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Flash Review 3, 12-4: The Wonderful Wizards of Oz
Read this Review Upside-Down

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Imagine you went to a party where the other guests just happened to be acute circus performers -- acute because even at a party they couldn't help busting out, so thoroughly do they have the circus disease. That's what it felt like Saturday experiencing Circus Oz, and hanging out (so to speak) with the droll, punchy, saucy, and sexy men and women who comprise this Australian troupe, in the house at the New Victory through January 14. I can't bring myself to use an adjective like super-human to describe them because, even tho they performed the requisite circus "tricks" they didn't exude any of the aloof "I can do this and you can't" persona that circus performers often project. As phenomenal as some of their feats are, the performers are utterly human in the brio with which they deliver them.

Encapsulating this ability to appear human while performing super-human feats is Tim Coldwell, the company's founding and senior circus artist with 22 years service. If the circus is part illusion, Coldwell fulfills this neatly in the way he bookends the evening: Before the curtain even rises (theoretically speaking), dressed in a garish checked yellow sports jacket and smoothing down the greasy tufts at the sides of his scalp in a vain effort to cover his pate, Coldwell greets us as we enter the theater. By the end of the evening, in the program's single most stunning virtuoso act, he has progressed from the aisles below the stage to the ceiling above it, where, quite nonchalantly, he walks upside-down as if he is rightside-up, coming down, so to speak, in his post-show dressing room as he hums along with Sinatra's crooning of "My Way."

Of course, with Sinatra on the soundtrack there's only one thing for it to stave off the post-show melancholy, and Coldwell pours himself an amber drink, spilling just a little in the process, but managing to drink a lot. (Remember, when I say pour and drink, that all this he is doing upside down. And that Coldwell's nonplussed demeanor is as if he were rightside up. I almost feel I would have to write these letters upside down to really convey what this looked like!) Then he suddenly plops his head up into three small cold cream filled jars on "top" of his make-up table, pops a red thing on his nose, jams his feet in a box above him, withdrawing them to reveal red shoe extensions, and look Ma, he's a clown, just in time to sing-along with Frank, loudly and atonally "What is a clown, what has he got, two big shoes, that cost a lot."

It's all funny, indeed, but terrifying too: I kept thinking, How can he keep the blood from going to his head for so long? In fact, I don't think I've ever seen someone hang upside-down for such a long time. This was not a short piece.

Also flying high above the stage, earlier in the evening, and quite drolly, was bassist John O'Hagan. This segment started in a dignified enough manner, with the three musicians -- O'Hagan, musical director Chris Lewis and a Tasmanian Devil of a violinist, Suzanne Simpson -- entering in tux and proceeding to play in the restrained fashion of a classical concert trio. (This in the wake of a techno dance re-mix of "Treaty" by the Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi, which opened the show, and a Kiss-Spinal Tap segment complete with what Joe-Bob Briggs might have dubbed, "Superfluous Sammy Hagar.") The only sign of shenanigans to come is the presence of Coldwell, who races among the three to turn the pages of their sheet music, especially when he realizes that when he doesn't turn them fast enough, the musicians get stuck on the same notes. Then suddenly, before he or we know what's happening, O'Hagan is hoisted into the air, with bass in tow -- until, that is, the bass becomes detached and starts to attack, pursuing O'Hagan around the stratosphere in a hilarious air ballet. "Wait'll I get you home!!" the musician scolds his instrument, shaking his fist a la "To the moon, Alice, to the moon!"

The musicians also figure in a bit that, well, is not going to seem that funny the way I describe it but was in the way it was delivered - subtle and yet, delivered with such wit that even the kids in the audience, in fact especially the kids, didn't miss the humor for all its sophistication. The three enter with bell-like fezzes on their heads, which they hit with drumsticks to produce ringing sounds -- until, that is, they are joined by Toni Smith, smaller in size and handicapped in bell, too: hers only produces a wooden "clap." Yet they proceed, for what seems like ten minutes at least, with the sole object of hitting their bells while maneuvering in very slow, simple choreography.

The closest moment of out and out dance - at least in terms of, er, grace -- that we saw was in the rope-dangling and spinning and unspinning of the singularly named Mozes, particularly ethereally lovely when his rope spun out of knots, and he rippled out below it, always stopping before he reached the ground. (Not that Mozes couldn't play the clown, too; he'd introduced himself to me at the program's beginning -- when the entire cast rushed frantically from the rear of the auditorium to the stage as if searching for something in the auditorium -- by rolling through the aisle on roller skates and ending up on my lap patting my head.)

But perhaps the most grace was exuded by Anni Davey who, in physical demands and vocal (she sung a country-music style "When Good Circus Partnerships Go Bad" circus paean including the lyrics "You broke my heart when you broke my legs," while Coldwell scaled an increasingly taller tower of chairs, stopping only to play a trumpet to accompany her), was invariably given awkward shticks. These are the hardest stunts to execute with grace, I think -- at which to maintain one's dignity while performing essentially self-deprecating and even self-humiliating stunts -- and yet Davey managed to more than muddle through. She gave the evening a graceful through-line, finding the beauty in essentially unbeautiful acts.

This is not to take away from the rambunctious hard-bodies in the company, but Davey, like Coldwell, captured that feeling I suggested initially. Were you to encounter these two at a party, you'd think they were normal schmucks like you -- perhaps even less coordinated. (Well, since you reading this are probably a dancer, what I really mean is a normal schmuck like me!) Until, that is, Davey started climbing up your wall sideways, and Coldwell drooped drolly from your ceiling. The way this resonates is that any of us in the audience can fantasize that if they can do this, so could we -- and thus the circus becomes not just a show, but a fantastic journey in which, Oz-like, we are empowered to dream.

In addition to those already mentioned, our tour guides for Voyage Oz include Sebastian Dickins, Michael Ling, Sara Ritchie, Kate Fryer, Geoff Dunstan, and the droll AND deft (even when they're aflame) hula hoop artist Kareena Oates. Keeping them all bridled, to the extent that is possible which is barely, is artistic and show director Mike Finch. Keeping the theater from going up in flames is production manager Kevin Fregon. And augmenting the ethereal qualities and grand illusions is lighting designer Gina Gascoigne, who particularly outdid herself in "Fountains," where the fountains of various mutations are sculpted and simulated by the performers, who even spout water gracefully.

For more information on Circus Oz's engagement at the New Victory Theater, please visit the New Victory's web site.

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