Why do people come to New York? For the culture. For the excitement. For work. To make your dreams come true. For the juggling. All the right reasons.
Did someone say ‘juggling’? Let’s look at two recent ongoing shows that feature jugglers. Bindlestiff Family Cirkus “Cabaret” at The Cutting Room, and “Burlesque Night” at the Slipper Room.
Bindlestiff Family Circus was created in 1995 by Keith Nelson and Stephaie Monseu. They have taken variety arts, circus, and new vaudeville and created shows, programs, and festivals all over the world. They produce two festivals each year: the NYC Youth Circus Festival, and the New York City Unicycle Festival.
On the first Monday of each month they host an open-mic variety show at Dixon Place in the lower East Side of Manhattan. Each show is different. The renegade-style sensibility is strong and Keith screens each potential performer to make sure all the acts are entertaining.
Their new production, “Cabaret,” premiered in The Cutting Room theater in Murray Hill on May 23rd and was a terrific success. The director is Michelle Matlock who created the character Ladybug for the Cirque du Soleil production, “Ovo,” and performed it for 2000 shows in eight countries over 9 years. The performers for this show are Keith Nelson (comedy juggling, sword swallowing), Chloe Somers (hula hoops, aerial straps), David Kaplan (‘The Great Kaplan’-comedy magic), Mr. and Mrs. G (sharp-shooting), Evan Ruggiero (tap-dancing), and musicians Eric Biondo and Robert Cowie.
Chloe Somers coached three seasons with Circus Smirkus, was artistic director at La Tropa Sculenta Tus Cac Tus, and was headline performer at Zelta Kirlis Festival, Riga. She did an abbreviated version of her act at the IJA 70th Convention walking across a row of wine bottles in heels. For Bindlestiff she did the full act and also appeared on aerial straps as the show opener, and in the second half with up to seven hula hoops. Her infectious smile wins the skeptical audience over and sets the stage for the other non-conventional acts. You may ask, if her act is non-conventional, what was she doing performing at a convention? Don’t ask.
David Kaplan is more a comedian than a magician. He pulls lit candles out of his pockets and other private areas with as much shock as the audience. He manipulates his hat with single and double flips and foot throws and catches. He can’t control his bowling ball, which keeps falling off his prop stand making a loud clunk, when finally he picks it up one last time and drops it again, but it falls up, up, up to the rafters (he switched it somehow for an identical black helium balloon). Later, while playing his grandfather’s antique ukulele, the bowling ball plummets to earth again missing his foot by inches and smashing the priceless string-instrument to bits. Hilarious!
Keith Nelson swallows a giant flick knife then a sword, passes clubs with the other performers, swings a glass of brandy on a string in a billiard-triangle, and balances and manipulates a three story high stack of brandy glasses on a mouth-stick. He finishes with his signature trick, spinning eight porcelain bowls on eight sticks attached to his modified steel frame barricades, while tossing six spoons into six glasses on a tray.
Keith says, “This trick is effective because the older members of the audience fondly recall similar acts on Ed Sullivan and other nostalgic shows from their childhood, while younger members delight to the novelty of the act, having never seen anything quite like it.”
Keith grew up in North Carolina and played Sousaphone in his town’s marching band. He moved to New York in 1992 and became the fire eater at the Blue Angel Cabaret. He teamed up with Stephanie Monseu (who acts as MC for this show) and developed Bindlestiff and has appeared on Letterman, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, OZ, and on stage at the Apollo, Avery Fischer Hall and countless others. Stephanie also acts as booking agent, manager, and production designer. They are always looking for fresh talent for the open-mic and for ongoing productions.
A few blocks away from Dixon Place on the Lower East Side is a joint called The Slipper Room. What goes on there, you have to see to believe. This is one of the last active burlesque theaters in the world. Tickets are cheap and the bar is busy. A scantily clad MC tells raunchy jokes and introduces the acts. A typical night will have four performers, each doing a different act in the first and second half. Typically three of the four acts will be a – I don’t know how to say this so I’ll just say it – woman taking her clothes off. The fourth act will be a comedian, magician, tap-dancer, or juggler.
Before I get to the jugglers, a word about the audience and the strippers. The Lower East Side of Manhattan has changed dramatically over the years and so has the audience. Gone are the flop houses and opium dens. It is now an exclusive neighborhood of artists, hipsters, punk guys, goth chicks, tattooed warriors, pierced exchange students, yuppies, and boutique poets. The audience is no longer sleazy old guys in crumpled felt hats and trench coats. Its largely college kids and women, out for a laugh with their friends. The audience went from being old men to young women. See before your eyes how society has evolved. If someone would have predicted this in the 1920’s, they would have laughed him off the island.
As for the strippers, they have something profoundly in common with the jugglers. Just as the juggler must make his act more interesting by combining juggling with either comedy, dance, danger, or characterization, the strippers also make their act more interesting (or should I say, even more interesting) by combining it with another discipline, thereby turning it into art. One team act called Raven, consisting of Kyla Ernst-Alper and Sylvana Tapia, were suspended over head doing acrobatic stunts on a lyra which is an aerial hoop. Their skill was as good as any contemporary circus team, they just wore a lot less in the way of costume and posed in openly erotic positions.
Some of the jugglers who have performed there are Marcus Monroe, Michael Karas, and on the night I went, Sean Blue. Sean Blue did two sets, the first combining toss juggling and balance with his favorite prop, rings, and the second set in a comedic act with white Russian balls.
In his first routine, he started with rings, manipulating seven, removing one at a time until he’s left with one, then finishes by bringing back all seven for an extended run of seven in a cascade with twenty throws. He begins by spreading all seven into interesting shapes, fans and other shapes; he balances one and cascades five. Next an interlocking balance with three; and with one ring around his neck and one as a balance he lifts the one around the neck and pulls it under the balanced ring, much the way one would pull a tablecloth out from under a fully set dinner table.
He balanced three on his head, two fell to the side which he caught, and maintained the balance of the center ring. He balanced a ring and reached through to grasp, with his right hand, a second ring, then reached through the second ring with his left hand to grasped a third ring, maintaining the balance all the while. He continued with innovative and cunning tricks and finished with an extended run of seven rings in a cascade. And no drops the whole time. The audience was highly enthusiastic and it showed. And they weren’t even half drunk yet.
His second set focused more on comedy and had him running around the stage chasing the Russian-balls around in circles and into the audience. A kick up into five. He threw or kicked them into the audience including to the balcony, and had the crowd toss them back to him one by one which he caught on his neck or in his knickerbockers. A comedic parody where he juggles and – I don’t know how to say it so I’ll just say it – removes his clothes. Some of his clothes. Enough to get the point. Next, head rolls to temple throws with head catches. He finished with an extended run of seven balls in a cascade. And many comic deliberate drops the whole time. Except for the perfect run with seven. The audience went wild. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house.
Sean appeared with Cirque du Soleil in Paramour 2016, the Finnish circus company Racehorse’s show White Nights in Helsinki in 2014,in 2010 with Jay Gilligan’s Show Box tour, and many others. He appeared in the welcome show for the IJA in 2009 in Winston-Salem and in 2007 he competed in the Individual Championships and received the “Award of Innovation.”
And New York is New York. There are casting calls for special skill extras and principle stunt players for theater, TV and movies. Countless school events, holiday shows and bar mitzvas. Art, Medieval and Renaissance festivals, and many other well paying gigs. Recently the Gizmo Guys played Central Park SummerStage, Michael Mocshen played the Battery Park Arts Festival, Water On Mars played the New Victory Theater, Alex Koblikof appeared in Big Apple Circus, Andy Sapora played the Metropolitan Opera House. The list goes on and on!