All They Needed Was Themselves…But They Added Others
The Gruss family consists of ten members, more than enough to put on a wonderful circus all by themselves. Nonetheless they often book a guest artist or two for the sake of providing a change of pace from the equestrian displays for which the family is famously nonpareil. In the current edition of Gruss Nationale Cirque, titled Quintessence, a complete company of young acrobats has been engaged to provide that needed bit of variety and imagery.
The problem is that these young performers have a very limited acrobatic vocabulary. To provide some visual variety and accommodate their work, the big top has been fitted with a heavy, complex bit of stage machinery that is capable of sending an entire stage floor down to ring level and taking it out of sight again into the upper regions of the tent, which it does no less than five times during the performance. When it is used as a ceiling the acrobatic troupe performs some aerial work under it. When it is lowered to the ring floor it is used as a platform for acrobatic moves. The problem in all this is that the up and down movement becomes rather repetitious and the various acrobatic moves all begin to seem very much alike, within different combinations. Whether they are dousing themselves with flour (meant to represent sand I presume) or splashing about in basins of water or in a rain storm it all looks the same.
All this machinery must have been enormously expensive, undertaken for the purpose of making the production seem new and innovative, rivaling Cirque du Soleil insofar as technical complexity of stagecraft is concerned. But it all seems so unnecessary. All the Gruss family ever really needs is themselves, their horses and their supreme horsemanship which represents nothing less than perfection. As it now stands, the production is more notable for its technical and mechanical prowess than its artistic merit or level of skills.
But it isn’t just the machinery that makes the production needlessly complex, the mise en scene created by Stephan Gruss in collaboration with Stephane Haffner adds more complications.
The show begins with Alexis Gruss’ entrance upon a horse, costumed as what looks like a Roman emperor. We soon learn that in this production, there is a plot, a lot of verbiage, and a ubiquitous female vocalist sending the family’s youngest grandson Joseph off on a quest to collect fire, water and air, if I interpreted what I was seeing and hearing correctly. At any rate this is what I gleaned from the action more than from the text which is, of course, in French and was never intended to make sense to someone like me, so I don’t fault the production on that account. Had it not been for the tiresome comings and goings of that youthful acrobatic/aerial troupe and the rise and fall of that infernal contraption I could have discounted all that narration as a necessary evil, and concentrated on the Gruss family’s vaulted equestrianism. Instead I kept being distracted by these other people who are so far inferior to the Gruss family, and eventually by the pretentiousness of it all. I was more than disenchanted. I kept thinking of Thoreau’s advice: Simplify, simplify, simplify.
That would give us the unalloyed pleasure of the Gruss family at its best. Among the equestrian disciplines they display in this outing, there is the voltige of Stephan and Firmin Gruss. Not to be outdone Stephan’s twin sons Alexandre and Charles join in this kind of riding in another fast paced act. Later Stephan and Firmin are joined by their sister Maud in yet another display of this sort. This time its acrobatic bareback riding.
At several times during the performance Alexis handles various groups of horses at liberty and later contributes a gorgeous display of dressage. His wife Gipsy and daughter Maud also team up with a another beautiful and breathtaking display of dressage. Stephan and one of his sons up the excitement level by tossing axes and shooting arrows at a target while standing on galloping steeds.
In solo turns Maud is exquisite on the tightwire, and Firmin contributes a determined display on the unsupported ladder, while Gipsy charms with her two Jack Russell Terriers.
But we are just getting to the truly spectacular displays of equestrian bravado. Firmin handles no less than fifteen horses on long reins in a version of the Courier of St. Petersburg, all the while astride another pair of horses, making a total of seventeen sets of reins he holds in his hands. That is topped by Alexis’ twenty-three horse carousel, a bewilderingly exciting picture with every other group running in opposing circles.
Unfortunately it was deemed that this was not enough to end the show on a satisfyingly spectacular note. Instead those young acrobats are back this time sloshing about in a veritable rain storm, a totally needless and certainly expensive gimmick that pales by comparison to the genuine artistry of the Gruss family.
Synergy Achieved in Perfect Casting
It is often said that in directing films or stage plays, casting is about 80 percent of the director’s work. The same is certainly true of the circus, and Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs-Reis packed their latest production aptly titled Synergy with a cast that is superlative from top to bottom. It has everything—thrills, comedy and beauty—to produce a show that is so absorbing, the two hours or so of its duration fly by like Dolly’s aerial work, on the wings of love.
The show gets off to an exciting start with the crack of a bull whip as the Alanian Riders, two women and one male, take the ring with a daring display of Cossack-style riding. What distinguished this particular group of riders is that the women do as much of the high-risk tricks as their male counterpart. He does do the move under the horse’s belly but the ladies do the hair-raising drag displaying equal courage.
A dramatic change of pace is provided by the elegant and uniquely classy combination of dance and juggling of Menno and Emily Van Dyke. Menno does the juggling and what makes his work so interesting is that his clubs fly around, through and in time to Emily’s gorgeous, sensual tango. There are times when both are dancing but Menno’s club manipulations never cease and are as balletic as Emily’s moves.
Comedy for the show is placed firmly in the hands of the Fumagalli trio, made up of Fumagalli himself, his brother and his young son Nikolai. I have seen these clowns work in many different venues both here in the states and principally Europe. Since their entrée and time killers do not vary from engagement to engagement by now their work is as familiar to me as any circus act can be. And yet…and here I must provide a caveat, depending upon your taste, it can be as hilarious and delightful as if it is being experienced for the first time.
Fumagalli’s first appearance is some slap stick acrobatics with Daris that is performed on a table and makes much use of engagements with the audience. I must say I have seen the latter bit stretched out for far longer and with greater hilarity than it was here. But it certainly establishes their credentials as true clowns, which carries them through their second appearance involving a bit of fake magic that is so firmly telegraphed that the fun is watching them work it to comic perfection.
Their final appearance is in the extended entrée variously known as the King and the Bee or the King and the Honey. In either case its details are as set as if encased in concrete and even as we can guess what is going to happen the delight is in having our intuition rewarded. There are no surprises just confirmation of what we knew and hoped would happen.
A very dramatic change of pace and tone is provided by the thirteen year old hand balancer, Olesya Fedotova. None of her moves or poses on the canes are new or surprising. What makes her work so intriguing is that somehow or other she manages to keep a balloon balanced curled up at the end of her foot or in a crook of the elbow. The other remarkable aspect of her performance is that during her seven or eight minute routine she never steps off her canes or a sets foot on her platform, which is a rare show of strength and stamina rarely seen in older, more mature equilibrists.
From the sweetness of the ingénue we next take flight with the more mature and graceful aerial team of Dolly Jacobs and Rafael Palacios who always create a special romantic aura in their work high in the upper reaches of the big top.
Following the comic magic of Fumagalli, come Leosvel and Diosmani, two extraordinary acrobats from Cuba whose work on the single Chinese pole is jaw droppingly impressive. They conclude their presentation with two displays of strength that are unique in this discipline, but are accomplished as if they were just playing.
The Pompeyo Family Dogs next get the kids and dog lovers excited with their fast and continuously funny scramble of canine antics. They are followed by Alesya Gulevich whose hula hoop display is mesmerizing, both for its speed and visual interest as well as it sexiness.
The evening is concluded by Nik Wallenda and Co. on the highwire, honoring the show-must-go-on tradition shortly after experiencing what could have been a catastrophic fall during dress rehearsal. I must say I always admire the elegant style of the company’s work and its stylish presentation includes some very beautiful 18th Century style costumes. The repertoire of tricks in the act is straight out of Karl Wallenda’s playbook: there is the shoulder rolls around a bar held by two men, performed by Erendira, a new twist in which a girl in a neck swivel is suspended from the axle of a bike, and finally the seven man pyramid, which in this case included the top mounter Khera Smith standing on the seat of the chair balanced on the top bar. Up close, as it is here, it is a nerve racking sequence to sit through calmly.
At the end of their work on high, Nik gave a heartfelt speech recapping what had happened only a few days before and the prognosis of recovery of those five who fell. It was a moving conclusion to an evening of inspiring circus.