San Francisco Bay Area Circus: The 2015 Watershed, Part 3:
Going for the Throat: Circus Automatic’s “Raised by Wolves”
by Judy Finelli
This is the third in my series examining last year’s breakthrough season of the San Francisco Bay Area circus. It focuses on Circus Automatic’s explosive Raised by Wolves the follow-up to last year’s In the Tree of Smoke. Devin Holt of SF Weekly called Raised by Wolves “The most exciting and innovative circus in the Bay Area.” I concur. Feral and sharp, Raised by Wolves made what seemed lyrical and whimsical In the Tree of Smoke appear almost sedate by comparison.
Raised by Wolves is the apotheosis of years of intense experimental work that began with Fleeky Flanco’s partnership with storyteller and beat-boxer Tim Barsky. In those days, Barsky served as a Spalding Gray-type storyteller for adults, spinning fantastical tales of giant squid creatures from the distant future as a backdrop for productions at the Sons of Cayuga circus space. Over the years, the funky, unassuming, and raffish Cayuga space has spawned some of the best circus talent in the Bay Area in recent years.
Raised by Wolves successfully blends poetry and storytelling with an unusual selection of circus acts perfectly woven into a seamless theatrical production. The result is akin to being caressed by a Mack truck.
A latter day Lenny Bruce, Jamie DeWolf, officiates with jazz artist Joyce Lee – both National Poetry Slam Champions and members of Tourettes Without Regrets – acting as storyteller-poet ringmasters. DeWolf performs some weeks, while Joyce Lee fulfills this role in others. This combination works beautifully, with either person serving as the verbal link with the audience. I witnessed shows with both performers, and they are unique and equally effective voices. It is the precision pairing of the acts with DeWolf’s and Lee’s stories and poems that spawns a show more visceral and distinct from any other circus I’ve ever experienced. In fact, the acts and stories are paired with the care a four-star restaurant takes with pairing fine wines with the correct gourmet courses.
DeWolf launched into his shocking, candid selection of stories with a confession that he is not at all comfortable with revealing intimate details of his life and psyche. Over the course of the show, he progressively reveals more and more about himself and his world, setting off kinetic sparks which ignite wildfires in the unsuspecting psyches of the audience. DeWolf aims for the gut and strikes the jugular. He has the uncanny ability to place himself back in time, and inhabit the past.
Lee’s strength lies in her dynamic presence, earthy beauty, and enveloping personal warmth. She opens her memory to the audience, revealing her vulnerabilities, and a strength and resilience that doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Lee spellbinds audiences with recollections of her struggles, and eventual triumphs over an intensely controlling, possessive and emotionally abusive husband, her persecuted childhood, and how people are able to grow and transform themselves.
In one of her childhood races, Lee recounts how she was ahead, but ended up losing it because of the sadistic sabotage of a misogynistic and racist boy. He deliberately pulled her head back while she was running, resulting in a devastating and painful fall and serious injuries, because the fall ripped the hair and skin off the front of her scalp.
Herein lies the key to the success of this show: while the circus artists are taking the physical risks for the audience, DeWolf and Lee take parallel emotional risks.
DeWolf prefaces Olga Kosova’s luscious reinvention of the knife throwing act by spinning poetic on a memory of his masochistic first crush on a sadistic girl prone to beating him to a bloody pulp, while Lee’s preface recounts her marriage to an emotionally abusive and controlling husband.
The knife throwing act, a staple of vaudeville through the 1950s became rather hackneyed, consisting of a man throwing knives at a woman. It’s a thinly-disguised embodiment of misogyny and violence-against-women. However, Kosova’s manifestation turns the tables, placing the man, DeWolf, on the receiving end of the knives. Kosova deliciously revels in the knives satisfying thwack into the wooden board, and DeWolf’s look of terror combined with fascination. Her act contained a few technical firsts as well. For instance, I had never seen a knife thrower who threw using the handles. Every other knife thrower I’ve ever seen throws knives from the blade. Kosova has developed her own unique and effective technique. I have also never seen any knife thrower release knives after executing a variety of acrobatic moves – illusions, tinsicas, and walkovers – thereby augmenting the difficulty of her throws. Kosova’s delightfully wicked smile contributes immeasurably to the sardonic mood of the act.
The Guinness Book of World Records holder for “farthest arrow shot into a target using the feet” while doing a handstand, Inka Siefker, is the real deal. She is a contortionist’s contortionist, who in vaudeville would’ve been called a “close bender.” That means she is not merely flexible, but that she can actually touch her hips to her head in an extreme backbend while in a handstand. Not content to perform the expected symmetrical balances and poses, Siefker incorporates the type of twisting moves that I’ve only previously seen performed by African contortionists. She displays the graceful and erotic flexibility of a sensual dance while only standing on one leg. Siefker has now expanded her repertoire to include the Marinelli Bend, one of the most difficult and dangerous of contortion positions. She bites a cobra shaped “S” curved mouth grip and from a backbend, draws a bow and arrow with her feet. Taking away her hands, and only supported by her mouth, she stabilizes herself by resting her hips on her head, and shoots the bow and arrow toward a target. Both times I saw her perform in this show she hit the bull’s-eye. “Merely” shooting a bow and arrow with the feet and the body inverted dates back at least to ancient Greece, if not earlier. This propels the act into rarefied territory reserved for an elite portion of contortionists. The hush that falls over the audience is a testimonial to the awe at the artistry of this rare act.
Fleeky Flanco, a gifted Klishnigg contortionist and handbalancer and brainchild behind Circus Automatic, presented his own invention, the skeleton “barrel” apparatus. He takes wild balancing chances while on his feet, in handstands, rolling inside it, and on its edge. Flanco keeps the audience on edge as well, taking it with him on his arduous trek across the stage. He actually succeeds in making front-balancing both poised and absurd.
The first act closes with Bradley Henderson on a Cyr wheel. What Henderson has forgotten about the Cyr wheel, other performers will never learn. The only thing he hasn’t done is swallow it, but I would put nothing past him at this point! Henderson can hang low from the wheel and spin rapidly, using the wheel as a means of transportation across the stage, or he can use it as a piece of aerial equipment and hoist himself above and over it, and harness the momentum generated by the heavy ring, flinging himself outward against it, rendering it eerily motionless. Most importantly, under Henderson’s command the wheel can assume different moods, characters, and identities as though he and the wheel are symbiotically joined.
Appearing as an absurdist non sequitur, Colin Davis, opens the second half of the show in a star turn as an eccentric magician. Colin is a rarity among younger comedy performers, who often allow their youthful exuberance to work against the comedy. Energy can be a plus in an act like Patrick Leonard’s manic acrobatic act with arm chair with Seven Fingers a few seasons ago, but Davis’s act is a horse of a different color. His magician is faking it at every turn. None of the tricks actually work: his pigeon is stuffed; he cannot perform fancy card manipulations, though he tries; he sports a fake mustache over another painted on his upper lip; and he fails to make anything whatsoever appear or disappear. Deadpan and spare in facial expression and movement, Davis’s humor lies in – wait for it – timing. His is the kind of timing usually displayed by older, seasoned performers, like the late Carl Ballantine. Davis possesses the inner smile necessary to pull it off, and a slight smile that clues the audience that he is subtly putting them on. The pièce de résistance is his pocket full of confetti. After each failed trick, he digs into his pants pocket, grabs a handful of confetti, and throws it into the air so that it falls onto his head and shoulders like so much dandruff. The audience roars. Davis’s magician unabashedly celebrates his failures to the effervescent delight of the audience. This act is pure magic to watch. This is a truly postmodern act, bridging old-style comedy with the new.
Fleeky Flanco follows with his breakaway bricks stack. From a handstand, he builds up a stack of wooden blocks, presses a handstand, then suddenly pushes the bricks aside as he drops several feet and catches himself on his hands. Observing his act, which I have witnessed many times before, I sensed Flanco had achieved a breakthrough in anticipating every reaction of his audience, and precisely timing his moves accordingly. Sensing this, the audience shot to its feet and roared in approval.
Prefacing Rachel Strickland’s aerial hoop performance, Jamie DeWolf recounted the harrowing tale of meeting “The Girl in the Hallway,” a girl who lived in the same seedy Section 8 apartment building with him, his girlfriend, and their baby. She was abandoned to the hallways of the building by her meth-addicted mother and ex-convict boyfriend. DeWolf often found her alone on the stairs, but feared any closer connection with her. One day, after giving her milk and cookies, the girl disappeared, and was abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a serial killer. DeWolf remains haunted with guilt, and tormented by the “what ifs.”
I had never seen Rachel Strickland before. It did not take me long to discover she belongs to the experimental world of circus art. Strickland is an aerialist who attacks the boundaries of aerial hoop. Her form is lovely and her flexibility is fully extended. Using inventive transitions, Strickland inhabits her sometimes surrealistic soundscapes. Her act succeeds in healing the audience after the ghastly, but unforgettable story.
Micah Walters is an acrobatic dancer with impossibly long legs, torso and arms. He has the kind of body most acrobatic students would kill for. He plays it like a musical instrument. Each move and phrase is extended to the fullest. The result is a mesmerizing and altogether new style of acrobatic dance. When the first wave of acrobatic dance came out of vaudeville, their style featured limber acrobatic dancers doing a kind of jazz dance incorporating exercises like “snake hips,” “shame-shame,” “push your ways,” and often culminating in sets of rapid fire, show-stopping repeated walkovers, aerial walkovers, or “pony walks,” etc. Nowadays the old-style has given way to a new wave of modern dance incorporating mime with highly-controlled, semi-aerial slow-motion tumbling. Gymnastic dance can look stiff, yet even this figures into the new style. Walters has created his own singular style in which his acrobatic moves are seamlessly interwoven with the dance moves, producing a true synthesis. With each move he exudes an intoxicating sensuality.
Jamie DeWolf weaves a tale of suicide and near-annihilation versus resurrection. His woman friend attempts suicide, but miraculously survives. He recounts her decision to end her life, and the miracle of her failure. He concludes with her slow return to the land of the living. Rachel Strickland then reappears with an aquatic aerial act. She is rolled onto the stage submerged in a clear tank of water about two feet high, and as the music slowly builds, she emerges slowly, water rolling off her body. Her goal is to shatter the boundaries between water and aerial work. Again, Strickland uses her flexibility well as she grips her apparatus. This ingenious experiment pays dividends as she flings her wet hair in a huge arc up and around her body, setting off a shower of drops that arc far beyond her into the first few rows of the audience. This is a kind of baptism which perfectly reflects the rebirth of DeWolf’s friend. Afterwards, I wondered if her hands had blistered after being worked so strenuously while wet. I detected no problems, however. By the end of the act she has returned to her tank, re-submerging herself into her aquatic tomb. As a colleague of mine once said, “Life is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.”
Closing the show was Bradley Henderson’s and Colin Davis’s hoop-diving act. They used the house right aisle in addition to the stage for setting up and diving through stacks of hoops. Each wore lipstick and eye make-up creating an oddly-effective androgynous dissonance. They made all of the tricks when I saw the show. This was remarkable given the unforgiving nature of rings. It was a testament to their trainer, Master Lu Yi. The audience responded as though it were at an athletic event or rock concert. They were on their feet and cheering, applauding thunderously.
Many of the other performers then joined them in a rollicking charivari closer.
The musical selections throughout the show deserve unreserved praise. They consummately unified the entire show. Raised by Wolves for all its carnality exuded a sacramental leitmotif. The sacraments in the show were DeWolf’s and Lee’s confessions to and communion with the audience, a baptism, and last rites. The use of Jamie DeWolf and Joyce Lee perfectly reflected the energy required to perform the circus acts. I often think that it is precisely this boundless energy that sets circus artists apart from other performing artists. It is the contrast between the storyteller-poets and the circus artists that sets Raised by Wolves apart from other circuses. Circus Automatic’s previous show had not prepared me for the devastation and exhilaration produced by this show.
In a season in which show after show hits its target, this show boldly goes where no circus has gone before.
Directed by the Company; John Trepp, Producer; Alexis Vabre “Ashes Monroe,” Art & Lighting Direction; Leigh Riley, Production manager; Francesco Capodieci, Roboticist & Programming; Michael Murnane, Set Design’
Fleeky Flanco explains the absence of a director’s credit:
“We were much less like directors and more like curators, but in general, in circus I feel the role of director shouldn’t be held in such a high regard due to the fact that circus performers are not bags of meat placed by the director. They are more like a heard of cats that the ‘director’ keeps in one place, and then they do amazing things.” — Fleeky Flanco
Jamie DeWolf, Poet & Storyteller; Joyce Lee, Poet & Storyteller; Fleeky Flanco, Klishnigg contortion & hand balancing; Inka Siefker, Close-Bender Contortionist, Marinelli Bend with Archery: Colin Davis, eccentric magician, Chinese Pole & Acrobatics; Rachel Strickland, Aquatic Aerialist: Bradley Henderson, Cyr Wheel, Chinese Pole & Acrobatics: Olga Kosova, Acrobatic Knife-Thrower: Micah Walters, Acrobatic Dancer
“Circus Automatic is looking to tour “Raised by Wolves.” Inquiries please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org .”
Next up: Kinetic Arts’ “Salvage” & Sweet Can’s “Mittens and Mistletoe”