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Circus Mon Oct 12 2015

UniverSoul Circus Puts Heart and Soul in to Circus at Washington Park

UniverSoul CircusThe Big Top is red and yellow, two colors that pop up often in the pan-African flag spectrum. Nearly everything about the UniverSoul show celebrates urban and global culture, from the frequent strains of hip-hop tunes between numbers, to the colorful African-themed costumes and acts. For the past 21 years, UniverSoul Circus has been entertaining audiences in the US (and once in South Africa by Nelson Mandela's request) with lively performances from around the world. But UniverSoul is an American-based circus, founded in 1994 by Cedric Walker in Atlanta.

The dapper, tuxedo-clad ringmaster Lucky Malatsi himself is from South Africa. He comes from a circus family and has been performing with UniverSoul since he was 11 years old. Sporting a bejeweled microphone, he pumps up the crowd with his easy patter and invitations to dance. His sidekick Zeke is older and shorter and mimes most of what Lucky is saying, mirroring Lucky's actions to the two-thirds of the crowd that mainly sees Lucky's back. It is strange that most of their action is oriented towards one side of the Big Top as if they were on a stage, because the view is really 360 degrees. But fortunately, the circus performers themselves did not display the same constraints and provided a more rotary experience.

After the crowd was warmed up by a colorfully clad, whistle-blowing clown, the first act of the show began with a rousing dance, limbo and stilts number called "Color Me Caribbean." The music was Calypso and the costumes were colorful pieces that created a carnival atmosphere, complete with giant dancing puppet men, but the real impressive feature was the four stilt walkers who were not simply doing tricks but actually dancing and leaping, joyously moving in ways that are rarely seen on stilts.

The Liberty Zebras came next, in an act called "Black & White," with a buxom lady in go-go boots wielding the whip deftly, dancing it lightly in the air to give direction but never landing it on so much as one black or white hair. Seeing Liberty Zebras (instead of horses) trotting in rhythm to their mistresses' commands was not just eye catching, but interesting-especially since zebras are notoriously difficult to work with. This was followed by "Trinity," a group of three young contortionists from Ethiopia who gracefully pushed the envelope of what seemed possible, combining their elegant twists with interesting acrobatic configurations in a seemingly effortless way.

The three elephants were next and performed a classic act, with kneeling, standing on pedestals and rearing up on each other's backs. Although there was nothing especially original about the act, their sheer size and presence was impressive enough to calm and focus everyone in the tent. Being in the same tent with elephants is a rarified experience nowadays. With Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey vowing to phase them out by 2018, it remains to be seen whether other companies will follow suit or take advantage of the niche of circus animal demands that may arise as a result. At UniverSoul, the presence of the animals sometimes seemed more like a money-raising scheme than a cherished tradition, as elephant and camel rides were offered during intermission.

This was followed by the Navas Brothers on the Navas Wheel, otherwise known as the Wheel of Death. The huge rotating structure became their playground as they spun on it, creating gravity-free moments of floating, which brought sounds of glee from the spectators. Eventually they displayed their virtuosity by walking on the outside, jumping rope and even completing a dramatic somersault.

After intermission, the action moved even higher up in the Big Top to the Wuhan Flying Trapeze artists, a group of young people from China who took flying trapeze and tricked it out with tiers, cradle and straps, allowing for three or four part flips from hand to hand that are precise and graceful to see. This act was followed by an energetic act called "The African Dream," complete with dancers from West Africa in tribal-inspired costumes, and six Chinese Pole acrobats from Ethiopia doing a perfectly choreographed number on the pole, flipping over and under one another in ever-increasing spiraling configurations. The act ended with a three high on the ground from the West African performers.

Following that lively number was a magic act where Lucky claimed royal lineage and a search for his queen ensued. A series of lovely dancers from the show approached him onstage to vie for his affection, only to be turned in to caged tigers. The act was a heavy-handed attempt to show us magic tricks, and frankly the plot didn't work so well, since it was out of sync with the times in its approach to women and animals.

Fortunately, it was time for the "Globe of Death" next, a steel contraption that eventually housed four motorcyclists zooming around each other in concentric circles and doing insane stunts such as taking their hands off of the handlebars, or criss-crossing each other's paths. My favorite moment in this act was when the motorcyclists exited the globe and each visited an area of the ring, removing their helmets and pumping their fists in the air victoriously as the crowd cheered. The man on my side of the ring was probably in his 40s, and a little portly, but he clearly felt like a rock star and we were in sufficient awe of his capabilities.

In the end, the final act was a surprising one. It was not a joyous recap of all that was wonderful about the show, but rather an introspective statement about humanity, a modern dance piece titled "Your Life Matters." Ringmaster Lucky asked the children in the audience to stand up and repeat the Ringmaster's pledge. He then went through a series of statements about how no matter how tough life is, or how people treat you, you are important and your life matters. This was clearly in response to the recent campaign Black Lives Matter, which was in itself a political response to the recent and ongoing cases of police violence against black young men in particular. It was also a commentary on the urgent situation in urban centers like Chicago involving gang murders. The modern dancers from previous numbers entered the ring, dressed in white gowns; one carried the American flag, two others carried banners, one of which read Peace and the other Love. While they danced, young men lay on the ground as if shot dead. A woman in red emerged and grieved their loss, beckoning us to mourn them too. By love, peace and equality they are resurrected as the strains of words by Martin Luther King Jr. could be heard over the moving music. It was a powerful and much needed statement and their performance impressed me deeply.

UniversSoul is the most interactive circus I've seen. Volunteers were drawn from the crowd to participate in an adult dance off, a group Soul Train Line and even a rousing kids' dance contest. In between acts, cherished songs like 'SpongeBob SquarePants' roused the tent full of schoolchildren to sing, and Fresh the Clownsss, a group of young track suit sporting clowns with colorful wigs enlivened things in the aisles by starting dances and singalongs. All of that enthusiasm transferred smoothly to the performances, resulting in a high level of appreciation from all and making the experience a wonderful communal event. It was also full of surprises, impressive acts and a mix of urban and global culture that make it a valuable component of our circus heritage.

It would be a very exciting family outing and you'll have the chance to see them in Chicago until Oct. 18 at Washington Park, 51st Street and Cottage Grove. Tickets range from $18.50 to $33.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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