Disappointing “Circus” and A Terrificly Inventive Musician
by: Alix Cohen
Thursday night, I saw two of the companies representing contemporary circus at The Skirball Center’s estimable Circus Now festival. I like circus and have seen many recent takes on the art which are theatrical, often themed, stirring or fun, and stage worthy. These are not two of them.
At the top of each Act Host/Composer/Musician Sxip Shirey performs a piece of completely fascinating music by virtue of an assortment of electronic devices manipulated by his foot: a “pitch shifter” Shirey later identified as “ a pedal board filled with effects pedals” and a sampler that at one point manifests hip-hop beat with bells. Utilizing small instruments (harmonica and Irish penny whistle -actually two whistles taped together with some holes covered so he can play up two octaves), sound makers (a siren and bird whistle), everyday objects (a glass bowl holding a marble, a wooden cracker), and nonverbal vocals, the artist manages to sound like a full band.
Shirey performs “a piece of music about New York City written behind a tent in Australia” and “Istanbul.” The music is infectiously rhythmic and highly layered/textured with an underlying organ feel. “Istanbul” is especially evocative and rather haunting, a colorful procession one can almost visualize. This is an original talent. Watch for his work.
Act I’s Acrobatic Conundrum (from Seattle) performs The Language of Chance, a dense, extremely slow exhibition of minor acrobatics with a few unoriginal, not especially skillful circus turns like Cyr Wheel and Aerial Fabrics. Discordant movement is accompanied by electronic music/sounds and obscure voiceovers” Let’s pretend that language is going to work for us. Let’s pretend that a book is not a ladder…push… balance… extend…
Interesting moments are created by the ‘fact’ one woman supports, gracefully lifts and manipulates another with the strength of a man and by a double-jointed thespian who moves with grace and fluidity. The excellent set, kind of helium balloon trees made of wood-looking, horizontal slats intermittently suspended on wire, is unfortunately removed half way through.
Act II, unquestionably better than the first, offers Paris’s Company Oktobre in Oktobre. This troop is comprised of what I would call a clown, an acrobat (trapeze artist) and a vaudevillian sleight-of-hand practitioner with some clowning ability. Highlights include a fast magic turn in which a great many red rubber balls, mug, and pitcher respectively disappear, reappear and fill with water; a trapeze act wherein the lady hangs by almost nothing and periodically drops like a rag doll in uncomfortable silence, and an attempt to retrieve a big rubber ball by a loose limbed performer who never quite manages it. The last two vignettes are too long. Dadist phrases are also incorporated into this show.
Both of these companies were far more theater/movement than anything resembling even modern circus, though title would not be objectionable if the shows had been more entertaining.
The Skirball Center offers a great variety of intriguing arts programs and should not for a moment be discounted for my opinion on these.
Circus Now plays through January 16
566 LaGuardia Place
Complete Calendar: http://nyuskirball.org/