Out of the Concrete Jungle [by James Wenley]
Conventional thought has it that January is a no-go zone for theatrical endeavours in Auckland. Aucklanders prefer the sun, surf, and music festivals. Rolling up bravely into this cultural desert are the unconventional New York performers of Empire. They’ve put together their Spiegeltent at Wynyard Quarter in the hopes of enticing us into the “world’s most outrageous Spiegeltent show” they say.
I’d say these folks are doubly brave because Aucklanders have been rather spoilt by the adult-circus-in-the-spiegeltent genre over successive Arts Festivals (and yet another, Limbo, is on its way in March). Empire is described as a “theatrobatic show” which combines cabaret, acrobatics, burlesque, vaudeville and comedy. The expectation is not only for dazzling feats viewed up-close, but also cheeky humour, outstanding music, and some sort of narrative, thematic, or atmospheric coherence.
Let’s check them off shall we? From the opening set-piece of provided by contortionist Miss A in a Bubble (Lucia Carbines), who performs in a see-through sphere above our heads, Empire knows exactly how to wow us. Humour? Brash New York ringmaster couple Oscar (Jonathan Taylor) and Fanny (Anne Goldman) might have found us a little reticent at first in their attempts to break the ice, and with all their talk of male and female genitalia (to the extent of threatening an audience member with balls to the face), we perhaps found them a little too full-on crude to begin with. Oscar says his favourite part of the evening is following their “quick change” act when the audience begin to realise what kind of show this is, so fair warning. After some initial shock, we do get used to their idiosyncrasy as this pair cycle through gross-out humour (a banana party trick) and sexual fluidity. “Don’t be shy we like to swing”, they gleefully inform us.
The music is provided courtesy of Miss Purple on vocals and Moondog on guitar, with a soundtrack that includes lots of Katy Perry with a bit of Empire State of Mind (of course) and Zedd’s Clarity. These two sound excellent, but without doing anything much outrageous or unique, are the blandest offering of the evening in terms of showmanship.
It’s at first difficult to discern any larger coherence to the show. Both the Auckland ushers, and the performers milling about in the spiegeltent preshow, are dressed in an assortment of whacky costumes. I’m greeted at the door by a man selling carrot graters for $5, there’s a man dressed sort of like a turquoise sea-captain, and three women with bob hairdos and clutching Victoria Secrets’ bags strut around like they own the space. The most interesting performer is a man with pigtails sprouting from his head, constantly smiling and preening and taking photos of himself with people’s phones. This one started pointing and waving at me, attracted by my bald head, and I momentarily got to pose with his spare pigtail wig. I’m somewhat baffled how to describe him further, even Oscar introduced him as the “half naked Asian man with f***ed up hair”.
Perhaps these are just some of the colourful characters you could find on New York’s streets, transferred to the circus. We hear a subway opening on Times Square station, there’s the odd pizza box, and there’s a brief appearance of the Guy Fawkes masks embraced by the Occupy movement, seemingly without any justification other than the aesthetic. The strongest New York element in fact seems to be the New York strip club due to the general impulse to get sexy and take their clothes off (though Oscar is the only one to go all the way). This is made explicit when the scantily clad gorilla girls (the aforementioned Victoria Secrets models) are given money by the other performers after stacking themselves pyramid-like in various configurations. What doesn’t help is that the show, “direct from New York”, isn’t authentically of New York, the creative assembled from across the globe.
The safest description is to say these performers belong to a world of their own. So after abandoning the task of finding some deeper logic in director Terence O’Connell’s work beyond the sexual, I sat back and enjoyed the show. While many of the acts might be familiar, the skill and talent of these international performers means it doesn’t much matter. Miss A is an amazing contortionist, provoking gasps as she wrung her body in ways that you would not think it should bend. We had as much fun watching Half-naked Asian Dude (Yasuaki Yoshikawa) as he had spinning himself around the stage in a large hoop and wheel. Blue Tarpoleon (Denis Petaev) and Polka Dot Woman (Marria Beisembetova)’s roller-skate act, which builds up to Beisembetova getting spun in circles, is effectively the same act that appeared in Cirque Du Soleil’s big budget Totem, sans . These two however exceeded Cirque Du Soleil, their passionate chemistry giving their act an edge, and the intimacy of the Spiegeltent a dangerous thrill. Just a small miscalculation and that neck could snap.
The indisputable highlight of the evening was 3D Graffiti Guy (Memet Bilgin Rigolo)’s Sanddorn Branch Balance. With other acts frenetically burning off energy, Rigolo’s slow and methodical rhythm was a complete change of pace. The task is simple to explain – continue to balance a feather on a curved branch as he adds increasingly larger branches to balance under each branch that has been stacked before it – but incredibly complex to pull off. On National Radio he had said that each night he didn’t know if his act would be a success, and due to the time involved it was not something he could start again. It was mesmerising watching the construction of structure, which resembled a breathing rib cage. You could see him working, constantly fine tuning the position of the worryingly wobbly branches. There was drama on the edges as those in the front row became concerned about how close some of the larger branches were getting to them, not wanting to be responsible for bringing it all to collapse. Rigolo triumphantly achieves equilibrium, but this leads to another question; how is he now going to get this all down? When the lights go full, we can appreciate the sheer waterfall of sweat running down his torso.
Rigolo’s is the act that you have never seen before, and the show is worth seeing just for this. While its quasi-New York ethos is in doubt, the acts are stunning, and to its credit, Empire does not play it safe. It’s the perfect excuse too to get down to the Wynyard Quarter and enjoy Auckland’s summer nights.
Empire is presented by Spiegelworld and plays at Wynyard Quarter, North Wharf, until 15 February. Details see EmpireNZ.