Ah! New York City in December! A month brimming with expectation and joy while bristling with deadlines and tension. In between the highs and lows, the city erupts with decorations and events that evoke nostalgia and renewal. The repetition of cultural events — parties, decor, and live entertainment — creates a structure through which New Yorkers both ground ourselves and find rejuvenation.
I saw three shows this holiday season that span the spectrum of circus entertainment: Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge, Cirque Mechanics‘s 42FT, and Cirque du Soleil‘s ‘Twas the Night Before…. While worlds apart, these three shows inhabit the holiday season’s greatest theme: tradition
Nutcracker Rouge: Confections Perfection
Nutcracker Rouge should be a must-see on every adult’s holiday list. It exudes perfection at each delicious moment. The production doesn’t just riff on the classic fairytale but distills and makes contemporary Clara’s journey dreamy — only this time her awakening is sexual.
For those that know the story of the Nutcracker well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how director/choreographer Austin McCormick’s digression from the traditional narrative still satisfies your annual dose of Nutcracker treats. Tchaikovsky’s beloved music is interspersed with relevant jazz and pop songs, and the Victorian vibe and high-class aesthetic matched with bondage themes make for a naughty evening at the ballet. While some narrative points are skipped over, they are hardly missed — the acts are too succulent. Phenomenal vocal performances blow the roof off, and the performers aren’t shy to linger by your seat, entice with a caress on your shoulder or sit directly in your lap. The show’s precision extends to the costumes and lighting. Kudos to lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; I have never seen such a well-lit tassel spin as when contortionist Lilin arched backward in a goblet full of glitter. And for a show that is all about skin, Zane Philstrom’s costumes are striking and delicate.
For those that have never seen a Nutcracker, you won’t walk out with a synopsis of the original story, but you will have something far more exciting to talk about tomorrow at work. Classical ballet aficionados will have little to critique in the cast’s execution of traditional corps de ballet and pas de deux choreography. They then seamlessly slip into contemporary, jazz, acrobatics, contortion and downright fun group numbers. The circus acts are flawless, dripping with just the right blend of daring and lustiness. The proximity of the performers is tantalizing, and while the circumference and height of the theater seems dauntingly small for circus, Troy Linglebachon on dance trapeze, Nolan McKew on straps and Cyr wheel artist, Ashley Dragon fill every inch of vertical and spherical space to the brim with ease.
So if Mark Morris’s Hard Nut (a quirky contemporary dance version of the Nutcracker that spun heads when it first hit the scene in 1991) has become too tame for you, Nutcracker Rouge will spice up your holiday schedule with a perfectly crafted adult-only winter tradition.
42FT: Nostalgia for a Contemporary Audience
For something entirely different and yet comparably flawless, Cirque Mechanics’ 42FT is a wholesome family outing. While not holiday-themed, the show appeals to our nostalgia via the classic narrative of running away with the circus. Cirque Mechanics has played the New Victory Theater’s coveted December holiday slot a number of times, and it’s clear why they are continuously invited back.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Wes Hatfield, veteran Cirque Mechanics cast member, prior to seeing the show and founder, Chris Lashua, afterwards. Hatfield told me that the show “pays tribute to old-timey circus” and pointed out that its creation in 2018, overlapped with the 250th anniversary of modern circus. As such, 42FT is a period piece without being as overt in advertising this as Circus, 1903. From the start, the show is multilayered: the big top, a rotating structure called “the carousel”, is situated inside a proscenium theater in which contemporary circus performers play the role of traditional circus artists. The carousel brilliantly allows the audience to seamlessly transition between back lot voyeurs and ringside patrons. In this way, we too are playing a role — that of a traditional circus audience. But don’t overthink it; just let yourself get swept away by this cheery production!
The show’s direction and choreography by Lashua and Aloysia Gavre is a perfect blend of subtlety and extravagance. Clown Justin Therrien embodies this combination most with his masterful mime and magic. His outstanding suitcase isolation and slow-motion sword swallowing are the perfect examples of how minimalism highlights extraordinary skill.
Group acts were akin to mini charivaris highlighting multiple skill sets at once. Contortion, hand balancing, juggling, and acrobatics were crafted in, on and around the “juggle go round” (as Hatfield explained, a lazy susan flanked by i-beams capped with outer platforms). Austin Bradley’s delightfully inventive “lion taming” act was a perfect frame to display impressive bullwhip and acrobatics. Hatfield described, and then I was delighted to see, how a clever moment “pays tribute to the flying trapeze with audience participation.” Even globe walking made a cameo; two spheres attached to the carousel as an inventive way to use human power to rotate the set.
Historically significant details might be missed to the layman’s eye, but served to round out the authentic world of 42FT. Trapeze artists Elijah Newton and Nikki Unwin enter in clogs (worn to protect a performer’s feet from the constantly muddy circus lots) and capes (female performers in then-scandalous leotards and tights were wrapped back into modesty as soon as their act was over). Juggler Tatiana Vasilenko evoked images for me of female pioneers May Wirth (bareback rider) and Trixie Fichas (juggler). Cirque Mechanics’ uniquely crafted, mobile set pieces are never just stage dressings. They are how the world of the show functions and are instrumental in crafting mood and narrative. 42FT includes a remake of the historical rotating ladder, an unusual apparatus which, like all the mechanics on stage (save for Rosebud the horse!), is completely powered by human effort. Bryzen Bishop, Brooke Neilson, Michael Rubino and Taylor Stevens and the skillful rotating ladder team.
By restaging the aesthetic of traditional circus with the company’s trademark of remarkable contraptions, the performers’ technique must adjust. Hatfield and Lashua explained that the rotation of the “juggle go round” creates the need for the performers standing on the rotating ends to pass clubs to the future space their partner will occupy; and when fellow cast members stand between, the jugglers’ tosses become blind. This necessitates hiring cast members with impeccable skills and the ability to flex their technique around the apparatus.
It is not unusual for contemporary circus artists to have multiple skill sets. In fact, it is becoming a necessity. Hatfield described how the company usually casts a few big hitter solo acts and many generalists. The creation is “absolutely an ensemble process” since the mechanisms of the productions are created first. Cast members “take ownership over what they are doing because they are the pioneers on the apparatus.” Hatfield said the company also hires “people that like to have fun and portray that energy on stage.” I can certainly attest to that — their joy is infectious!
Hatfield commented on the NYC holiday crowd’s enthusiasm, “You hear them the whole time…They laugh at the right time, clap at the right time,” and we surely did. We applauded uproariously, laughed heartily and gasped on cue as strongman Battulga Battogtokh deftly juggled bowling balls and a sixteen-foot wooden log (not simultaneously) often catching them on the nape of his neck. We wowed appropriately at the lovely release sequences in Newton and Unwin’s duo trapeze act and as company members soared lithely from the Russian bar. You could almost hear the smiles in the audience as Esther De Monteflores impeccably performed on a slack wire.
Up next for Cirque Mechanics is a revival of their original production, Birdhouse Factory. If the tradition continues of Cirque Mechanics playing The New Vic, you’ll not want to miss it!
‘Twas the Night Before… : A Classic Glamorized to the Hilt
Cirque du Soleil has animated the classic holiday poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas cirque-style. Marketed as “a new tradition for families to cherish,” the show’s concept is a modernized prequel to Santa’s storybook arrival.
Like Nutcracker Rouge, you won’t leave with a clear sense of the original narrative, but you’ll be wowed by the fast-moving, fantastical holiday scenes. In typical Cirque du Soleil style, the world is glamorized to the hilt. Huge strands of thick tinsel cascade from the proscenium creating a wintery cave over an upstage ramp which doubles as a bit of abstraction to the environment and a fun winter sledding run.
The show opens with the recognizable hook of a child being read a large, leather-bound storybook by a parent, but being 2019, the kid is uninterested and plugged into headphones and a tablet. The production could stand alone without this trope; the acting in these scenes does not go deep enough to elicit dramatic empathy for the characters’ relationship. Outstanding lead performers Alexis Vigneault (aerial lamp) and Michele Clark (hula hoops) could easily and otherwise be woven into the plot in a variety of ways.
The poem is read via voice over a sentence or two at a time serving as a caption to each act rather than a throughline. The lengthy time between the lines disjoints the story, making the dozen or so acts the meat of the show rather than the narrative. The young and spunky dance ensemble serves more as a thematic thread than the actual story.
Electronic remixes of classic Christmas songs, playful reindeer onesies and an iconic sleigh ground the production in the holiday world. While all the numbers are impressive, Louis Chen, Peter Lin, Tim Wang and Alexandar Yu’s LED diablo act, Alexis Vigneault’s aerial acrobatic lamp solo, and Rosie Axon and Adam Jukes performing inline skating steal the show. These acts showcased the technical virtuosity, charismatic performance quality, and inventiveness that knowledgeable audiences have come to expect from Cirque du Soleil productions.
From the moment Nicole Faubert and Guillaume Paquin impeccable aerial straps duet bursts the audience into a fantastical snowy world to the anticipated arrival of José Ignacio Flores Lopez impish Santa, the show’s high energy will keep audiences of all ages thoroughly entertained. Hopefully, this is the first of many years Cirque du Soleil will treat fans to a holiday spectacular.
Even when they are modernized or invented anew, traditions have an enduring nature, and ones that create laughter and light are especially important during the cold, winter months. So no matter what your inklings are this holiday season — wholesome merrymaking or provocative revelry — one of these shows is sure to bring you some holiday joy!
Nutcracker Rouge plays until January 26, 2020 at Théâter XIV. 42FT plays until January 5, 2020 at The New Victory Theater. ‘Twas the Night Before plays until December 29, 2019 at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu theater.
Photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Mechanics and Company XIV.