Chaos theories: A "Circus Luminous" for unsteady times

The 2018 show Circus Luminous: Clown Alchemy, photo Anna Staveley

With glittering costumes, spellbinding feats of strength and endurance, and live music performed onstage, Wise Fool productions often elicit awe and wonder from audiences. But underneath the glamour and laugh-out-loud clowning is a deeper, if subtle, message.

Wise Fool is a social circus, meaning it is part of a movement that incorporates activism into the circus arts. The company’s mission is to build community and address social issues — from gender equality to dealing with trauma and, this year, navigating the chaos we all live in. The group returns to the Lensic Performing Arts Center with its Thanksgiving show on Friday, Nov. 29, through Sunday, Dec. 1. Here’s how the team went through three steps to create this year’s extravaganza, Circus Luminous: Chaos!

Step 1: Extracting source material

Dramaturgy and installation director Nandita Dinesh started on Facebook. What, she wondered, did Santa Feans think about chaos, this year’s Circus Luminous theme? How did they talk about it? She headed to a community group, searched for the hashtag #chaos and sifted through some 80 posts, looking for patterns to emerge.

“I tried to observe it from more of an anthropological standpoint,” says Dinesh, one of three guest directors for the show.

She discovered four ways in which people tend to talk about chaos. Some come from a spiritual perspective and believe that chaos, like everything, comes from within, and that the mayhem of politics should not affect you if your mind is in a peaceful state. Some blame other people. Others blame everything on the system and fight back through activism. Still others take a more philosophical approach and question the nature of chaos itself. These four groups became the basis of the four-act show.

Because of the way people tend to want to sell their views, Dinesh and fellow Chaos! directors Pamela Donohoo and Tara Khozein decided the production would be set up like a trade show, with four brands of chaos for sale. Each brand will share its origin story and tell audience members why they should buy into it.

Booths inside the Lensic lobby will immediately suggest a trade show, rather than a performance, Dinesh says. “We’re trying to push the boundaries of the Lensic and see how we can redefine the space a little bit.”

Step 2: Animating the vision with images and sound

Dinesh’s nonlinear “script” reflects each brand’s philosophy. Khozein pulled themes from the text to curate images and sounds that showcase each brand.

To create the live soundtrack, she brought on four sound artists: Jacobo Vega-Albela and Joseph Rader, both from Las Cruces, and Santa Fe-based David Forlano and Jasper Rodriguez-Watts. One artist was assigned to create a musical atmosphere for each act.

“I wanted sounds that are repeatable enough that circus artists know what’s coming but that can also be in direct reaction to what’s happening in the show,” Khozein says. “I wanted musicians that were able to improvise enough so that if something goes wrong, it can become beautiful and strange and different. It’s an opportunity for collective surprise.”

Much of the music will be made with found objects, which Khozein finds emblematic of chaos.

“I really hope there’s going to be a cactus,” she says, referencing John Cage and other experimental musicians who have played the spikes of amplified cacti.

In the third act, circus artists hum a peaceful melody while contortionist Miles Jackson performs on a tire swing, in a scene reminiscent of childhood. Although a lullaby might seem mismatched with an act that explores militant resistance and activism, the piece stemmed from an idea in the text that asserted that “the revolution needs to be matriarchical,” Khozein says. “At first, the lullaby is soothing, and then it becomes smothering. It reverses itself.”

Step 3: Putting purpose to skill sets

The concepts and snippets of music are passed along to the circus artists, who choreograph their pieces based on the parameters.

“They said, ‘Lullaby.’ I said, ‘Got it,’ ” says Jackson, a Wise Fool staff member who became involved with circus arts 10 years ago after watching the reality TV show Celebrity Circus.

A tire swing is an atypical apparatus, which meant he had to develop a slightly new skill set to choreograph the lullaby piece. In creating his performance, he thought about the chaos in his own life over the past year, the reminders he gives himself to just breathe when he’s overwhelmed with his never-ending to-do list, and the way a single scent or color can bring back a peaceful moment from childhood. “There are moments when you are jealous of a child because they don’t know! And you’re like, ‘Enjoy it.’ But there are always lighthearted moments, even as you grow up. That’s what the piece is about: How do we take these awful things that are happening and bring light to them? You can have a serious conversation and still have lightheartedness. It doesn’t have to be shameful or vicious when you talk about it.”

In her solo in the fourth act, Clara LaFrance, another staff member at Wise Fool, will hoist her body onto a single-point trapeze, imagining that the floor represents chaos and her rising above it as her transcendence.

“It’s been a little bit of a character evolution, thinking about the avoidance of chaos,” she said. “I started playing ‘the floor is lava,’ and this is what came of it. The higher I get on the trapeze, the more I find a calm and a freedom.”

“It’s fun to immerse yourself in so many creative processes,” Jackson goes on, as he casually slides into a split during rehearsal. “This is someone’s dream, someone’s vision, that I’m helping to make a reality on the stage.”

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