Bindlestiff Family Circus Winter Cabaret

I had the pleasure to attend the Bindlestiff Family Circus’ twentieth anniversary show at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Unlike a play, this show had no particular centralized theme. It was instead a true cabaret, meaning that it was a collection of individual acts with a few reoccurring characters. The acts ranged from clowning, to juggling, and acrobatics.
The show started with a traditionally dressed clown, portrayed by Keith Nelson. When he pulled out several balloons I was skeptical as to where he was going exactly, seeing as I was not particularly looking forward to a bunch of balloon animals being made. Instead though, Nelson was able to play with putting in different amounts of air and then moving the pockets of air around inside of the balloon, often without using his hands.
In another act the ring leader, portrayed by Stephanie Monseu, explained the show as being exactly something you would see if you went to Cirque du Soliel. This biting joke was not lost on the audience seeing as many of them, including myself, were circus performers. As circus performers we are often asked if we are trying to be like/get in to Cirque du Soliel, and as a result many of us have come to resent the matter being brought up since we do not always share the opinion that it is the end all be all of circus. After Monseu’s introduction Nelson along with juggler Adam Kuchler appeared on stage. Kuchler was dressed up as a toucan with a cigarette in his mouth being used as a special effect. The whole act did quite a good job of poking fun at the big budget special effects that Cirque du Soliel has access to that are now often expected from other troupes.
Although the cigarette was an inexpensive tool for lighting, the lighting director (Mark Simmons) was able to pull it off successfully. By using a green backlight he was able to create a mystical feeling atmosphere. Simmos later employed the same trick with Nelson dressed up in a black and red striped suit in a later act.
Kuchler went on to have a juggling act of his own where he was able to take full advantage of costuming and lighting. He began by showing to the audience that both his socks and his juggling cigar boxes were red, accompanied by a red light. Later though, he pulled up his sock (which ended up only being tubes of fabric covering his ankles) revealing blue ones to accompany his new blue cigar boxes. He then turned around and snapped at the lights which then turned blue as well. After a short it he pulled his socks up again to reveal green socks with white polka dots to much his bag. He proceeded to snap again at the lights which followed suit and turned green.
The show went on to have a German wheel act performed by Chris Delgado. Delgado is the second student of Wolfgang Bientzle I have seen perform and did not disappoint. As a side note, this summer the world wheel gymnastics championships were in Chicago, the city that Wolfgang currently calls home. Before this past year the championships had never left Europe. So when I say that someone is a student of Wolgang, there are very few higher qualifications that a German wheel artist could have.
What was most surprising about Delgado’s act was that he was able to pull off all of his tricks in such a small space. At most he would have room to rotate the wheel twice before he would be forced to change directions. Although there was a two-foot tall wooden ring separating the audience from the stage, it would have proved entirely insufficient in stopping the German wheel seeing as it would have been crushed like an egg the instant the two came into contact. To combat this, Delgado had a spotter sitting at the edge of the ring to catch the wheel. The only time this ended up being necessary though was for the final trick where he launched out of the wheel into a backflip, causing him to no longer be able to control the wheel.
All of the performers were also joined on stage by Sabrina Chaps on the piano. Most circus shows I have seen employ prerecorded music to make it easier for the performers to sync their routines to the rhythm of the music. It was nice to see Bindlestiff take a turn away from this by introducing a live musician who would often interact with the performers. To see all of the acts pulled off seamlessly along with live music tells me just how much rehearsal time had to go into this show. I also quite enjoyed the added dimension of the live musician as well as the possibilities that opened up once she started being an active part of the acts and talking with both the performers and the audience.
I tend not to go for cabaret style circus as much, but Bindlestiff most definitely was able to pull off an impressive show. Looking at the technical skill as well as the ingenuity of the performers left me with a wonderful impression. That combined with an amazing technical crew who had very little technology at their disposal made the show all that more enjoyable. This has definitely helped me see what else is possible with circus and has me thinking of a whole new slew of acts that I shall start working on soon.

Small World

The circus is a particularly small world.  Today I went to a show (more on that later).  Before even showing up I already knew one of the performers, the person selling T-shirts, and the follow-spot operator as well as several of the audience members.  I also knew one of the teachers for the newest performer there as well as the person who had gotten that teacher to America in the first place as well as someone else who had trained under him.  Now, mind you, this was a company that I had never seen perform before.  In fact, I had never even seen any of these people on a stage.

There are many communities that are smaller and more confined than the circus.  Circus transcends oceans and exists in some form or another in almost every country in the world.  There is no single circus pope, nor is there any overarching organization.  Many have tried, and while some may have succeeded to an extent on a national level, no one has succeeded in making circus a unipolar world.  While there are definitely certain groups with more pull than others, there is no single one with all of the strings in their hand.

Despite this, we all still seem to no each other.  I cannot remember the last time I added a circus person on Facebook with whom I did not share at least one mutual friend.  I’ve been at this game for a few years now and have traveled across the country and this still holds true.  At this point I have circus connection from Mexico to Ethiopia (and even those two know each other).

I ended up taking the subway back with someone I had just met and we talked the entire time about jugglers we each knew and the crazy things they had done.  This between two people who had never met face to face at any point previously.

One of the upsides to having such a small community is that everyone behaves, because word will sure travel fast if they don’t.  I have a friend who had to move from one coast to the other after he messed up.  Now, several years later, he is just starting to get back to where he was.

It definitely keeps you on your toes.  However, in a world with no governing body, it is good to see that there are still mechanisms for enforcement.  If a venue underpays performers or a director puts them in danger, within the week the whole world will know.

West Side, Best Side

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Last Thursday I had a very interesting conditioning class.  Normally the music our instructor uses is something electronic with a heavy beat to keep us going.  This time though, we were doing pushups and candlestick tuck-jumps to a very different beat.  That of West Side Story.

Throughout class my instructor made many a face, most of which where him acting along to the music.  One face he made, however, stuck with me.  At one point, with his eyes wide and his lips pursed he looked at me as I did candlestick (where you lay on your shoulders on the floor with hands behind you and your feet straight up in the air) full turns (which you roll up into in a single motion before rolling back down).  These are by no means a particularly easy exercise.  In fact I would list them as one of the harder ones we normally do.  After the first few I normally have to stop in the middle since I can’t generate enough momentum to get all the way up from the candlestick.  This time though, this time was different.  Every time I popped right up and landed my turns.  I believe we had ten on each side.

My instructor’s quizzical look was pointed directly at me.  After a few I responded to his nonverbal comment, saying, “It’s the music.”  West Side Story is one of my personal musicals (really, who doesn’t like it?) and suddenly I was working out to music I was familiar with and enjoyed.  I’m not generally a fan of pop or electronica.  I see why the heavy beat is useful for keeping a quick tempo when trying to get your fifty pushups done, but I’m still not its biggest fan.  Put on the mambo from the dance at the gym and I’ll be cranking out jumping jacks faster than you can say, “Jerome Robbins”.

 

How does music affect your ability to perform?

Equals

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Last Saturday I had a very successful show where I juggled alongside a former Cirque acrobat and a World Champion gymnast.  On Friday we had our final tech rehearsal.

Before any of us started doing our acts we got a visit.  My conditioning/Chinese pole coach came by backstage.  He was to warm up the crowd with dual whips before the show really started.

When he came by, it was a most interesting feeling.  In class he assumes a very dominant role through his expert knowledge of how the human body works as well as what it takes to make it as a performer.  I have seen a little bit of his work and have the utmost respect for the man, who at 49 is still in better shape than almost anyone in the room.

This man, who up until that point I had always thought of as on an exponentially higher level than myself, came to us and acted as an equal.  We were all just a bunch of performers before a show.  It didn’t matter how much our outfits cost, who we had worked for, or where we had studied.  All that mattered was that we were all about to go on stage and do what we had come to do.

Juggling vs. Ballet

If you’re looking for me to tell you that juggling is better ballet or the other way around, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Instead what I aim to do here is look at how these two art forms compare and how they are radically different in nature.

To start, both juggling and ballet require a ridiculous amount of hours before you can start to even be considered good.  Both of them have also been around for quite some time and have been practiced by numerous artists.  This means that before anyone reading this knew what either of these were, millions upon millions of hours have been put into each of them.  Although old mediums are not inherently superior to newer ones, the older ones have already gotten over the initial part of the learning curve.

With that said, they do differ in some interesting fashions.  For now let us explore one of them.

I am going to put it out there that to do a rond de jambe or a plie is not terribly hard and that both are something that could be done on your first day of class.  No one, though, can throw a 441 to box or do backcrosses to a three ball flash with a pirouette on their first day.

Your first reaction to this statement might be to say that juggling is harder than ballet.  If you perchance thought that, you’d be wrong.  To do a rond de jambe or a plie will only take a few minutes to learn.  To do them well will take a lifetime.

The one thing is, juggling five balls is easily discernible from juggling three.  The difference between being a good dancer and being a great dancer is a little harder to tell.