Newark, New Jersey; 27th May 2016 – The Circus Diaries Goes TransAtlantic
The yellow and red striped tent of UniverSoul Circus aptly signals the gaiety it houses inside. This is circus reinvented as one big party, with a communal spirit at its heart. A jaunty logo decorates exterior fencing and interior merchandise booths with a globe that wears its own big top like a hat. Past the red-coated vendors, camel rides, and tuxedo’d ringhands, the logo appears again, playing across the moving LED screen ring doors as we take our seats around the perimeter.
In the ring, also giving rides (offered again during the extra-long interval), is one of the show’s three elephants, trunk and ears dappled like natural sequins, walking in laps around the ring with trainer Larry Carden. Although this elephant is big, and makes an impact to match, she’s dwarfed next to her performing companions when they emerge for their act later in the show; at 6 tons, one of the team is the largest performing male elephant in the world. Between them they have a repertoire of moves that include standing on front or hind legs, kneeling, rolling over, headstands, and balancing on a rolling cylinder, all directed with visual and vocal cues from Carden. The big bull lumbers around the ring at a surprising pace, and we see his power in the way the shining silver showgirl sitting on his neck is jogged around.
With Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey retiring all their elephants earlier this year, there is a suggestion that UniverSoul will also be phasing their out, so it feels historic to be able to say I saw elephants in an American big top.
The show takes place in and around a single ring, incorporating thrill acts, comedy, and high levels of technical skill, all infused with popular world dance vibes. UniverSoul Circus was started 23 years ago by concert promoter Cedric Walker, and he has brought the energy of a great gig to the circus, taking influences from hip-hop, carnival, pop and classic R&B, and running them through the programme.
Everyone in this show has rhythm, and the unspoken assertion is that all of us in the tent have it too. Many of the sequences between spectacular routines centre around our participation, clapping, whooping, singing and dancing along. And such is the charisma of the company, we do. Volunteers join in the ring to re-create the dance-off from classic tv show Soul Train, or to take part in a serenade that turns hilariously and warm-heartedly Jeremy Kyle. Two of Detroit’s hip-hop clown troupe Fresh The Clownsss take over the role held in other circuses by dancing showgirls, adding visual depth to acts like the aerial hoop that opens the show, or getting the audience clapping along while larger rigs are being prepared. They go further, in fact, coming down into the aisle between the rows of raked seating and the ringside chairs, attracting a horde of children keen to show off their own dance moves. Their make-up is more reminiscent of Japanese cyber-punk than classical whiteface clown, which suits their modern and, well, fresh, presence.
More familiar circus clowning, although with no make-up, comes from colourfully suited Sifiso Kamela, whose infectious energy leads us into the show with a clapping warm up to the rhythms of his training whistle, and who returns to amuse us with Carlton Banks-esque self-importance throughout the show.
Our ringmaster is Lucky Malatsi, who announces the acts into his diamanté microphone, while small sidekick Zeke mouths along and helps to keep the ring dynamic, making sure the entire crowd stays engaged at once. Between the sound quality and my British ear, I’m not able to make out all the introductions, but enjoy the MC quality that Lucky brings to the ring, never far away from a few fancy footwork steps himself.
The other circus artists who bring their skills to the ring include the African Dream team from Ethiopa, whose seven man routine on the double Chinese pole has earned them a Guinness World Record for the most consecutive jumps on a pole while avoiding a person sliding down. One man holds a flag position while another man stands on his outstretched body. Some effective choreography sees troupe members spread like a flower as one of their number plummets towards them head-first down the pole. The act is top-and-tailed by another group of dancers in African tribal wear, who also perform acrobatics and human towers, filling the ring with action.
A troupe of seven women on bicycles known as Chain Reaction build from formation cycling into acrobatic poses that become increasingly dynamic. One girl leaps from the shoulders of her peddling partner to join the two on the bicycle in front. One of them redresses the balance by rolling backwards onto the bike behind. The ladies weave in and out of their bicycle frames and jump between them, all maintaining perfect composure.
After an interactive clown routine where Sifiso encourages four volunteers to emulate his dance moves, working well with their apparent personalities, he somersaults over my head dragging everybody’s attention into the crowd so we are surprised when drawn back to the ring for a Roxanne Tango aerial act. The UniverSoul website provides some details regarding their cast, but not everyone is mentioned and there is no printed programme so, with my difficulty at understanding the Ringmaster’s announcements, I’m unable to credit the Columbian male-female pair who execute the fiery routine. A pole dance style pole fitted with straps for ankle or wrist grips is raised into the air, and the spirited pair illustrate the traditional battle of wills of a tango, swapping roles over who takes the catcher/flyer position while also delivering strong eye-contact and connection with their audience. The number is beautifully lit by four follow-spot operators that beam graceful shadows onto the canvas. A neck to neck spin ends in speed and strobe.
After the elephants, a ramp is set for the heart-in-mouth stunt riders who close the first half of the show. The set-up time is filled with inflatable ball chaos as giant orbs are tossed about the stands. It’s good fun, but goes on a bit, and you shouldn’t wear your sunglasses on the top of your head or they risk demolition from a surprise bounce to the bonce!
We smell the motorbike fuel and feel the buzz of the strobing lights before we begin the countdown to the Willy Family’s surprise entrance through the air from the back of the tent towards the ring. Three riders leap and circle in a seemingly never ending stream, holding on with just one hand, leaving go of the bike completely, or completing a full backwards somersault to land again and zoom out and back round the tent for the next entrance.
That’s just the first hour and, like at the best parties, all the exhilaration can get exhausting. The interval is as long again, which gives plenty of time to sample the concessions, grab a pony ride, or have your face painted. As well as popcorn and candy floss (cotton candy here in the US), there are hotwings, funnel cakes, nachos, and sno-cones on offer – quite different to the usual UK fare of burgers and hotdogs.
The interval segues into the shorter second half of the show. The Fresh clowns dancing in the aisles are superseded by stilt dancers and carnival costumes in the ring. A Caribbean dance team create limbo bars from their own bodies, then pass underneath a flaming bar, their genuine smiles contagious.
A magic act has a comic presentation with a dramatic final reveal that transforms dancing girls into tigers from within curtained cages; a Russian Bar team execute some elaborate flips and twists in an act pared down, past flashy dressing, to its basic acrobatic endeavour; the stunt riders return for a Globe of Death act that includes the fourth member of the team entering the metal sphere while the other three are already in motion circling its sides.
The globe image is a chance to round off the show with an exhortation that circus be used as an example to the world. Reciting pledges is something American citizens do daily in school, and this one does, at least, have a worthwhile message, in case the multi-cultural show of teamwork and camaraderie didn’t speak for itself:
‘I am unique. And so are you. I will love those who are different from me, for we are the future of this world. We celebrate our differences because We Are One.’