Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Excellent European Circus Weekend

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To us Americans, Europe can seem the Promised Land for all things circus, clown, and variety theatre. Some of my quests there for the holy grail of physical comedy have ended in disappointment, but this fall I managed to put together, between teaching engagements, a long weekend encompassing Paris, Budapest, and Vienna that was as marvelously circus-rific as you can get. A few notes, photos, and videos:

Cirque Gruss (Paris)

I've been to Paris at least fifteen times, even lived there once for nine months, but somehow never in the fall, which is why I had until now missed the Cirque National Alexis Gruss, currently celebrating its 40th season. This cirque à l'ancienne is dedicated to preserving the traditions of the classical European one-ring spectacle. Gruss senior comes from a family of horse people, and this year's show — presented in a handsome tent in the Bois de Boulogne — certainly embodies that tradition, harkening back 245 years to Philip Astley and the circus's equine roots.

There's pretty much every horse act imaginable, my favorites being two jugglers passing six clubs while standing on separate horses galloping around the ring, and the show-stopping Maud Florees atop two steeds leading seventeen others around and around at breakneck speed, each horse having entered the fray between her legs as she grabs its reins. Beautiful and amazing.

Maud Florees
The clowning, not surprisingly, sticks to classic gags and is on the tame side, but the material is handled more than ably by Francesco Fratellini (yes, a descendent of the legendary trio) and Tony Florees. Another "clownesque" act is an ensemble hat juggling numéro, performed to a medley of tunes from the Broadway musical, Barnum. Very sweet and delightful, though it could have been wilder, and I was disappointed by the absence of (long-distance) hat tossing.

The show is framed as a bit of a history lesson, beginning with Alexis Gruss explaining the old traditions to his grandson, and one leaves the tent feeling both entertained and educated. From the horses to the clowns to the slack wire to the elephant act to the acrobats to the Wild West act, everything here is top-notch and a must-see. An American couple I met there, who had stumbled upon the circus while biking through the Bois, thought it was the best they had ever seen (and they'd seen quite a few). I'm not sure what "best" means, but it's damn good! Here's a short French promo video clip which, unfortunately, doesn't show all that much...

Cirque D'Hiver (Bouglione)

The Cirque d'Hiver is the lone standing permanent circus building in Paris, and it's a beauty. When I first saw a circus presented there by the storied Bouglione family a few years ago, I was blown away and was sure I was going to write a glowing blog post about it, for it was a show that lived up to my fantasies of the classical European circus. But sometimes I run out of time, and it never happened. I think that show was perhaps better than this year's edition, but this one — titled Phénomenal — is very good as well.

Here's a video preview:

This show is less themed and less nostalgic than that of Gruss. There are horses and jugglers and acrobats, but also tigers, a "wheel of death," a magic act, and more time allotted to clowning. The  Fumagalli clowns are a strong presence throughout, and the energetic "burlesque" duo of Bobylev and his wife Olga serve as a good complement. The Fumagalli— in this case Fumagalli and his brother Darix and two other performers — do their delicious "Fumaboys" parody of a teeterboard act, though as physical comedy I think it could go a lot further.

Here's a video of one version of "Fumaboys" from the French television show, Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde.

The brothers also do the classic "haunted house" entrée, which I must admit did not really work for me. IMHO, the more that clowns stick to stuff that can plausibly take place in the circus ring, the more effective they are, rather than enacting a story that takes us out of the immediate experience.

The Budapest Circus

I had to fly from Paris to Vienna for work, and the air fare wasn't cheap, so I figured I might as well land in Budapest instead and throw myself into a whirlwind 18-hour visit before heading up the Danube. After all, I was curious to see if anything had changed since my only other time there — in 1968! Lovely city, lovely visit, but I was especially excited about squeezing in a visit to the Nagy Cirkusz ("Great Circus") in City Park. In Latvia last year I skipped out of a meeting early so I could see the Riga Circus, hoping it had preserved some of the high quality of the Soviet Circus, but was pretty disappointed. Not so in Budapest, whose circus was indeed international and came close to matching the best Paris had to offer — at half the price. As the English-language program proclaims, "Everything is in harmony, ovation is inevitable!" You can see a summary of all the acts here.

What stood out for me, though, was the strong role the clowns were given throughout the production.
It's not just that they had a lot of time for their numéros, but that they were constantly in and out, bouncing off the ringmaster and serving as the audience's representatives in the ring. They are "Steve & Jones" from Italy, and as you can see from this photo, their look is modern. Their clowning, however, is a nice blend of classical entrées and parodies of the latest fads (e.g., Gangnam style).This photo, for example, shows them doing the very familiar bit of one clown interrupting the other's attempt at a musical solo.  Steve is  in the auguste role and Jones is his "whiteface" partner, just without the makeup.

And here's a video of them doing a pseudo-acrobatic act, though I'm not sure where this was shot.

As a bonus, the corridors of the Nagy Cirkusz are lined with paintings on circus themes, not to be missed. Here are a few low-rez examples, shot through glass from my phone's camera...

The Vienna Circus & Clown Museum

Sunday I was on a train to Vienna and Monday I got a personalized tour of the Vienna Circus Museum, led by two of its directors, Robert Kaidy and Michael Swatosch, all arranged by famed Snitzel clown Anne Netti (thank you very much!). This is a small museum, but it has a stage where performances are held regularly and it is of course jam-packed with some great circus artifacts and posters. It also houses an impressive library and is expanding a lower level that will be its magic wing. They are not open every day, so if you're just visiting Vienna as a tourist you might want to contact them in advance to make sure it will be open when you're there.

A few photos:

Charlie Rivel display

The Francescos

Life-size statue of Jango Edwards (heh heh)
Bed of Nails  (The things I do for this blog!)

With Michael Swatosch (left) and Robert Kaidy

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