Feature Article Vol. VI – No. 2

In Search of the “New” New American Circus


In attempting to get a handle on where the contemporary circus is taking us, I recently attended two of the three performances of five contemporary circuses at NYU’s Skirball Center. The most obvious conclusion to take from the experience is that there is no discernible pattern or direction to the new New American Circus.  Anything goes, from the rather artless amateurism of Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes, to the slyly polished professionalism of  Race Horse Company’s Disco 3000 or the eccentric idiosyncratic performance of Nacho Flores in his solo show Tesseract.    The one abiding characteristic that all of these shows share is brevity (and oddly formed names).  None of the above performances were long enough to constitute a full evening’s or afternoon’s entertainment.

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BoomCircus Boom!

These performances were part of Circus Now’s International Contemporary Circus Exposure which ran for three days at NYU’s Skirball Center, which I caught on the last two days of the “exposure.” I missed two other performances staged during its opening night: Only Child Aerial Theatre’s Asylum which program notes tell us is set in a state mental institution, and BoomCircus’ Boom! which according to the program again,  “breathes new life into the ancient tradition of masked theatre.”  You see what I mean by the movement’s infinite variety?

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In talking with friends whose opinions I greatly respect the Asylum piece relied heavily on unwinding sheets, which makes sense given the announced setting, but the idea of its taking place in a mental institution was not communicated very successfully in any other manner to those I queried.

Taken together the three shows I saw contained many different elements. Some contain verbal passages of what is meant to pass as comedy, as in Leaps of Faith.  What seems particularly missing in this performance, however, is some overriding logic that forces it to move in some inevitable way from speech to acrobatics and back again, from playing imaginary characters to playing themselves.  As a consequence it all seems rather arbitrary and self indulgent.

Of the three works I saw, the piece from Finland, Disco 3000, comes closest to traditional circus, both in the variety of skills displayed and the manner in which they were presented. Much of it was every bit as exciting as the traditional circus can be.  Their work on the Korean plank for example was both daring and beautiful. This was also the first time I have seen the Washington trapeze that made Pinito del Oro a star in the 50s put to such daring use, despite its not being rigged very high in the air.  The most charming aspect of this performance was its sly spoofing of what the program notes refer to as the “superstar culture.”  Here is one of the few exceptions to a problem shared by those new circus companies that want to be poetic and protest that they have something to say, which is a disconnect between thought and communication.

Here there is no problem in getting the point of the poses and attempts to engage the audience without one’s having to refer to the program notes.

Flores’ Tesseract consists entirely of his balancing on stacks on small wooden cubes and making life more difficult for himself by destroying the structures the blocks have created at the outset, until little by little, he is reduced to having only one cube to stand upon and manipulate.

This journey of discovery actually began with a show I saw at the Ringling museum in Sarasota, Florida, the heavily promoted See Saw, which raises a problem common to many of these new contemporary circuses.

In dealing with the new circus, there is often a disconnect between what an artist believes he or she has created, as expressed in program notes and what an audience or a critic perceives in its performance. Often the two perceptions have almost nothing to do with each other.  Sometimes this doesn’t matter very much as is often the case with what I usually see in Montreal each year at the Canadian circus school’s year-end productions.  The skill level there is so dazzling and the imagery so provocative that the event cannot help but be stimulating and exciting, whether or not the director’s ideas put forth in the program notes seem to have anything or nothing to do with what has been presented on stage.

Unfortunately, in the case of See Saw a production by an all-female performance group called Wise Fools New Mexico, which I saw at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota this past month the disconnect is enormously important, because except for the creator’s explanations available in a handout at the performance, the work has little if anything to render it of any interest to a general audience.  There is only minimal skill demonstrated beyond what my eleven year old granddaughter could do, and the complicated rigging that has been constructed to accommodate what passes for action is used to precious little effect.  There are only questions, which, even with the help of the program notes, seem unanswerable.

Why are the five women wearing stilts of varying sizes? What do the erratic gestures signify?  Why does one member of the ensemble crawl over the others huddled over the rigging, dragging a voluminous red drapery behind her with which she proceeds to cover all the others?

The 40 minute work seems to have no dramatic thrust, and there is no resolution. The only way to know the performance has come to an end is when the women begin taking bows.  The brevity serves to suggest that the initial idea proved itself to be less than hospitable to physical performance than originally anticipated, despite a creative team that numbers no less than thirteen.  The sole redeeming aspect of the work is that it was presented in the Venetian inspired courtyard of the museum literally at the illuminated feet of a replica of Michaelangelo’s statue of David.  The setting was the evening’s star attraction.

This attempt to define the new New American Circus has been further enhanced by Cindy Marvell’s report from a performance she has reviewed from Denver, Colorado.

Circus is a place of wonder, animals, and freaks: so says Ringmaster Stephen Millin of Phantom Circus. “It is a place where women could be strong and daring and push boundaries of body and society.” Natalie Brown, creator of Phantom Circus, has been working on this for some time.

Natalie Brown, creator of Phantom Circus, has been evolving circus arts in this spirit for some time. While there were no animals or freaks in a recent performance at Denver’s Oriental Theater she led the company to a wondrous exhibition of thematic skill and costumed artistry.

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Phantom Circus

Brown, originally a belly-dancer as her solo piece attests, has also done some top-notch aerial training and choreography. The assembled cast of these ongoing performances at the Oriental has grown in number and diversity to include a variety of ground skills and airborne acrobatic feats. A theatrical whirl of items from hula hoops to juggling torches to a “chandelier” come into play. The overall effect had the audience cheering from the back of the balcony. Phantom Circus has grown a following and represents a new circus phenomenon.

Mixing inspirational elements from companies as disparate as the Pickle Family Circus and Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, new circuses are springing up and out across the country. They are fascinating to orchestrate as participants mix real lives with circus life. That’s true of all circuses. But now there are more individuals pursing this goal and forming new alliances within the evolution of the circus community. So why wouldn’t you see a belly-dancer in a circus?

This is the question Brown asked herself after graduating Tulane University. The fallout from Hurricane Katrina catapulted her from South Carolina to Columbia, Missouri, where she started a belly-dance company. There she found encouragement from Circus Contraption’s Lucient Dossier of Louisiana. Contraption guru Armitage Shanks, Brown’s idol, also brought inspiration; She recounts, “We found a single Mom hula hooper and a fire guy we thought wouldn’t burn the space down.” Eventually they had 500 spectators and support from the South Carolina Arts Commission.

After eight years Brown moved to Colorado and completed the pro-track aerial intensive program at Frequent Flyers’ Productions/FFP in Boulder. Honing her aerial skills for 30 hours per week she performed challenging works. “It was one of the few times I wasn’t running an ensemble,” she notes. “It was just me working on me.”

Brown’s concept for a group show evolved as her routines brought her in contact with like-minded sprites. Now she works with a cast of 20: “We have a tight unit no-drama cast.” They report turning away performers and are ready to tackle corporate work. In accordance with the current mix of new circus goals they are trying to “break out of the bubble and be more like a start-up as an arts organization,” Brown says. Their goal is to be sustained through gigs rather than relying on arts funding.

The recent opening at the Oriental featured two figures in hammocks with LED hoops visible in the background. The cast soon broke into a Charivari along the lines of Bollywood to the music Hindi Sad Diamonds. Acrobatics mixed with recognizable hoop moves, double fabric duo, lyra and of course belly-dancing, closely allied with Indian and Egyptian movement as the choreography by Tejas Hemsell of Colorado Springs would indicate. University of Colorado grad Leah Ziah emerged with a transcontinental belly-dance solo.

Segues posed no issue with an informative and funny Ringmaster in Millin. Circus Knight Bryan Connelly, who has trained with the Moth Contemporary Circus professional program in Denver, returned to his juggling roots for a fire display atop rola bola. Often mixing capoeira techniques with contact juggling, he has mastered a variety of skills and persevered despite a sore shoulder according to the Ringmaster. We should all travel with an invisible dragon such as the one conjured by Connelly, an alumnus of Boulder Juggling Club.

Meri Burgess performed an intellect-driven and creative set on lyra. Vaudeville creativity followed with Brown on stilts operating marionette maneuvers with Brittany Berry below. A psychedelic cyclorama acted almost as a prop as the show gathered infectious energy. Marguerite was strong and elegant on aerial pole demonstrating “pops” to the music with impressive flexibility. In order to enable these acts on pulley Brown explained “calls” would be relayed creating an extra element of teamwork.

Staza Stone brought her electric style of advanced hoop manipulation to bear. Using up to 3 hoops and 2 minis, the expressive speediness of her crisp moves led to a visual paradox of overhead and isolation patterns. She later returned to perform two other acts on aerial apparatus. A strap duo that has been casting amazement at the Moth Contemporary Circus Center in Denver, Katie Mesmerie and Bayard Wenzel, spun through what almost had elements of a cradle act. Clearly on a professional level this team expanded the vocabulary of what is possible on straps.

Another innovation, the giant chandelier shape, inspired commentary: “Working through barriers to get to the other side: this is what circus arts are about.” Brown and Mesmerie formed the duo of this trademark routine. Using some like moves from lyra technique, they virtually transformed the mock lighting fixture into a flying boat. This structure offers numerous opportunities for experimentation so the moves are difficult to describe but formed a pleasing whole reminiscent of a 1930s style. This led into hand-balancing by Bethel Lindsley and Ziah’s fabric.

Berry returned to perform fire fans to Black Magic Woman. The multi-tasking Stone joined Julian Gimmler in a very technical yet fun-loving duo on trapeze. The “pyramid” of the Andes heralded Egyptian hip hop as the show took a turn and a story on the screen discussed the politics of rape. A virtual tribe of empowered dancers brought down the house using nothing but their body language.

Back to more traditional fare like a wheel rig with a fabric hammock duo. Soon Brown took the stage with a captivating dance solo complete with sword balance and the belly-dance backbend. This really draws one into the art form though surrounded by circus acts and it is a testament to Brown’s skill and experience as a performer. With the cultural dance themes that built from the start and the Oriental’s décor this was the perfect place for a belly-dancer.

Jessica Gardner continued the theme with tribal fusion belly-dance, interacting percussively. After more LEDs and apparatus including double hoop with rollovers and single-point hammock the energetic acrobatic trio of Bethel Lindsley, Connelly and Gimmler took over the finale. A busy though elated Brown dashed around the theater alley from dressing room to stage again.

Phantom Circus plans to continue offering performances at the Oriental Theater. “They’re helping us out quite a bit,” said Brown, noting that audiences grew from 200 for their first show to 500 for the second to reach 700. Troupes that have performed there in the past include the Salt Fire Circus. The next Phantom Circus show will be on April 27 (www.phantomcircus.com). Why Phantom?

“I try to name things that are easy to spell,” Brown hypothesizes. She also cites her history with the marching band world and a drum core with a similar name. The name she feels is almost a character in itself replete with “witch energy” inspiring a future show concept. “I just got the hair extension so it feels a little more Phantom to me,” she mused. If you like extensions of all kinds hope the phantom floats your way. After all, circuses have been known to vanish at night.