Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From Big Apple Circus: "Dance on!" is a Subtle Sensation ... Dufresnoy Debut Brims with Promise

Out of the past: From May 25, 2011

Circus Review: Big Apple Circus

Cunningham Park, Queens
May 21, 12:30 PM

NEW YORK — Cutting to the chase, (1), Is he, new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy, up to the challenge of extending the Paul Binder legacy, and (2) Can he inject the show with fresh showmanship? The answer to both must be a resounding YES.

In abundant evidence during the greater part of Dance On! is a subtly creative hand neither staid nor radical, Cirque nor Berserk. Think cool compelling flair. Think restraint and renewal. Leading up to his full assumption of power, Dufresnoy, when pressed to define a vision, spoke modestly about making little changes, and how foolish was I was in a rush to translate “little” to “tepid.” Change “tepid” to “terrific.” The day of Dufresnoy has arrived.

Dance On’s dazzle and thrust is impressively organic, although first half seemed stronger than the second, owing largely to act duplication, about which more in a moment. The concept makes perfect sense; after all, dance and circus have forever overlapped as forms of body movement working in abstract realms. Director Eric Michael Gillett and choreographer Peter Pucci have successfully, no qualms here, merged elements of the two into a fluid panorama in which each enhances the other beautifully. I did not sense gratuitous production embellishments as I have at some BAC outings which came across as more cosmetic than structural.

The show is fairly rich in imported talent that comes loaded, and I do mean loaded, with captivating originality. China leads the way, not a great surprise. Working on uni-wheels, The Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe burns with mind-bending creativity, even if their turns in the ring are not error free. This is one of the most astonishing displays on wheels that I’ve seen in many seasons. Three or four guys from the group (seen in the top photo) return, in the second half, to close out the performance with whirling lassos. They take turns jumping through a line of the circulating ropes, with the last guy whirling a smaller one of his own as he himself whirls through the larger lassos. Takes your breath away. And that’s circus!

Other superior contributors include the The X Bud Roses Troupe (above) — five young female contortionists from Mongolia who blossom in complexity to a mesmerizing finish; and Charismatic Ethiopian juggler and acrobat Girma Tshehai (below), who bounces balls off and between two V shaped objects to winning effect. Subtle. Novel. Perfect.

Jenny Vidbel holds down two delightful spots presenting dogs, “mini horses,” ponies and goats. My favorite item were three goats riding, with varying degrees of amusing compliance, atop three small horses. Comedian and comic juggler Rob Torres is a major find, a genuine character full of surprises who adds more international luster to the show. From Kenya come the Kenyan Boys, pole climbers and tumblers whose brawn and bravado outweigh their technical expertise.

Dance On! is not without missteps. Gillet’s sleek and tight direction slackened off some after intermission during this first performance of the Queens run, there being lags in darkness between a few of the acts. Principal deficit amounts to a virtual duplication of genre, not the first time that BAC has committed such a programing blunder. Statuesque contortionist Andrey Mantchev has a lot to offer, and his closer — a hand-stand walk on two stilts — is a stunner, but in content and mood, his slow turn is too similar to what we’ve already witnessed from the X Bud Roses Troupe, thus a dispiriting sense of redundancy sets in.

Another flaw, major or minor depending on your view towards safety harnesses, arrives at the end of the first half when company member Regina Dobrovitskaya works an ambitiously interesting cloud swing turn which marks the show’s only trip to the clouds. And a wobbly one at that: “She has a string attached to her back,” said a young boy seated behind me to his mother (audiences are never fooled). And the string saved Regina a nasty fall when she missed a trick and was left dangling in mid-air. Biggest, most intriguing question yet to be answered: How will Dufresony address aerial action in the seasons ahead?

Back in positive territory, on balance, Barry Lubin’s Grandma is as charming as ever, although I still believe that her most effective moments are brief cameos when she spoofs so amusingly something we’ve just seen -- without lingering in the ring. Short gags; long laughs. A huge inviting slide, prominent as a set pece, leads up to Grandma’s little storybook house. Down it she slides to make a glorious entrance, but only one time after does she make use of it, when she attempts to climb back up it to answer the telephone. Bit is overworked and payoff is disappointingly weak. In another solo spot, Let’s Dance, Grandma rings a few minor laughs taking up perhaps a little too much space. Her socko moment has her working out on one of those gym tread mills. Deliciously fun.

Secondary company funny man Mark Gindick exudes a giddy energy that makes him the perfect link between circus goods and interlocking dance sequences.

Music is a star asset, credit top-of-the-class Rob Slowik for embracing the challenge with a wide angled reach of refreshing contrast and nuance. Another asset, though a little too missing in action, is new ringmaster Kevin Venardos. Thank the Gods of Discrete Oratory, Venardos does not apparently harbor a need to mike off. Likely, he is perfomring under smart direction. In fact, after a warm welcome, we hardly see him until finale. I would have liked a little more. In sheer restraint, however, this ingratiating young announcer proves that too little is always better than too much.

What a pure unmolested joy to be seated inside this absolutely gorgeous tent before the show and to gaze upon a a still and vacant ring — a ring that epitomizes Big Apple Circus’s rich history and its dedication to the art of circus. A ring refreshingly devoid of carnivals and concessions, of obscenely long intermissions in which they are pitched, of blaring ringmasters who can’t shut up, who can’t stop begging the audience for more applause, of humdrum second-rate filler action, of — well, you name it. Almost certainly, this is American’s finest circus, and a true national treasure. If you value what a world class big top can offer, this show, this Big Apple Circus will give you many reasons to know why and to feel a profound gratitude.

Founders Paul and Michael should rest assured: Their vision is being brilliantly honored and extended.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars) 3-1/2 stars

[all photos from Big Apple Circus website]



Alan Cabal said...

It's good to hear that Guillaume has put together a quality show. Now BAC has to motivate those lazy overpaid slackers on 8th Avenue to get some dates for the Summer Tour. I suggest a round of firings. "Everyone is replaceable", as they are fond of saying.

BTW, I'm available, for the right price.

Casey McCoy Cainan said...

@ the girl dangling on safety line.
Would you rather have seen her dangling or seen an ambulance? It wouldn't change anything really, since NY everyone over 21ft needs net or safety line. Just curious how much you feel the safety line takes away from an aerial act.

Showbiz David said...

I do NOT ever go to a circus hoping to see somebody fall. I've seen it once, maybe twice, very unsettling. I do go to see skill and courage as elements that clearly deliver the trick. How much do safety wires take away? We could debate the issue for a long while. Subliminally, a great deal I suspect (ask your own JRN II), although ever since the Soviets made lifelines part of the act and were still acclaimed, Americans have been gradually conditioned, I assume, to accept, perhaps even expect evidence of safety measures. But, about that little boy I quoted; invariably, I hear a form of his comment from somebody nearby in the seats, which tells me they are saying, “Oh, look, she/he is not taking a risk.” Risk was a defining feature of circus, say even the scholars. But risk may one day be replaced by the “wow” factor. Or safety will be cleverly disguised, or nets/padding will replace mechanics. You can wow an audience without taking risks.

Barbara Pflughaupt said...

Spot on review!

Casey McCoy Cainan said...

It is the same with cat acts. Years past, people were selling bravado with "Man against Beast" acts that really, had little value as far as training was concerned. Now the public opinion of "Man against Beast" is much lower. It still gets used from time to time, but I feel sure the public would much rather see animals trained to willingly perform some kinda trick, rather then a guy with a chair and blank gun jumping around making a bunch of noise. I am not trying to take anything away from guys like Beatty or Terrel Jacobs. But I don't think they would have been circus heroes had their careers started five decades later.
As for the wires vs. risk. No one I know working an aerial makes any where near enough money to risk serious injury 14 times a week. They just don't. I do agree pads and nets can disguise it a little better. I assume there were 20 plus cloud swings that didn't use a safety that tried out for that spot on BAC, I assume they chose the one they did because it was better.

Anonymous said...

Casey, you REALLY think people "line up" like a casting call to try out their cloud swings for BAC? Really? The way it's done is BAC goes looking for acts and offers them a contract, or they send a dvd. No cattle calls.