Theatre Artists Take on Challenges of the Circus

"Circus artists are very disciplined, but they don't have the dancer's dance vocabulary, which means the approach to creating choreography for them is different than creating it for the Broadway dancer." So notes choreographer Jonathan Stuart Cerullo, who has choreographed "Carnevale!," the Big Apple Circus' latest show, now playing through Jan. 11, 2004 at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center.

Like several other members of "Carnevale!" 's creative team -- including the composer and set and costume designers -- Cerullo boasts a host of Broadway (and other theatre) credits, and has found the demands of working in a circus more than a little daunting at times.

Consider his observation that "circus performers can do flips in the air, but if you ask them to dance, they feel exposed. They're not comfortable outside the confines of their discipline. I had to work hard to gain their trust. But once I had it, I found they were hungry to do something new. I conducted workshops and used the universal language of music -- playing music that was appropriate for 'Carnevale!' from countries all over the world -- and encouraged the performers to run around and allow the music to take them wherever. On the basis of what they did, I choreographed the show."

That's a far cry from the way he'd choreograph a Broadway show, Cerullo concedes. But then, circuses are not Broadway shows. The latter have storylines and narrative drive, and dance serves to advance the plot or enhance the thematic motifs. In circus, the function of dance is very different.

"In circus -- where the show itself is the concept -- dance is, in some ways, more integral to the show. It's always there in the background," Cerullo points out. "But dance mostly serves as a transition between one act and the next. Dance informs the audience what will be happening next while getting the performers on and off." At the same time, the dance (which is more akin to graceful movement than formal dance) has to be part of a unified whole, continues Cerullo, who helped structure the show as well.

Inspiring Music

The acts inspire the music -- within the parameters of a carnival sound -- and that in turn inspires the dance sequences. Still, the choreographer's imagination is always on tap. For example, in "Ariel Tango," an erotic duet on twisting ropes above the ground, Cerullo suggested that the two performers "create a love story with their movements. They come in tangoing, she's got the red fan that flutters and up they go. I said they should make it lyrical, emphasize the poetic instead of the flourishes."

Composer Michael Valenti (one of three composers on "Carnevale!") describes the particular challenges he faced in forging music for the circus and echoes some of Cerullo's observations. "There are no songs or vocals, so in that way it's less challenging than a theatre piece. But the music generates the action, even though it is seemingly incidental. The music for each number has to be distinct, but it also has to be cohesive. You want to avoid monotony and you don't want the music to sound piecemeal either.

"Writing music for a circus is not unlike composing music for a film," he continues. "I watch the acts on videos and then compose the music. In theatre, the music comes first. Nevertheless, circus music is the engine that drives the act."

Most of "Carnevale!" 's music has a contemporary pop flavor with classical elements, in addition to New Orleans jazz, Venetian waltzes, and Bahaman calypso, among other musical motifs identified with carnivals.

"Since the camels are from the Near East, we went with music that might come out of a Moroccan fair," recalls Valenti. "With the horse act, on the other hand, we allowed the horse trainer's cape and mask to suggest the dark and mysterious music."

What's striking is the number of considerations that have to be taken into account in forging a circus. Take the wide audience demographics, for starters.

Set designer Dan Kuchar explains how these demographics affect his role. "We have toddlers and people well into their 90s in our audiences. And, I was told that my first set design -- a giant mask that would have hung on the back wall -- might scare the kids. So I had to come up with an image that was less threatening, but at the same time it had to suggest a carnival. The result: a giant flower and a giant sun face that winks. It is fun and bright and lights up like a carnival."

And, as noted, it hangs dead center on the back wall above the entrance -- through which the animals and performers enter and exit and just below the band that performs on a small balcony.

"In theatre you fly sets in and out for each number, which means each set can be more specific to each act," remarks Kuchar. "In 'Carnevale!' we have only one set. It has to work for all the acts. We asked ourselves what is common to all carnivals, regardless of region. Our answer was that all carnivals are about rebirth and life. The Mardi Gras festival, which precedes Lent, is ultimately followed by spring. The sun face and flower images suggest spring.

Creating Variety

"One of our major considerations was creating variety with the fiber-optic lights that light up the set from behind," Kuchar continues. "Variety is especially important if you only have one set. And because this is a theatre in the round -- not a proscenium stage -- we had to make sure that wherever one is sitting, the set is appealing and interesting."

Costume designer Mirena Rada also talks about the importance of variety within admittedly confined parameters. "The physicality of the acts defines all the costumes," she points out. "Most of the performers are wearing unitards; that's what they have to wear in order to do their acts. The materials I can use are limited. They are stretch velvet, spandex, and stretch sheer fabrics. My challenge is to make those simple silhouettes interesting with color and added texture, without creating anything that gets in the way of what the performers have to do. For example, I can't have fringes hanging off sleeves for most of the acts.

"And, of course, there are issues in designing costumes for performers who work with animals," she continues. "During the performances, trainers give the animals treats and animals drool. We need to create costumes that have integrity, but can be cleaned easily. We don't use silks or delicate fabrics. And because there is always the possibility that the costume can get damaged -- animals get rambunctious -- we have to use materials that can sustain an inner structure that gives the costume its shape."

A difference between designing costumes for a circus and a theatre piece is the performer's input: it's substantially greater in the circus, Rada points out. "They let you know what they need and don't need. You have to realize circus acts come with their own costumes. We redesign them for the purposes of our show -- in this instance, imagining that each act comes from a particular country that has a carnival tradition -- and then take it from there. The horse act, we decided, would have a Venetian flavor, the aerial act would have a Latin flavor, and so would the costumes, respectively."

She says the unifying aesthetic is the generous employment of primary and secondary colors, with lots of dots and circles to evoke confetti and, by extension, festivity and celebration. That is, in the end, what the entire creative team was after -- that palpable sense of joy, which is, after all, the carnival hallmark.