The Passing Spectacle Vol. VII, No. I

 

Animals Make a Point in Monte Carlo

If the 42nd Monte Carlo International Circus Festival had been designed as a conscious effort to refute those who say animals don’t belong in the circus, the organizers could not have chosen to feature a more spectacular act than the Animal Carousel presented by Joseph and Merrylu Richter of the Hungarian National Circus to prove that point.

The act features 32 animals: elephants, camels, horses of various breeds, zebras, llamas and even a giraffe, all circling the big top’s ring in several concentric circles in perfect order, all under the serene control of Joseph Richter, Jr. It is an amazing and thrilling sight, an experience to cherish, made all the more wonderful, today’s world being what it is, by the fact that one is unlikely to see it duplicated but for rare exceptions in only a few European circuses. To the delight of all, at the conclusion of the giraffe’s first appearance Princess Stephanie feeds it a banana. The perfect symbolic endorsement of animals in the circus.

At the climax of the act people in the audience were encouraged to turn on their cell phone lights creating an almost unreal atmosphere heavy with a sense of what will be missed if we do not see such an extravaganza again.
But the Richters did not win the Gold Clown, the festival’s highest honor, for this sensational bit of nostalgia alone. They also presented two other acts that were thrilling in their own right: a pas de duex performed aboard a pair of beautiful white and spotted draft horses and a jockey act that had all the daring and fiery energy of a czardas, the Hungarian national dance.

The pas de deux is staged with attention to every aspect of presentation. Several candelabras help to define the performance space and a female vocalist adds an extra element of romance to the intricate and exquisite moves and gestures of the dance. One of the more remarkable aspects of the performance is that the horses maintain the pace of their gait around the ring without the presence of a ringmaster or a whip from the riders.

The jockey act is performed by a company of seven including once again Joseph Richter and his wife Merrylu Casselly, who execute a variety of leaping mounts and somersaults. Joseph performs four backward flips on a single horse during the course of an extended solo ride. Once again the action is accompanied by the Festival’s live orchestra and a female vocalist who is part of the troupe. Like the pas de deux the act received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Members of the Richter family also won gold in 2008, with a troupe headed by Joseph’s older brother Florian who presented a similar jockey act. Also on the program that year was an American act called The Vertical Tango that caused a sensation and a bit of controversy with highly choreographed work on the Chinese pole when it was awarded only a Silver Clown despite something of a stampede of support from the audience. The traditionally minded jury just couldn’t see what made the act so special.

Ironically a similar situation occurred during the festival’s current, 42nd edition with a unique and novel act that used a specially designed piece of apparatus, a Crossed Wheel or two Cyr wheels fixed at right angles, allowing for a new and interesting range of movements and poses. Dubbed a 2-Zen-O it spends as much time in the air as on the ground, manipulated by Canadian Jonathan Morin along with his partner Marie Eve Bisson. During the course of their presentation the couple manages to generate a level of chemistry between them that most aerial duos strive for but very few achieve. This is the closest we ought to get to watching a couple engaged in foreplay in the circus and the result is truly erotic and an unmistakably hot display of couples’ acrobatics. The jury was not buying it, giving what was otherwise a howling audience favorite, only a bronze.

Morin also presented a solo act on his novel piece of apparatus. It tended to be more earthbound and served mainly as a warm up for what he manages to produce with his partner in a second appearance.

As it turned out the only other gold was won by a Chinese acrobatic troupe from Shanghai who presented two acts. (It does help to demonstrate versatility when trying to impress the jury.) This troupe gave us first a Russian barre act, and in their second appearance a gigantic equilibristic display that kept getting more and more complicated and demanding. The same troupe, which was made up of a dozen acrobats who presented both acts, but half of them seemed little more than window dressing in the Russian barre number, having nothing to do but strike poses every so often while the two leapers performed flawless flights punctuated by breathtakingly strong landings.

In their balancing display the troupe built ever higher, more intricate human pyramids, one level atop another formed by acrobats balancing upside down on their hands on the necks of the man below. Despite the amount of humanity intertwined in these pyramids getting out of them was as beautifully executed as the building, demonstrating the flawlessly refined styling of the Chinese.

Interestingly, the jury, whose preferences are often idiosyncratic, seemed on the whole to favor older style acts presented without unnecessary frills or furbelows, sheer unadulterated talent displayed at the highest level of artistry and achievement, the best examples being the three acts that won Silver Clowns: Duo Stauberti and Duo Ballance, and amazingly enough a clown act Prosvirnin.

Duo Stauberti presented an amazing version of a rather old fashioned act, the perch pole. This kind of an act was a staple of the Ringling show during the 20s and 30s. For those unfamiliar with its form, an understander or porter, usually, a male balances a pole on his shoulder or head which a female partner climbs and then executes some acrobatic maneuvers once on top. The Staubertis compound the difficulty first by having the porter climb an unsupported ladder while balancing his partner on the pole and then latter doing the same on a unicycle and juggling four clubs to top it all off. By the way I should mention that pole is always balanced without being held or supported by the porter. Altogether an amazing display.

Duo Ballance presented a balancing act very much like the Alexis brothers. In it the remarkable strength exhibited by the understander is the main attraction. These two men work their way through the entire repertoire of such an act, finishing with a display of brute strength that defies belief as the understander lifts his partner who is balanced on his ankles using only the muscles of his calves.

Believe it or not the Prosvirnin, who also won silver, are a team of clowns. Yes, clowns, here in what is all too often the graveyard of clowns, except for names like Larible, Bello and  Fumagalli. This trio represents three generations. They are, in their first appearance, musicians, drummers mainly, who evolve into world-class tap dancers, and later in a second appearance they are slapstick drag artists, all of which combines into a brand of comedy that is totally enjoyable and best of all consistently funny and eliciting big laughs. (No small trick in Monte Carlo)

The category of bronze winners included a troupe of female unicyclists from Mongolia who presented an act that we have encountered many times before in a number of different venues, and so for me it seemed rather old hat to find them at Monte Carlo. The act consisted of the girls kicking bowls up onto their heads and then stacking them while balancing on giraffe unicycles. This trick is performed in a variety of patterns, without any noticeable rise in difficulty.

Troupe Vavilov is an interesting case in that they, too, like some others made two appearances in the competition, basically repeating the same banquine skills in both, the second appearance given some variety by working off a swinging platform. Curiously it was the only troupe to employ some of the techniques most associated with contemporary circus. In their first appearance they were dressed and moved liked characters out of the Men in Black movie. The second time out they tried to breathe life (if that isn’t an oxymoron) into the all but moribund fashion of zombie-hood in their makeup, costuming and choreography. The jury seemed to buy it.

The twenty-year old Spaniard Michael Ferreri had already won a silver in the New Generation Festival of 2015. It seems only logical that he should now appear in the big festival as a way of encouraging his development as an artist. Obviously he has already arrived, a speed juggler of blindingly fast movement, he starts with three balls and ends with nine while maintaining the same level of incredible speed. He is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records with 390 catches in one minute while juggling five balls.

The Flying Heroes work on a rigging with two catchers, one on a lock at the end opposite the fly bar and a second in a harness in the center but above the rig. There is also a bar above the farthest catcher. This set up allows for flights to include several catches and intermediate stops along the way as the leapers fly across the rig from one position to the next. The seven member troupe is dressed in white suits with military styling rather than the obligatory tights. This gives the act some added interest all of which culminates in a very good triple.

There are also numerous special awards sponsored by circus related businesses and organizations which the festival doles out with an even handed approach assuring that few of the acts will walk away completely empty handed. Some of the acts who received these awards were truly deserving of recognition having achieved a certain level of novelty or expertise, while others were simply out classed.

Nicholai Kuntz provided a persuasive demonstration of what the new technique on the single swinging trapeze looks like, full of twists, flips and spins. His routine also features an upward bound somersault to the bar. Kuntz is also a former award winner at the New Generation Festival in 2013.

In addition to the clowns, further comedy was provided by the wonderfully zany Scott and Muriel who turn what first looks like a disastrous magic act into a surprising triumph that is both hilarious and unexpected. I always enjoy their work as they create and maintain two delightful characterizations throughout their performance.

The other-worldly act that opened Ringling’s prematurely aborted Out of This World, Lazlo Simet and company of Astronauts, enjoyed a brief reprise at the festival. It is still as slow and measured as it had been on Ringling, but for me the pacing seems perfectly suited to the tension created by the extreme care the artists take as they pick their way around what amounts to a revolving highwire. I wish the festival had provided the ground fog effect that would have made it even more eerie and effective.

Duo Markov’s aerial perch act incorporates some daring throws and catches reminiscent of cradle acts, and deserved to be seen in both programs of the competition. It was certainly the most daring act of the festival, despite the lunge that once saved the woman from a disaster.

Saulo Sarmiento contributed one of the more innovative moments of the festival with his performance on an aerial spar that begins by pivoting in a socket in the floor before it is released to take to the air, where the aerialist moves through a series of nicely choreographed acrobatic gyrations that turns pole dancing into an artistic expression. The act flies by with easy grace and was a pleasure to watch.

It was not clear to me whether the youthful troupe from Nizhy Tagil whose boundlessly energetic rope skipping act was appearing in the festival as an extra added attraction like the Bingo Troupe or as legitimate competitor. Whatever the case their performance was more than redeemed by their youth and enthusiasm. This had rope jumping inside of rope jumping inside of…. well, they do go on, exhausting us if not themselves.

Other participants included two other animal acts, neither of which was particularly noteworthy. It is Carmen Zander rather than her five tigers who is the star of her act. The cats do the expected roll-overs, sit-ups and leaps, while Zander parades about exuding supreme confidence in both her allure and her skill as a trainer.

Evgeniy Komisarenko, on the other hand, takes second place to his hyper active white poodles who behave as if they are all on uppers. They obviously can’t wait to do what is asked and do it with about ten times more frenetic energy than necessary. So before you know it, they are racing home.

Roller skating acts tend to look very much the same one to another. The trick is to find some gimmick to make yours stand out from all its competitors. Leandro Zeferino and Ursula Rossi perform their familiar routine atop a platform set on six foot high pedestal.

It seems obvious from her superior attitude that Huang Yang was sure she was going to take gold. Unfortunately none of that confidence translated into much in the way of pizzazz, so her stint on the slack wire was rather brief and undistinguished. Her entire repertoire consists of riding a unicycle upside down and balancing on an unsupported ladder, tricks any self respecting slack wire artist must have in his or her act. Huang Yang unfortunately stops there.

The manipulation of a diabolo, either as a single or in multiples is a hard sell in a venue the size of the Monte Carlo big top, but Chu Chuan-Ho’s performance is much enhanced by the lighting provided by the in-house technicians. Even so there is the distinct possibility that such a performance is lost in the special effects that surround it.

Jigalov is a clown we have seen several times before in a variety of venues. His act has remained the same regardless of where or when it has been seen. It is definitely a taste one has to acquire, lots of snorts and braying that borders on the crude, so that it can often seem more offensive than funny, even as he keeps reminding us “I feel good.” As a result it is offensive more often than funny. This was not Jigalov’s his first time here, indicative of the shortage of good clowns in the world.

The Argentinian art of boleadoras is put on full display by the Saly Brothers, who ironically hail from Italy. This is another one of those acts that has a rather limited vocabulary and almost every such act has the same story to tell right down to the ruffled hair caused by the breeze produced by the twirling boleadoras.

Surely the most bizarre act in the festival was presented by Miracle Duo. I’m not sure what the miracle is intended to be, but their floor mopping contortion maneuvers suggested little more than self-absorption.

And then, of course, in addition to all of the above, there is the Bingo Troupe, a group of young performers that has become, over the past several years, regular cast members at the Festival. Hailing from the Ukraine, they provided an opening number replete with a full range of circus skills and spectacularly elaborate costumes. I can understand the festival’s desire to pump some extra glamour and spectacle into the proceedings but Bingo’s increasingly time consuming appearances and often violent choreography sometimes seemed too much.

If this review seems rather long itself consider this: the two separate performances of the festival consumes nearly eleven hours. That is the equivalent of at least four good circuses. There’s a lot to talk about.