Dallas — Circus is analog. No special effects. Peter Pan may fly by guy-wires in theatrical productions, visual stage projection may mimic aerial flight, but the performers in circuses simply fly. Every time a circus act unfurls, it’s a little different as it adjusts to real-time factors. Every time it entails a serious risk. Theater invites you to become emotionally engaged with what’s on stage. Circus demands that you do by extracting spontaneous visceral reactions right out of the brain’s limbic system.
Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus seeks to bridge the gap between circus and theater, presenting on a proscenium stage the elements of the circus with the comfort and scale of theater, a chance to see acrobatics close-up. It’s a commendable blurring of lines, especially since Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has shut down, putting many performers out of work. It’s a good fit for Dallas Summer Musicals and runs through June 4.
But at times it’s a tight fit. Every circus lives or dies by its rigging, and the Music Hall at Fair Park stage is surprisingly cramped. High wires are not suspended high enough for suspense. Acrobatics can’t soar more than two stories. Blow-your-socks-off Cirque acts are not possible, but ticket prices are not as high either. It takes a lot of choreographed circus motion to pull it off. The stage is busy all the time; call it dancobatics.
But when the going gets intimate, Circus 1903 shines. Solo and duo acts do very well. The Great Gaston (Francois Borie) can juggle seven clubs at a time. He can throw all up in the air and sort them on the fly. Yet he is most impressive with just three, showing off his skills as one of the fastest jugglers in the world. His light-reflecting clubs look like liquid silver.
The Flying Finns exemplify the turn-of–the-century theme, which is a clever way of rationalizing the scaled-down nature of the acts. Before trampolines, it was teeterboards that set acrobats flying, just like a heavy kid jumping on the seesaw sends the smaller tot into flight. The Finns may not go super high, but landing on an 18-inch wide board after doing a flip with a twist is a nifty trick. Landing on your partners’ shoulders is even niftier.
Most contortionists hail from the Mongolia region where it’s bound in spiritual traditions and blended it with a fair amount of strength acrobatics. Senayet Assefa Amara, billed as The Elastic Dislocationist, hails from Ethiopia and stresses grace over brawn. Her upside-down legs bend over and dance around a contorted torso in a one-woman tangled ballet. Capable of beyond-180-degee backbends, at times she looks like an ampersand.
The aerial ring has changed little since the 1800s: a beautiful woman draping, curling, and even contorting around a suspended loop like a dancer while integrating various acrobatics. Lucky Moon (Elena Gatilova) is world class at it, the very definition of lyrical, making incredible strength moves look effortless and transitioning with balletic charm. With tear-inducing, almost unapproachable beauty, it’s easy to forget how dangerous her act is.
Florian Blümmel, also known as the Cycling Cyclone, embodies Gene Kelly on a bicycle, doing balancing acts while rolling and impressive vertical one-wheel spins in a sort of prettified parkour. As Les Incredibles, the former wrestler Andrei Kalesnikau stands atop a tall platform, grabs his petite partner Anny LaPlante by the wrists and starts flinging. She spins, flips, and pikes with difficult creative flourishes, and then cascades down and catches him perfectly. For a finale, she does it blindfolded.
While the opening-night audience did not appreciate Duo Flash (Yevgeniy Dashkivskyy and Yefrem Bitkine), their nuanced act of split-second pratfalls and seamless acrobatic interaction is clowning at its finest — Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers crossed with Buster Keaton. Not nearly as witty are Fratelli Rossi (Spanish brothers Alejandro and Ricardo Rossi) showcasing their foot juggling routine. The Lopez Family, a sort-of-high-wire act with bicycles and poles, was a deflating choice for a finale.
Rola-bola act Sensational Sozonov (Mikhail Sozonov) needs more pizazz or humor, but was the night’s most dangerous act. Already on an elevated platform, he perches on an ever growing stack of rolling cylinders atop boards and more rolling cylinders, aiming in all directions and done without a floor mat.
Absolutely central to Circus 1903 proceedings is esteemed illusionist and close-up magician David Williamson as Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, a carney-imbued patter man. He drives the show’s energy and weaves its disparate acts together, extolling them without overblowing them (the bombastic soundtrack by Evan Jolly handles that). With his decades of experience, he made minor the technical flubs of opening night a delight.
For all the athletic wizardry on hand, some of the show’s best moments are Williamson’s interactions with young kids brought on stage for various gags. The “magic raccoon” hand puppet is hard to explain, but guffaw inspiring. Williamson is a hilarious man with a good heart and lightning wit. His speech on the craft and devotion of circus performers, how a few minutes on stage represents a lifetime of devoted work and practice, was a theatrical thing of beauty.
The public’s waning appetite for live animal acts didn’t do in the circus. Cirque du Soleil did. But Circus 1903 pulls those sentimental strings with two life-sized puppet elephants—created by British company Significant Object, behind the horse puppets in War Horse—that require teams of people to inhabit and operate. Queenie and her perky calf Peanut are walking concoctions of burlap sorcery, truly evoking the animals’ majestic scale and gait. Though pitched that “puppets appear throughout the show as the mother teaches her calf the tricks of the trade,” it amounts to one act and a disappointing few walk-ons. More puppets!