The Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 4

 

Turning a Kitchen into a Circus Ring

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What’s a firehouse pole doing in an Ikea inspired contemporary kitchen? That’s a question that might come to mind as one awaits the start of the performance and considers the set of the 7 Finger production Cuisine and Confessions which was presented at the NYU Skirball Center this past  March.  Once the performance begins, however, and the acrobatic cast begins to make use of the kitchen’s furnishings, especially the sensational use Matias Plaul makes  of that pole which I facetiously referenced, one is inclined not only to overlook the anachorism, but welcome its inclusion.

But otherwise the show, created by Shana Carroll and Sebastian Soldevila, takes the kitchen’s realistic setting as a challenge.  For instance there are no circles or even rounded corners in these kitchen cabinets or any of the multiple furniture pieces that have a way of cleverly dividing and multiplying, so instead or diving through traditional Chinese hoops Sidney Iking Bateman and Melvin Diggs use square and rectangular picture frames in the same finish as all the other furnishings for their props.   In the same vein a fabric act is hung from a drying rack, and a juggler manipulates large whisks.

When the show premiered in Montreal nearly two years ago, which is when I first saw it, the production did have some problems.  These have been dealt with subsequently and  satisfactorily as the show has developed and evolved. Much of the so-called confessions of the title have been altered, some rather dramatically.  Since it takes considerable acting chops to put across a personal monologue and still have breath enough to do some heavy-duty acrobatics, some of these soliloquys have been pre-recorded and serve only as a vague background for the acrobatics.  Others have been similarly muted.

The biggest remaining problem is the spoof of the kitchen gadgets “as seen only on TV ads (and available only on TV). ” It is the weakest part of the show and the most forced.  It comes out of nowhere and serves little purpose except to provide the perceived need for some comic relief, which the show doesn’t really need.  There is a great deal of humor derived principally from the interaction of the personable cast and the audience, all of it accomplished with nothing more than the natural charm the entire cast projects with casual ease.   So whereas their acting ability seemed somewhat weak and forced in the early stages of its tour, there doesn’t seem to be any acting at all now, which is, of course, the most effective kind of acting and the easiest to be engaged by because it appears to be spontaneous and totally lacking in self-consciousness.

Physically and vocally the ensemble work moves between the casual and conversational to hyper frenetic choreographed acro-dance, from Icarien games (foot juggling) to the always spectacular banquine work. As a result there are often times when complex movements and a variety of activities, make finding the central focus difficult. The only time I can recall when a single focus prevails  is for Matias Plaul’s story of his  father that alternates with his work on the Chinese pole.  At this time there is not even any music to distract us.

Although the company is a true ensemble one performance emerges as the most dominant. Iking Batemen is now the most prominent and dazzling acrobat in the show, displaying two skills which are nothing short of totally unique and amazing.   Both of his two specialties are turned into truly original acts, the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else.  One is a hoop diving spectacle which he does initially with his partner Melvin Diggs.  It is never less than sensational.  This skill keeps turning up briefly again and again throughout the performance.  His other specialty is the diabolo with which he incorporates acrobatics, the result being an act unlike anything anywhere else.  Intended or not this performance has turned Bateman into a full-fledged star.

Bateman and Diggs are both products of the Canadian National Circus School and perhaps more significantly Jessica Hentoff’s Circus Harmony. They are a tribute not only to the social aspects of Hentoff’s programs but her acrobatic training.

There are also some new skills that have been injected into the performance, most notably some risley work. Featured solo work includes a daring and dramatic adagio/hand balancing act presented by Anna Kachalova and Michannock Ferrero, and an eccentric dance by Gabriela Parigi.

Although the confessions have been muted there is still a considerable amount of cooking going on in this kitchen. An omelet, a Waldorf salad and banana bread (the latter serves as the show’s coda) are whipped up live and in real time.  What that means is that there are times when some of the ensemble are simultaneously manipulating three skills: acting, cooking, and acrobatics.  All three are presented with the same level of disarming charm.

When the smell of fresh baked banana bread wafts over the auditorium and it is ready for it to pop out of the oven, the audience is invited onstage to partake of the treat as well as engage the performers on an even more personal level. How much more involved can one hope to be at a circus? (Yes, it’s still a circus.)

 

Getting Your Party On with Universoul Circus

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There’s more than one way of engaging an audience as was demonstrated most persuasively by the two wildly different circuses under consideration in this installment. Cuisine and Confession does it by charming us with personality; Universoul Circus does it by drowning us in irresistible rhythms and encouraging us to shed all inhibitions,  scream at the top of our lungs and shake our bodies with wild abandon.

When I first saw Universoul Circus quite a few years ago its thrust was considerably different than what it is now. Now it is designed to incite the most ecstatic response as if it is all one giant, endless effort for everyone to get their party on.  In its early years with a very different ringmaster Casual Cal Dupree, I was moved to describe the experience as circus as a revival meeting.   Cal was as much preacher as ringmaster, and his exchanges with the audience were often nothing short of little sermons about respecting each other and yourself, and in the end, the appearance of a Christ-like figure created an unmistakable celebration that called forth  hallelujahs.

None of that moralizing exists any longer. Now this is circus as a celebration of hedonism with ringmaster Lucky, his sidekick Zeke, the clowns Onionhead and the Fresh Clownsss  providing much of the stimulus to that end, while the acts offer exceptionally intense moments of another sort of excitement.

The fact that this is going to be a party is established from the outset, when the ring is filled with what amounts to an extended calypso carnival: dancers, stiltwalkers, and limbo contests. All of its wildly enthusiastic participants are resplendent in flamboyantly exotic attire designed to produce the utmost vibrating bedazzlement, swinging to the soul-pounding rhythms of the islands.

During all this the audience is encouraged to make as much noise as possible, and they do so by screaming, clapping their hands and stamping their feet. As a result the performance achieves a level of sound most shows don’t come close to matching until their conclusion.  But fear not, the audience is as resilient as the performers prove to be. They have enough vocal power to scream at the top of their lungs for all of the production’s two and a half hours without the slightest slackening of sound or physical involvement.  They don’t just dance in the aisles.  They dance everywhere.

The Cossacks riders which is the first circus act to take over the ring displays most of the expected moves such horsemen exhibit, which is to say it is quite daring. As it turns out, however, they and a roller skating duo, Eyoe Gessaye and Mehret Tesfaye, who provide a fast paced whirlwind of excitement, are actually among the milder displays in the performance’s lineup.

A teeterboard troupe introduced as The Dream Team lives up to that billing with their work on the teeterboard, which concludes with a four high column, produced without a mechanic.   Even more stunning are the banquine segments they have added to their breathless routine.  The young top mounter is nothing short of amazing with the deftness and security of his various flights and landings.

One of the most bizarre and cringe inducing contortionist acts I have ever seen is presented by a quartet of young men called The Bone Breakers who seem to take delight in startling with their seemingly impossible gyrations as they bend and distort their bodies beyond what had previously seemed humanly possible.

In keeping with its policy of bringing together acts from all over the world, there is a Chinese fabric act, the Shenyang Silks. Like all Chinese acrobatic ensembles this one combines a variety of impressive skills into an act that is both quite astounding and surprisingly beautiful. Six girls balance knife points to sticks held in their mouths, on top of which are glasses of colored liquid, so we can know nothing is being spilled.  They do all this while being sent airborne and spinning by the four male members of the troupe.

At this point the party comes to a halt for a forty minute intermission so that everyone who wants an elephant ride is sure to be accommodated.

More dance, a Juju inspired sequence opens the second act and immediately brings it to the same high level of intensity attained before intermission.  This is accomplished mainly by inviting the uninhibited and wildly enthusiastic participation of members of the audience, either in the ring or at their own seats.  No invitation to get physically involved is ever met with the slightest hesitation, and what really amounts to a total lack of inhibitions.

Next quite possibly the most spectacular thrill act in any circus comes blasting into the arena as four motorcyclists are launched from a ramp set up in the center entrance. They come roaring across the ring and land, after some mid-air antics on another ramp.  Talk about raising the level of excitement.

As one might imagine such an extensive piece of rigging takes some time to dismantle and remove. The time is filled with a balloon bounce, in which the audience once again whole heartedly participate.

The next act was my favorite of the performance, a fantastic Russian barre act performed by The Havana Company. Its young flyer executes a series of flawless airborne acrobatics that conclude with perfect, strong landings.  The troupe’s final offering is a perfect triple, landed with unerring , jaw droppingly perfect execution

A quick and effective change of pace is offered by Yosaffat Garner Moralesmixed animal act, consisting of four camels and four zebras.  This is the kind of act I usually think goes on for too long, but Morales’ version managed to dispel any such feeling as the animals made their way through a very impressive and appealing drill that had variety, speed, precision, and the finesse of its presenter.

We were soon back into the thrill category with the giant Wheel of Death. Carlos Pinto Morales, Mamadou Bobo Sylla and Sory Conde, run and jump aboard this deviously deadly contraption, eliciting another round of screams from the hyper-stimulated audience. Subsequent to my visit one of the men fell from the wheel and was seriously injured.

We are brought back down to earth by one of the most novel and innovative elephant acts currently working. Larry Carden, who will be remembered as the trainer of Bello Nock’ elephantine partner Bo, has put together a two elephant act that is delightfully charming from start to finish, providing a happy ending to a very satisfying, thrill packed party by Universoul Circus.

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