The circus is coming to town, and it’s riding in to Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Pops Concert on Saturday on a 22-foot-high bike.
You may need more of an explanation.
The performance troupe Cirque Mechanics specializes in bringing a modern circus experience that’s contained on an engineered contraption called the Gantry Bike. Named after the industrial cranes that transport large containers onto cargo ships, the fully mobile bike can lift entertainers off the stage and extend them above the first row of the audience.
Placed between the orchestra and the front of the stage, the troupes’ contortionists, aerialists and acrobats will be accompanied by the Philharmonic, who will perform selections from their repertoire, including Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Danse Chinoise from the Nutcracker and other compositions.
The challenges are it’s a large piece, we need 24 feet to turn it full circle, and with most orchestras having 100 musicians, there’s not much stage left over, Cirque Mechanics founder Chris Lashua says. We’re literally inches away from $10,000 violins and the front end of the stage, which makes it even more interesting. It brings the wow’ level up, because it looks like there’s just not enough room for it.
Featuring an early 19th-century Steampunk aesthetic, the show’s raw, industrial look is contrasted with the agility and graceful acts of flexibility and acrobatic stunts, along with the comedic relief of clowns. The machine, which is completely pedal-powered, attracts a crowd just as fascinated with fabrication of the bike as those who came to see a classical music performance.
It has a wide range of appeal, and that’s something we didn’t intend on. We just built something that we thought was cool, he says.
A BMX cyclist and former acrobatic performer for the renowned Cirque du Soleil, Lashua says he initially wanted to create performances that expose some of the realities behind the fantasy.
Lashua’s success came with Birdhouse Factory, a collaborative project with the Circus Center of San Francisco in 2004.
When I started with Cirque, it was a smaller company, but when it became more popular, it became more difficult for the artists to be as involved in the creative processes as it was years ago, he says.
I started with building mechanical contraptions that would show off how something is done. In these kinds of fantasy circus shows, you might have a cable flying people around, and we want it to be kind of magical and mysterious. I was looking for a way to show how it’s done; if you have someone flying on a cable then you would also see the person standing in the wings with a pulley and rope in their hands pulling it.
Lashua says this will be the second time Cirque Mechanics will perform in collaboration with an orchestra.
It’s rare that you get it right on all fronts, but in this case, the comedy worked, and the order of the acts worked. We’re tweaking two different acts to enhance how they work, but in general it all came off really well, he says.
The show requires the company and the Philharmonic to communicate for a cohesive performance. Lashua says an important aspect of the show is understanding how much a conductor wants to be involved in the performance. He says Philharmonic Associate Conductor Sameer Patel seems to be open to what the performers have to offer.
It’s a matter of finding a nuance, he says. As a touring company, we have to create works that are flexible enough for a conductor who being funny may not be his thing. We had to create a show that allows for that person to be involved if they want to be or don’t want to be. We have to have that conversation.
You have this huge contraption, but you can see the orchestra and the conductor. We have different sight lines, but we’re not putting a screen in front of them or something that makes it impossible to engage with them.
With most orchestras booking guest artists a year and a half out, the Cirque Mechanics’ orchestra project is a new experience Lashua hopes will have more orchestras running to join the circus.
As conductors and directors are looking for different ways to reach different audiences, they are also slow to react because it’s known for being a conservative audience. It’s rooted in tradition. It takes awhile to break out of that, he says.
For sure, there is a notion of We’re going to do a circus in front of an orchestra, how does that work?’ Now we have the luxury of showing pictures and video, so it’s more Wow! We get it.’