BEAVER CREEK — Big tops, acrobats and awe-inspiring acts have been touring this country for decades, but modern circus has taken live spectacles to new heights.
While large companies such as Cirque du Soleil have shown audiences multitudes of top-notch circus art, more niche acts — such as those from the acclaimed Cirque Mechanics — have made their own mark on the circus scene.
This Saturday and Sunday, the Cirque Mechanics are returning to the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek to perform their internationally acclaimed show, “Birdhouse Factory.”
Chris Lashua, founder and artistic director, said this unique American circus company stands out by recreating a specific era of history, rather than mystical sets and fantasy scenes.
“People know what ‘new circus’ is,” Lashua said. “The big difference with us is that we do our shows based in a real time and a real place — this creates a really distinct feel that is very different than the more fantastical productions.”
“Birdhouse Factory” is set in a 1930s Depression era widget factory. Ingenuity is shown in both the staging and storytelling, as most everything in the factory — from the machines to the lamps — is used as some sort of circus prop, and every factory worker majestically doubles as an aerial artist.
INSPIRED BY INGENUITY
Lashua was originally discovered by Cirque du Soleil for his BMX bike skills, and he created and performed his own act for the modern circus. Cirque Mechanics evolved out of Lashua’s mechanical background and artistic talents, and he is still a performing member on the show with the “German Wheel” act.
“It all started with the fascination for simple machines and man-powered mechanics,” he said. “Machines that were pre-industrial revolution, so it made sense to showcase them in a world around the 1930s.”
Performance artist Steven Ragatz is one of the original Cirque Mechanics members; he started with “Birdhouse Factory” when the show opened in 2005 in San Francisco. Ragatz and Lashua met while working together at Cirque du Soleil, and since leaving the company, both have been working together on theatrical circus projects.
“Generally speaking, theatrical circus is engaging on several different levels,” Ragatz said. “On a high level, we try to present a multilayered story, with characters, conflict, resolution, theme and development. But on a lower, simpler level, the audience can sit back and simply be awed by the spectacle and skill of the performers.”
Ragatz said he thinks that in some ways, “Birdhouse Factory” is in a genre by itself. He said he characterizes it as a musical, but instead of musical numbers, there are circus acts.
“The circus acts help to carry the narrative forward in an abstract way,” he said.
The show has a very distinct color palette, Lashua said, with the lighting, stage and costume design all inspired from the work of Diego Rivera — well known for his mural depiction of “Detroit Industry.” Colors such as mustard, okra, dark greens and metallics are melded together to bring the industrial elements to life.
“This show is driven by the machines,” Lashua said. “They are the stars for us, and they truly share the spotlight with the artists.”
A CIRCUS STORY
Performance artist Wes Hatfield has been with Cirque Mechanics for more than 6 years. His act in “Birdhouse Factory” is in the finale of the show and with two other performers — it’s called the “Trampoline Wall.”
“Ever since being a part of this show, and seeing what else is out there as far a shows, I’ve never come across one quite like it,” Hatfield said. “I believe the story really draws people in, and audience members can relate to each character.”
The show itself is very grounded, he said, yet holds a whimsical edge.
“The imagery is very powerful as well,” Hatfield said. “From the choreography of the performers to the set and lighting design; it has its own unique look.”