For cirque artists, there is no fun-house reflected sentiment of running away from the circus. “I tried it, and I couldn’t wait to get back,” says Cornell “Tuffy” Nicholas, producer of Maui’s Cirque Polynesia.
Hailing from Ringling Brothers parentage—his father a renowned ringmaster, his mother a bear trainer—Nicholas has produced numerous shows including both the Moscow State Circus and Moscow International Circus, which have racked up more than 5,000 performances in the last decade.
The allure that makes people want to join the circus is no illusion. Grueling work though it may be, it’s a glamorously suspenseful trade that takes performers across the globe. “We have traveling in our blood,” says Nicholas. But what seems to make it all work is that their bonds are often blood too.
“None of the circus people [leave] because you get to travel a lot, seeing different places and different people,” says Simon Arestov, who like Nicholas is a second-generation performer and got his start in Russia under his parents’ tutelage. Now, both his parents, along with Simon’s two younger brothers, are key elements to Cirque Polynesia. Father Alexandre is a performer and assistant producer; Nicholas calls him his “right hand man.” After a few weeks off at home, Simon says, they’re itching to get back on the road.
“Yeah, get on the road and go see something else,” chimes Lyric Wallenda. Impressively, Lyric and her aerial partner Rietta (a.k.a. Mom) are of the eight-generation Wallenda Family of famed performers. Her 80-year-old grandmother, “The High Flying Granny with Nerves of Steel,” still takes to the stage today, performing handstands atop a swaying 110 foot pole.
But for all their bohemian urges, a show on Maui hits the sweet spot. Simon is quick to espouse his love of Maui, especially the weather. That’s particularly important, since they’ve moved from the Hyatt’s indoor Monarchy Ballroom to a custom outdoor stage, dubbed the Maui Moon Theater.
“There’s nothing like having a permanent show on Maui,” says Nicholas, who also wrote the show. So how long do they hope the show will last? “I can answer that,” Nicholas says, with Lyric and Simon creating a chorus, “for-ever.”
Performing six nights per week and having recently celebrated their 275th show, the troupe reaches its one-year milestone this week. Commemorating that accomplishment, the show will offer free tickets to keiki 12 and under throughout the summer, in addition to their year-round kama’aina rates. They’re also further developing their act—the script is built around the talent, says Nicholas—and Cirque Polynesia has just added to their hanai ‘ohana a trio of contortionists who tour under the moniker “Mongolian Angels.” Uuriintuya Sukhbaatar, Oyunsuren Mendsaikhan and Nomintuya Nergui have for over half a decade performed throughout Singapore, Germany, France and the United States, but have been on Maui less than two weeks.
Though new to our island, the young women bring a certain doused-in-emerald polish; their synchronized movements are nothing short of flesh and bone sculpture, undeniably provocative and at times blurring the lines as to whose limbs belong to who.
Mainstay acts are equally astounding. During “Hula Hoops,” there’s a progressive addition of reflective hoops, until performers have ensconced themselves like butterflies reverting to writhing, golden cocoons. During “Silks,” acrobats (including Hawaii’s own Raymond Silos) ascend to the rafters by deftly winding themselves on great drapes of cloth, casting their fabric wings behind them in billowing plumes and coming as close as can be had to flying.
But when it comes to high-flying balance the death-defiance, it’s the mother and daughter pair who take the cake. Performing their family’s signature “Wallenda Perch,” their routine concludes with Rietta suspended—and spinning at high RPM—by what I can only describe as a noose, hung on naught but Lyric’s wrists, who herself dangles by a slip around a single ankle. Funambulists both (fancy speak for tightrope-walkers), the women take to the skies on the outdoor theater’s new 40-foot long high-wire.
Simon’s little bro Ivan is a unicycle darling, comically performing hops and loops that make popping a wheelie on a two-wheeler look like mere pedaling of a toddler’s trike. As for Simon himself, he’s a true star. Both on- and off-stage, his persona is sparkling and theatrical, though never at the sacrifice of warm candidness. He’s best about engaging the crowd, blowing his fingertips and giving a subtle but oh-so-charismatic wink before doing his trademark bit. The “Rolla Bolla” act—which he’s performed since he was 13—defies logic. Beginning on a stand already as tall a man, Simon stacks metal cylinders and sets of cones connected at their frustums until the tower he teeters on has grown so high, he requires a tall stool just to mount it. But I loved his “Cube” act best. It’s a sort of 3D, black-light version of fire dancing so speedy it could well be channeled as a source of alternative energy.
Providing original soundtrack to it all is composer/musical director Daniel Cruces, and his partner and featured soloist, Diane Rubio. Stylistically, Cruces is my favorite character—Cirque Polynesia’s playfully dark version of a ringmaster. Brass-button breasted with a gaunt white face, his hair blows wildly as he pumps the pulse into the show from his electric drum kit. Meanwhile, his muse Rubio does everything short of bump and grind against her stripped-down electric cello and prove that, despite her petite Oahu-born physique, she’s a practiced headbanger who can easily jump to Japanese flute, Chinese violin or searing electric guitar at a moment’s notice.
Despite the merits of its parts—which are good enough to help you forget you’re sitting in plastic outdoor chairs—the story seems non-existent and the theme wanes like the theater’s namesake. While the show explicitly aims to not be anything like a luau, it could do with more ethnic infusion, not to mention a few unifying threads between its disconnected—albeit gasp-inducing—vignettes.
That said, the show’s spirit of ‘ohana is overwhelming. Love and trust emanate from the performers; it’s easily the show’s most heartfelt quality. “We enjoy performing, that’s where our heart is,” Lyric says. “When your heart is in it, you really connect with people because they know you’re out there enjoying it.”
For info and reservations, call 667-4540 or visit www.cirquepolynesia.com