Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 7

Circus Smirkus Has Museum Sleepover

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Circus Smirkus celebrated its thirtieth anniversary during this past summer’s nine week tour. During those previous years the show has showcased some delightfully clever and funny clowning.  Not so much this year, as the clowning got lost in the clever and amusing vignettes that carried out the show’s theme: Midnight at the Museum.

It’s not that the show has no comedy. Quite the opposite in fact.  There is a charming sense of humor at work here in each of the acts that are in one way or another based on the artifacts one is likely to encounter at a first- class museum.  But it is a different kind of comedy: gentler, more affectionate.  Even in the more serious aerial numbers there is delightful homage paid to such artists as Degas, Beethoven, and Mondrian that elevate the acts to a level of visual appeal, not often seen in the hustle and bustle of a typical Smirkus performance.

The clowns are cast as museum guards, and they are often quickly pushed aside in order to get us and the rest of the cast face to face with the various museum exhibits that come to life during the Smirksonian Sleepover. The one extended comic interlude involves a statue whose figures squirt water at each other.

Various characters that we will meet later in the performance all appear in the always energetic and exciting charivari that opens the show and was choreographed by Smirkus’ invaluable choreographer Matt Williams. And while we are acknowledging the contributions of the creative staff, kudos must be tossed in the direction of costume designer Julie Michael and prop master Steve Oubre whose work is vital to bringing the museum features to life.  I was especially impressed by the costumes of the strikingly beautiful opening aerial display inspired by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whose work inspired a popular line of women’s clothes in the 60s.

The museum being visited by the Smirkos is a combination of art and natural history, so we have visits from space men, pirates, skeletal remains of ancient figures, a living diorama of the evolution of man,  cavemen, Egyptian mummies, a party of mountain climbers (hopefully not the Donner party),  space men, a frisky gorilla, and some dinosaurs who provided the wee ones seated behind the ring curb with a scary experience.  There are even specimens from an insectarium.

Although the skill level is not as high as it has been in the past, a potential problem offset by the show’s charm and the cast’s vivaciousness, the settings of each of the performances add uncommon visual appeal to displays of juggling, various aerial apparatus, the Russian barre (Chase Levy, Keiran Sass, and Dylan Biedrzycki), Chinese pole, (the mountain climbers, Aaron Schondorf, Jack Miron, Laska Leonard, Patrick Chikolama and Nemo Mass), contortion (the three girls, Eva Lou Rhinelander, Ilse Bryan, and Saffi Watson forming a convincing looking octopus), hand balancing by Ben Kaufman, Eva Lou Rhinleander, Ilse Bryan, Isabells Majzun, Lola Picayo, Saffi Watson and Ann Zuckerman as a group of skeletons who provide a new way of looking at the human form.

I should note that I did not get to see the work of Sam Landa and Sarah Norden who had by the time I caught up with the show in Maine gone on to begin their training at the  Canada’s National Circus School (ENC).  The most impressive act in the performance I saw was the cradle act of Cheya Potter and Serafina Walker.

Certainly the most beautiful act was the tight wire display with Ariana Wunderle, Ben Kaufman, Hannah Grove,Liam Ryan-O’Flaherty, and Maedva Kojis, inspired by Degas’ ballerinas in their gauzy skirts and balletic moves.

Credit for devising these delightful glimpses into the museum after midnight goes to artistic director Troy Wunderle and creative director Mark Lonergan. Peter Bufano composed the score and was musical director. The scenic design was by Maruti Evans.  Together with those already credited they have maintained an amusing sense of humor throughout that makes the visit fly by as if in a dream.


Documentary Film Honors Miguel Vazquez’ Quad

Philip Weyland’s documentary film The Last Great Circus Flyer runs just a few ticks less than two hours.  Although the film purportedly focuses on Miguel Vazquez and his spectacular achievement of the quadruple somersault to the hands of a catcher and a return to the pedestal board, it often wanders into related subjects absenting the film’s subject from view for minutes on end.   So some judicial editing might be in order.

The opening sequence charts what the narrator informs us are understandable changes in the American circus. The one change whose causes remain a mystery is why the flying trapeze act should have fallen out of favor with the circus-going public.  The narrator, presumably Weyland himself, provides a quick, plausible answer within the first few minutes of the film, leaving it with no real, compelling purpose but to recount the history of how it came about that Miguel and his brother Juan finally succeeded in throwing the quad in a public performance.  This occupies perhaps the first quarter of the film which opens in 2014 in Las Vegas where we find Miguel in his present existence, after which the film turns its attention on the extended Vazquez family and its connections to the circus and the technical considerations of flying.

Miguel is an appealing character, more so in real life than he was as a performer. (He has little of the charisma exhibited in the air by Tito Gaona, another flyer who, along with Tony Steele turns up to talk about the “impossibility” of achieving the quad.)  Eventually over the next several years he threw over 2,000 successful quads all over the world and ultimately at the Monte Carlo circus competition.

He talks about himself, his ambitions, the emotional toll involved in maintaining the high level of performance expected of him after he became a celebrity, his family and his faith with an easy and winning openness.  The segments devoted to his children’s interest or lack thereof in flying is especially fascinating and even moving.

Most of the information we are given about his early years and the family’s work ethic comes from other members of the family. This is also true when it comes to discussing the dangers of flying, although Miguel does add a few brief remarks on this subject.

Other personalities who appear to comment on the magnitude of the Vazquez’ achievement are Jon Weiss and Paul Binder.

I found it fascinating to watch Miguel go about the intricacies of the job he has taken with Cirque du Soleil’s O after retiring from performing, but I wonder if we really needed to know how the costumes for Franco Dragone’s Las Vegas water extravaganza La Reve are maintained even though this work is done by Miguel’s sister-in-law Patricia who turns out to be the more voluble member of the family.

Late in the film we are given a lecture on the history of the flying return by historian Steve Gossard, an interest, along with the history of the circus, Miguel says he came to share. So it is intriguing to see him visiting the Ringling show with his young children and behaving as a curious spectator.  We also investigate the numerous flying trapeze schools scattered about the country run by ex-flyers of wide renown.

Other commentary is contributed by several contemporary flyers as well as Armondo Faran, Jr, who is a perceptive observer. Towards the end, the film briefly makes note of other American flying acts which have sporadically thrown the quad.  No mention is made of the Russian flyers in The Flying Cranes or the North Korean flyers who have also achieved this distinction.

I wish the film had brought us back to Miquel in the end and provided some sort of summing up or look ahead to what his life may be like henceforth.   In fact the opening moments would probably have been better saved for the conclusion.  Miguel Vasquez is too fascinating a human being to be phased out and the film dedicated to documenting his achievement is always at its best when we spend our time with him.