Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 5

Volta Vaults Cirque du Soleil Into Another Realm

Volta-72_credits photos_Patrice_Lamoureux_costumes_Zaldy

The opening moments of Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring production Volta are strongly reminiscent of the kind of audience warm-up one or more of the Ringling clowns used to perform before the start of their performances.  In this case, however, this gambit is more than an easy way of involving the audience.  It is actually the first moments of this tale of rejection and acceptance.  After much screaming and clapping, a group of performers who are meant to represent the various sections of the tent’s seating plan are brought on stage for a talent contest, out of which someone is named the winner  and dubbed Super Elite.

This opening is the first indication that this is not going to be your typical Cirque du Soleil show built on amazing displays of acrobatic prowess and adherence to a surrealistic theme that is open to multiple interpretations. Volta, written and directed by Bastien Alexandre, is far more determined in its story telling than any past shows were and even more obvious about the method it employs to provide extreme thrills.

Extreme is the key word here. The featured artists are BMX-Bikers whose air-borne somersaults and daring gyrations are the stuff of extreme sports whose modus operandi is shameless outrageousness.  There is plenty of that in Volta, although it isn’t until late in the show that the bikers display their brand of this commodity.

Before then we are immersed in Zaldy’s costumes, the glitziest of any I have seen on a Cirque stage, Martin Labrecque’s dramatic lighting and Thibaut Duverneix’s  special effects which employ both photographic images and surrealistic pyrotechnics verging on overkill are extreme to the point of violence.  Anthony Gonzalez’s musical score provides the heaviest pounding outside of a heavy metal concert one is likely to encounter.  There is also a lot of scenery, designed by Bruce Rodgers, that seems at first to have no purpose other than to call attention to itself, but finally makes sense when it is put to use by the bikers.

But all that is merely to differentiate Volta from what Cirque du Soleil has given us in the past. Volta also has problems uniquely its own, principally the problem of focus which the creators have been unable to control insofar as the show’s plot is concerned.

At this point I must confess to consulting a plot summary made available to the press, According to these notes the central character Waz appears as both his present and younger self.  In performance they look like two totally different characters.  What sets the younger Waz apart from others is not his talent, it turns out, but his head of blue feathers where others have hair.   But the story is considerably muddled by the appearance of the present day Waz, another character who is identified as Shood Kood Wood (played by the clown Wayne Wilson) who is Waz’s sidekick, and several other characters who keep turning up and drawing our attention away from Waz   First there is that group of fellow contestants who keep forming around him at crucial moments often times absorbed in their cell phones.  Then there is the woman on roller skates who literally comes whizzing through the proceedings interacting with Waz in vaguely significant ways and bringing with her a group of characters which includes a baton twirler. All of this latter group of characters is dressed in folkloric costumes unlike anything else in the show.  Finally Shood Kood Wood delivers what amounts to a classic (and truly funny) clown entrée involving three washing machines with minds of their own.  At some point Shood Kood Wood goes into the jungle where he morphs into some sort of holy man dressed in animal skins.

The resultant muddle is also caused by a disparity of tone. This holy man is simultaneously serious and comic, as is the story of Waz, the boy with blue feathers instead of hair.  And then, of course, there are, finally, those bikers moving from the poetic to shameless show boating.

How anyone could figure out who is who in this cast of characters and what their relationships are to one another without access to this information escapes me. Does any of this matter when it comes down to enjoying this show?  Some clarity would add an emotional element to the show, but, basically, one’s enjoyment of the show depends, I suppose, on one’s willingness to ignore the plot and focus on the acts.  Thankfully, there actually are some acrobatic displays capable of demonstrating the old Cirque du Soleil signature spectacle.    A rope jumping display with young Chinese acrobats is the first real act.  It is a fast paced display of very impressive agility.

On the other hand a display using a child’s jungle gym shows only a rather ordinary level of acrobatics, and a trio of men on Roman rings late in the show never go much beyond merely swinging back and forth. Several acrobats hanging onto a set of ladders that fold in the middle and swivel at their base, similarly makes little impact.

A hoop diving display, however, shows the most advanced level of acrobatic skill in the entire show, but it, too, is not ( at least currently and this may change) without its disastrous misses.

The most effective bit of story telling reveals the younger Waz doting on a new bicycle he has apparently received as a gift. This evolves into a display with a grownup biker and a female dancer presumably playing his mother.  It turns out that this is the most effective use of circus skills to amplify an emotional moment.  The biker’s act is quite balletic, almost poetic in fact, with the maternal figure encouraging him on with her dance movements.

When the full contingent of bikers finally appear, their performance grows increasingly daring even as it is broken into several segments, as the ramps we had seen earlier are now incorporated in a meaningful way as they provide the physical challenges the bikers require to defy gravity most dramatically.

In between sections of the act the character I had taken to be the show’s comic relief reappears, now old and apparently a sainted survivor of the jungle where he presides as something of a latter day prophet or saint. His appearance is topped by a dance with some near nudity used for comic effect.

I suppose the logic for the next act, a hair hang display, is that we are still in the jungle where it is possible to become entwined in its tendrils and vines.

The final acrobatic act is the unicycle act previously seen in New York in Paramour, where it was spotted as the opening act.  Here it is the penultimate display and as a result has been ramped up with a veritable plethora of production to justify its positioning in the lineup of acts.  A pair of straps drops in for each member of the ensemble which has come on to surround the act, however nothing is made of this bit of extravagance.

At this point Waz, now a grown man, comes to accept his being different and performs an ecstatic solo acrobatic dance that should, by all that is dramaturgically logical, be the climax of the show—except it isn’t.  It turns out to be anti-climactic thanks to the sensational bikers who now take over the stage in no uncertain terms.  They race up several severely raked ramps to hang in mid-air for some sensational hot- dogging as the audience goes nuts.

All of which provides the show with a challenge I think it is still trying to figure out: “how do you merge a sentimental story of a kid growing up feeling like an outsider with extreme sport and maintain any sort of continuity or consistency of tone?” Maybe they don’t care.  For some audiences, like the one  I saw the show with in Montreal, all those elements that produced a muddle for me, are just what make the show a thrilling change of pace for a brand that may have become too familiar.

Cirkus Cirkőr’s Limits Takes Us Into the World of Refugees

Conceived and directed by Tilde Bjőrfors, music by Samuel “LoopTok” Andersson, Cirkus Cirkőr’s production Limits takes us on a journey.  It is a journey of uncertain conveyance over unknown obstacles. It is a journey across borders without passports.  It is a journey fraught with  danger.  It is the journey of refugees.

It has been created, according to Tilde Bjőrfors who has conceived and directed it, “To understand how boundary-crossing works. Absolutely crucial to those of us who defy a limit, create something new or go where no one else has ventured is whether we are focused on the risk or on possibility.”  Creative artists like those of Cirkus Cirkőr and political refugees have both risks and possibilities in common.

“There’s a big difference between a circus performer who takes risks of their own free will, and an individual fleeing for their life. Someone fleeing has no choice.  Yet the way they handle risk is the same.  A person fleeing knows what it is like to be afraid, while at once being brave.  They know that when you venture out into the unknown, it is only the belief that it is possible that keeps you going.  That faith in oneself and others is a necessity, there is no other choice.  Planning, preparation and organization are all good, but to be able to handle all the unforeseen things that arise, it is even more important to be present in the moment.

“It is shocking to watch Europe close border after border when our circus has dedicated the last 20 years to pushing boundaries. The word ‘circus’ is often used disparagingly, but I think the opposite is true-the world should practice more circus.”

Cirkus Cirkőr’s CEO Anders Frennberg adds a bit more insight into the production: “At Cirkus Cirkőr we have decided to dedicate the next few years to the theme of boundaries and border-crossing. Deeply inspired by the transboundary essence of the circus, our desire is to convey the importance of focusing on possibilities, rather than on risks, when we as individuals, or as a society, are confronted with new challenges…We believe that defying limits is a necessity.  Without pushing boundaries, nothing new arises.  We want to change the world through circus.”

Quite an ambition. Realizing it begins with Limits, which played three performances recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, a venue that seems entirely appropriate to both the ambition and the performance that moves the company toward its realization.

As the audience gathers the stage is open, and we are confronted with a projection of rolling seas and seagulls, the sounds of water lapping shores, the screeching of birds. As the performance begins a young woman, one of five acrobats and a sole musician who make up the ensemble steps forward. “When I was a child,” she begins.  “My family moved from Finland to Sweden.  It seemed strange that we were crossing a border that was somewhere in the moving water.”

The backdrop is dropped to the floor and a young man spreads out a series of ever larger paper boats across the stage as another of the company’s men carries a large steel grate , approximately ten feet high and four feet across, down the theatre’s center aisle, on to the stage, where other members of the company begin climbing it to the top and then dropping down on the other side. The scaling is accomplished with some difficulty suggesting the dangers inherent in escape.  Some banquine-style acrobatics are added to the mix as some fall to the other side and safety.

At this point we leave the metaphoric realm of the circus and are presented with a series of statistics flashed on a screen at the rear of the stage regarding the world-wide problem of refugees movement.

After this change of tone, a wall appears and a trampoline is discovered beneath it. These are used in  another display of circus skills that have seen great popularity of late.  This amazes the audience who may be as uninformed of circus arts as they are of what it means to be a refugee.  The metaphor of displacement is extended as someone keeps throwing clothes off the upper level, scattering them about.  It is an effective piece of business symbolically but it does also tend to distract from the actual acrobatic maneuvers.

I’m not sure I see the metaphoric connection to the next circus act, Manda Rydman on the lyra. Her time aloft runs rather long, and as this particular skill set tends to run out of variation rather quickly, her contortions around the ring seem repetitious.  Nonetheless the opera house audience reacted with surprised amazement throughout the routine.

Peter Aberg provides a pleasant change of pace by manipulating a set of hollow tubes, which, when slapped produces a percussive sound, the rhythm of which is ingeniously worked into a juggling routine.   Aberg, with his laid back persona provides an even more relaxed segment later in the second half of the show at which time he solves the puzzle of a Rubic’s cube while blindfolded.  All of which is preceded by a long winded, tongue in cheek, explanation of how he does it.  He then reverts to some intriguingly complex juggling routine worthy of any circus anywhere.

Throughout the performance, no matter the act, there is but one, solo musician, Samuel “LoopTok” Andersson, who miraculously produces an amazing range of aural stimulation and rhythms.

The second act begins with a brief speech delivered in Swedish by Saara Ahola. Before long she  switches to English.  She asks us to join her in an experiment in balance.  We are asked to stand, feet together, with our eyes shut.  What this proves is that you must move, however slightly, to keep your equilibrium—and more importantly, stay alive. The world must also keep moving to find its balance, that’s why people are always moving.

A hand balancing act, performed by Einar Kling Odencrants demonstrate this concept quite effectively, especially since Odencrants is a much larger fellow than usually performs such an act

A single trapeze act performed by Ahola is filled with twisted and contorted moves, without much connection to the theme of refugees and pushing limits.

This is followed, however, by a spoken section that relates the comparative ease with which circus performers with passports can cross borders and for that matter push limits, in contrast to the daunting confrontations refugees without documentation face.

Another member of the cast delivers a personal account of being uprooted and losing touch with his younger brother whom he had always found rather annoying in the past. Now that they were separated he misses him terribly.  This relationship between competitive and bothersome brothers is brilliantly given metaphoric life in a Korean plank routine wherein each partner tries to send the other higher into the air testing his ability to survive.  Once launched into the air, however, both men, Anton Graf as the younger brother and Odencrants as the older, perform some wonderful feats of acrobatics.  Once again here is a circus act that is absolutely world class without the metaphor and totally brilliant when combined with it.

This act probably should have ended the show, but it doesn’t. There are still more statistics about refugees to be revealed, and this is finally punctuated by a brief turn on the corde lisse by Ahola.   As the cast takes its final bows they stretch a clothes line of discarded clothing out into the audience as a final reminder of what it means to be a refugee.

Limits is at its best when the connection between its theme and the circus arts is the clearest and most apt, which it succeeds in doing several times during the performance.  I don’t think, however, it made the plight of refugees any more compelling than it would be without the circus acts.


Canada’s National Circus School Stages Two New Production

Hangar des Possibles

Hangar des possibles

The sound of dripping water suggests that although we seem to be in an abandoned building, there is a sense of expectancy about its emptiness. This anticipation builds as we wait for the house lights to dim and the first of the two annual shows produced by Canada’s national circus school, Ecole Nationale de Cirque, to begin. Hangar des Possibles takes us inside a deserted warehouse (or is it an old airplane hanger?) where squatters, curiosity seekers, circus artists looking for a place to practice, and mysterious men in dark suits come and go with amusing and amazing results.

The principal entrance for this wonderfully secret place created under the direction of Yves Dagenais, is a bank of windows which are often as peripatetic as the visitors are gifted. Before we meet any of them,  a female figure trailing a white scarf of diaphanous gauze ( Rosita Hendry) suddenly enters from the audience as if she is a permanent ghostly remnant of the structure’s past glories. Eventually she discards some of the fabric in which she has been swathed to climb a corde lisse on which she twists and, falls, catching herself in fantastical knots of rope to the accompaniment of a solo female vocalist.  Soon she is no longer alone as street people and laborers on their mid-day break, begin to drift in for a respite unaware of her ghostly presence.

They eventually engage in some friendly games, a banquine with extraordinary throws and catches, and some slapstick acrobatics.  A manhole cover is removed and other characters emerge. Before long we are in the midst of a hand to hand act performed by Andrei Anissimov and Emma Rogers in which, for a change, the woman is not overtly abused, but seems the equal of the man.

The varied characters of the ensemble, circus artists in this instance, climb ropes or settle on trapezes, present an exciting visual spectacle. One of them, Kellin Hentoff-Killian, an apparently homeless man with a sense of humor provides the only light comic diversion (there being no obvious clowns) before two men plunge into a display of Chinese hoop diving, complicated by the fact that one of them, Evan Tomlinson Weintraub, has his foot in a cast, but the act is nonetheless full of surprises and unique moments as his partner Quentin Greco fully in command of all his body parts manages to prevail most spectacularly.

Another go at the corde lisse, this time by Una Bennett whose style of presentation is wild and urgently aggressive in sharp contrast to the first such display which was far more lyrical in comparison.

Florian Jeannot takes over the space with a solo acrobatic turn that begins on a bike and then proceeds on to a set of canes for a hand balancing act that is punctuated by the startling image of full-out body slams to the floor.   At this point the lady in white returns in a gorgeous turn on the Cyr wheel.

When all the visitors in this strange but welcoming space come together it is “Showtime” and the entire male and female cast appears in drag for a raucously uninhibited party. Before it concludes Roxane Gilliand is aloft on a swinging trapeze, extending that art further than it has gone before with mid-air somersaults to the bar. She is a free spirit in full  flight, except of course for the mechanic that would prevent any disasters. For those who would say her tether diminishes what she achieves, the daring and freedom on display here cannot be denied.

We are in the air again with Angela Mcilroy-Wagar on the lyra. In a skill we see increasingly these days, this artist sets herself apart by the rather tortured and surreal way in which she weaves herself around her hoop.

The performance is brought to a sensational conclusion by a display on the Russian cradle. The novelty here is that it is two men: Maxime Blanckaert and Nathan Briscoe, who perform an impressive series of throws and catches which includes some hand to hand work following what seems to be the conclusion of each flight.

And then the lovely ghost returns and the parade of visitors to the hanger return for one last moment of stolen glory.

L’Amour et les Extraterrestres

L'Amour et les ExtraTerrestres

How do you spoof a genre that is essentially a form of self parody? That is the question that comes to mind after viewing L’Amour et les Extraterrestres, Didier Lucien’s sci-fi extravaganza which is the second of this year’s annual pair of productions from the Canadian National CIrcus School.  Like any low-budget black and white film, the production begins with the movie’s title and credits flashed across the rear of the theatre.

As the action begins we are plunged into vivid color as red flashing lights signal the descent of a space vehicle, enhanced as the landing nears by dazzling shafts of laser beams. The cast finally emerges from the space craft in white space suits and helmets.

In a rather jarring juxtaposition the show proper begins where its companion piece (see above) ends: with the Russian cradle. It begins with little or no discernible transition.  This team, like the one in the previous show, is made up of two men, Louis Joyal and Samuel Renaud, who once again add hand to hand balancing after the casting and catches but up the ante considerably resulting in an exciting and spectacular display.

A roller skater next comes racing through the proceedings as a table is set for the ensemble to indulge in a flashy sliding routine across the slick surface.

Throughout the show there are numerous jarringly abrupt shifts in tone and mood, from the violent to the poetic, from slow-mo to fast forward, often to bewildering results that are more disturbing than the actual; sci-fi thrillers and fail to produce any sense of fun. Where, in all this the L’Amour comes in I can’t say.

One such shift brings us in to a restaurant scene, where we meet another set of men in dark suits (also seen in Hangar) once again presumably as representatives of some mysterious authority.  Several sets of doors open and slam shut in time to create an escape route, much like a classic three door farce.  After a brief appearance of some chain saw wielding strangers, a young lady  on straps, Celia Milesi, winds herself up in a pair of straps, accomplished by a heavy drum beat and increasingly industrial sound effects.  The twists and turns expected of such an act, add a sense of pervasive doom.

In what the director calls “an altered reality devoid of rationale and logic,” we next meet a group of characters in Martha Graham-like costumes of stretch clothe that are capable of creating surrealistic figures. In response to that lack of rationale the entire cast begins running in place, panic stricken, their frenzy ultimately sends them racing around the stage.

Out of all this comes the hand balancing duo of Julius Bitterling and Cesar Mispelon, whose boundless aggression leads to astounding abuse on both sides, but somehow they are brothers at last.

It takes four people to anchor the four fabric straps around which Vanessa Aviles next entwines herself, until a final dramatic roll down.

After some brief work on Chinese poles and some ground acrobatics, Éliza Gélinas-Lance, has an exhausting non-stop go on a lyra, followed by Cory Marsh’s impressive and gracefully serene turn on the Cyr wheel.

We next enter what appears to be the electronic control center of the space craft, which introduces us to the duo trapeze act of Virginie Gerbeau and Zoé Sanscartier. Their strong work together produces a non-stop  series of daring and impressive moves.

In another of those abrupt changes, previously noted, we are presented a series of breathless soliloquys delivered by various members of the cast directly to the audience with each taking a turn on mic.  These are all spoken in French, so I am at a loss to explain what the subject of these were.  But what does it matter in a scenario where logic has no place and the menacing men in dark suits appear periodically without making any sort of point ?

An eclectic and exciting display of various acrobatics presented by the ensemble leads us to the hand balancing team of Marlon Archer and Jenay Espinosa who make their way through a series of sensational moves to the accompaniment of a variety of musical styles from industrial sounds to opera.

In what turns out to be the sort of highly theatricalized entrance the impact of which the circus seems to have forgotten, Tuedon Ariri, outrageously costumed to represent some space queen or idol, proceeds to work her way through a strongly dramatic routine on aerial straps to the accompaniment of a male pop-style vocalist.

There is no discernible denouement to this sci-fi saga, but we have reached its conclusion about as logically as we have encountered everything else in this provocative production.