(NOTE: A complete list of upcoming circus-related events can be found at the bottom of the post.)
For LadyBEAST, the goal is pretty simple.
“I want to hit the big top with circus” in New Orleans, she says. LadyBEAST, an escape artist, aerialist and fire performer, is with fellow performer and producer Liza Rose, talking over coffee at the Who Dat Café in Faubourg Marigny. “And I don’t mean Barnum and Bailey circus or Cirque du Soleil.” She pauses and then says with a little laugh, “I want to be a big weirdo for the rest of my life and create a platform that will sustain us.”
For the circus artists, trying to create a sustained scene can be a fun but daunting challenge. At first blush, New Orleans would seem like a logical mecca for variety performers, drawn to the port city’s bohemian and creative spirit. There have been moments in the past where the circus arts has drawn attention, especially in the late 1990s, but it’s never made a consistent mark.
The beginning of 2016 offers some tantalizing glimmers of hope, building on the success experienced in 2015. LadyBEAST has confirmed a regular monthly circus show at One Eyed Jacks that will feature many of the performers with whom she’s collaborated over her six years in New Orleans. And there’s no better way to kick that off than with the return of Cirque Copine, her collaboration with Liza Rose, and “In Wonderland” on Jan. 29 — which will hold down one of those monthly dates four times out of the year to give the all-female troupe a quarterly presence inside One Eyed Jacks.
And then, in the spirit of Mardi Gras, LadyBEAST returns with her other, Carnival-themed circus and sideshow project that has been re-branded as “Vaude D’Gras,” to run Feb. 5-8 (ending on Lundi Gras) at the old Happyland Theater in Bywater. (The first two productions were called “Cirque du Gras.”) Other events include two fun affairs on Thursday (Jan. 21) — “Cirque di Pasta,” a gathering at Arabella Casa di Pasta on St. Claude Avenue featuring most of the “Vaude D’Gras” cast; and “Circus Darling,” the debut show produced by Darling Darla James at the Hi-Ho Lounge and described as a “sexy circus cabaret bizarre.”
Add to that Liza Rose’s monthly “Fly Movement Salon” inside Café Istanbul, several training spots around town like La Motion — and the desire for a permanent performance venue — and the seeds are there to bring the big top closer to the foreground of New Orleans’ variety scene. It’s a scene that’s created increasingly attended audiences for everything from burlesque and drag to cabaret and comedy.
“We are a movement of people who want to make regular work that utilizes our skills as circus artists, but one that is an all-encompassing theater experience,” says LadyBEAST.
Liza Rose has no delusions of grandeur about the potential of growing such a scene. She says she’s at a point where doing it for the fun is just as important as doing it for a paycheck.
“I want to enjoy the process,” says Rose. “If you don’t enjoy the process you have to quit. Ed Sullivan is not calling. It’s not a thing. You have to actually enjoy the work that you do.
“We want to get to the point where work is fun.”
Based on the description of these upcoming shows, it would be difficult to imagine any of this being anything but fun. With Cirque Copine’s “In Wonderland” — which premiered in 2015 — the pair hopes to create a turn-of-the-century atmosphere, with versatile entertainer GoGo McGregor serving as a kind-of hostess and Penelope Little performs as a clown. LadyBEAST and Liza Rose each will perform, as will Sarah Stardust. The whole production will be performed to a live soundtrack created by the local band Opus Zeo.
(Read more: The best in New Orleans circus, sideshow, and burlesque in 2015)
The co-producers try to keep details to a minimum, hoping for a surprise factor, but do say there will be local artists out front selling trinkets.
To underscore what they describe as the old Belle Epoque era from Paris, the pair are encouraging guests for the Jan. 29 show to come dressed for the period, hoping for an absinthe fairy here, and a Mucha girl there.
These monthly and quarterly shows in the heart of the French Quarter, especially inside One Eyed Jacks — home of the monthly Fleur de Tease burlesque show — represent a kind of planting of the flag for circus artists. Being able to work in a space where much of the technical aspects — hell, even having someone handle selling the booze — takes a huge load off the shoulders of organizers too often burdened by the “Y” part of a “DIY” existence.
“Every other space,” LadyBEAST says, “I’ve had to direct it from nada.”
The two separate shows will be followed by a late-night dance party with a DJ.
LadyBEAST’s regular monthly show,“LadyBEAST’s Cabaret,” will have a more mid-20th century feel, with a steady rotation of local and some touring circus artists. Live music will be provided by the G-String Orchestra and other musicians, and vendors again will be selling their wares at the front.
“We’ll be inspired by the old ‘big top,’” she said. “For me this is about being able to have more opportunity to be a producer and the best boss I can be to those people.”
The four-night “Vaude D’Gras” show will have more of a mix of circus and sideshow performances inside the old Happy Land Theater. So while LadyBEAST, GoGo McGregor and Sarah Stardust will be on hand, so will Guglielmo, the opera-singing clown; his wife, the knife-throwing Madame Daggers; Clay Mazing, the whip-cracking clown; and music by the Vaude D’Gras Band with “maestro” Sarah Jacques (of both G-String Orchestra and Opus Zeo.
In keeping with the previous productions, there will be a distinct narrative feel for the show, this time featuring a meta-fictional “show within a show” scenario in which inner turmoil among the cast members will lead to shenanigans.
“Now I really feel that this is our part in Mardi Gras, our way to give to Mardi Gras, which is important if you a performer or artist in this town,” said LadyBEAST, who estimated last year’s attendance was as high as 700 over the four performances. “As for this year, it’s my longest-standing production, and it’s the thing I started in my head five years ago, and I want to keep having it evolve and having it become a bigger production.
“I see growth. I see evolution.”
INFLUX OF TALENT
That’s due in part to recruiting such game performers as Guglielmo, who moved to New Orleans in early 2012 after several visits from New York City, where he’d gained experience singing opera and emceeing circus and sideshow productions. When LadyBEAST offered him a slot in the inaugural “Cirque du Gras” in 2014, he jumped at the chance. (He and his wife, Madame Daggers, perform together and separately.)
“Anytime I’m asked to doing something ‘out of the box’ that I like, without question will give it a shot,” he said.“Risks are what I live for, and its been quite a ride! What I love about what we do is take a bunch of circus, vaudeville and sideshow and turn it into more of a theatrical experience.”
The growth of New Orleans’ circus scene overall has included a modest migration of talent in recent years, with performers sometimes put off by the larger scenes in which they’ve worked and intrigued by New Orleans’ free, creative and communal spirit. These aren’t just wandering souls, either; they come well trained. Sarah Stardust, who moved to New Orleans from New York City in January 2015, spent several years studying ballet and modern dance in Texas before switching to aerial performance and studying that and acrobatic dance at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt., beginning in 2007.
She spent about two years in New York performing and teaching before deciding to move to New Orleans, partly because she’d tired of the “sexy cabaret style” and “joke acts” that were prevalent in New York but also because she enjoyed visiting her brother in New Orleans and decided to move “on a whim.” She currently teaches at Ashtanga Yoga Room and aerials at LA Motion along with Liza Rose.
Stardust, who performs with Cirque Copine and in “Vaude D’Gras,” loves the collaborative spirit in New Orleans, whether with Liza Rose and LadyBEAST or musicians such as those in Opus Zeo — with whom they collaborated in last year’s first “In Wonderland” performance.
“We sat down together and developed a storyline based on Liza’s concept,” Sarah Stardust recalled. “We found our characters and mostly our own choreography, but had each other for feedback, which is important! The best part for me though is that Opus Zeo met with each of us to talk about what we envisioned for music and what they made was such magic.
“It just made everything come to life!”
While she embraces that collaborative spirit, Stardust says, she wishes the New Orleans scene had more cohesiveness, at least in the aerial community, and perhaps more dedication. Part of that challenge is the lack of a common venue to serve as the kind of hub that scenes in New York or San Francisco enjoy.
“I would love for there to be more opportunities for everyone to work hard and train together,” she said. “I think that’s one thing that’s really holding us all back from being better!”
Clay Mazing, a whip-cracking clown most notable for his appearances in “Cirque du Gras,” has traveled around the country and (more recently) overseas with his Emergency Circus, performing for Syrian refugees. He moved to New Orleans seven years ago, and also notes a growing and increasingly vibrant scene here after watching the burlesque scene become so big. But he still feels New Orleans is in catch-up mode to scenes in the San Francisco Bay area and Portland, partly due to those cities because of the training and competition going on.
But he also notes the downside of developing a scene in the wrong direction.
“I see the potential, and hope to be able to shape the scene in a positive way,” said Clay Mazing, who will host a benefit, “Emergency Circus Strikes Back,” on Feb. 13 at Castillo Blanco Art Studios.
“I can see a surge of circus coming and I hope our scene can remain cooperative and add to the magical charm and culture of this excellent city,” he said. “I don’t want to see some homogenous scene pop up equal to the Bay Area or Portland here. I’d hope that our circus culture will remain unique, accepting and adding to the vibrancy and even the grit that makes New Orleans so exceptional and alive.”
Chatty the Mime, a popular clown who blurs the lines between circus and burlesque performances, sees a growing scene for the circus arts.
“When I started five years ago, there was only one show that was a full variety circus show,” she said.“The scene back then was mostly burlesque shows with one variety performer. Now there are probably around 8 different circus shows happening at a given time. 2015 was my busiest year performing.
“So I do have high hopes for 2016.”
She participated in holiday play recently, “A Christmas Carol” at the Bayou Playhouse, and was heartened when the director wanted circus performers to add a new dimenstion the show.
“It was great to see an audience who may not have ever experience something like that have so much fun,” she said.
VALUE AND COMMITMENT
Liza Rose, who along with balancing herself with her aerial work, also balances a professional mix of teaching aerial work to others at La Motion and to students in the Circus Arts program at the International School of Louisiana. This is life for a professional who’s worked on both the East and West coasts before settling down in New Orleans, where she’s performed with such varied settings as the New Orleans Fringe Festival and “Freaksheaux to Geaux.” She’s seen other scenes compromised by producers hiring lesser-trained performers at cheaper rates, and doesn’t want to see that happen in New Orleans.
She wants to see value and commitment placed in the New Orleans circus scene.
“Everybody keeps saying to me, ‘Liza, let me know when there’s something going on that I can be a part of,’” she said. “I need people who will come and help me make the scene.”
She has a strong collaborator in LadyBEAST, whose creativity and energy complements Liza Rose’s talents as a skilled performer and choreographer. As long as they keep moving forward, together, they’ll be satisfied.
“The main idea,” LadyBEAST said, “is evolution. I come from visual-artist background, so without change, you’re stagnant.”
“Cirque di Pasta”
Thursday, Jan. 21
Arabella Casa di Pasta
Performers: Guglielmo, LadyBEAST, Clay Mazing, Sarah Stardust, Madame Daggers and GoGo McGregor
Thursday, Jan. 21
Performers: Bella Blue, Charlotte Treuse, Liza Rose, Darling Darla James, Madonnathan
Cirque Copine, “In Wonderland”
One Eyed Jacks
Performers: Sarah Stardust, LadyBEAST, Penelope Little, Liza Rose, Gogo McGregor, Opus Zeo
Krewe du Lune’s 8th annual Space Ball: “Cirque de So Lune”
Performers: “Vaude D’Gras” performers performances including Clay Mazing, Special Head and LadyBEAST
Performers: Clay Mazing, GoGo McGregor, Guglielmo, LadyBEAST, Madame Daggers, Sarah Stardust, the Vaude D’Gras Band with Maestro Sarah Jacques
“Emergency Circus Strikes Back”
Castillo Blanco Art Studios
Performers: Clay Mazing, LadyBEAST, Guglielmo, Chatty the Mime, Xena Zeit-Geist, Penelope Little, Matthew Silver, Special Head, more