This month, those whose super power is being in two places at once can enjoy the 38th London International Mime Festival and the 38th Monte Carlo Circus Festival. Here, competition for the prestigious Clown Awards - designed by renowned Dutch sculptor Kees Verkade - has a glittering start. Dancers from the Great Moscow State Circus cavort round ringmaster Petit Gougou while he tentatively floats a box from which ever-coiffed Dutch magician Hans Klok appears.
Have a Ball Duo - Mike Leclair and Karen Bourre - have a more modern style for their sweet boy-meets-girl number. An adapted park bench serves as a platform for a superb ball-juggling display, where their bouncing of up to 12 white balls forms their conversation, while they also throw in some neat dance moves set to the jazzy Sweet Georgia Brown.
They are followed by a futuristic ballet in which eight masked figures glide around the ring wearing blue LED-lit sun-burst headdresses and long stiff silver/blue gowns that almost disguise the segues they are standing on.
Eccentric American dancer Robert Muraine found fame on US TV’s So You Think You Can Dance. Dressed casually in back with steam-punk goggles, his extreme and robotic dislocations, popping and locking show spectacular control. It may all be very clever and although he causes a storm, unlike the next act, he’ll never have universal appeal.
Russian duo Desire of Flight - Valeriy Sychev in white and Malvina Abakarova in black - are simply sensational on bouncing aerial straps. This act - seen in Phillip and Carol Gandey’s Cirque Surreal - is about total trust as they fly without any safety devices and perform a stunning and seamless series of high-speed moves, including some hair-raising ‘drops’ and catches. The drama ends as she rises on the straps before falling into his arms. There are gasps from the crowd and a standing ovation. This is what circus should be about; skill, beauty and danger in equal measure.
Then banquine meets musical theatre in the Vavilov Troupe’s strange zombie-fest. Six bewigged ‘strumpets’ in tattered net and lace bring colour to seven male acrobats in dusty dinner suits and fright make-up who use a suspended platform that rises, falls and swings side to side to somersault on to and from. But it’s all bit messy and frantic.
Then Klok, the master of speed-substitution stunts - and as blond and pretty as Jayne Mansfield - returns in one of the night’s most entertaining spots. Seen in London in 2012 in the Houdini Experience, he reprises many of those tricks. His glamorous silver-clad assistants appear in boxes, burning cages and exchange places with him in the blink of an eye, or have their body parts mixed-up. When he is locked in a tank of water you worry about his bouffant but he emerges unscathed after another swap.
During the interval the big-cat cage of Tom Dieck Jr is erected. Looking super smart, he zips his mixed group of tigers, lions and ligers through the customary rollovers, hind-leg walks, leaps and sit-ups but then adds an open-sided metal drum that rolls like a wheel of death with a tiger on the outside and a liger within.
Everyone’s in for a whale of a time when Rosi Hochegger - a former Stage Showpeople subject - and her mixed pack of dogs appear. There’s lots of barking and tail wagging as she puts them though dressage, skipping, dancing, acrobatics, you name it. They take turns to burst from the doors and windows of a little Germanic house to the strains of You’re the One That I Want and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, then end charging wackily round the ring.
Daring Jones Duo on static trapeze - Americans David Jones and Rebecca Birge - former students then tutors at the Academy of Circus Arts - live up to their name. Fast-paced, beautifully costumed and choreographed, everything element is considered. This is another number relying on trust. Again with no safety measures, they nip through a series of casting and catching, ‘drops’ and feet-to-feet catches set to Jazz Age music. Birge also becomes the catcher before they finish with a neck-to-neck spin while Jones hangs from his toes.
Bizarrely, the eight very young children of the Joy Gartner family appear on five Indian elephants just after an announcement about the 3rd New Generation Circus festival - taking place here on February 1-2 - which would have suited them better. However, they all show great maturity and, backed by Latin beats, they perform multiple somersaults launched from a teeterboard by one of the beasts.
China’s equilibrist duo from the Suining Troupe display astounding strength and balance skills in an overly melodramatic number on a platform bounded by two flights of pedestals. Flashing from arm to arm in a one-arm handstand or balancing one-armed on a tower of boxes are impressive but the finale of jumping down and up the steps on one hand and then descending while one balances on the other’s neck brings the house down.
Then, immaculate in black tails, Vinicio Canastrelli Togni presents the liberty horses of Lidia Togni’s Circus. Operatic singing and cool jazz back the intricate moves of 24 mixed stallions and six Shetland ponies. Sheer weight of numbers make this remarkable and his organisation is marvellous, but how much better to see them running naturally than walking on hind legs or jumping all hooves off the ground.
Most stylish act of the night is Russia’s Anastasia Makeeva on double aerial loop. With her Sassoon-look short dark hair and chic red slip dress with large black sequins picking out her spine, she executes any number of flexible poses, again with no lunge. A tango rhythm is always a good choice in the circus and although this is bit frenetic, hearts stop when she slides serenely into the splits, supported only by one foot in either loop.
Sometimes aesthetics get lost in the drive for circus innovation and the forced mix of trampoline and Risley skills from Wuhan’s Acrobatic Troupe is a case in point. In this truly dangerous and daring act two platforms revolve like opposing clock hands next to a trampoline, which bounces the young flyers to the feet of the catchers, who then foot-juggle them. But with ugly equipment and costumes and bombastic music, this seems ill-considered.
The evening’s clowning includes wearying antics from the Nikuline Circus stars Kolganov and Belogorlov, and the lengthy traditional bonbon routine of the Munoz Trio. Neither is funny. Enough said.
Programme Two opens in similar fashion to the night before with Hans Klok leaping from a box. First up is the Dobrovitsky’s 1950s-inspired aerial flying act. Here, two fixed catchers literally throw three flyers back and forth from both hands and feet into all manner of somersaults, pirouettes and layouts. It is a most attractive and entertaining start with the women in sparkly dresses and short white socks and the men in shirts and jeans.
Rosi Hochegger and Scout Photo: Charly Gallo: Press Centre, Monaco
Then we step back in time with Conchi Munoz and Gary Jahn’s traditional act. Question: what’s black and shiny and can do things most humans can’t. Answer: sea lions Ziggy, Andrew and Nelson. With very few commands from the trainers, these expert slickers do most everything from balancing beach balls to walking on their flippers, and are warmly received.
Yet another American in the festival is the neat and strong hand-balancing contortionist on canes Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Pivaral (pictured below). Squeal with excitement because with high skill and a gorgeous crystal-encrusted black/gold costume this is pure class. Her extreme flexibility allows her to strike many unique poses without a hint of arm wobble, and she even seems to be able to rotate her knee joints. Fixed on one arm, she shoots an arrow from a bow with her feet, and ends by revolving on a mouth stand in a Marinelli bend.
Then five members of the Faltyny Family in sparkly white are back with a formation club juggling routine - involving more plates - and sometimes executed two-high. I resisted mentioning it for their first appearance but a man in the ring with an office moustache always looks weird and spoils the aesthetic.
Rosi Hochegger has a second spot with her wonderfully clever comedy Dalmatian-spotted horse Scout - a Danish Knabstrupper. He acts like a naughty child disobeying all her commands and head-butting her repeatedly, before yawning, getting into bed and covering himself with a blanket. They are delightful.
Ukrainian acrobats chunky Vlad Kostenko and slight Anton Savchenko make up the Kvas Duo. It is slightly unfortunate for them that this type of strong-men hand-to-hand act is so familiar you feel you’ve seen it all before. They are great exponents of the art and their head-to-head finale is extraordinary, but it’s all a bit too clinical.
The renowned Russian circus director Alex Grimailo reportedly redesigned the Sokolov’s thrilling teeter-board act just a month ago (pictured below). All the tricks are the same but now entitled Amadeus it has a stagey Mozart theme. It’s another beautifully considered number with the artists in powdered wigs and period costumes and one of them representing the composer himself. Myriad sky-high multiple somersaults are landed with flair and precision - sometimes on stilts - and when a female flyer lands cleanly on a three-man column without the aid of a lunge it is breathtaking.
Straight after the interval Tom Dieck Jr repeats his act from the night before and he’s just one of a number with a second showing, though most of them at least change their routines or costumes. Versatile Emil Faltyny Jr has devised an unusual and flashy affair. After a bit of open-cube spinning, he runs up and down a freestanding ladder while rotating it, then introduces a zigzag ladder that he climbs and stands on top of. He finales on two more jagged ladders - joined at the base by a rocking mechanism - while balancing the cube on his forehead.
Joy Gartner’s family and elephants, now in royal blue and silver, have a second outing and a different routine involving lots of pachyderm tableaux. He and his wife, Tandy, take part this time and are joined by some of the kids. The close relationship between humans and animals is obvious especially when one elephant puts her foot on Gartner’s face, then lies on top of him. The contrast in scale is impressive, the huge beasts dwarfing the artists.
Armenian Eliza Katchatryan performs her entire act on a high wire set at 10 metres in pointe shoes, thereby making her discipline even more difficult. Holding a simple sparkly fan, she has long dark flowing hair and looks elegant in purple. You want to love this act but she is limited in the number of ways she can move; jumping, inching, sliding and bizarre walks are inevitably a bit similar, before she puts on a lunge to go into dangerous bouncing splits and wire rocking. The wind machine that wafts her hair and costume is a naff idea.
People are happy to see Vincio Canestrelli Togni repeating his spectacular horse melange but clowns Kolganov and Belogorlov are not made so welcome. They have four spots and having mostly died on their posterieurs it seems unwise to save their best - involving eccentric dancing, a flaming top hat and a fire extinguisher with which to liberally soak the crowd - until last.
After a back injury sustained in rehearsal, the Vavilov Troupe is unable to return to perform its Men in Black/Matrix banquine act.
Klok has the sense to change his whole act and although it’s essentially the same trick - box-jumping - dressed up differently it is great entertainment. He’s just so showbiz, so slick, so quick and his assistants so feisty you can’t help but buy into the schtick. His final escape suspended upside down between the jagged teeth of two saws that will skewer him when a burning rope breaks is pure James Bond.
This year the jury, headed by Princess Stephanie, was spot on with the Gold Clowns awards, which went to the wildly popular Desire of Flight and the Sokolov Troupe.
For a full list of winners go to the festival website.
This review was first published in The Stage Newspaper on Wednesday 22nd January.