The Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 6

Circus Flora Demonstrates How Time Flies

Circus Flora 2017 "Time flies" show in St. Louis, Missouri on May 31, 2017.

The title of Circus Flora’s latest production is Time Flies.  It means to take us on a journey through time as a way of urging us, instead of spending time thinking about the past with nostalgia or regret, to spend that energy more productively by trying to make the most of our present.  Given recent events in the world of circus, these are worthy sentiments.  But for me this production was meaningful and powerful in a much more personal way.  It was a very graphic demonstration of how time flies. Over the years of writing about the circus I have watched a good many of the people in this show’s cast grow up and mature into wonderful circus artists.

The plot, and a very complicated piece of dramaturgy it is, revolves around a character called the Tinkerer. He is played by Adam Kuchler in his inimitable comic style.  This is the fourth Flora production in which I have seen his work.  In addition I have also seen him with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.  In the course of developing a career he has created a unique character whose silliness belies the great skill that is the under pinning of everything he does.  Here he is given ample opportunity to settle that character on the audience in the early moments of the production, so that by the time he gets to his signature cigar box juggling routine, the impact is so much greater and its conclusion nothing short of triumphant.

In the early segment of the show he employs a clever bit of comedy in an attempt to duplicate another performer’s work on hand balancing canes. Unable to produce a suitable handstand, he enlists the help of a helium inflated balloon to achieve the needed lift off.

I am guessing here, but I think Cecil MacKinnon, who directs each new Flora show and is deeply involved in its writing, saw Kyle Driggs late last summer and decided she wanted him for the new show. Thus began a series of choices and further casting that included Andrew Adams, who was asked to create a strap act employing one of Drigg’s most distinctive props, an umbrella.

I have been watching Drigg’s act develop from the time I first saw his work in one of the annual shows of the Canadian National Circus School several years ago when he was finishing his work at the school. Most recently I saw him in Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour on Broadway by which time his act had been polished and enhanced with perfect lighting and music.  His juggling consists of manipulating a red umbrella and a varying number of rings all the while moving as if it were a choreographed dance, the perfect amalgam of skill and style brought to the point where he can be seen as nothing less than the Fred Astaire of jugglers. I am always a sucker for style, especially when it is wedded to brilliant skill.

To give that umbrella a logical context, which is Flora’s greatest gift to performers, the plot had to have something to do with rain. In this case a deluge that refused to stop.  That brings us back to Andrew Adams, another one of those performers I have known and watched over the years from Circus Smirkus, to the Midnight Circus to Teatro Zinzanni and an earlier Flora production.  Along the way his act grew artistically when he took on a partner.  At the time he was contacted by MacKinnon for Time Flies, three months prior to its premiere, he was again a solo act, into which he began, as requested, incorporating an umbrella.   At about the same time he joined Nik Wallenda’s troupe in Circus Sarasota.  When that act suffered a disastrous fall at its dress rehearsal, Adams broke both his legs and his pelvis.  He was not about to renege on his commitment to MacKinnon, however.  In between bouts of strenuous physical rehabilitation he began developing an entirely new act. He inserted Sasha Harrington in his place and continued the act’s development with that required umbrella.

I have been watching the St. Louis Arches for more years than I can remember, except I am fully aware of seeing Jessica Hentoff’s children, Keaton, Kellin and Elliana grow from little kids to seasoned performers: Elliana as the human cannonball on Ringling, Keaton a graduate of the Canadian National Circus School and now a member of the Australian circus company Circa, and Kellin a third year student in Montreal.  Several other Arches have also grown up to attend the circus schools in Canada.  The latest, Sidney Iking Bateman, created with Melvin Diggs, a sensational hoop diving act that was one of the high points of Cuisine and Confession, a production of Canada’s 7 Finger company.  As a soloist Bateman is currently distinguishing himself in Time Flies on an altogether different piece of apparatus, the Chinese pole.  It is a remarkable piece of work that doesn’t need as much overt selling as he tends to use.  Hs skill and appealing persona are sufficient to win over the audience.

The St. Louis Arches from year to year defy Time in that they represent eternal youth: indefatigable, fearless, always charmingly precocious.

I first met Alex and Aurelia Wallenda, both as teenagers. Both are now married.  In Time Flies their father Tino introduces audiences to a new generation of Wallendas thanks to the addition of his grandchildren Tomas and Ysabella Wallenda-Cortes to the act.

Then there is the Poema-Hanneford family: Adrian Jr. Tommy and Mariana. (Catherine whose aerial work I have admired in recent outings is pregnant and was not with the family here.) Before he even got into his teens Adrian, Jr. was the most spectacular scene stealer and spotlight hugger I have ever seen. Now a teenager he is a graceful and polished artist whose styling is nothing short of perfection.  He can still make an audience adore him without having to be so obvious about it anymore.

In Time Flies he works both in the family flying act completing a beautiful triple at each of the performances I saw when he attempted it and in the family risley act in which he is an absolute delight to watch.

Mariana, whom I have not seen before, opens the show picturesquely with a lovely lyra act.

One of the happiest moments in the show aside from watching how Time has brought us to this happy moment with these familiar faces, is perhaps the most understated. It is a brief encounter between Kuchler and Diggs in which they mirror each other’s gestures and movements.  It is simply two stars at their most subtle and refined best.

There are also others in the show, some new faces and some familiar: Andrea Murillo, Heidi Herriott, Cecil MacKinnon. Andrea Murillo is a dancer who has been nicely incorporated into both Heidi Herriott’s dressage act and Driggs’ juggling.  Herriott also presented a second act, a classic big and little, and MacKinnon is, of course, our guide through the intricacies of the plot.  I am unable to summarize the latter satisfactorily except to say there is a lot of time travel through various time zones, past, present and future.  What it does is give most of the acts a context in which to display their wares on several levels.  When it becomes too complicated, we can just enjoy the acts for themselves and the extraordinary pleasure of the company of  artists who know how to command a circus ring.

It is a Circus Flora tradition to incorporate what has come to be known as the big juggle, harkening back to MacKinnon’s roots with the Pickle Family Circus. Usually it is fashioned as a club passing act and is set somewhere near the finale.  In Time Flies it is the finale itself, and rather than featuring passing, thanks to a number of accomplished jugglers in the cast, it has each member of the cast juggling a set of rings.  This fills the big top with a spectacular display of countless rings in the air, creating a brilliant effect that is both exciting visually and emotionally stirring.  The best finale I have seen in a long time.


Compagnie XY   Il N’est Pas Encore: 

Twenty-Two Acrobats for Seventy Minutes

Most contemporary circus companies usually have about as many cast members as you can count on one hand. Compagnie XY, founded in 2005, has an astounding twenty-two. To make matters ever more interesting it has been formed as a collective, which means they all have an equal say in what goes on in a show, which means they all expect to be equally employed.  Their current show Il N’est Pas Encore Minuit (It’s Not Yet Midnight) runs seventy minutes.  Cirkus Cirkor’s five cast members, only four of which were acrobats, the fifth a musician, had no problem filling that much time.   So the individual members of a company of twenty-two (five women and seventeen men) are either going to spend a lot of time offstage or the stage is going to be very well populated for most of the time.  In the case of Compagnie XY it is the latter case.  How do they do that?

The aesthetic employed by Compagnie XY is two fold. Almost the entire cast is onstage all the time and there is little to no such a thing as down time.  A single aggressive encounter escalates into a brawl and finally a melee filling the stage with flying bodies for the entire evening.

In other words, it is non-stop, rapid-fire action. The collapse of one move is actually the beginning of the next and oftentimes there is more than one piece of action in motion at the same time, rather like the twisting, rolling stones of a kaleidoscope forming new shapes and images as we twist the tube.

I reviewed this French company some time ago, and I then compared their approach to acrobatic work as if it were a run-on sentence, almost no commas, and even fewer periods.  The result is that the audience rarely has a chance to process what they have just seen before the next image overtakes what has just passed.  The result is that the audience reaction in the early portion of the show is quite vocal, but the reaction grows less intense as the production progresses.  They soon learn to ration the amount of time spent applauding or gasping (or breathing for that matter) for fear of missing the next amazing maneuver.  It is an exhausting go, those seventy minutes.  On the rare occasions when pauses do come they are extended and rather self-conscious.

There is another problem in this approach to acrobatic performance, one that tends to diminish the fervor of the audience reaction as the evening wears on.   Ultimately acrobatics has a finite vocabulary and once you run through all the variations—hand to hand, partner acrobatics and banquine, the rest is repetition with minor variations on a theme. After all how much of these skills is there to explore for a full hour and ten minutes without having to repeat yourself.  At one point for instance several people are employed in a four high column.  After you’ve done that there is no where else to go and certainly not up.

The other aspect of the company’s aesthetic is the more interesting and rewarding. Since the entire company is on stage together most of the time, and most acrobatic feats take at the most six to eight people to complete, there is often more than one maneuver under way at once.  Often they are complementary, which tends to complicate the issue; amazingly however this never becomes a matter of focus.  The moves are so timed that it is possible to take in several within a short span of time.

The other strategy is one which, by virtue of its size, is unique to this company. The most spectacular acrobatic marvels involve the entire company. All twenty-two of them at once.  That means they tend to create structures several stories high, some of which are quite amazing.  As a collective their work grows out of mutual aid and a solidarity that is the literal foundation of their work.  “It’s a delicate balance,” they admit in their program notes, ”but our strength comes from the process.”  That delicate balance as well as the solidarity are demonstrated again and again in concrete terms throughout the performance.

I don’t recall the company’s use of rigid four by four panels when I last saw their work. These are used in a way that other companies might use tumbling mats.  Since they are rigid they can be used to build towers several storied high.  The most astonishing of these is raised as if it were being accomplished by telescoping. Watching this being formed is a breathtakingly dramatic several minutes. It is also  a concrete example of the company’s motto: “Alone we go faster; together we go further.”

Much of the company’s work is performed without music. When sound does appear it is a vamping soundscape created by one of their artistic collaborators Valentin Mussou.  Other collaborators are LoÏc Touzé for dance, David Gubitch for music, and Emmanuel Dariès for creation.  The acrobatic collaborator is Nordine Allal.

In one of the rare moments in which the mood changes and a suggestion of playfulness overtakes the seriousness, is in a section featuring the Lindy Hop style of dance choreographed (if that is the right word for a collective in which everyone has a voice and an opinion) by Aude Guiffes and Phillippe Mencia.

The company spent four months creating Il N’est Pas Encore Minuit.  Beyond the acrobatics they see the show as exploring “the fleeting nature of time, with acrobatic feats that act as a  metaphor for the experience of begin suspended between two worlds, two states of being.  In that moment of suspension just before midnight, a lot has already happened but there is still a lot of room for new things to occur.

The collective embodies the spirt of finding a way of doing incredible things together, united despite its differences. It talks about solidarity, and I think that the world is really in need of that right now.  No arguing with that.

 Circus Skills Triumph Over Storyline at Juventas

juventas 2017 10

The plot of Circus Juventas’ Nordrsaga concerns a stolen  hammer that, in the wrong hands, could destroy the universe.  Sound familiar?  Although it sounds like a metaphor purloined from current headlines around the world, the story is actually based on ancient Norse mythology, proving this is not the first time the future of the universe has been in jeopardy.  The saga involves characters with names like Thor, Odin, Leif, Loki, Fenrir and Freya, and then there are the Vikings and Valkyries.  But never mind the plot, we’ve obviously survived until now although a similar hammer is presently in dangerous hands.  So instead let’s discuss some of the pleasant and often thrilling escapism provided by the cast, crew and creators of this latest Circus Juventas concoction.

Topping the list of thrills is the second half opening that involves a pair of Russian cradles separated by what the program describes as a Viking ship, but bears an amazing similarity to a piece of apparatus in Cirque du Soleil’s O, thanks presumably to one of Juventas’ Russian coaches.  It is an act that would be a jewel in the crown of any circus in the world.  It has everything one could ever want in a circus act: non-stop action, extraordinary skill, daring, riveting movement and a dramatic musical score.  The rigging itself is an impressively complex affair that goes beyond anything I have seen outside of Cirque du Soleil.

The second most impressive act is built on a pair of common teeterboards, but they are arranged in the most creative way I have seen them used resulting in what looks like a perpetual motion machine that ends up with the flyer either atop a three high column or in a basket chair after completing a double somersault.  The human projectile here happens to be a young man named Anwar Hassouni, about whom we will be hearing a lot more during the course of this report.

Hassouni’s versatility can also be seen when he is working on straps, the Russian swing, the Russian barre and a three man hand balancing team whose work is another of the show’s highlights as they form a constantly changing series of novel poses and figures involving both strength and balance, once again providing me with images I have not seen before. As the character Leif, Hassouni also exhibits an appealing stage presence.

I have seen the duo trapeze act performed by Stone Langworthy and Mariana Thompson before but it manages to impressive anew. I wish it had been rigged in a more prominent position in a display that included several other aerial soloists on the cloud swing, Mexican cloud swing and swinging trapeze, a veritable surfeit of riches.

Such riches are also displayed in a number of aerial displays involving as many as six women in various guises cavorting above and flashing across the stage creating exciting visual treats.

When these circus skills are not on vivid display, the plot development is forced to take over. Such moments tend to momentarily stifle the energy and excitement unmistakably generated by the circus acts, which seldom seem to have anything to do with the plot machinations which are advanced by a pre-recorded sound track mimed by various characters, their voices seemingly coming out of the ether rather than an identifiable character’s mouth.  In addition the dialogue is further encumbered by an almost impenetrable Scandinavian accent used by several of the characters.  The one thing that makes it difficult to totally ignore the mimed and occasionally danced portions of the show is that all the characters look so interesting in the fascinating costumes created by a brigade of costumers.  But before long the excitement level will be raised once again by groups of young performers displaying skills far beyond the expected.  One curious aspect of the seventy member cast is that only twenty-two of them (if I am counting correctly) are young men.  Proving once more that the circus is becoming a woman’s world.

I would be remiss if I did not give special mention to the dynamic and varied score put together from various sources by Betty Butler, the show’s artistic director and Juventas’ co-founder along with her husband Dan.  The music provides a level of drama and tension that enhances both the plot and the individual acts.

Of course, in the end the hammer is restored to the right hands and the universe is saved once more. In celebration all the characters join in a great folk dance that includes square-dancing’s grand right and left and is in all respects an utterly charming lift to our spirits with its exuberance and grace.  I loved it.   How do you go away carrying home any caveats after that?