The Passing Spectacle Vol. V, No. 6

Circus Smirkus Takes Off with a Historical Flight

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For those who are trying to find new themes for circus shows and are stuck on the idea of turning the circus into a dream world consider Troy Wunderle’s recent experience. In thinking about a new show for the 2016 Circus Smirkus tour he submitted no less than thirty ideas to his new director Mark Lonergan.  Faced with such a surfeit of ideas Lonergan managed to narrow the list down to ten.  Finally the Smirkus Board of Directors reduced it once more to three. The winning idea, it turns out, first came to Wunderle when he was in sixth grade and his father, who was also his teacher presented a program about the beginning of flight.  Wunderle remembers being struck by the various (what then seemed like outlandish), ideas for how various adventurers proposed getting man aloft and staying there.  Those outlandish ideas have been translated into Smirkus’ current show, Up Hup and Away, into knockabout gags for the show’s contingent of clowns, Ariana Wunderle, Cameron Zweir, Ivan Jermyn, Eva Lou Rhinelander, Graham Reicher, Lindsey Barrows, and Sarah Norden.

Since this year’s theme is based on an actual story and history has obligingly provided a happy, even triumphant, ending, the Smirkus performance, too, ends on a soaring dramatic note with man’s first successful flight. It is a gloriously ridiculous conclusion to a show that is as tightly constructed a delight as Smirkus has woven together in recent years.

In addition to the comic interludes that push the story forward there are several impressively skillful performances that spin off the theme most effectively. High among them are Delaney Bates a young juggler whose control and seemingly effortless handling of balls, clubs and rings is not only an absolute, jaw-dropping wonder but a charming delight as well.  She is a genuine and unmistakable phenom, brilliantly showcased in a plethora of pleasing juggling techniques.

In one of the show’s earliest aerial moments, five girls, Cheya Potter, Ilse Bryan, Lola Picayo, Serafina Walker, and, Maedya Kojis, work on a unique contraption which, like many of the props in the show, create some lovely pictures and unique movements which allow the girls to show off some traditional skills, like heel and toe hangs.

Other mid-air fantasies take place on the same sort of faintly bizarre pieces of apparatus that mirror the outrageous contraptions that mark early pioneering attempts at getting man off the ground and in the air without falling on his face, that being left for the clowns to do so well and so often.

Even a hand balancing act is elevated by a variety of pedestals. A trio of young women (the age cut-off for participation in a Smirkus tour is eighteen), Anna Zuckerman, Leah Zuckerman , and Lyla Goldman, concludes with a remarkable three-high, held by one of the girls.

Another group, composed of Ariana Wunderle, Julia Baccellieri, Lola Picayo, Lyla Goldman, and Sam Landa work as individuals on the single-point trapeze, display many novel moves and poses, with Landa presenting the most advanced routine.

A three-point tight-wire act that includes Ariana Wunderle, Hannah Grove, Liam Ryan-O’Flaherty, and Maedya Kojis is topped off by Ben Kaufman’s ride across the wire on a unicycle. Obviously there is no shortage of first class circus talent in this extraordinary cast.

The first act finale has the entire ensemble involved in a bit of banquine acrobatics and even teeterboard, a veritable cornucopia of circus skills. Included in this free-for-all are Chase Levy, Dylan Biedrzycki, Keiran Sass, and Sam Hollis.

One of the most impressive traditional offerings is a cradle act that, like almost everything in this show, works off a re-envisioned piece of equipment. Cameron Zweir and Ripley Burns work their way with complete assurance through a routine that would do any professional duo proud.

Even a rola bola act appropriates untraditional props to give the display a whole new look. A combination lyra and silk act is hung on a piece of apparatus that amounts to an ever changing mobile, taking a potentially static display into a visually new and interesting realm. In fact almost everything about the show is new and unique insofar as the way the skill acts are constructed and presented.

A second display of juggling incorporates much of the ensemble into a club passing that has all the fascination of a kaleidoscope.

Before true flight is accomplished six girls, Cheya Potter, Ilse Bryan, Jeannette Oubre, Lucia Mason, Maedya Kojis, and Ripley Burns, take to the air in a nicely routine web act that incorporates corde lisse.

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Wunderle’s character of the bicycle mechanic, a slightly zany, unlikely genius who ultimately wins the prize for being first in flight runs throughout the show, providing a sense of cohesion and charm that is always a delight to encounter. Beside performing in the show and acting as the company’s artistic director, Wunderle, this year found himself working with a new director, Mark Lonergan, and composer, Mike Bishop.  Thankfully Matt Williams returned as choreographer, his dances pump the proceedings with an indefatigable energy and youthful passion made physical.

What the changes in the creative staff amounted to for Wunderle was not only having to do his own job as artistic director and performer, but also having to teach all the new people their jobs as well, all of which happens in a miraculous eighteen days of creation and rehearsal.  The result, a delight called Up Hup and Away, is a true wonder.

Circus Juventas’ Wonderland Bursting at its Seams

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Let’s begin with a confession. Somehow I have managed to escape reading the Alice in Wonderland books all my life.  Despite that, however, one would have to be a cultural recluse to escape encountering the books’ characters many of whom have achieved legendary status: characters like the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the hookah smoking caterpillars, the Queen of Hearts and the Jabberwock.

So even if, like me, you avoided reading the actual stories you will undoubtedly have some acquaintance with these delightfully peculiar characters, and will therefore be able to follow the action of the spectacular production of Wonderland which Circus Juventas has concocted with imagination and circus imagery run wild.

Ironically the first Ringling circus I can recall seeing, the 1945 show, had as its spectacle “Alice in Circus Wonderland.” Later as an adult I was privileged to see Meryl Streep play Alice in a production staged by the New York Shakespeare Festival.  The former relied on circus tradition to take audiences to Wonderland, and the N.Y. Shakespeare production enjoyed the luxury of spoken dialogue to create its Wonderland.  The Juventas production must, but for a few spoken bits of dialogue, rely on pantomime, costuming, staging and music to transport us into Lewis Carroll’s bizarre fantasy world.

We are first plunged into the Victorian world out of which Lewis’ books emerged by a gorgeously choreographed game of croquet. It and several other moments in the show, which is perhaps the most heavily and beautifully balletic production I have seen at Juventas, are staged to pieces of classical music that work perfectly in this setting.  In fact all of the music chosen by Juventas co-founder and production director, Betty Butler, adds great charm and/or drama depending on the situation, to the proceedings.

Soon thereafter we are treated to a series of cleverly charming pieces of business by which Alice falls down the rabbit hole, and both grows and shrinks before our eyes. Other such moments include the Queen’s croquet party in which flamingos are used as the mallets, and in a completely different vein the appearance of the menacing Jabberwock.

So immense are the proportions of this production it often seems as if we have been invited not to a three, but a five ring circus, often populated by multiple acts that are totally different one from the others working simultaneously. All this is very much in keeping with the show’s theme and motif.   The cast, which numbers close to one hundred often fills all corners of the Juventas arena which most resembles the layout of an ice show.

Several of the individual acts stand out for the level of skill demonstrated and the excitement of their presentation. I was very impressed by the cradle (or casting) act, which seems to require (from what I have seen of other such acts in the past) rather burly weight-lifter types to do the heavy work involved).  Here it is accomplished with nary a grunt by the show’s two leading male performers,  Stone Langworthy and Dominic Lemieux.  Langworthy also works a duo trapeze with partner Mariana Thompson .  Langworthy shows up yet again in a beautifully realized interpretation of the caterpillars along with Anwar Hassouni and Noah Posey in an astounding hand balancing act.  Another effective translation from page to circus stage is the humorous characterizations of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (Leo Ipsen and Sam Keller-Long).  It’s not all slapstick either; one of them plays the violin while on a rola bola, which is where most of their antics take place.

Probably the most amazing display of circus skill arrives in the teeterboard act, which includes a double to a three-high column, a double to a split, another double to a chair and a triple to a Russian bar. I’ve seen professional circuses where the teeterboard act has fallen far short of producing comparable thrills.

Lemieux., the ubiquitous Mad Hatter also appears in a rather wild and dramatic strap act with Piper Gibbs. In fact there is a great deal of rather violent drama in the production, usually involving the battles between the courts of the Red and White Queens (Sophie Bauer and Jenna Ober respectively), in which Alice often finds herself caught in the cross fires, most of which are performed to heavy choral music with plenty of percussion for greater emphasis.

Alice is basically a dance role, which Makenna Cook handles with great emotion and fine dance technique, although she is on occasion required to use some circus skills to help move the plot along, a totally winning performance in all respects.

A new skill displayed here for the first time is a roller skating act that ended like all such acts with the neck swivel spin, and by two couples at that.   Injuries prevented the always impressive Russian bar act from working.

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As always with Juventas the show is heavy with aerial work. Almost every known type of aerial apparatus is represented.  The problem with this, for me at least, is that all the hoops, traps, silks, etc. are hung from the same points, and they tend to look rather similar both because of the unchanging hanging plot and the contortions performed on all these various forms of apparatus.  This pattern is relieved somewhat by a variety of novel pieces of apparatus that hang in the center of the arena and are occupied, often by as many as five girls, adding variety and impressive teamwork.

What with the size of the cast, the scenic elements and numerous special effects, this has been Circus Juventas’ most ambitious production to date, and it has been brought to life by a roster of artists many of whom are new to the organization. These include: Betty Butler (Artistic Director). Dan Butler (Executive Director), Choreographers Risa Cohen and Liliana Rancone,  Theatre Coaches Aaron J. and Rhiannon Fiskradatz, Tyson Forbes,  Script writer and lead Theatre Coach Katy McEwen, Lighting Designer Blake Childs, Set Designer Sara Herman, Sound Designer Mathew Vichlach, Makeup Designer Maria Balogh, and Costume Designers Candy Kuen, Oliver Manhattan, Janice Marcella, Stephanie Molstad, Megan Quarles, Kathleen Richert, Kathy Staszak, and Merrill Stringer.


Cirque du Soleil Goes Cinematic with a Live Version of Toruk

by Kim Campbell


Cirque Du Soleil’s touring show Toruk landed in Chicago recently debuting their cinematic high tech prequel to the Avatar movie that was popular in 2009. Toruk is a giant show with a cast of 41 people. The Na’vi, the humanoid creatures we first met in the Avatar movie are also giant, over 6 feet tall, which is why so many of the cast members themselves are tall, and even their costumes have been designed to enhance the illusion of length, down to the blue nipples on the body suits being positioned a good deal higher than average. This was explained to me by Lisa as she held up a costume and pointed at the various features during a behind-the-scenes tour the media was invited to enjoy on opening day. Beside the lofty nipples, we also got to see the Toruk himself in action that is the large red dragon you may recall from the movie. Toruk and his six handlers/puppeteers also have to rehearse, especially because there will be a human riding him at one point in the show. The skillful puppeteers were able to make Toruk fly with the grace and power of a predatory bird. And seeing a human ride a dragon is something everyone will want to see at least once with their own eyes.

The backstage peek was colorful, full of fanciful kites, elaborate wigs and bright costumes as well as perplexing props like the Loom—a device that appears in the show as a primitive trampoline wall—but without some of the bounce capacity. While milling around, we had the chance to speak with cast members. Christian Sanchez, who plays the Omatikaya clan chief, gave me some insight about what to expect at the show. “It’s a story that takes place 3000 years before the setting in the Avatar movie, so it’s not a typical Cirque du Soleil show. I think having an open mind when coming to the show will help you enjoy it. It’s exciting because it’s taking a different direction with theater/circus.”

On to the show I went, keeping an open mind and making sure to download the App which Lisa assured me would prompt us during the performance to interact with the show in various ways. It did that very well, enhancing the show by transforming the audience at various times into a starlit backdrop or a field of menacing viper wolf eyes.

The setting and production value were impeccable and stunning, the combined effect (props and projections) which transport the audience to Pandora, a lush place full of exotic creatures that are in constant motion, flipping, climbing and diving around the elaborate set. The sound and music, and most importantly the words, something rarely experienced at a Cirque du Soleil show, were crystal clear. Fortunately, the narrator speaks in English, because the rest of the performers speak in Na’vi, the authentically constructed language of the Na’vi people.

The story begins with the storyteller, the last member of the Anurai clan, telling us humans a sort of cautionary tale about how the Na’vi had been careless with their environment and lived to regret it. Although the message is a bit heavy handed, it is the gateway to the plot, which is thankfully full of action and exuberant circus. Two friends Ralu and Entu are coming of age and must prove their skills as men in order to be welcome among the hunters of the tribe. These challenges include a rope act and some acrobatic competition to start. There is joyous drumming, a hoop diving ball game where both the ball and the acrobat go through the hoop, and some Tarzan-like vine swinging and stunts. There is dancing and a big demonstration of the tribal community in celebration just before they learn that their world is threatened and they need to take action.

The Na’vi walk on two legs and talk and love just like we do. Yet they are also romanticized as nature worshipping creatures—and they have tails and swing from trees. This makes them both human and animal, a premise which could be simply seen as a means to point out the obvious, that even humans are animals and perhaps we have strayed too far from our natures, unlike the Na’vi. But they are also portrayed as both indigenous and primitive while being likened to animals. This emerges looking like a cultural remnant of colonial racism, especially when certain emblems of human culture show up in the Na’vi culture, such as dreadlocks. Projecting cultural appropriated practices and accoutrements (nature worship, drumming, Mohigan headdresses, and dreadlocks) on to a fictional culture such as the Na’vi is problematic at times. One could argue that fiction has to do this, borrowing information from real life and adapting it to the story. But fiction does not also have to reinforce stereotypes we collectively hold about indigenous people and project them on to fictitious people, then compare them to animals as if to imply that they were not as evolved as we, and yet admire them as somehow wiser for their willingness to be closer to nature. Of course, Cirque du Soleil did not invent this fictional world, James Cameron did and he was criticized for it when the original movie was released.

Nonetheless, the main theme behind the original plot of Avatar, as well as behind Toruk seems to be resilience in the face of danger, stewardship for the environment and a sense of virtue imbued by spirituality. The sense of belonging and connection the Na’vi feel with their world is one that many humans may have forgotten exists between them and earth. So how can we blame the Na’vi for having that and how can we regain that sense of connection? And above all, how can that be accomplished with circus? It turns out it can be done quite effectively, because circus is at its heart an adventure just like a good quest. As Ralu and Entu are sent on the quest to save their world, they come across many other tribes and creatures, all of whom challenge them in unique ways. They search for five sacred items to save their home tree from an earthquake as the Shaman lady instructed them to do. They climb poles to avoid a hostile tribe and execute a fluid Chinese pole act. They fly through the air on ropes to avoid carnivorous creatures, and their friend from the Tawkami tribe named Tsyal helps them narrowly avoid disaster by performing gracefully on silks while fetching one of the items required, a flower head. She also fights off the ravenous viperwolves with some impressive stage combat skills. Ralau and Entu run and flip acrobatically throughout the many landscapes, which are enhanced by projections on the floor, walls and sometimes even the audience. At times they ford rivers, cross desserts and face flooding waves from the ocean. Once or twice the show slows down enough for them and us to observe the beauty of their world in quiet awe, but soon they are back on their quest before the earthquake destroys what they care most about. What is really impressive is the way in which the circus motions are seamlessly integrated in to the action so that if you weren’t looking for them, you might not even recognize some of the acts. This is especially true because Cirque du Soleil has invented a number of props for the show which fit that universe (the aforementioned loom, a huge revolving dragon skeleton that is something like a teeterboard).

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When the Toruk appears at last, he represents so much to the people that harnessing his power (as when Entu jumps on his back and flies him to the dying tree) is the ultimate sign of sovereignty over nature–the first step in developing control over one’s environment. In many ways, Toruk is a symbolic fantasy, a parable about the strength that will be required of us to succeed in belonging to our world without destroying it due to our environmental greed. This is a big message for a circus company to convey to us, and they conveyed it well by melding a fairy tale story with physical feats that included silks, ropes, trampoline, vertical dance, hand balancing, contortion on a giant skeleton, Chinese pole, kite flying, acrobatics, puppetry and even a two high just so the characters could pet a giant horse-like creature. In spite of its issues with cultural appropriation and reverse anthropomorphism, Toruk’s strength lies in the beauty of the world Pandora and the almost dayglow palette of its color scheme as well as the seamless blending of theater with physicality all in the service of a story that aspires to remind humans to cherish their own world more and act before it vanishes.



Nik Wallenda’s Zirkus is a New Intimate Form of Circus

What impressed me the most In Nik Wallenda’s production Zirkus, as seen in the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, was not the daring do, but the fact that Wallenda had managed to create a distinctively personal style of circus that is unlike any thing else currently out there.

NWall016 MS 031It is designed as a tribute to the Wallenda family and its German heritage. Details on the costumes suggest their Bavarian inspiration. A film bio of the family progenitor, Karl Wallenda,  delves into Nik’s ambition to repeat and surpass his Great Grandfather’s sky walks, which he has done, not only in Puerto Rico where Karl fell and died, but also in Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and between the skyscrapers of Chicago.

Most of the acts in Zirkus, therefore, have some connection to this theme in one way or another honoring the Wallenda family and its history either by virtue of their name, the kind of act being presented or the costuming.  It makes for a different kind of circus, one which is both more intimate and definitely family oriented, and one which tends to connect us on a more personal level to the action, making for a rewarding experience.

Our first connection to Nik’s family arrives in the appearance of his eldest son, Yanni, who is about to join the Marines and is here in his military school uniform to present the colors for ringmaster Ty McFarlan’s singing of the National Anthem.

The performance itself opens with another member of the family, Nik’s wife Erendira, who following a sketch of her own family’s circus heritage performs a lovely solo on the lyra. Her graceful moves are accompanied by a piano piece whose lyricism perfectly matched the composition of Erendira’s balletic work that also features some impressive skill work such as her toe hang, a daring trick she had previously done over the Atlantic City boardwalk hanging from a helicopter’s trapeze.

Dieter Galambos’ chair stacking act which is presented to music hall music reminiscent of the 1920’s when Karl Wallenda broke into the business doing a similar act. This version of this kind of act is most impressive for the glitzy props and telescoping pedestal which gives the illusion of greater danger thanks to the height the props provide.  There’s not much going on here but for the glitzy props.   The act ends with some smoke effects, forcing one to the opinion that it is all done with smoke and glitz.

Clown Renaldo has two major appearances. In the first he builds a gravity defying form out of four guys from audience.  Later he concocts a bull fight film with the help of audience volunteers, who provide perhaps a bit more hamming and spotlight begging than is really helpful to Renaldo.

Lianna Ashton’s hula hoop routine is performed to some highly evocative, bluesy music featuring a female vocalist who might have starred on the black vaudeville circuit. As you can see, the music throughout is anything but traditional circus music.  Ashton’s gimmick is the use of lighted hoops, which provides some interest to an otherwise ordinary act, with the usual ending.

Contemporary aerial work is offered by Nicholas Slimick on silks, and Tommy Tomlins and Khera Lorraince-Smith in fabric slings or hammocks. As with all the costumes in the show Slimick’s is mainly black with some touches of dark blue. Because the act is back lighted it was somewhat difficult to discern what the trio was up to.

Ivan Vargas’ turn on the German wheel is somewhat hampered by the configuration of the stage which limited his ability to turn circles, but he does manage to convey some sense of fun and excitement in his revolutions.

We have seen Duo Fusion’s adagio/hand balancing act numerous times before, but it is one of those acts it seems impossible of growing tired of seeing. Their work is just so sleek and gorgeously effortless, even though what they are doing is nothing short of amazing.  They never fail to dazzle and delight, especially when their work involves some serious role reversals.  She is not only as flexible as her male partner, but like Ginger Rogers, she works her magic in high heels.

By way of introducing the high wire act and the Wallenda family’s history, a short video precedes the live act.

When the current generation of Wallendas does finally ascend to the high wire, their performance concludes with the always thrillingly impressive seven-person, three-high pyramid. This is preceded by bike rides and shoulder rolls around a bar.  In this version of the legendary signature trick, the top mounter, Erendira, actually stands up atop the chair, adding a heart-stopping moment as she balances ever so precariously like a cherry atop the whipped cream of an ice cream sundae.  Without that extra thrill the trick just wouldn’t be complete.  Besides Nik and Erendira, the high wire troupe included Tommy Tomlins, Khera Lorraince-Smith, Alec Bryant, Nicholas Slimick, Zebulon Fricke, Ryley Marguis, and couple’s youngest son Blake Wallenda.

Lighting for the show was provided by Brian Sidney Bembrige, sound by Leigh Ketchum, and the Production Manager was Michael Richter.

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