May 21, 2004

P1xel rocks and acrobats shock, but Voris and Vox proves vexing on Midway

The Vorris and Vox student circus came to town this weekend, putting on two performances last Saturday (a third, on Friday night, was canceled due to weather). The circus is composed almost entirely of U of C students, and puts on an annual show at the start of the Festival of the Arts. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 (the one which saw the construction of the Midway and many other Chicago landmarks) was the theme for the circus' third annual show.

OK, let me say this first: I love the idea of a student circus trying to push the bounds of what a circus is. I think student circuses are pretty. That being said, I came away from Sunday night's performance with mixed feelings. I think a good portion of that could be attributed to the fact that I saw the later performance, which I hear was missing a few acts and was generally not as good as the first. (Of course, freezing my butt off on the Midway didn't help.)

First, let's talk about the theme. I like the choice of the Columbian Exposition, with its connection to Hyde Park. It works well with ideas we have of "classic" circuses and other popular entertainments of the time. As readers of last Friday's Voices STD will recall, I loved the posters advertising the show, which embraced the style of that era. However, this style did not transfer completely to the show itself. Yes, the performers were mostly dressed in period costumes, yet there was some disconnect. For example, the giant blue face parading across the stage in the opening number just left me feeling cold. It was decidedly surreal compared to the rest of the show.

Speaking of surreal, one of my favorite parts of the show was the accompanying music provided by P1xel and the Chronic Network. I'll be honest, I haven't been a fan of their whole glam rock shtick. However, they put aside their pretensions of '80s stardom to provide a solid sound—which I can only describe as "gothic circus music." They took the classic circus tunes that you've all heard many times before and managed to twist them so they sounded darker and more original. I think it was the bass and synthesizer that did it. Circus music normally drives me nuts, but P1xel's music was enjoyable and suitably muted, so as to not distract from the action on stage.

Music aside, there were definitely highs and lows among the actual acts. The pacing of the whole thing seemed a little off, with some scenes dragging on while others went by very quickly. The scenes I preferred invariably seemed shorter, but that is probably just my subjectivity. Some scene changes were also rather long, and I didn't really understand the role of the two police officers. Was this some allusion to police and performance at the turn of the century that I missed? Or maybe the police were just supposed to add another comic element, like the clowns. However, after the first time they came out, I didn't find them all that funny.

Now let's look at some of the best acts. First off, the juggling—though not completely error free—was very good. The four jugglers moving back and forth between each other were very cool. The knife juggling was also very impressive. The two clowns were good—their interactions were funny, and they incorporated lying on a bed of nails very well. The clown who slept on the bed of nails didn't do as much as last year—but considering that he had already done this trick for the afternoon show, I can understand wanting to keep it short. The finale and highlight of the show was the trapeze act. The extremely skilled performers got into a variety of gravity-defying positions. Particularly impressive was when the woman was hanging in air, with just her head and one leg held up by the other acrobat's legs.

The location of the circus, out on the Midway by 59th and Blackstone, was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it provided the circus a lot of room with which to perform at the base of the Masaryk statue. The area was not nearly as cramped as last year (when it was held in front of the east steps of the Regenstein). Thanks to the ample space and downward slope away from the performance area, viewing the circus was easy, unlike last year. However, the circus' distance from the heart of the campus meant that few students were likely to pass by and stop to watch. That being said, there was a strong turnout of children and their parents. They were at least equal in number to the students in the audience, and I hear there were many more at the afternoon show. In this sense alone, I think the circus can be considered a success, as it attracted a much wider audience than last year.

I was disappointed to see only two stands, one selling nachos and cotton candy, and the other, t-shirts (only $2!). This was a far cry from the stalls, mimes, and petting zoo promised on the Vorris and Vox website (, which has good information about the circus, as well as pictures of past shows). Yet again, I hear there were a few more stalls earlier in the day, so it just goes to show how much I missed out. This also goes to show that the idea of a carnival is a great one, but perhaps a bit too ambitious for one group to pull off. I think that if the carnival was in the context of a larger event—such as the Summer Breeze activities on the quad this coming Saturday—it would be larger and more successful.

I think the Vorris and Vox circus is a great idea with a promising future, yet it definitely has room to grow. Many acts were good—and P1xel's accompaniment for the event was perfect—but it still fell short of a truly stand-out circus.