  Where are we, and what is the year?

It’s not Madison Square Garden in the mid 1950s of that we can be sure. It’s an ice rink in Morristown, NJ, and it is a Shrine circus created by the Royal Hanneford Circus, the 42nd annual, in fact, in a format that has changed but little in all those years, but for the slickness of the production values:  a giant mirror ball, chaser lights, fog, colored spot lights.

Some of the highlights included Vicenta Pages’ presentation of five tigers, three of which were white; the Lopez family on their sparkling highwire rigging; and Catherine (Poema) Hanneford’s lyrical workout on the aerial lyra, certainly one of the most polished performances of the show.

Speaking of the Poema family, they also team up with another family in a Russian swing display billed as the Flying Chaotics.   Both Adriana, Sr. Poema and his son Adrian, Jr. work in this segment of the show.  Adrian also appears in a three-ring juggling display with Noel Aguilar in the center ring .  Adrian and Junior Neves work the end rings.

It has been several years since I last saw Adrian in the family risley act. At that time  he was a scene stealing, spotlight- loving youngster of about  six or seven.  It was fascinating to see him again, and observe that he has lost little of those instincts for playing to the crowd.

A hootenanny with showgirls in cowgirl outfits introduces Les Kimes’ latest edition of Cousin Grumpy’s Pork Chop Revue, which just about says it all concerning what this troupe of three huge porkers and two little ones, are up to.

In other displays that filled the arena one featured four aerialists, Monica Neves, Alonso, Kevin Sadrak and Luziner on silks, an attractive display by all accounts.  The six girls of the aerial ballet were used to frame the Espanas’ revolving space ship, from which the pair performed their daring cradle act. What with the flashing lights, fog, the mission control audio, and the girls, it all added up to a handsome and exciting display.

Further thrills were provided during the final act, the Globe of Death, here the “Sphere of Fear” with the Lopez Thrill Riders.

For animal lovers there was Luziner’s display of four dromedaries well routined and efficiently presented, as were the Carson and Barnes elephants, featuring the youngest bull, who like young Adrian Poema is growing up into a full-fledged star. Tim Frisco was in charge of the act.

For a change of pace Barry Lubin’s Grandma showed up and tried, once again, to master the exercise treadmill. Grandma’s musical accompaniment has provided some new comic twists to the plot.  Later she returns for a spoof of the quick change act presented by Dulce &  Benito Aguilar.

Throughout the production I was impressed by the attention to detail in costuming and presentation, which must be credited to ringmaster Billy Martin and his wife Angela who designed the carefully arranged costumes for the three-ring presentations and each appearance of the show girls.

 

The NoFit State Circus Keeps Itself in Perpetual Motion

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The Nofit State Circus hailing from Cardiff, Wales, is celebrating its 30th year of production, and its continuing growth into an international circus company. Its work is performed mainly in what is known as the promenade style, meaning there are no seats; the audience walks around and among the artists, guided by company members who move them in and out of the action as befits the changing patterns of the playing area.

In its latest production, Bianco, which was seen in a saucer-shaped tent situated literally and rather stunningly under the Brooklyn Bridge, the four corners of the central playing area are occupied by multi-level scaffolding that form four towers which move about a great deal during the performance.  In a way the show is as much about the changing settings as it is about the circus skills that are displayed within the various spaces created by all the physical changes that are created by members of the collective.

It is important to note here, that there are no distinctions between artists and ring crew. They are one and the same.  An individual may perform on the tight wire one moment and strap himself into a harness the next and become the human counterweight for another member of the production.  Indeed the physical work of changing the environment and keeping their fellow artists literally afloat or aloft is in many ways more demanding than the time spent in the spotlight as a performer.  There is no attempt to disguise the fact that a scene change is being made, nor is there any imperative to shorten its duration.  What must be done is done without a hierarchy of personnel to get in the way.

The company lives together, works together, eats together, shares their triumphs and difficulties equally, travelling in trucks, trailers and caravans, living and breathing as a community, or more specifically a collective, the ideal that the original Pickle Family Circus strove to maintain in its beginning, but fell far short of the thirty years achieved by NoFit State.

Since its work is rooted in the traveling community that turns up, pitches a tent, gathers an audience and then leaves with only an empty lot to suggest it had ever been there, the action involved in making the changes during its performances is as important and meaningful as the circus acts that may follow the change.

That sense of an ever changing environment and the work involved in making it happen is the subtext of the show that has been directed by Firenza Guidi with a kind of playfulness suggestive of a raw anything- goes spirit that at times takes on a decidedly manic quality. The costuming and grooming of the collective’s members reinforces this sense of wild abandon. The creative producer of Bianco is Tom Rack, the musical director is David Murray, costume design is by Rhiannon Matthews and the production designer is Saz Muir.

In addition to all the movement and the circus skills, some of the latter more advanced and exciting than others, there is also a great deal of high decibel sound, a live rock band, shouted dialogue in a variety of languages, none of which is comprehensible, and the clanging of steel on steel as those four corners are shunted into new forms, all of which adds to the sense of barely controlled frenzy.

The tent in which the show is performed could hold as much as 750 people, but attendance is limited to 550 to avoid a crush and maintain a uniform level of visibility and a certain level of intimacy. Unless you are exceedingly aggressive there will be many times when there are people standing directly in front of you.  Fortunately most the circus action is aerial, and one can stand back and still have a good view.  There is web work, corde lisse, straps and two of the best acts work off a trapeze. Lyndall Merry has some spectacular twists and  spins on the swinging trapeze, and Guillaume Blais and Delia Ceruti are impressively daring in a fixed cradle act.  On the night I saw the show the program had been considerably altered due to injuries and illness involving two of the major acts.  Merry’s act, for instance is normally a duo.  As a consequence some of the remaining acts went on longer than they needed to, and at least one was awkwardly improvised.

Besides the novelty of the setting itself, many of the props and rigging are highly innovative, if not particularly exciting. There are life-sized open boxes that at one point are draped with crystal fringe and do nothing more than twirl about.  Lyras tend to fly up and down without much going on within.  I did find François Bouvier’s work on a three-point tight wire to be quite engaging, his choreography on the wire brought to mind the style of movement in Fiddler of the Roof.  He redeemed himself with a very clean backflip, after a missed walk over, as part of his repertoire.  I’m not quite sure why he and a few others felt it necessary to discard their outer garments for tights during the course of their performance, when they seemed to work very well in street clothes.

Another of the more effective acts was the extravagant Cyr wheel work of Fred Rendell, which culminated with his becoming air borne, an exciting extension of his ground work.

Despite all the determined rawness of the show, it is not entirely above showy theatrics, like the unfurled silk dress and rose petals of one young woman and the snow effect at the end. Then it is time to move on.

The director Firenza Guidi has, since 2004, run a creative center housed in an old olive press in Tuscany, Italy.  Each of the property’s individual buildings is devoted to developing a particular circus art.  Her work is an all-encompassing and constantly evolving approach to circus based on her belief that sees the performer as an ironic and subversive quality and that the space and the spectator as collaborators in the artistic process.  The vision for each show creates a world that the audience enters, rather than simply watching from afar. Hence we have Bianco.

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