Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Monte Carlo 36th Festival Reviewed by London Critic

Note: I am reprinting in full this notice from Stage Reviews, based in London. This appears to have been posted midway; Seems Gold Clowns went to acrobats from Germany and China, no surprise. This is valid criticism of the sort you virtually never will get in the U.S. I won’t keep it posted here long, but you can easily link to the site, listed below -- S.D.

36th Monte Carlo International Circus Festival

Published Tuesday 24 January 2012 at 18:01 by Liz Arratoon

Programme One

Circus fans can never get enough big-top action, and this year Monaco has two major events taking place virtually back to back. The 36th international circus festival precedes the inaugural new generation circus by just a week. The timing is strange because it clashes with Budapest’s established circus festival, which has upset those who want to see both.

However, the first night of competition for Monte Carlo’s prestigious gold, silver and bronze clowns and special prizes - including those given by Carol Gandey, Blackpool Tower Circus, the Great British Circus and English artist Spencer Hodge - is the business at hand. And how the advertised Freddy Nock - one of the world’s most daring high-wire artists - was missed.

The opening act, Morocco’s acrobatic artists of the Cherifian Troupe, wear white costumes decorated with red - Monaco’s national colours, which are much in evidence all evening. Used to working on sand, they need no fast track or trampoline to execute the most amazing series of lightning-fast somersaults. They build human pyramids, a four-high column and one bearer supports nine other men, who weigh in at 600kg.

When the brother/sister Skating Pilar duo appear, the crowd reacts as if they’ve never seen a roller-skating act before, or is their enthusiasm simply because the act is French? It is an exciting and artistic display that includes a neck-to-neck spin, Jonathan circling with Solenn hanging from his neck by just one foot, or spinning her by one foot with her face mere inches from their raised platform.

French-Canadian Erika Lemay has won a barrel-load of awards at festivals worldwide. With the ring bathed in red light, and wearing the same colour, she writhes artily on the ground before taking to the air on a constantly revolving hoop. She is neat and quick and shows off her extreme flexibility, as well as making use of the rope, but her skeletal frame detracts from the aesthetic.

Hungary’s Steve Eleky is a big bloke in a kilt and tailcoat, who comes in to Scotland the Brave and has been inspired, shall we say, by Tommy Cooper. He is quite good with cigar boxes, but his cod magic and juggling obviously amuse him more than anyone else. He returns after the interval for more of the same silliness.

Rene Casselly Snr from Germany produces a really striking number with four elephants and four horses all ridden by outrageously attractive girls in black and red costumes and feathered headdresses. He directs them from horseback, zipping them through their paces. The highlight is the synchronised dressage by one of each.

The clean-cut Bingo Troupe won bronze here at the 27th festival, but this time they have gone all punky and moody. Ukrainian contortionist Daria Shcherbyna strikes some innovative poses on a high plinth surrounded by the mass of dancers and five musicians. But they only serve as a distraction from her sinuous moves.

Arabic chanting and music sets a sultry atmosphere for Duo Israfilov, who represent Moscow’s Bolshoi Circus and have created a love story on aerial straps. Allakverdi Israfilov literally takes Galina Golovachesa’s life in his hands and supports her in a daring series of moves, including a breathtaking iron-jaw hold as she hangs from his mouth. Later he hangs from her foot as she is suspended in the splits. Ouch.

China’s Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe have pulled out all the stops with a huge and highly technical production number. It involves a teeterboard, with new moves as the flyers land on other artists standing on perch poles, or are launched and caught by a trapeze-style catcher. There are amazing somersaults on stilts, but the military precision of their marching, discordant music and the general jumble of equipment and people spoil the effect.

After the interval, Vladislav Goncharov adopts a cheeky-chappy persona for his overlong tap-dancing presentation of eight sleepy lions. Jauntily dressed in bowler hat and red jacket, he struts about the precariously insecure looking cage - no roof and made of rope mesh - occasionally getting them to do a trick. Three leap over another three simultaneously, he carries one on his shoulders and stuffs his head into another’s mouth.

Artists from Brazil and Argentina make up the thrilling flying trapeze troupe the Flying Zunigas. Evelin and Angel, the women, are not just there for glamour as they pass each other in mid-air. There is little actual flight because the flyers leave their bar exactly where the catcher arrives, but the main trick sees Serginho perform a triple somersault with pirouette.

There is a muted reception for the cabaret-style Duo Rubsov jugglers, but they deserve better. Their extremely stylish act, in which they juggle red hats, is cleverly choreographed to a tango rhythm - always popular in the circus - and they work unsighted back-to-back and include a bit of hand balancing. Maxim also juggles on top of a column of chairs, where there is no room for error.

Czech Duo Stipka are one of the night’s highlights with their pas de deux on horseback. Dany stands astride two massive black horses and guides his sister, Denisa, in a series of daring somersaults while circling the ring. The finale is a real showstopper as she stands on one leg on his head, somehow maintaining her balance despite the trotting motion. But eight central electric fans billowing lengths of gauze around are ill considered.

The other truly stunning act of the night is China’s Cai Yong. This acrobatic hand-balancer in the style of Anatoly Zalievsky is as strong on either arm and combines strength, balance and grace. He seems to build energy using martial arts techniques to deliver a dramatic and beautiful act that is truly worthy of gold. Moving easily from handstand to planche and back three times, he ends by spinning on a pedestal that telescopes up from his platform.

It is hard for the nine men and three girls who make up the troupe from the Mongolian Circus to follow Cai’s ovation. Sheer shows of strength lifting kettlebells mix with banquine acrobatics and column building, backed by a strange rapping throat singer. The finish is an intricate tableau of ten bodies stacked four-high.

The acts are interspersed with entrees by the Russian clown Bobylev, which are all mercifully swift. He saves the best for last when he collars three boys from the audience and engages them in a water-pistol fight, making sure they get a good soaking when he surprises them by spurting water from his rucksack.

But the evening’s finale is ruined when the Infernal Varanne globe of death motorbike riders are unable to perform because their twin spheres have been left outside and condensation means they keep slipping. After the disappointment of the previous night, Infernal Varanne open the second programme. It is an electrifying act as two, then three riders rocket around inside two mesh metal globes, missing each other by millimetres and at times riding with just one hand on the bars. But the logistics of moving one globe out of the ring for the final trick - when six riders speed round a woman standing in their midst - dilute the tension and make everyone wonder why they hadn’t used just one in the first place.

Programme Two

The Cherifian Troupe perform again but this time dressed as pirates. Maybe once in costume would have been enough.

A goat riding on the back of a donkey is not something you see every day, but Alexandra Probst - from the famous farmyard-animal specialist family - presents a mixed group of goats, pigs, donkeys, a dog and some weird little chicken things. This rather sweet act of animal magic has a gentle pace and a touch of comedy provided by her mother, Mercedes.

They are followed by a more traditional form of clowning from the Spanish white-face and auguste musical clowns, the Mitchells, whose silly trick with eggs and expert slapstick antics with water cause a lot of hilarity. The elegant British white-face sporting a glittery suit of orange sequins is Giulia Michel Azzario, twin sister of Wanda Azzario-Goldberg, who ends her 30-year career with the Skating Willers in La Soiree at London’s Roundhouse on January 29.

Then, slinky, sexy and strong equilibrists, the Azzario Sisters - the stand-out act of the festival, who happen to be the Mitchells’ daughters - cause a sensation. It helps that they are stunningly attractive, with their hair pulled back into chic chignons and wearing super-stylish outfits of glittered bras and slim black trousers. Their moves, including a tricky head-to-head balance, are precisely timed and choreographed to another tango. They finish with Quincy standing on Katie’s head on one hand while she climbs up and down a fixed ladder. At their second appearance when the lunge malfunctions, they simply carry on without one, which helps earn them a silver clown. Polished and professional, they are perfect.

Marc Metral is a brilliant ventriloquist but technical problems with his mic don’t help him. He starts with puppets but goes on to give different voices to a live dog and four members of the audience.

The Bingo Troupe have another number, this time on three static trapezes, with a duo at the front and two more girls behind them, but there is so much peripheral activity that unless you keep your eyes fixed on the main event, you’re likely to miss some excellent and intricate work.

Many athletes are extending their careers by joining the circus. Flying to the Stars is a group of five male Ukrainian gymnasts who appear on two parallel high bars set above a trampoline, but some jazzy make-up and a bit of glitter on their outfits has not turned these sportsmen into circus artists.

The lions are back after the interval, as is Bobylev. Between them, the rather severe-looking Ekaterina Shavrina takes to the air on swinging trapeze. This is the sort of act that would be impossible without a lunge, and that makes it pointless for purists.

Mercedes Probst has her own number with 20 miniature Shetland and Welsh ponies sporting orange and black plumes to match her dress. It’s like a stampede as she puts them through some impressive manoeuvres.

Lemay makes a second appearance, this time with a dramatic dancy hand-balancing affair, but although she strikes some extraordinary poses, she looks slightly off form with a few wobbles. Her nude glitter bodysuit, which would have been gorgeous on anyone with some curves, made her skinny frame look more alien than alluring.

Ty Tojo is a 13-year-old juggling prodigy who has already won many awards. At eight he won first prize at the Colorado Juggling Festival, so his pedigree is as impeccable as his technique. He juggles five balls for an age with breathtaking ease, then does the same behind his back, before moving up to seven balls. As his best trick, this comes a bit early in the act, but then he adds in various props and finishes with a flourish with cigar boxes.

Alexia and Rene Casselly Snr are back with an astonishing routine in which their 15-year-old son Rene and daughter Merry-Lu leap and somersault between two elephants positioned with their heads touching. The self-assured Rene Jnr is propelled from a teeterboard stamped on by one elephant and lands an amazing series of somersaults on another’s back. These include a triple, and one landed on his sister’s shoulders.

The evening’s finale is the Vorobievs’ double Russian swing act. This act, with its stunning sequence of mind-boggling somersaults between the swings, impressed many people who were willing to overlook the many fluffed landings, hideous costumes, ridiculous dancing girls, appalling music and nails-scraping-down-a-blackboard shriek emitted by one of the girls after every single move.

This lack of attention to the overall aesthetic is a regular feature in acts that prepare routines especially for Monte Carlo. If only director Urs Pilz imitated the great British circus impresario Bertram Mills, who was famed for his quality shows because he took only the most dazzling moments from his acts. This would cut the marathon programmes and mean the audience leaves elated, not enervated, by the thrilling spectacle.

Director: Urs Pilz

Running time:
programme one, 4hrs 15mins/programme two, 4hrs 15mins

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