Sunday, September 27, 2009

Running Away to the Circus

The Midnight Circus, that is.

My friend Chris called me yesterday to invite me to attend a performance by one of his very favorite ensembles in Chicago. "If you don't absolutely adore them, I will be very sad," he said.

Not a problem, Chris, I do adore them. I could not have enjoyed myself more.

The Midnight Circus is a tremendous group of circus artists with a talent pool so deep that as Chris said, you could see a performance of their every single day and never see the same show twice. They could change up acts and members and still put on a great show. For example, today's performance included a juggler. At the end of his act, the rest of the ensemble formed about three-quarters of a circle around him and juggled with him, exchanging clubs with him all the way around the circuit and back. And they never dropped a club. It was gorgeous.

There are also some amazing contortionists and aerialists, and they invite new artists in to work with them all the time. The Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team joined them today, just as an example of the high-energy work this troupe produces when they play with other artists. One of the clowns got right in there and played with the group, as they did double dutch with an additional single jumprope.

But the Midnight Circus isn't just people swinging from fabric and dancing on tightropes and doing flying somersaults over each other and playing "Tears of a Clown" on the saxophone while balancing on a ladder (I kid you not, it was awesome). They have heart.

There is a little member of the ensemble. I'd guess he's about four. An articulate four, he made an announcement that was clear as a bell. He's dressed in a much smaller version of the ringmaster's outfit, except he has a bowler instead of a top hat. In fact, he appears to be a much smaller version of the ringmaster, like, maybe, his son. And this child participates in some of the clown routines.

He's obviously rehearsed, he works very hard, and he's got about the level of finesse and polish you'd expect from a four year-old. So he's a little kid and not a "professional quality" performer. Yet. But his family is teaching him the ropes. He clearly understands stage behavior and focus and communication. He's learning the craft of clown and enjoying himself HUGELY. And they bring kids from the audience on stage to participate in his routines too. In simple things, fun things, and it brings a sweetness to a show that would otherwise be lots of "Bam! Pow! Awesome!" Which is perfectly fine, but there's something wonderful about seeing a baby clown work. And seeing his parents love him so much they include him in an enterprise that brings them great joy.

There was a second (very) young performer in the show we saw today as well. The male aerialist's little sister. She was maybe six or seven, and she started out with a little bit of contortion and some acrobatics and then moved on to her main focus, the trapeze. Watching her brother work with her--it was her routine, but he was there to spot her and to support her and to encourage her, and she was so happy to be working with him... Chris and I both got all sniffly because it was so beautiful and loving.

And then there are the dogs. Lola, who has been with the ensemble for a while, and the "recently rescued" Junebug, who was debuting this weekend, I believe. For a dog not trained to the work from puppyhood, she did very well. I don't know how she managed to do all of her tricks, in fact, her tail was whipping around so happily that it was wagging her and should have thrown her off balance. She was joy embodied, despite being surrounded by a crowd of cheering strangers.

All of this says to me that there's a lot of love in this ensemble. It seems to reach out and encompass anyone who comes within their circle. Including organizations like the Chicago Parks Department. Today's shows were benefits to help pay for a playground for Chase Park. The Circus unmistakably see themselves as members of the Chicago community. They support other local artists (witness the Chicago Boyz, with whom one of the Midnight Circus ensemble members has apparently done some training, he was handling the ropes on one end of the double dutch), and they give back to the community when they can. Plus, they bring performers in from other places, like Sweden and Australia and London and Kazakhstan and Russia.

So the love is reason enough to attend a Midnight Circus production. But you also get to see work by artists who are continuing to expand their skill sets. As I mentioned, all of the ensemble members juggle, one of the clowns joined the jumprope, and Chris--who labels himself a Midnight Circus groupie--said he'd never seen the ladder trick before. Good artists are always stretching themselves, and these people apparently do that. Plus, the show is just fun.

If you get a chance to see the Midnight Circus perform, I highly recommend it. Chris says they participate in Chicagoween (they're listed on the website), so that may be your next opportunity. A Midnight Circus performance has energy, thrills, beauty, intelligence and heart. That's a night (or an afternoon) of good theatre, right there.

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