BIG TOP REVIEW – Smirkusology: The Science of “Circus Smirkus”
I’ve always liked the circus, and, like many, have considered running away to join it from time to time, as the old adage goes.
For those who haven’t seen Vermont’s very own “Circus Smirkus,” it is a unique one-ring show, featuring teenagers trained at the Greensboro-based circus camp in all kinds of Big Top-related activities – juggling, clowning, tumbling, and hanging by various parts of one’s body from all manner of contraptions suspended from the top of the tent.
Having been to “Circus Smirkus” for five summers running with my kids, I was feeling, on my sixth visit to the “big top” at the Bundy Center for the Arts, a little less like an open-eyed kid, and more like a long-suffering parent, recognizing many of the names and faces in the program, and knowing that, at the end of the day, much of what I was about to see I’d seen before. This feeling was compounded by the theme of this summer’s “Smirkus” event, entitled “Smirkusology - A Science Extravaganza.”
“Science at the Circus?” I thought to myself? Sounds like a yawn fest, even after reading creative director Jesse Dryden’s breathless program description:
“Circus (he writes) is not an exact science. It is a volatile combination of danger and amusement, with a delicate balance of laughter and awe. Take some young artists with endless energy and astronomical skills. Put their hopes, their hearts and their lives into the ring. Mix in plenty of mirth and mayhem. Coat with whimsy and a pinch of artistry and emotion. Stir in some silly, and magnify it all under the Big Top. Just add an audience and let the chemical reaction inspire. The results are truly magical.”
OK, I thought. But science at the circus?
This slightly-jaded parent couldn’t have been more wrong. This summer’s 21st annual “Circus Smirkus” program may be the best “Smirkus” show to date.
One reason (as always) has to do with the hard-working members of the Smirkus troupe, who somehow manage to keep their energy up for more than two hours of big top fun. And there was some new stuff, too – like acrobatics on this dangling rectangular (sort of) cube structure, and the couple from Cali, Columbia (Francisco Javier Hartado and Leidy Tatiana Zainiga Vidal), who finished the first act with a stunning double display of balancing virtuosity involving a giant circular metal ring (It must be seen to be fully believed).
But there was more going on here than I remember, theme-wise. Seeing clowns dressed in scientific lab coats and glasses proved remarkably amusing throughout the show – a sort of visual cognitive dissonance that made their antics even more goofy – and the writers made some seriously funny hay out of this ongoing visual gag, featuring, for example, a nerdy-looking clown kid pulled from the crowd at show’s beginning who metamorphoses into a “wonder juggler” (complete with shiny jump suit) at the beginning of the show’s second half. New juggling tricks – including a wonderful moment involving 3 clowns juggling the same series of multi-colored balls and some serious fun with unicycles and uber-stilts – kept things fresh, too.
And then there was the sonics of Smirkus. The sounds of the 2008 summer show proved vital to its freshness this time around, and a big “hats off” to music composer Tristan Moore and sound technician Mike Cress for melding sound and story in such a compelling way – gadget noises, robotic and experimental mood music, and sonically-driven sight gags (my favorite involved some out-of-control robot hands, in reality, a pair of over-sized ice hockey gloves) kept audiences howling, and gave the clowns additional support and a sonic “foil” to play off of. Really nifty.
If you missed “Circus Smirkus” in Mad River and are kicking yourself – have no fear. You can catch them all over New England this summer – check out the schedule online at www.smirkus.org. They’ll be back in Vermont on July 3-6 (Essex) and August 11-13 (Montpelier) and August 15-16 (Greensboro) for their grand finale. The scientist, the clown, and the kid in you won’t want to miss it!