Queens, New York; 25th May 2016 – The Circus Diaries Goes TransAtlantic
The 38th season of New York’s Big Apple Circus is drawing to an end with their stand in Queens. Unlike most tenting companies, they break over the summer months to prepare their new show, which plays outside the Lincoln Centre in the middle of Manhattan each year in their blue autumn/winter tent. Today though, it is their summery white tent, branded with stars and emblazoned with the Big Apple name, that draws in the crowds.
Seating inside the climate-controlled tent tiers all the way down to the ring fence in a circle that’s broken only by the 45° gap where the perfomers enter, and seven walkways leading out from the ring like spokes on a wheel.
The Grand Tour, directed by Mark Lonergan, is a classical compilation of acts styled around a journey that takes us across the globe and back in 1920’s luxury travel. Vintage posters and strains of post-war jazz set the scene underneath the chattering of excited families. American circus-goers seem way more animated than their British counterparts.
The canvas inside the big top is a cooling blue, fitting the nautical travel gear set in the centre of the ring, and dappled with lighting patterns that remind us of waves at sea. After a safety announcement (that also reminds us what we are allowed to do: laugh, scream, cheer, and have a great time), we meet the show’s two clowns Skip and Mr Joel, a.k.a Brent McBeth and Joel Jeske, who also wrote the show. Mr Joel is the professional tour guide – later a maitre’d, a safari driver, and airline steward – with Skip in the role of keen yet playful novice. The recurring presence of their familiar characters, with costumes that show us a change in setting but remain true to each clown’s sartorial style, tie the acts from an international cast of passengers together and make the simple narrative flow naturally from start to finish.
We are also guided by dignified ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, resplendent in red satin and whiskers, and with a deep voice that rumbles through the microphone. The amplification somewhat disconnects his announcements from the rest of the show – except when he becomes an inflight tannoy announcer, where it suddenly fits perfectly.
As we set sail, the glamorous smile of Chiara Anastasini veils an energy of a frenetically paddling swan, not always keeping up with the currents of movement created by her whirling hula hoops. When she moves into the closing piece with multiple hoops though, her moves are well controlled, manipulating the shoal of silver hoops into a moving burlesque bustle.
A porthole becomes a chance for mischievous Skip to slosh water at his unsuspecting boss, and then the swaying sailor act of Alexander Koblikov harnesses the movement of ocean swells, through his body and into into a three ball contact juggle. Accompanied by appropriate wave-like brushes of cymbals from the band stage and an ever-present wry, sideways smile, Koblikov teases us into seven balls as the routine and music become more bouyant, and adds comic punctuation before finishing with a 10-ball cascade.
After we make it across the Atlantic, we board the Orient Express to travel across Europe. Jenny Vidbel‘s fancy dinner date with her pruned poodle devolves into a boisterous explosion of canine exuberance as her team of dogs bound into the ring. Each has a moment to shine – the Jack Russell weaves through Vidbel’s legs, the toy poodle pushes a scooter, the black and white fluff races over under and round obstacles – but the energy and visual picture of a pair of leaping grey and white twins win the act for me.
Transitions are as unobtrusive as railways stations sliding past a carriage window, and it’s nice to see the ring crew (led by Matthew Serio) credited in the informative programme as well as the performers and creative team. A tilted shield lined with hand balance poles of grading heights is rolled into the ring for the Energy Trio (Hongyang Gao, Jing Wang, Juhao Wu). Their synchronised movement between poses is impressive, especially with a lack of recognisable beat to the tinkling Eastern style accompaniment. The three provide great symmetry with their choreography, two holding infinite control of stillness, contorted or stretched above their hand, while another does his own thing. And his thing is marvellous, bouncing down the poles on his hands then rotating with his bounce. The other two then raise the standard further by following down the poles on each side, keeping in perfect time with each other.
The Big Apple Circus were pioneers of hospital clowning programmes, and a moment is given to promote their charity Clown Care work through a ‘pick your nose’ routine with a little volunteer. The gag is funny, but it’s hard to communicate the responsive, sensitive nature of hospital clowning in a structured performance environment. A video that expresses the distinct nature of this valuable work better is on their website.
A simple call of ‘All aboard!‘ links the rigging of a Wheel of Death (known as a Wheel of Wonder here at Big Apple) to the idea of train wheels. The raising of the metal structure above the ring is given it’s own slow time, increasing the drama further with tension-building music that includes hints of train whistle noises, haze, and blue light that slowly turns to red.
The Dominguez Brothers (Jayson and Erick Dominguez) create fast rotations as they turn their wheels, offering a different jump or pose at each pass. The pace barely slows when Jayson leaps out of his circular cell to walks on its top – even when he pulls out a skipping rope, building to perform a triple skip in one jump. Tension is amped to the max for a single, slowed, blindfolded revolution, then pace builds again to send us into the interval with our hearts in our mouths.
Shetland pony rides are offered in the ring during the interval and after the show, which is new for the company this season. The concession stands are all ranged in the open air outside the big top, offering hot and cold snacks, drinks and branded souvenirs. Two rows of portaloo cubicles stave off toilet queues.
Pith helmeted clowns and an announcement from the ringmaster declare we are now travelling through ‘Arabia’. Jenny Vidbel returns with her groom Emily McGuire, both dressed in glittering skirts and headscarves, to present a riding/liberty combo act. Atop their mounts, the pair guide two second horses into a choreography with them, and I wonder if this is exemplary of their training process. Because, after Vidbel and her pale horse are left alone to perform high school dressage steps (which the band provides excellently timed percussive flourishes to), a full two-tone liberty act of six horses enter the ring. With no decorative harnessing or plaiting, the miniature herd vary pace, turn and spiral, while Vidbel kneels on the floor in the centre of the sawdust.
A musical bit on the theme of familiar Arabian-flavoured tunes leads into a sung ‘Constantinople‘ from the clowns, and a surprise camel puts in an appearance. The Egyptian hand-dance movements make sense as we discover we’re moving into the African continent, and as the clowns disappear we are greeted with the vibrant energy of the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats.
The band, led by Rob Slowik, play an upbeat arrangement of Isley Brothers’ ‘Shout’, and the team of four fly into a speedy series of human towers and constructions, their braided hair whipping as they smile, wave, and connect with us all across the ring.
The next act is a little lost in the travelogue trajectory, as Sergey Akimov performs his superb aerial straps routine in a pinstriped suit. Perhaps it’s supposed to be a reference to colonialism, or wistfulness for a lost empire? Whatever the obscure choices behind the styling, Akimov’s routine has a beautiful classical dance quality flowing through the moves, and his airborne pirouettes are fast and impressive. He packs a lot of varied choreography into his seven minutes, including sitting the straps as if this were a Spanish web, before lifting off into the air.
The flight back to New York is call for a fun musical chairs number between bossy Mr Joel, two kids, and a cool dad. The set-up gives great opportunities for the clown to play with comic rhythms, and for the unknown quantities of the volunteers to generate their own humour, which Mr Joel gently holds on track.
I wonder if the volunteer’s clothes match the clown costumes and lightbulb colours across the back of the ring in every show? Impressive attention to detail if so!
Finally the Dosov Troupe present their teeterboard act, styled now as intrepid early aviators. Until now, only three women have appeared in the show and, while this troupe of eight includes two more, I am surprised at the gender imbalance in the overall cast, and wonder if this is common across American shows. The Dosov Troupe theatricalise their excellent tricks with little physical comedy signals between themselves and us. They’re all played to strict beats rather than acted through embodied feeling and, although this will communicate across large distances, feels a little stilted up close. The technical levels within the group are very high though, with tricks including a chair perch, stilts (including a single stilt), and a characterful array of flipping launches to the crash pad.
And then we’re back where we began our trip, and the cast take their bows. The simple story and the compilation of acts serve one another in this show, and have been integrated very cleanly. There isn’t any depth to the narrative, but we don’t always go out looking for depth. Big Apple Circus take us on an exciting trip, and bring us back safe, and exhilarated. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need from our entertainment.