In a cloud of smoke, the train will fly through the air above the stage as aerialists and acrobats depicting the train’s passengers and moving parts defy gravity. It could represent a ghost train streaking across the sky, or an unholy vision, but for Charlotte circus arts ensemble Nouveau Sud the train is La Bestia — or “The Beast,” which can offer an avenue toward a new life or kill you.
“Our train is going to be swinging and flying at different heights,” CarlosAlexis Cruz confirms.
The 40-year-old founder and producing artistic director of Nouveau Sud Circus Arts Project is discussing the central metaphor that gives the troupe’s latest production its name, La Bestia.
It is Nouveau Sud’s fifth production to date, and in a timeline that include Septem’s illustration of oppression and the seven deadly sins, Sur’s plea to preserve the safety of the city’s people of color and REVÓL’s examination of the divisive nature of the Confederate flag, La Bestiamay be the troupe’s most comprehensive and hard-hitting vision.
Through physical theater, the troupe’s aerialists, acrobats, dancers and jugglers will trace the torturous and often deadly route Central American migrants take to reach the U.S. border.
“The migration route changes because it continues to reinvent itself,” Cruz says, explaining that the main path during the 2010s was a freight train that went from southern to northern Mexico. To cut their trek short, migrants boarded the top of the train and hung on.
Onstage, “The Train” is an apparatus, built for Nouveau Sud by Montreal-based Circus Concepts. It’s also the basis of a striking and magical aerial act, designed to draw the audience’s focus to the risks and dangers the migrants encounter on the crossing.
“The train, La Bestia, is the emblematic figure of the journey,” Cruz says. “They called it ‘The Train of Death,’ El tren de la muerte and ‘The Beast’.”
It was a dangerous passage where death came in many ways — dehydration, exposure, mechanical accidents and people succumbing to sleep before falling to the rocky ground below.
A work-in-progress “soft” opening of La Bestia goes up at Booth Playhouse at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center from July 15–17. An audience Q&A session follows each performance, and the troupe will use this feedback to refine their story for an official “hard” opening from Oct. 27-31, which will then be followed by a national tour in the 2022-23 theatrical season.
The Nouveau Sud Journey
I first encounter the magic of “The Beast” on Juneteenth. I pass the crowds celebrating the first national iteration of the holiday and go to the stage door entrance of the Blumenthal Center, where I’m met by Houston Odum. Odum, a 21-year-old student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts at Winston-Salem, is also Nouveau Sud’s artistic director of creation. For La Bestia, he is co-director to Cruz’s director.
Odum leads me down winding passages that come out backstage onto the circus, where I see troupe members practicing. Recent University of North Carolina-Charlotte graduate Krysta Rogden swings from a trapeze. Off to the side, Peter Ramon juggles. Aerialist Nicole “Strix” Sparks pivots and holds poses inside a heart-shaped hoop suspended from the ceiling. The hoop is a human Milagro, Odum tells me. In Mexico, a Milagro is a tin, often heart-shaped, votive or folk charm, traditionally used for healing.
“Milagro means ‘little miracle’,” Odum offers. Instead of making one big Milagro prop for their show, Cruz and Odum decided to replace the center of it, often colored red, with a human being dressed in red. The suspended folk charm, Odum says, plays a key part in one of the show’s acts, entitled “The Heart of the Jungle,” in which a migrant becomes the Milagro.
Seated in the front row, Cruz has been watching the rehearsal intently. We leave the theater to talk in the lobby. Born in Puerto Rico, Cruz moved from Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte in July 2013 with a mission to develop circus arts in Charlotte while creating a space where underrepresented communities could be empowered to tell their stories.
“That’s where the dream started,” Cruz says. The dream became the basis for Nouveau Sud. “Nouveau Sud, which is ‘New South,’ was a play on words between the term that is used for contemporary circus, which is Nouveau Cirque, and what everybody talked about when I moved to Charlotte: the ‘New South’,” Cruz says…
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