Serious Business of Show:
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus
Ilise Goes to
Written by Ilise S. Carter
Not everyone is cut out to run
away with the circus. An acute fear of clowns and
a general lack of coordination dashes the sideshow
ambitions of some early on, while others stop when
they find out what the pay scale is like. Not the
members of New York’s Bindlestiff Family Cirkus,
though - simply nothing, but nothing, will deter
them in their quest to bring the “circus arts”
to new levels of skill and ever-expanding audiences.
Appearing at the Theater for the
New City, their Cabaret Thursdays celebrate their
ten years as a troupe with performances by every
imaginable variety act from jugglers who can mambo
to clowns who juggle papier mache rats. And while
the end result for the audience is nothing but fun,
the Cirkus’ founders Ringmistress Philomena
and Mr. Pennygraff (born Stephanie Monseau and Keith
Nelson, respectively) take their mission quite seriously.
At the forefront of the vaudeville revival, the
Bindlestiffs view their shows as both a venue for
offbeat performers and an opportunity to advocate
for their favorite causes.
Taking a moment after the show
to sit down and talk about how the Bindlestiffs
have evolved over the last ten years and why the
circus arts are such a rich source of material for
performers, Miss Philomena shares her excitement
for their work:
“It’s a medium where
you can explore a lot of ideas, relationships, and
taboos,” explains Philomena.
She also adds that the nature
of the circus medium is ideal, because of the “challenge
for physical performers.” On that evening
alone, featured performers included Rob Lok and
the Fabulous Miss Una. Mr. Lok’s act mostly
consists of walking out on stage and trying to sit
down – a simple task made more complicated
by the sheer enormity of the stilts he’s working
with, producing the result of broad-faced physical
comedy. By contrast, the Fabulous Miss Una, an aerialist,
gracefully ascends a rope above the audience and
performs ballet-like acrobatics.
Miss Philomena adds that as the
circus arts become more popular, the artists have
become more technically proficient, and what started
out as a “gritty, late night thing”
has evolved into a much more complicated venture.
Moving on from the more sexually charged material
of their earlier days, their current repertoire
has grown to include a regular show on circus history,
“From the Gutter to the Glitter,” the
cabaret Thursdays, and even the family friendly
“Cavalcade of Youth.”
“You don’t run out
of things to explore,” she says.
When asked what the future holds
for the Bindlestiffs, she doesn’t pause. Among
other things, she’d love to them find a permanent
home for their performances. In addition, she sees
a lot of potential for using the circus arts to
reach out to the inner city and at-risk kids. Given
the wilder, “adults only” nature of
some of their past performances, she muses for a
moment on the irony that youth is the “new
frontier” for them - but only for a moment,
as she waives away any hesitation with a charming
smile and a showman’s ease.
The show, after all, must go on.
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