The Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 1

The Circus is Still Alive Somewhere Wonderful,

with a Full Menagerie of Animals

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With what I am sure was unintended irony, this year’s Monte Carlo International Festival of Circus, its 41st, has been dubbed “A Celebration of Circus.”  From the standpoint of those of us in the United States, there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately, and in Europe things are only marginally better.  As a result the festival’s organizers have had to lean rather heavily on acts from Russia and China to fill out two complete programs into something approximating a fete.

The Russians have brought over what amounts to be a sizeable portion of the Moscow State Circus, and the Chinese have contributed one huge troupe who presented two different displays of amazing skills.

As has been the festival’s thrust in recent years its two different programs were heavily weighted with animal acts, and as has become equally predictable they all won major awards.

In the first of the two programs, Erwin Frankello presented two different elephant acts, working with two young African elephants, who in their manner and appearance demonstrated in ways I have never seen before, and certainly more emphatically, the differences between the two species, African and Asian.

Of the two species, the African is the larger overall, with especially notably large ears. But what I had never observed before now was how amazingly more flexible its trunk seems to be, while its looping gate gives it an almost comical appearance.  All these physical aspects are given prominent display in this remarkable presentation as their trainer is assisted by the huge animals in climbing aboard in ways I have never seen before in a circus ring. Nor does  Frankello use any form of prods.  The result of this relationship is a charming and rather endearing spectacle.

Those attributes turn up to an even greater degree in Frankello’s second playful presentation with a pair of California sea lions, with whom he interacts most delightfully. It seems clear that the animals are having as much if not more fun than their human interlocutor.

The most over-rated act in the festival was the Zapashny brothers, who, in addition to presenting their own lion and tiger act are the directors of the Moscow state circus. To encourage this much heralded act to compete, the festival apparently agreed to accept several other Russian acts, including the brother’s own rock band which accompanied their cat act.   The press book described their appearance as “a big moment in the festival’s history.”

For one with no pre-conceived notion of the act’s worth, it comes across as the most blasé animal act I have ever seen. I watched the act first in a rehearsal situation, and I thought to myself, “they are just walking through it for the benefit of the tech people.”  But then I saw it in performance.  The attitude and manner of the brothers were the same as when I first saw them, a low level of energy, or should I say lack of energy or dynamism.  Their casual, nonchalant attitude carried over to the animals, who wandered about with no show of haste or direction.  Some had to be continually prodded to get about their business.

For the most part the act’s tricks remained comfortably within the repertory of any self-respecting cat act. The big trick of the nearly thirty minute walk through comes when one of the brothers throws a harness over a male lion and holds on as the animal jumps a short distance from one large rolling prop to another.  During this short leap the trainer is barely aboard the animal and almost seems to be making the jump himself.  It is hard to say for sure how much of a ride he got because the trick is played from back to front of the ring, and as a result we see more of the lion than the man.

The closing trick, one hardly unique, has the same brother aboard a swing along with a lion and tiger as it swings higher and higher, doing nothing to erase the bored countenance from the animals’ faces. In the end the animals seem in no more of a hurry to leave the ring than they were to enter it.  The brothers settled for Silver, as did all of the animal acts.

Cementing her position as a champion of animals in the circus, in addition to the acts already noted, Princess Stephanie dealt a full house with horses and exotic animals of the Charles Knie Circus, all of whom were presented by the flamboyantly costumed Mark Jama.   The acts were further dressed by a gorgeous female vocalist, and a winged Pegasus with a pair of wings large enough to lift a 727 off the ground.  The horses were six black Frisians and an equal number of white Arabians.  They were eventually joined by six miniature horses who always provide a bounce in energy and aggressive showmanship.

The mixed act consisted of six camels—Bactrian, the real two humped breed—four zebras, six horned beasts of burden, a kangaroo, a few llamas or alpacas, and oh, yes that beautiful vocalist and five women in exotic headdresses. No sign of a partridge in a pear tree.

The Russian contingent included what was perhaps the most unusual act of the lineup. The Skokov Troupe is made up exclusively of eight young women who are catapulted from one Russian swing to another all the while dressed in diaphanous blue gowns which add enormously to the visual appeal of the act. The act won Bronze.

The Bayramukov Troupe of tumblers was a great opening act, what with their speed and the astounding heights they achieved in their mid-air somersaults, as they raced down a fast track. Dressed in gilded military styled uniforms they opened the show with a flash of gold.

The Trushin Troupe continued the vogue of the walking dead in their impersonations of Zombies as they sailed their way through the expected repertoire of teeterboard acts, leaving nothing out and accomplishing all with splashy precision. This included two men on stilts, concluding with a triple somersault to the mat by one who was on a single stilt.  Presumably for living up to expectations while in bizarre makeup, they won Gold.

Rounding out the Russian contingent were six dancers from the Ballet of the State Circus of Moscow, a group which has become regularly scheduled diversions over the past few years. Finally there was also a trio of very young girls with enormous ribbons in their tortured hairdos, who proved irrepressibly energetic, bouncing up and down. Depending on your taste for such adorable behavior one might find them either irresistible or obnoxious.  I’m afraid I belong in the latter camp.

The Chinese contribution to the festival was one large troupe, The Xinjiang acrobatic ensemble, composed of twenty young men. They presented two, wildly different performances.  The first was a rip-off of sorts of British choreographer Mathew Bourne’s all male version of the Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake.  Although the Tchaikovsky music was not used the costumes were virtual replicas of those used in the Bourne creation.  This rather short act consisted of a series of briefly held pyramids involving approximately fourteen members of the troupe.  The other six provided choreographic window dressing.  Somehow these pyramids all managed to look alike,  and the act concluded with a four tier structure in which all of the participants balanced themselves on two hands on the necks of the men below.

The other Chinese act is one we have seen before at the festival and elsewhere. Here the acrobats throw various leaps, spins, and somersaults through the loops fashioned by the lassos spun by their colleagues.  It is all done with dazzling speed and a breathtakingly faultless technique overlayed with a kind of ritualistic movement. Last time I saw this act they were all dressed as Buddhist monks. The costumes have changed, but the precise choreography remains, making it a treat whether viewed for the first time or many times later.

While the preshow scuttlebutt made the Zapashny Brothers an odds on favorite to win Gold, the act that stole the Gold from them was a mixed duo called Sky Angels. The pair worked on straps, with many of their drops and catches employing iron-jaw style holds from both participants making this a unique combination of skills that was always thrilling as well as graceful, appealing to both the viscera and the visual.

The other winner of the Gold Clown was the previously noted Russians, the Trushin Troupe that worked on the teeterboard.

An act I found particularly exciting was an understated pair of graduates from the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm. The two men worked on what is known as the Korean plank, a form of teeterboard in which the men, Anton Graff and Elnar Kling Odencrants, are both flyers and pushers. This type of act is usually performed with spotters to make sure the flyers return to their precise spot on the board.  Such helpers are eschewed here entirely.  It is just the two men, making their landings as exciting as their breathtaking mid-air gyrations.  Their efforts are so demanding they had to take time out occasionally to catch their breath.  The costuming here was definitely played down and perhaps that is why they came way only with Bronze.

Another of the more successful—that is to say—innovative acts with an impressive level of skill was offered by a pair who work under the name Emotion Duo. They are products of Montreal’s National Circus School.  They combine dance movement and adagio on the floor with fascinating aerial maneuvers performed to the contemporary music of Philip Glass.  The result is interesting and appealing in all aspects of performance.

The festival provided audiences with three different kinds of comic relief. Tom (Dougherty) and Pepe Silva Rodriquez offered audiences classic red-nose clowning, Otto Wessely added two segments of comically hapless magic gone awry and the knockabout comedians, the Wolf Brothers, performed their antics on a table and later, in a second appearance, hopelessly entangled in mid-air on a single trapeze.  Like the Wolf Brothers Tom and Pepe fared better in their last reprise that also featured a bit of magic that was amusing not for its mishaps but for its mystery.

What might at first seem like an unnecessary bit of repetition, the two programs each had its own contortionist. In the first we saw sinuous Rich Miteku, whose body never left the floor as she twisted herself into one amazingly graceful shape after another.  I don’t often find contortionists appealing, but Miteku never looked less than gorgeous.

On the other hand Alexandre Batuev was selling weirdness big time, and he succeeded admirably in doing so with various gaspingly bizarre dislocations, finally curling himself into a tiny cube and closing its lid down on himself. He was award the Bronze Clown.

In addition to the animal people who presented more than one display the Gerlings rang in with two thrill acts, a double wheel of whatever they are calling it these days, in this case the emphasis definitely being on the whatever. Their work on the high wire was much more impressive.  The press book told us that the troupe would outdo the Wallenda seven man pyramid by putting nine men into the three high pyramid.  At the performance I saw there were only eight and the eighth stood on the shoulders of the top mounter, ever so briefly.  On their second performance, which I did not see, the ninth person actually fell taking three others with him.  None were seriously injured.  They did, however, win a Bronze Clown for their efforts.

One of the few solo acts in the festival was that of juggler Mario Berousek, whose act was programmed in the worst possible spot for a soloist, right behind one of the big Chinese acts and just before closing, in other words very late in a four hour show, when the audience’s interest will be flagging. Berousek’s specialty is speed.  He managed to hold six and then seven clubs for the minimum to be called a success, but his three club manipulation was so fast that the flying clubs soon became a single blur of silver.  No doubt it was that flash of speed that  won him a Bronze Clown.

Two other solo performers took to the air. Gustavo Sartori worked on fabric draped into a sling.  His many drops and catches culminated in a splashy finale that produced a cascade of shiny red confetti, that matched the color of his fabric.

Alex Michael presented an act that is usually referred to as sky walking. It consists of hanging upside down and moving through a series of foot loops.  It is not a particularly advanced level of aerial skill, but Michael enhanced his work by concluding his act leaping from one swinging trapeze bar to another several feet away.  This act brings to mind the manner in which the flying return act developed.

Hand balancers Olimpos Brothers had each other for company. Their specialty is a rather crowded field with acts that all tend to look exactly alike, and they are in that same situation.  The one thing that tends to distinguish their work from others is that their various poses and at least one feat of strength are sufficiently different to give the act some novelty.

Equilibrists usually arrive as solo acts, but the pair that has dubbed themselves Hand 2 Hand have each other to rely on in helping to create more visual interest than is usually manufactured by soloists. It is the variety and elegance of their often symmetrical poses that set this pair from Montreal’s National Circus School  apart.

Troupe Holmikers has plenty going for itself insofar as producing novelty. First of all they work on parallel bars, a piece of gymnastic apparatus seldom seen in the circus.  They are costumed and move so as to evoke characters from the Addams Family, and their musical setting is that show’s theme song.  All this necessarily demands what seems an endless series of collisions and crash landings.  Perhaps it was all that comic chaos that convinced the jury to award them Bronze.

All in all this was not the strongest of the last 15 festivals that I have seen, but it did serve to reassure us that the circus is still alive and vibrant, and that is certainly cause enough for a celebration.

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Cirque d’Hiver, as Close to Circus Heaven As One can Get Here on Earth

If Monte Carlo was something of a forced celebration, Surprise, the circus performance that the Bouglione family has gifted us with, is cause for unbridled jubilation.  If this review sounds like a love letter, it is because I did, indeed love every minute of this extraordinary demonstration of the joy and excitement that this form of entertainment can evoke when it is produced with loving attention to details and packed with quality.

First of all there is the pleasure of being embraced in this iconic building with its legendary history, its rich and elegant interior and historic backstage, all of it exuding an atmosphere that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Before the performance that soft, gauzy atmosphere is subtly enhanced by a discreet fog machine that spills out just enough haze to take us out of reality and into a fantasy world. The eight Salto dancers, M. Loyal, Michel Palmer, and Alberto Caroli (the white clown) all add to that sense of escape into another world.

Each of the acts has been given a spectacular entrance and their performance is enhanced immeasurably by the music provided by the Pierre Nouveau orchestra and the brilliant theatrical lighting. The music, I should add here, is worth the price of admission alone, irresistibly exciting, touring through everything from jazz to brass to the sentimental.

And then, of course, there is the lineup of acts, themselves, each in itself a knockout of its kind. The show opens with Rene Casselly Jr.’s  troupe of miniature horses, a breed of equines whose showmanship I have already noted elsewhere.  Under the amused control of their trainer they are a charming and energetic, rampaging start to an evening of pure fun.  The act ends when one of these Napoleons of the equine world executes the airs above ground, in which all four feet are in the air at the same time, a trick rarely seen among the mini’s full-sized relatives.

We are then introduced to the musical clown Totti, who, with his trumpet and outrageous behavior has the audience rocking and rolling (literally) to his musical extravaganzas during his several appearances throughout the evening.

The elegant and refined Victoria Bouglione is up next with her hula hoops, which are given an extra touch of theatrics by being illuminated to such a degree that at one point their twirling created a kaleidoscope-like effect.   Her costuming was sexy without being vulgar, it being one of those details that are presented with such care throughout.

One of the greatest comedy acts I have seen in sometime is the catastrophic magic of Scott and Muriel. The wonder of their act is that after laughing to the point of falling out of our seat, the illusions somehow recover surprisingly and we are wowed unexpectedly.  The act is a series of hilarious disasters turned into triumphs, all of it presided over by the madcap Muriel and the smilingly unflummoxed Scott.  They make two appearances in the show, the second involving a gentleman from the audience who appears to be sawed in half to equally cheerful and amusing effect.

I loved the jazzy choreography and comic attitude projected by Anton and Vadim Meleshin in their antics aboard the rola bola.

The Casselly Family’s four African elephants and five Frisian horses, all ridden by female members of either the Casselly or Boulgione families, is a spectacular array of talent and beauty, bringing us to the entr’acte.

The fast pacing of this show continued with the opening act of the second half: Matt & Valentina whose whirlwind roller skating gyrations certainly re-energized the audience and quickly regained the momentum the show had lost at intermission.

This was quickly followed by a nicely considered change of pace with the hand balancing act of Duo A & A. Demonstrating enormous power the two men slowly, deliberately make their way through a series of impressive displays of strength and grace.  Their closing gambit in which the understander rolls over with his partner balanced on his ankles is the piece d’resistance of this sort of act.

The pace changes again with the ascension of Les Garcia and their spectacular rocket ship. As the space craft whirls about at an impressive speed, its occupants emerge and present a daring display of courage as the male partner hangs by his knees from a trapeze suspended from the prop, sending his female partner into a series of gasp inducing moves off the tether he holds often by only his teeth.  It is a non-stop sensation.

The show’s featured act is the Casselly family elephants and in particular the acrobatics of Rene, Jr. This is an act I first marveled at in Monte Carlo and it is fascinating to see how the young Casselly has grown, not only physically, but artistically as well.  Rene has always, it seems, known how to command the ring, but here he tops anything he has done before in terms of acrobatics.  He concludes the family presentation with a triple to the back of an elephant, propelled there by another elephant who sets it all in motion by stomping on a teeterboard.

The Casselly family as they appeared in the Monte Carlo Festival

The Casselly family as they appeared in the Monte Carlo Festival

This is obviously an act that one could enjoy and thrill to many times without becoming worn out. The Cassellys have a wonderful presence and project a palpable joy in their performance.  That quality runs throughout this remarkable performance from start to finish.  As is the case with any show Joseph Bouglione stages it also has a true ending.  He does not send us out into the dark after a joyous curtain call.  There is always a parting moment of charming sentimentality that caps off a priceless evening.  Although the show is titled Surprise, the surprise is in discovering anew how entertaining and refreshing a circus staged by the Bouglione family can be.