Empire Strikes NYC! or, My Adventures in SpiegelWorld

Spiegel World at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas

On a cold, dark night in December 2004 I attended a Ps122 cocktail party to introduce the staff to the new Artistic Director.  I shook hands with a manic, wild-eyed Australian named Vallejo Gantner and I don’t remember all that happened next but I woke up three years later with a hangover and memories of a (mostly) damned good time.

Now, Vallejo has this friend Ross Mollison and, well, while Vallejo is doing the fancy-pants art stuff, Ross is producing Slava’s Snow Show, Puppetry of the Penis, all kinds of strange, wonderful and occasionally freakish shows with commercial potential.

In the summer of 2005 I somehow ended up at the Edinburgh Festival sharing a flat with these two globe-trotting, jet-setting characters who seemed to have been everywhere, know everybody and have an astonishing ability to drink continuously from 7:30PM until 4AM, get up at 9AM, see shows all day and do it again. You know you’re out of your league when one of the people you’re traveling with has a dop kit with power converters for every possible outlet on every continent on the planet and the other guy manages to live out of his carry-on bag for a whole week because the airlines lost his luggage. And it seems like he’s done it before.

So me, just being some innocent middle class suburban kid from Baltimore and all, I was caught up in the swirl and mania of this,  just tagging along and trying to keep up, when I am inducted into the spectacularly surreal world of Spiegeltent!

I’ve been working on an essay about my life in the arts so far (that I will probably never finish) but back a million years ago on my first trip to Europe I had the good fortune of randomly running across Holland’s Doegtroep in a piazza in Italy and seeing Barcelona’s Els Comediants perform Dimonis at Edinburgh Castle, experiences that really shaped by aesthetic. I love epic avant garde circus crazy stuff. And Spiegeltent was kind of the louche, disreputable cousin to all of that. It was like stepping back in time into this other world of circus freaks and unimaginable feats of gymnastic prowess, lowbrow vaudeville meets transcendent artistry; it is a show, a sham, a lie, a trick , it dazzles and delights and reels you in, picks your pocket, teases you with lingering and completely false kisses and leaves you broke and hungover in the gutter at dawn, ashamed and humiliated and begging to do it again.

I’m pretty sure it was the summer of 2005 when Ross & Vallejo concocted the idea of bringing the tent to Manhattan. I really don’t know how it all went down but in the summer of 2006 Spiegeltent came to town and I got to program some “PS122 Mondays” at the tent. Of course since PS122 is traditionally dark in the summer, that meant evenings were largely free and except for a few weeks at Noorderzon Festival in Groningen and the Edinburgh Festival (seeing shows and hanging out at other Spiegeltents!) I was down at Pier 17 a lot, drinking, dancing and hanging with the circus folk.

That first year, looking back on it, was a crazy lot of fun for a small group of people but probably not so great for the producers. Like I said, I don’t know the inside baseball, but looking back and having learned a thing or two about producing in the ensuing years, I don’t think it was quite the right fit. The show was based on the Edinburgh show, but of course the tent in Edinburgh serves as a festival hub, not a destination unto itself. Also, Edinburgh (or Groningen or Melbourne) is not America and as snooty as this sounds, when Americans think circus they think Ringling Bros or Cirque De Soleil. When Americans think burlesque it is either a night at Scores or full-figured feminists on the Lower East Side. So I think it was a hard sell. I didn’t help, to be honest, my Monday night programming was pretty mismatched and not in line. Good experience for me on someone else’s dime. (Sorry guys!) I also don’t remember who the host was that year – I think Meow Meow may have done it a few times but there wasn’t really a distinct persona that was the kind of ringmaster you could build an arc of narrative continuity around, it was very much a chaotic assemblage of talent.

For that relatively small group of people though it was totally amazing – very “downtown” and edgy, a little bit tattered and torn but still glamorous and unusual, a unique world in NYC that referenced the city’s past while embracing its present. I actually think this was just before or around the time The Box was opening so I guess there was this little moment of seedy nightlife ridiculousness going on. Oh the stories I can’t tell here. (book deal! book deal! i’m a whore! pay me money for the dirt!)

But anyway – the first Spiegeltent season wound down around September and we segued directly back into PS122’s main programming without a break to catch our breaths. We raced through the season headlong into what I think was our first year of Coil (?) as a full-on crazy APAP multi-show extrav-o-rama and then into the spring and then into the Benefit (also bigger than in previous years) and right back into Spiegeltent!

This would have been summer 2007 (?) and I was feeling pretty frazzled and I knew the PS122 thing was coming to an end so to make some extra cash and prepare for my undetermined future I signed on as house manager! Every day I would go to PS122 and work my regular day, then I would head down to the tent and run the house until about 3AM, cab home, sleep a few hours and do it again, except on weekends when I was usually at the tent ’til about 6AM. That was totally crazy and exhausting. Plus that year there were TWO shows (at least) per night at the tent. Absinthe was the more edgy show, and Les 7 Doigts De La Main had a show called La Vie that was a little fancier. (They’re in Union Square now with Traces). Some nights we did Absinthe/La Vie/Absinthe, sometimes even adding a dance party at the end of the night. Sometimes we had a band too. And every show had a different configuration of seats. Try house managing that!

From a logistics perspective it was a freaking nightmare, but from a production/commercial perspective the shows were much improved. Absinthe 2007 featured The Gazillionaire and his consort Penny as ringmasters and it really pulled the show into focus, giving it a frame and through-line. Plus The Gazillionaire and Penny are hilarious. La Vie was more of a concept show with beautiful, complicated, elaborately choreographed performances. Most nights audiences were attentive and appreciative but other nights it was as if they wanted boobies and dick jokes but instead got a lusty acrobatic duet set to a dark and obscure tune called “In Line” by Robert Skoro. Which, btw, is awesome:

[audio:http://www.culturebot.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/04-In-Line.mp3|titles=04 In Line]

Once again, I have no idea how things went from a box office perspective, but it seemed like Spiegeltent 2007 did a lot better than the year before and they came back in 2008, after a season in Miami. But I was out of the circus game. Towards the end of the 2007 season I left the Spiegelworld and, shortly thereafter, PS122. I rested and recovered for about 3 months before taking a calm, quiet, 10-6 job at a foundation.

And that would have been the end of my Spiegel-y adventures but for an unexpected trip to Las Vegas.

About three years ago my best friend from high school got diagnosed with brain cancer. Miraculously he survived and in May of last year we decided to celebrate a year of him being cancer-free by taking a trip with our other good friend to Vegas. Within twenty minutes of arriving we all realized we had made a horrible mistake. None of us had been before and it seemed like one of those things you do with your high school friends when you get older – crazy trip to Vegas! Woo-hoo! Except that none of us are really that kind of “crazy” and we all realized we would rather have been in the country or at the beach or even back in Baltimore –  really pretty much anywhere else than Vegas.

Vegas is like the newly purchased, surreally-massive fake tits on the leather-skinned, runny-mascaraed, desperate, used-up whore that is America. It is a truly vile place and no matter how much they gussy it up with snazzy camera work on CSI, it is still a soulless, depraved monument to gluttony, excess and materialism, a desert sea of glitzed up garbage where the world goes to indulge the worst parts of an American Dream gone horribly, horribly wrong. And it is also just plain ugly.

I had heard the Ross had moved the whole thing to Vegas, so when were planning the trip I thought I’d show my friends a good time. Plus nobody from where I grew up ever understands what exactly I do for a living so I thought I’d show them something at least tangentially related. And thank goodness we went because the only good thing about Vegas is the Spiegeltent and Absinthe. In a town filled with complete and total bullshit delivered with a completely straight face, it was almost a relief to see a show that was self-aware and delivered its titillations and thrills with a knowing wink. The tent is small and so there’s no distance between the audience and the performers – there’s no room for fakery, in a weird way, the performers have to invite you into the joke and keep winning you over again and again. It’s a hard trick to make acrobatics and slapstick feel conspiratorial, but they managed to do it.

Also – after NYC, Miami and wherever else the tent had been, the show landed at Caesar’s Palace in a newly slicked-up incarnation that was stronger than ever. The Gazillionaire and Penny had tightened up their act and the director had found a whole new level of acrobatic talent and novelty acts. The show ran with a new level of precision and professionalism, making it suitable for a big time Vegas show while keeping the “edgy” sensibility. Also, the Vegas location has a huge foyer/beer garden area where you can hang out before the show. I guess that’s the good thing about the desert – lots of space. So you step into this little oases of funky kitsch like a smart vintage brooch set in the gawdy bosom of a nouveau riche Orange County widow. If you find yourself in Vegas (god forbid) then really the only show you need to see is Absinthe. I suggest you spend the rest of your trip alternately poolside and at the shooting range. I’ll give Vegas that much – it is a good place to shoot guns and blow stuff up.

I meant to write this up a year ago, but I was pretty traumatized by Vegas and when I got back to NYC I went right back to work on the River To River Festival. I got super busy and soon so much time had passed it felt pointless to write it up. When I first heard that the Tent was coming to Times Square, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Absinthe in Vegas was really good, but it was definitely “Vegas-y” – how would that play in NYC? Would Spiegeltent get another bite at the Apple? (sorry, I had to do it).

I got the opening night invitation in the mail and saw this it was a whole new show, EMPIRE , and immediately RSVP’ed and braced myself, unsure of how things would unfold. Space is premium here in NYC, particularly in the Times Square area, so instead of having a courtyard you enter directly into the tent – and as soon as I was in there it all came back. There I was again among those booths and cut glass and damned wooden chairs. The crowd was bellying up to the bar, early evening sunlight was filtering through the windows at the top of the tent, making the air glitter with dust and showbiz. We took our seats, crammed in as tight as ever, waiting for the show to begin. The music begins and this guy enters – its not the Gazillionaire! Who is it? I honestly don’t know his stage name but I later found out he’s a performer that I saw onstage with Voki (who created the Gazillionaire character) years before doing the funniest, grossest, toe-licking stunt I’ve ever seen. Anyway – here he was with his sexy songstress wife introducing the cast of EMPIRE – a whole new crew of beautiful, bendy, unpredictable, international circus folk. And the material is fresh! While the show is still structured around the same concept of a down-on-his-luck ringmaster with a crazy wife trying to claw his way back to the top, EMPIRE is definitely NYC-themed, from the songs playing when you enter the tent to the introduction of the first act as the Gorilla Girls – a spoof on the Guerrilla Girls- who enter with gorilla masks and soon reveal themselves to be the sexiest, most flexible young women Eastern Europe (or the Baltics or Ukraine or wherever) has ever produced. The night is filled with Occupy Wall Street jokes and digs at the 1% – maybe a little less confrontational to the  audience than Absinthe, but I imagine that will change as they settle in. EMPIRE zips full speed ahead with not a spare moment of inattention or excess. They’ve cut the intermission (the Ringmaster jokes that he can’t afford one, but knowing the union rules in the Times Square area, I can imagine there might be some truth to that)  which actually works really well. This is easily the best Spiegeltent show ever.

I’m not going to try and run down all the acts, there are too many to mention. (Also I didn’t ask for a press release, though I probably should have). But trust me when I say that there were moments that made me gasp or brought me to my feet to cheer – and I’m a pretty jaded, cynical veteran of circus, burlesque, performance art and Spiegeltents. Without slighting any of the other performers I do want to call out two acts in particular.

There’s this African-American duo of two young men, the younger one being all of 12 years old, that does the most amazing acrobatic endurance and accuracy trick you’ve ever seen. The older one flips the younger one, on his feet, over 50 times in a row. I lost count. It was mind-boggling.

The other act is this guy – a little older, a little hippie-looking. He does an act early in the show with a gyroscope thing that is cool but kind of mild. Then later in the show there’s a transition where a number of the cast members bring these long sticks on stage (my friend later told me they were alm branches) and arrange them in a pile on stage. The hippie guy comes out – I don’t remember if there was music – I think there is some kind of 4AD/Dead Can Dance type tune in the background – and slowly, deliberately and with fierce concentration, assembles the palm branches into an elegant, enormous and improbable mobile (a la Alexander Calder) that he holds and eventually balances on his head. Oh and the whole process actually starts with a feather balanced on the end of a branch. So by the end he has this enormous moving, fragile construction perched precariously atop his head where the movement of a single feather threatens to topple the whole thing. I’m not going to tell you what happens. But I have NEVER seen an audience in that kind of environment, with so many possible distractions, pay such rapt attention to a performer. The whole tent was focused on this guy, holding their breath as he keeps defying all gravity and physics like a freaking magician. Unbelievable.

Anyway, with EMPIRE the ImpRossArio has figured out how to do Spiegeltent in NYC right and in the perfect part of town. (I don’t know if Sherry Dobbin was involved but I think this bodes well for the arts in Times Square under her direction). If you went to Spiegeltent at Pier 17, it bears revisiting. If you never went before, now is the time to go. If you have friends and family coming to town this summer and you want to show them something really different, this is your ticket. EMPIRE brings together  bawdy edge and slapdash circus spirit with professionalism and polish to deliver a fantastic night in the magical Spiegeltent.


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