Saturday, November 7, 2009

Performance Report: Variety in Amsterdam & Berlin

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Amsterdam is known more for its street performance than its variety theatres, or as Charlie Frye forewarned me,"not too much Variete, except in the windows." I loved the city, loved biking all over the place, but in my four days there this June I didn't find much street performance either. Maybe I went at the wrong time or to the wrong place, but several trips through Dam Square netted me only one street performer, a British juggler/contortionist.

Can you name this street performer?
His show was not elaborate, his big tricks being to pass his entire body through a narrow hoop while balancing a ball on his forehead and to roll a juggling fireball all over his body, including down his pants. But it all worked well because he was quite funny. Unfortunately you'll have to take my word for it because my hard drive crash this summer deprives us not only of footage of his routine, which he said he was happy to have presented on this blog, but also his exact name. I'm thinking it was something like "The Impossible Paul." And there are a few seconds of his act on YouTube, but they don't really do him justice.

But before moving on to greener pastures in Berlin, here's something even more random, an Amsterdam street poster (left) that reminded me of an old Hanlon-Lees poster (right).

And here's a cool parkour mural outside the Amsterdam train station:

Update (12-5-09): speaking of parkour, see my new post, My Life as a Parkour Traceur.

On to Berlin

The train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin is quite pleasant, and it's nice to see all those northern Europe wind turbines at work! And it's not surprising to see a lot more in the way of performance in Berlin, a city of nearly 3.5 million people, whereas Amsterdam is actually quite small: 740,000. There's variety theatre, circus (old & nouveau), street performance, big commercial theatres (Mel Brooks' The Producers has brought the Führer back to Berlin), and of course the ubiquitous Blue Man Group.

As my (good) luck would have it, I was just in time for the...

6th Annual Berlin Street Festival
am Mariannenplatz, Berlin Kreuzberg
12.-14. June 2009

The acts here are international and there's enough going on to schedule a Berlin trip around it. Unlike the Antibes street festival, this one is all in the same neighborhood, usually with acts performing on four stages at the same time, as well as juggling workshops for the non-juggler. This creates a more festive atmosphere, especially with all the great food, including one bakery that actually brought their own oven to the park! Alas, my video footage and some of my notes fell victim to my infamous hard drive crash, but let me at least single out my favorite show of the day I visited, Che Cirque, a solo act by Juan Cersosimo, an Argentinian currently living in Brussels.

Cersosimo is multi-talented, but his claim to fame is as a trick cyclist; he was the BMX national champion of Argentina in 1996 and of all of South America in 1997. Yeah, he's got himself some skills.

He also works quite well with audience volunteers, quite gently, making them look good rather than embarrassing them for cheap laughs. Here's his promo video from his web site, which offers some snippets though I wouldn't say it really captures the spirit of the live performance:

Is that a circus hiding behind those bushes?
You know what's really cool? Walking or driving down a street and discovering a circus by accident, that's what. This happened to me in Berlin, so of course I walked in, and when I saw a small one-ring set-up with a solo trapeze suspended overhead, I asked when the circus would be performing. I was told that the variety show would be putting on shows the next two evenings. I had stumbled upon the Shake circus tent, home for circus, Shakespeare, and all sorts of variety entertainment. Unlike the United States, where live variety shows are not a big part of mainstream theatre outside of Vegas, the word still has meaning in Europe.

The next night we headed back to the tent and took in the show — variety indeed —a mixture of professional and student performances serving up a smorgasbord of circus, clowning, magic, poetry, and dramatic readings. The poetry and the readings were of course in German — and the functionality of mine is intentionally limited to the beer hall — so a certain longueur set in during those segments, but the rest had some real rewards to offer, including a magician duo, several solo trapeze acts, and a nice physical comedy act performed by two guys ostensibly horsing around at the beach. A pleasant two hours.

Un Horizonte Cuadrado

Another happy find was a troupe of six Chilean trapeze artists who performed their show, Un Horizonte Cuadrado, at a Berlin beer garden. Google tells me their name means "One Horizon Square," though I'm betting there's a lot better English translation lurking out there. I can't claim this show was physical comedy, but it was highly physical and it was not without some genuinely comic moments. Before it started, I was worried that there'd be no way for these six performers suspended from as many trapezes to keep our interest for an hour, but I was happy to be wrong. That they did, and much of it was exquisite.

Here's a minute of YouTube promo:

They actually have more substantial footage on their Flickr page. (Just click on the thumbnails that have a video PLAY button icon.) Here's one selection that shows more of the duet interactions:

In addition to the beautiful movement, what I especially liked were the relationships that developed between these "characters" as they moved from trapeze to trapeze, one moment sharing, another moment vying for power, sometimes antagonistic, other times flirtatious. All in all, highly original and creative.

After an eye-opening side-trip to Poznan (Poland) to visit both the Academy of Music and the Academy of Fine Arts on college business, we returned to Berlin and caught the heavily promoted production, Soap, presented in a cabaret setting at the historic variety theatre, Chamäleon. This was variety theatre in the form of a revue, all of it revolving around bathtubs and scantily-clad but highly skilled bathers.

Here's a 35-second commercial advertising the show:

And here's a longer (three-and-a-half minute) preview of it that appeared in France on the television network Arte:

I might say the show is Vegas-style, though that doesn't prove anything since I've never been to Vegas. It's slick, a little bit naughty but not too much, and the performers are exceptional acrobats and jugglers. One woman who does all kinds of foot juggling from within one of the tubs was nothing short of amazing — there are glimpses of her in the Arte video above — as was one of the male acrobats. Another act I had never seen before (though that doesn't prove anything either) was a juggler who did a sort of strip tease while continuing to juggle three balls flawlessly. The only weak link in the show, unfortunately, was the clown, who was muggy and predictable, though in fairness the audience liked her a lot more than I did.

Is it a good show? Not really. It's the kind of show that looks better on the promo video, rather than vice-versa. None of it makes much sense, the soap and tubs are a gimmick that is used very inconsistently, the semi-operatic singer seems to be there just to give it the pretense of art, and it's all a little too calculatingly cutesy-commercial for my jaded tastes. Did the audience like it? Very much so. Was I glad I saw it. Yep, but for the individual acts, not so much the overall presentation.

And Berlin? Can't wait to get back!

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