Perhaps you've seen them: stilt walkers in patchwork elephant costumes parading through the quads, athletes slathered with blue body paint sparring Capoeira-style in front of the Regenstein, University students juggling flaming batons on a spring afternoon. These are the members of Le Vorris and Vox, the campus group who prove that students don't have to run away to join the circus.
Preparations for this year's "The World's Fair Regained," inspired by the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, are already well underway. Organizers have researched the Fair to give the circus an authentic feel. In fact, Le Vorris and Vox was born out of a desire to study.
Fourth-years Forest Gregg, Shawn LaVoie, and Roberto Kutcher at first intended only to study the circus. They proposed the idea of an independent reading class on the subject to Professor Malynne Sternstein in the Spring Quarter of 2002. After the class had met a few times, said Gregg, "it fell apart."
Out of the ashes of the defunct class rose a new notion. Gregg pitched the idea to LaVoie and Kutcher: They would stage their own circus.
The first performance of Le Vorris and Vox was the product of inspired scribbling on an ink board on the Regenstein's A-Level. Looking back on their proposal, Gregg said that it was "definitely a product of over-intellectualized sophomores." But their idea sold.
The circus made its debut in 2002 as part of the two-year-old Festival of the Arts (FOTA). The collaboration between FOTA and Le Vorris and Vox was a natural one. Fourth-year and circus organizer Meghan Holtan said both groups "promote unorthodox, student-initiated art events."
The first circus emulated the dark, chaotic aesthetics of Mad Max and Bladerunner. The set designers dumpster-dived their materials.
"We found all this interesting looking science equipment: beakers, pincers, oscilloscopes," said Gregg. Dancers, clowns, sword-fighters and fire jugglers wore bedraggled, colorful costumes. The show was heralded into the quads by two stilt-walkers dressed like an elephant. Jesse Gill Redman incorporated firecrackers and broken glass into the score he composed to accompany the acts.
About 100 people came to see the post-apocalyptic spectacle. According to Holtan, who juggled and rode a unicycle in the 2002 event, the show coalesced at the very last minute.
"The combination of watching [the show] come together for the first time while performing in it made me think, This is the coolest extra-curricular,'" she said.
From inception to execution, Le Vorris and Vox made all their preparations for the first show over the course of just one quarter. After this first experience, the organizers sought to create a grander spectacle.
There is a tension in every circus between the highbrow and the lowbrow. Every circus has "acts that show grace and beautyequestrian acts, trapeze acts, and then there are the funnier acts like juggling and clowning," Gregg said.
This 2003 circus pulled this tension tighter. The two poles of circus art were juxtaposed in a combat between two alien races: red and blue. The slick acrobatics of Capoeira dancers (in blue) answered the playful jugglers' routine (in red). Performers in black surrounded the action, formed the circus' ring and created conflict among the red and blue performers.
"It was a wild, chaotic scene. I felt like people had the kind of experience we wanted them to have" said Gregg.
The crowd loved it. As many as 450 spectators came to the show.
This year's show will be the most ambitious yet. As the organizers seek to reinvent the tension that they toyed with in the first two circuses, they will also broaden the scope of both the performance and the audience.
The 2004 circus' theme was derived from the World's Fair that took place on the Midway in 1893. That Fair, called the Columbian Exposition, testified that the United States had emerged as a major contender in the cultural and commercial world. During those six months the Midway hosted dozens of temporarily constructed monumental buildings, each exhibiting crafts, food and merchandise from hundreds of cultures around the world.
An estimated 25 percent of the U.S. population came to the event, as well as thousands of international tourists. Visitors wandered among thousands of spectacles. As they were bedazzled by the raucous call of vendors, they wandered past simulated Venetian canals (complete with gondolas) on the Midway, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and more than a few stereotyped and unenlightened representations of cultural groups such as Samoan islanders and Africans.
Spectators also saw a few exhibitions from the newly-founded University of Chicago, and the American advents of such staples of college life as Pabst Blue Ribbon and hamburgers.
The organizers of this year's circus will put on a show inspired by the Exposition, but they don't want to recreate it. Gregg explained, that they will exclude those "distinctions made [in the World's Fair] that were of suspect worth."
Darick Maasen, an American Academy of Fine Arts student and the circus' set designer, described the vision of this year's circus as the "gritty reality" beneath the "glitz that people imagine" when they think of the World's Fair. Gregg described it as a vision of "when the crowds go home: This is a chance for the performers and workers to put on a show for themselves."
Not only will the show be on a grander scale this yearthe audience will be larger as well. There will be three performances, and the organizers expect about 800 at each one. The show will draw spectators not only from the University, but from the greater community as well.
"It would be impossible to put on a show of this scale on the Midway if we didn't have support from both sides," said Gregg. Support this year has come from the Chicago Park District and the University of Chicago Office of Community Affairs. Circus organizers also plan to bring in kids from Chicago Public Schools and the YMCA in Woodlawn.
Between the performances the spectators will have time to wander through a carnival of local food vendors, clowns proffering balloon animals, a petting zoo, a kite-making booth, and possibly an Eskimo kissing booth.
"The idea was to partially recreate the feeling of the World's Fair Midway, replete with roustabouts, fish-frying annies, and an assortment of odd-fellows," said LaVoie.
Le Vorris and Vox is collaborating with several groups on- and off-campus in order to make this event a reality. One of the circus mainstays is JELLY (Jugglers Enriching Lives Like Yours). Other participants will be Capoeira and University of Hip Hop. University Theater continues to provide Le Vorris and Vox with workshop space for set construction, as they have for the last three years. Off-campus collaborators will include Stick and Move, a break-dancing troupe from Kenwood Academy; Midnight Circus; and the Chicago Youth Circus.
Ivan Beschastnitch, another circus organizer and second-year in the College, explained that in spite of the circus' size, the nature of the show encourages spontaneity.
"A lot of the circus [preparation] happens in the last two weeksthat's when students come and say I want to [perform], so what can you do with me?' There is a lot of freedom in terms of the acts, and so people are free to choose whatever they want to do," he said.
This freedom breathed life into Le Vorris and Vox's first creation three years ago. As Gregg wrote in the proposal for that circus, "Making our vision clear, we allow these groups to work out for themselves the specifics of their own acts; after all, that is their art." Even as their vision became broader the following year, toying with the hierarchy of circus art, the theme remained a "frame for the virtuosity of the performers," says Gregg.
This year Le Vorris and Vox has found a sharper focus in "The World's Fair Regained," even as the circus is defining itself first and foremost as an environment in which the performers and the community can interact without barriers. The organizers chose the space for the circus with this interaction in mind.
"The Midway is a democratic space, a popular forum, a space that belongs to the people who walk in it," said Gregg.
If this year's performance of Le Vorris and Vox upholds its legacy, "The Worlds' Fair Regained" will both surprise and delight spectators and performers alike. Anyone with a taste for exotic cultures, thrilling feats, or cotton candy would be well advised to stroll down the Midway on Friday, May 14, or Saturday, May 15, to the marble steps between Dorchester and the Metra tracks. Performances are at Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., but no carnival fan will want to miss the fair going on between the shows.