In most places circus means one of two things; one involves elephants and clowns and the other is called Cirque du Soleil. In NYC the genre of performance we refer to as ‘circus’ has been expanding over the last decade and has now reached an amazing level of variety. On the one end are amateur recitals featuring regular folks like you and me and on the other are fully professional theater productions featuring some elements of circus. This exciting genre now includes all manner of aerial apparatus, fire performance and such esoteric skills as ‘trick jump roping’ and burlesque infused clowning around (or clowning infused burlesque). Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending two shows- one on either end of the spectrum.
At Big Sky Works in Brooklyn the great Tanya Gagné trains the next generation of aerial performers and gives them the opportunity to try out their new moves in front of an audience during frequent variety shows. They also host more professional productions starring many great aerialists. This weekend I was able to see some excellent performers, some newer to the stage and some veterans. They soared through the air on ropes, silks, trapeze, lyre…
It was fun to see amateurs trying out new moves and gaining confidence as their routines continued. It was also wonderful to see seasoned performers playing around with the apparatus and truly exhibiting artistry. In this setting performers are able to experiment and craft an act of their own. Talking to one of the performers after the show I could tell that she was passionate about her art and loved sharing it with an audience. This version of circus is very inclusive; the audience feels connected to the performers emotionally (they also tend to be very very close). It is also inclusive in the sense that you know classes are available and that you too could become such a performer; the thrill of being 20 feet up dangling on a rope feels immediately attainable. I myself used to take silks classes at Skybox aka House of Yes when it existed out in Bushwick (they are supposedly opening a new space soon). It was wonderful being up high and learning to wrap the silks around myself for a drop. I gave it up because the cost became too high but I hope to find a way to take classes again soon.
The night after the show at Big Sky Works I went to St. Anne’s Warehouse for a much more professional, though not very traditional show. This was a KNEEHIGH production of Tristan & Yseult adapted and Directed by Emma Rice, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. The NYTimes reviewer wrote that
“This crossing of emotional boundaries, which sabotages our typical programmed responses as an audience, is the shaping force of “Tristan & Yseult.” And I can’t think of another company that achieves this dynamic as vividly and unexpectedly as Kneehigh does.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the story I would suggest reading the New York Times review in full; the reviewer was absolutely smitten with the production, as was I. This preview will give you a taste; sadly the run is finished but I’m sure the company will return with something just as delightful.
In this show circus accompanied more serious theater; you could say the drama was infused with circus. The lovers were lifted off the stage using harnesses; they capered and embraced above the ground delighting in the first overwhelming flush of infatuation. There was a great deal of clowning including balloons distributed to the audience and silly glasses. There were fight scenes choreographed like dances and a man playing a woman pretending to be a queen. I think it’s simply wonderful the way the circus arts have become part of the mainstream and I think that theater in New York is the better for this addition.
I am very much looking forward to seeing how circus continues to creep into serious theater and how amateur circus performances continue to draw more audience members into their community.