by Judy Finelli
When I first met future clown Ross Travis, he was a young student beginning classes at Circus Center. He wasn’t yet certain what he wanted to study. I immediately recognized his charged vitality, though. Throughout my life there have been moments when I spotted someone with an inner direction; someone who was searching for a focal point for concentrating his or her talent. John Gilkey was such a person when I met him in 1986 at an International Jugglers’ Association (IJA) Convention. I immediately snatched up Gilkey for the Pickle Family Circus. Another was Kelsey Custard. Custard had a kind of anything-for-a-laugh daring I immediately took note of, so I wasn’t surprised when Cirque du Soleil pulled her on board for Ka.
I have learned, that as long as a young person has an inner vision or direction and works hard to achieve it, that person is likely to succeed. So it was with Ross Travis. He was self-aware enough to realize he did not fit into a prefabricated mold. He began an idiosyncratic exploration of clowning, rejecting training from a master clown or clown school. At first, Travis was uncertain what he wanted to be, but once he began his exploration of characters his clown persona began to emerge. The process is far from easy, however. There is no magical formula for successful clowning. There’s no “learning a couple of bits and that’s all you need.” He came to study the arduous Chinese pole from Master Lu Yi for six years and with Dominik Wyss for two years. This intense training finally gave him the physical basis upon which to hang his clown character. This was vital. For the great Armenian mime clown Leonid Engibarov it was boxing. Bill Erwin studied dance at Oberlin. Geoff Hoyle studied Decroux mime. Larry Pisoni, acrobatics. Chinese pole is not an obvious choice because the equipment is not inherently funny. A clown can dance eccentrically, use whimsical footwork, or have an expressive body, but if Travis was going to use Chinese pole and make it funny, he would have to discover it for himself. It took him several years until he hit his stride. Travis wrote a one-man show, The Greatest Monkey Show on Earth; was featured in last year’s Circus Bella show, Mighty!; and parleyed his character, Monsieur LouLou (debuted at Circus Center’s Cabaret) into a starring role in this year’s Flynn Creek Circus. Travis founded his own non-profit theater, Antic in a Drain (sponsored by the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program). That’s the maddening thing about clowning. Every clown must ultimately find his or her own way.
Salvage, directed by Jaron Hollander, is a compelling show – and a disturbing one. It might have been an experimental, environmental piece at New York’s La MaMa Theatre’s Etc. The setting is a harsh environment after a cataclysmic interplanetary disaster. A ragtag group of road warriors bent on survival are thrust among other survivors whom they don’t know whether or not they can trust. The program suggests that a “global catastrophe . . . contagious disease (engineered by us or nature), environmental failure, nuclear war, or asteroids colliding with Earth” has decimated large swathes of the global population. The unfortunate survivors are obsessed by a toilet in the foreground of the set. Elimination, because of the scarcity of food, is also scarce. Consumption, digestion, and elimination are cause for great excitement.
The assorted survivors start out with an “every man or woman for himself or herself” mentality, but the humanity of the individual characters gradually emerges. A clown duo, Ross Travis and Abigail Baird, find a cockroach which they deem to be edible and they set about killing it, cutting it in half, and devouring it in full view of the audience. Travis, in blackened make-up, then proceeds to devour the audience.
Emily Phillips performs a marvelous solo acrobatic-parkour act in which she somersaults with a surprising lightness and grace off of set-pieces and on to the stage. Phillips displays the essential dramatic presence necessary to sustain this smooth acrobatic solo. She performs with an assurance and skill that makes her difficult act appear effortless. Phillips makes a fitting cat lady as she is referred to in the program. She always lands lightly on her feet and has at least nine lives to spare.
Solo acrobatic acts have been traditionally somewhat of a rarity in vaudeville or the circus. Acrobatic ensembles provide space during a performance for individual acrobats to catch his or her breath, but a soloist performing a sequence of tricks, has no time to breathe. Whether forming pyramids or diving over higher and higher obstacles, the other acrobats facilitate breathing spaces.
Another woman in the cast, T.T. Robson, performs an arresting tissu act. Her character, appears to be a flawless beauty, is in fact in denial that she has been disfigured. She reveals her disfigurement to the shocked audience when she turns to reveal her horribly burned back and shoulders. Robson’s character, despite her handicap, performs an impeccable and lyrical tissu act. Her creative use of kleenex which she drops, allows to float down, and then delicately descends a few feet to snatch from the air, playfully underscores the laws of gravity that govern aerial acts. This is impressive and imaginative. Her highly-developed flexibility and strength ensures her triumph over insurmountable odds.
The youngest member of the Salvage cast, Ellie Rossi, performs an energetic and powerful aerial rope act with assurance, executing a beautiful selection of wraps and rapid unwraps, dropping dramatically. She injects a spirit of youthful optimism in the presence of desolation. Rossi delivers a series of tricks guaranteed to grab the audience and elicit gasps. She emphasizes both her flexibility and her strength in this gravitational exploration all the while seemingly transporting her gaze to some idealized landscape. The audience catches glimpses of this beautiful place by watching her move.
Contortion, hand-balancing, and balletic expression coalesce in the dynamic Elliott Gittelsohn. Supremely confident, he laughs at the challenge of survival as if to say: “Cataclysm? Catastrophe? I eat those for breakfast!” He exudes an electricity that sets off virtual sparks, elevating his performance into a celebration when he is joined by the adroit Natalie Rhae. Rhae flaunts her versatility as Gittelsohn’s contortion partner. The joy and intimacy of their characters’ relationship is expressed in double-decker contortion poses, and features Gittelsohn impressively pushing up from a chest-stand into a contortion handstand. Gittelsohn’s and Rhae’s act symbolizes the existential importance of a meaningful connection with another human being. The audience gets another glimpse of Gittelsohn’s aerial talents when makes an appearance as T.T. Robson’s porteur during her tissu act.
Natalie Rhae, serving as an excellent counterpoint to Ross Travis’s Chinese pole act, returns to tackle the swinging pole. This was something I don’t often see, but Rhae convinced me of the unique possibilities of this piece of equipment. Requiring endurance, she successfully handled the apparatus with aplomb and style as she synced her timing with the physics of the moving pole. Rhae always went with the moving pole, using its impetus to execute new moves.
Ross Travis performs his breakneck Chinese pole act as a misfit character who becomes the ultimate humanizing force. His act is a bewildering and impressive blur of surprise and athleticism. Perfectly-timed from trick to trick, Travis sculpts his moves, alternately ascending the pole and suddenly sliding down headfirst, drawing on an invisible well of strength, all the while eliciting the audience’s gasps. His character appears always on the brink of disaster, but to the relief of the audience, he forestalls it, and ultimately triumphs. (I’m still trying to figure out when Travis has time to breathe.)
Later in the show, Travis returns as a clown who becomes so overwhelmingly curious that he is compelled to wade into the audience to discover who these people are. This curiosity, along with a childlike sense of wonder and a fascination with humanity, is one of the essences of clowning. The clown is a secret weapon unleashed onto the unsuspecting audience. No one, neither clown nor audience, knows what will happen next. It is as if the clown is being tutored on how to be human. When the audience completely welcomes him and something funny transpires, he is jubilant.
Rachel Strickland fires off another sublime aerial hoop act. Here she is another character yearning, perhaps pre-verbally, for a meaningful connection to another human being. Strickland attains a trance-like state into which she draws the audience as she stretches beyond flexibility, extending into infinity. She achieves a oneness with her aerial hoop that is dazzling. Her expressive arms seem to extend forever, and her hoop appears fluid and molten. Strickland is an unalloyed pleasure to observe as she guides the audience through a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.
Salvage closed with a group aerial act executed on an industrial truss. Here is where this ragtag band of individualists begins to take the necessary steps to become an interdependent society. This process is conveyed through the use of the truss, complete with ladders and hanging rungs. (I was not convinced, however, that this act communicated the director’s concept. Loops, trapezes, rings, ladders, padding, etc., could have been built into the rigging so that whatever the performers needed might be available. I wondered, which came first, the apparatus or the act? Perhaps a differently designed apparatus might have served them better, because at times the performers appeared to be fighting to work the truss. It then occurred to me that the intent might be to show the difficulty in building a society from scratch.) I heartily applaud the spirit of adventurous experimentation in Salvage. It is an impressive achievement, because ensemble pieces require intense, multi-level interactions and detailed planning.
Salvage is highly experimental in nature, and I’m an avid advocate for the spirit of experimentation, because the circus, as an art form, is relatively new to it. It is only through experimentation that the circus will discover itself as a full-fledged art form. Here’s to more risk-taking shows like Salvage!
Photos by Gary Thomsen
Salvage was performed at the Kinetic Arts Center, 785 7th Street, Oakland, CA, December 20, 2015. Conceived and Directed by Jaron Hollander; Produced by Victoria Angello; Collaborating Director: T. T. Robson; Dance Choreographer: Rachel Strickland;Production Manager: Steven Tiffin; Sound Designer: Jaron Hollander; Costume Designer: Dana MacDermott; Set Designer: Luiza Silva; Scenic Painters: Luiza Silva, Haley, Eric Gillet & Jacinto Mingura; Graphic Design: Luiza Silva, Jennifer Wong & Clara LaFrance; Photographers: Luiza Silva & Eric Gillet/ Shoot That Klown; House Managers: Victoria Angello & Carrie Kretzer
Abigail Baird, clown
Emily Phillips, solo acrobat, parkour, and cat lady
- T. Robson, aerial tissu
Natalie Rhae, swinging pole acrobat and contortionist
Ross Travis (Kinetic Arts artist in residence), clown and Chinese pole
Elliott Gittelsohn, contortionist and actor
Ellie Rossi, aerial rope
Rachel Strickland, aerial hoop