Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Mike MacDonald, a Natural Born Funny Guy, and a Friend (1955 – 2018)

March 18, 2018

Mike MacDonald

Mike MacDonald

PARIS – It was the first time I had invited my high school friend Mike MacDonald to my home in Ottawa, so when the moment we entered the front door we found my mother sitting on the living room floor with a glass of whiskey and tears rolling down her face as she cried while listening to a Cat Stevens album, I was instantly embarrassed.

“What’s going on mom?” I asked, Mike at my side.

“I just discovered your brother’s collection of Cat Stevens records,” she said, clearly slightly drunk. “It’s so beautiful, I didn’t know he listened to this.”

The idea was that she was learning through this musical find that my brother’s tough outer coating – he was a hard fighting football player – had a sensitive, soft inner part to it that while she certainly knew about it, she was now seeing evidence of it that she had not suspected before.

But I was still wondering how this could possibly play out, certain that my mother’s explanation would never be enough to make up for the embarrassment I felt at having Mike’s first meeting my mom being one of alcohol and tears. Yet Mike, still not yet 20 years old, was a natural comic and reader of human situations. And he found the perfect line to diffuse the tension – and potential for worse embarrassment – when he said in a slightly low, disbelieving voice, but one designed to be heard by my mother as well:

“Jeez, if that’s how she reacts when she listens to Cat Stevens, I’d hate to see what she does when she listens to something good!”

My mother broke through her tears with a bit of laughter, and I chuckled as well, and Mike and I went off to my room leaving my mother with her Tea for the Tillerman, a sad situation having been turned into a happy memory for life.

In fact, the last time I was in touch with Mike, by Facebook in January 2016, I reminded him of the moment.

“Thanks for the story–I’m glad it made your mother laugh,” he responded. “Let me know if you’re ever in the Ottawa area–I would love to reminisce and possibly jam maybe–still play the drums…”

Had he heard my music, my voice and songs sometimes drawing comparisons to Cat Stevens (from people who have heard me sing in bars)? Probably. Mike, as far as I can tell during my last 34 years living in the country where he was born as an “army brat” – France – had not changed. Through many of his own hard times, most recently with Hepatitis C leading to a liver transplant in 2013, and treatment for bipolar disorder, Mike had continued to face life with humour as the best antidote to pain.

Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Day, in Ottawa, Mike MacDonald died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 62, that natural funny man talent he had as a teenager having led him into a career as one of Canada’s top standup comedians. *

We were not best friends, but we were mutual friends of a best friend – John Kricfasuli, who went on to fame as a the creator of the Ren & Stimpy cartoon show – and we spent enough important party nights together, and later some moments during his start in show business at the comedy clubs in Toronto, where I had had my own furtive efforts into “making it,” two or three years prior to him, for me to feel the bonds that true friendship and shared lives and experience never lets slip.

What I remember most about Mike’s show business transition from party comic to national comic was linked precisely to that moment of meeting my mother: Mike was a naturally talented, naturally funny man, but also with a sense of deep empathy. Throughout our years at Brookfield High School in Ottawa, Mike was the funny guy at the parties, entertaining us with air guitar before that term was even known, making jokes, acting strange, and generally be crushingly funny/accurate in his summations of people and situations.

Mike MacDonald and John Kricfalusi

Mike MacDonald and John Kricfalusi

As John Kricfalusi put it on his Facebook page today: “It’s a very sad day. One of my best friends from high school, Mike MacDonald has died. We used to sit in our parents’ basements during Ottawa winters and he would entertain us for hours. He could do devastating impressions of every one of us and we would laugh so much that we had tears in our eyes.”
“Mike was Canada’s top standup comedian for years, and he also did intense funny cartoon voices.”
“I will miss Mike. He’s the funniest guy I ever knew.”

When he was voted head boy of Brookfield – or student president, or whatever the role was called – I was astounded. How, I wondered, could a crazy funny party guy like him be voted into a position of responsibility and respect like that, above all the other “serious” candidates? Soon enough, I would understand that it was linked to what came later, both in terms of Mike being a popular guy, as well as in another aspect of his character, something more serious. This was a side of Mike that would also be visible later in life when he would transform himself from heavy drug user to finding religious faith, and using his comedy to help other people in emotional or physical distress.

But it is Mike MacDonald’s transition from head boy to successful standup comic that I want to talk about again: After my early, brief years in show business in Toronto and Ottawa (performing mostly bit-parts, TV commercials, and trying my hand at standup comedy, music open mics and circus) I went on a personal quest of self-discovery in England, Iran and then Africa, returning periodically to Toronto.

At one point during a period in Toronto in the late 70s, I attended one of Mike’s early shows in a bar/restaurant. He was just starting to try out his standup – after careers teaching ballroom dancing, caring for handicapped people, drumming in a government supported band across Canada, and other unrelated things – and I recall attending the show with my uncle, a medical doctor. Mike was not very funny that night, there was very little laughter in the room. My uncle remarked to me afterwards: “That man has a lot of anger inside him. He will never get anywhere as long as he is as angry as that in front of his audience.”

But this Mike was not the Mike I knew – even if the Mike I knew did certainly have anger, and anger was part of what made him funny. The Mike we had seen that night was a Mike who had decided he wanted to be funny, to be a standup comic, to “make it” in show business. Trying to be funny on stage in front of an audience is about a million miles away from being funny either on a stage in front of an audience or amongst friends. I think it took Mike a couple of years of trying to be funny before, eventually, he discovered that if Mike MacDonald simply played Mike MacDonald then it would all come together. Because Mike MacDonald was a very funny man.

When Mike began on stage to become the same Mike who made that comment to my mother, and who regaled us all with his craziness at parties, that is when the comedian was born and began having success.

Why did he never have huge success in the U.S.? He moved to California, he appeared on the David Letterman show, on the Arsenio Hall show, but he never broke out into the bigger, much bigger world of popular culture that his friend Kricfaulsi did with Ren & Stimpy, “settling” instead, for a career as a well-known Canadian standup comic. He appeared more than any other comic on the stage of the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, hosted Canada’s Gemini Awards show (Canada’s Emmy Awards), he hosted his own specials on TV, he appeared in some films – one of which was written by Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Clubs of Canada, where Mike (and Jim Carrey) – got his start.

I have no answer as to why he did not enter that higher atmosphere of recognition, or reach more people. Recently, for me, sitting so far away here in Paris, but now with greater access than ever before to what is happening in the North American standup world thanks to Netflix, when I compare some of the performances I have seen of MacDonald to those of many of the comics on Netflix, he is on another level.

I knew of his liver problems, his apparent closeness to death at that time, his battles with bipolar disorder, but when I read the news of his death this morning, I was struck by how we all live with the idea that while the world may be falling apart around us, and people we do not know personally may grow old and die – or die young – somehow we and our friends will carry on into old, old age, never succumbing to the inevitable “before our time.”

Losing Mike is a blow. But reading the comments on his Facebook page and in the media covering his death, I can only feel proud to have known him, and to see how deeply he has touched so many people. If that’s how you reacted to life, Mike, I’d hate to see what goes on now in heaven!

* The news reports and some parts of the internet record give Mike’s birth year as 1954. But his own Facebook page lists it as 1955, and my memory is that he was only about two years older than me, not three or close to 4. So I’m sticking with 1955; he would have turned 63 in June.

The Crazy Mad Video Interview of Yours Truly by Escargot Underground Radio of Paris

March 5, 2018

PARIS – Everything you ever wanted to know about my life and music but were afraid to ask – or maybe didn’t really want to know! – is now in a 50-minute video just released on Escargot Underground Radio’s site via YouTube and Escargot’s Facebook page. This was a riot to do, and makes up part of a series of such video interviews that these people are doing – all in French, so watch out! – of musicians that are part of their Escargot Underground open mic world in Paris in the last half decade or so….

If you enjoyed the interview, they will be posting more of them in the coming weeks, so check them out. Or go to the Escargot Web Radio page and give a listen to the people they will be interviewing….

Oh, yes, and they also did this 50-second teaser for the interview which is on the Facebook page, but this is accidentally in English….

Escargot Radio’s Video interview of Brad Spurgeon

Escargot was/is one of the best open mics in Paris, so check out my Thumbnail Guide to Paris open mics also to find out how to attend their open mic nights….

A Golden Jamming Concept at Jay Golden’s Jam School at the Disquaires in Paris

February 23, 2018

Jay Golden's Jam School

Jay Golden’s Jam School

PARIS – I finally got to drop in to Jay Golden’s Jam School at the Disquaires in Paris on Wednesday evening. Brought my guitar, was happy as a little baby to visit this place I had heard of a long time ago but never attended…then found myself ill-prepared and didn’t play! But that’s no problem. The entertainment was great, and I discovered this fabulous open mic, jamming concept….

Jay, an American expat in Paris, said to me it was in part to get young musicians to learn new stuff. Basically, while it is an open mic, open jam, it has the following twist: It runs every Wednesday night but each week of the month is a different style of music (you can find all the information on the Jay Golden’s Jam School Facebook page) – and when I went, the third Wednesday of the month, it was blues and rock ‘n’ roll – and you sign up and join the other musicians to play in that style.

First at Jay Golden’s jam
But the catch is that you don’t just play blues and rock ‘n’ roll or whatever the style of the week is, you have to look at the set list in advance to see what songs will be played that night. You then join in on the songs that you know how to play. So, for instance, there was “Fever,” (not sure that’s blues or rock ‘n’ roll) and “Brown Sugar and other standards, and you volunteer to play bass or lead guitar or rhythm, or drums, or sax, or whatever. Or vocals. It looks like he is in need of more vocalists – as he made a comment about that. The set list remains the same for each night over four months, and then changes to a new set of songs.

Anyway, the point is, this is a kind of jam, but a highly structured one that has a set list. I spoke briefly to Jay, and he said it was in order to help promote young musicians – but all ages are welcome – to learn new songs.
Second at Jay Golden’s jam

The sound system was excellent, the stage is great, the ambiance fabulous, and the Disquaires has gone through a nice renovation since I played there with my band in 2011 in what I think was our first real gig (and one of our last ones too!!!).

All together a great evening, and I highly recommend checking it out. But do remember that this is not a typical singer songwriter place, nor a typical “anything goes” jam. It has this structure. Golden, by the way, who is from Baltimore, has had a long and illustrious career as a bassist, producer, sound engineer and arranger, working with Luther Allison, Bernard Allison, Liz McComb, Screaming Jay Hawkins, BB King, in Europe, as well as Bryan Adams, Marc Stern, George Clinton, George Benson, Jeff Majors, Pic Connelly, Steve Kelly, Joe, Mario, in North America, among others.

You drummer at Jay Golden’s Jam
Here FYI is the organization of the month:

The 1st week is Jazz
The 2nd week is Funk
The 3rd week is Blues-Rock
The 4th week is Soul
The 5th is a Tribute

A Not Theater Review (as a Q&A): James Thierrée and His One-Man (and Support Team) Show, Raoul

February 20, 2018

James Thierrée

James Thierrée

PARIS – I could have created some click-bait for those who do not know who James Thierrée is by adding in the headline of this blog post the words “grandson of Charlie Chaplin.”  But James Thierrée, who is the son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria, made a name for himself long, long ago, and so it is debatable how much value the “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson” moniker still holds today. Thierrée, who grew up performing since he was a child in his parents’ circus, then trained all over the world (including at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan and the Harvard Theater School), and who is adept as a mime, dancer, acrobat, violinist, actor, director among other things, has clearly added several dimensions to the Chaplin identity that he inherited. Of course, the one thing he cannot really do anything about is that he looks almost a dead-ringer for his grandfather – especially the grey-haired version. This last week Thierrée has been putting on a show, called Raoul, at the 13éme Art theater in the place d’Italie in Paris, and Ornella Bonventre and I decided to check it out.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

My not-reviews are meant to be blog posts about me going to a show, reading a book, listening to music, eating a meal, and talking about it as a spectator – no “critic” attached. But this time, I decided to explore a slightly different version, and give most of the words over to Ornella, who, as an Italian actress, theater director, playwright and circus artist, I knew had a much better sense of what James Thierrée’s show was all about and could do a better job of talking about it than I can.

So we spoke about it together, and I have decided to run a little Q&A from that talk as my “not review.” Oh, and by the way, just for the sake of context it is important to know that despite our leaving home on time to get to the show by its 20:30 start time, we arrived at least 15 minutes late due to the tragic accident of someone falling – or jumping? – onto the metro tracks on Line 6 at the Quai de la Gare station and causing us to lose nearly half an hour in getting out of the metro and finding a taxi and then having to wait to be taken to seats in the 900-seat theater. As a result of me being placed in a handicapped person’s seating area, my view of the show was not great (would the view have been better from a wheelchair?  If not, this is scandalous.), and we missed the beginning of the show, and therefore perhaps some vital information on the game-plan of the spectacle.

The Q & A With Ornella Bonventre Answering Brad Spurgeon on James Thierrée’s Raoul

Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning

Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning

Question to Ornella from Brad. You were telling me that you enjoyed some of the technical aspects of the show, like the puppets but also James Thierrée’s physical movements. Why?

Answer from Ornella. I enjoyed the entire show from a technical point of view. I was very, very surprised because I wasn’t expecting anything. I wasn’t expecting a comical show, I wasn’t expecting a mime show, I wasn’t expecting him to be doing Charlie Chaplin. I was just expecting something very good – and in fact it was very good. I enjoyed the techniques he used as a director, because the structure of the show was based on principles that I am trying to use as a theater director too. For example, the puppet theater technique, or the use of the lights, the use of the space, the different levels of height he used on the stage throughout.

And technically, yes, the quality of his physical movements was amazing as well. He is not just a mime, he is an acrobat and a dancer. It is clear that he studied many different techniques. It was multidisciplinary. And, in fact, this is the same tendency that I saw at the circus festival we went to a couple of weeks ago, the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Each artist is not just specialized in his own discipline but is now multidisciplinary.

And I think this is something that James Thierrée had to face as the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin. He cannot just repeat what Charlie Chaplin did. He has to be something else, and probably something more and different and unique in his own way.

Q. What about the mixing of the huge puppets he used occasionally as well, the use of the giant stage set, and trapeze-like things, etc.?

A. I loved that because everything was transformed. Each object had its own life and was transformed into something else. And that’s very magical. And it is always the goal in my theater to obtain this result as well. And they were doing it with very traditional techniques. The puppets were built in a very simple way. And they were moved by people, not with machines, so there was nothing extraordinarily technical, and the materials also were simple, poor materials – like papier maché, simple cloths, etc.

Q. You mentioned something to me also about how this show, and the other one we saw, with Julien Cottereau, both depended largely on the use of sound.

A. Yes. I loved the use of sound in this show, the use of the soundtracks and the noises. And I think that they were necessary because they were also covering the noises of all of the huge machines that were moving up and down on the stage, the things from the floor to the ceiling, and the huge puppets. So the soundtrack was necessary to cover these sounds so that the audience would not be distracted and removed from the spell of the show by the unintended noises. It was very well done.

Q. For me the biggest problem was that I was waiting for, or expecting, a kind of storyline that I couldn’t find. So it was difficult for me to hitch in to the narrative. Was that something you found difficult too?

James Thierrée aloft in Raoul

James Thierrée aloft in Raoul

A. Yes, there was no story…or possibly because we arrived late and we weren’t able to see the beginning of the show, and that might have helped to follow the story more. But even so, for me the story was: “Welcome to a magical world!” A world made of little things in which the objects have their own life, and the objects themselves were actors on the stage. Strange things were happening around this poor character who was reacting to what was happening around him. And he was very tender; he was the typical character of the clown, with the stupefaction, the wonderment about everything; every little thing became something extraordinary. This is the principle of the work that we saw. And it is something that I really adore – the magic of little things.

Q. That makes me think of the fact that I felt the theater was too big for the show! 900 seats!  I had the worst seat I ever had in a theater (for the maximum price of 45 euros), with two people right in front of me on the same level, and I could not see clearly the area where Thierrée performed most of the show. It was difficult for me to see the little things and small movements. So I felt I was missing a lot. How was your seat just beside me?

A. My vision was good. It is true that probably the theater was very, very big, but fortunately for Thierrée it was full. It was sold out. And I think that’s why it’s necessary to have a very big theater; in order to contain all of his fans, the whole audience that he brings. It’s true that perhaps this show can work better in a smaller theater, but the reason for such a big theater I think is simply to contain the audience he brings.

But, even so, I was able to follow the details. As I said before, every theater show is made of the details – the movements even of the eyes – and usually you are able to see those things even if you are far away from the stage. Because that’s it, this is theater. The quality is in the details, and even if you are not really able to see clearly the details they touch you in any case.

Q. What did you see that I did not see since I am not an expert on mime, on movement, on dance? Can you tell me what you saw in his skills, in his techniques, that was so exciting for you and that held your attention?

A. Perfection. I never saw such a high quality of movement in all the senses. His movements were so fluid, so organic and so true – above all organic and fluid and it had a high, high quality that I’ve never seen before.

Q. What kind of movements are you talking about in particular?

A. In general. The whole show is based on his movements. There is no wind on stage, for example, but it exists, a very strong wind blowing at 100 kph because you see his body that is acting as if the wind is there. So he is creating a world with his body, just with his body. He is acting as if the wind is there, so for me, the wind was there. I was believing in that.

Thierrée dancing

Thierrée dancing

Q. Some of the funniest, most successful parts were the simplest, most slapstick things, I felt. Like him pouring water into a cup that it is bottomless, and then when he tries to drink it, there is no water in the cup. It’s a gag. It’s an old joke. But for me it was a moment I could really relate to and identify with.

A. Me too. Welcome to the magical world of the little things. It’s amazing how he had such beautiful tricks and big machines that carry him up and around the stage, but what is working best are those little things. In fact, you asked me about the quality of his movements, and the quality of his actions, and I told you it is amazing. I never saw such perfection. Why? Because I always saw those tricks – the water, or the wind or the body acting in a certain way, mime stuff – because I grew up in circus, in theater, and to me this is my daily life. So I appreciated those little things because they were so well done, they were magical.

Q. So he did old gags in a fabulous way.

A. Yes.

Q. What about the advantage or disadvantage of being Charlie Chalplin’s grandson? I think that part of the reason the theater was full was because everyone knows this is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. But also that can be a negative thing too because you are being compared to Charlie Chaplin, to your grandfather. How do you see this aspect of his identity?

A. I think it is already difficult for everyone to find their own identity. To find our identity is a battle. And so, I think that for him, as for all people who are the “son of,” “grandchild of” or the “daughters of” famous and loved personalities, it is very, very difficult. I think it is a weapon that can turn against you easily if you are not good enough to demonstrate to the audience that you are really unique and great in your own way. So at the beginning it can be something that brings an audience, but if you are not good enough this is also something that can destroy you forever. And I don’t think the theater was full because he is the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, because he has been on the stage for many years. So probably in the beginning the theaters were full because he was the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, but today if he wasn’t good enough the theater wouldn’t be full.

Q. Were there areas that disappointed you?

A. I don’t know if “disappointed” is the right word. But one flat point was the story. It is true. I don’t know if it was because we missed the beginning or not. Another thing, and I asked myself this: “Why are you not doing this guy??!” It was a moment when the house lights were turned on over the audience and he stared at us, and I thought, “My God, use this! Now you see us, and you are trying to interact with us. But do this for real. Come to us and use this other part of the space.” In fact, he did do that, but just one time. When he entered from the door and walked directly in front of us. But it was just one time, and it was so quick. Just a moment like that! (Ornella snaps her fingers.) So not disappointment, but…it could have been more.

And also, I think this show was all about teamwork, and I would have loved to see more of the other participants. As well as their names on the posters, etc., being more recognized for their contribution.

But the rhythm of the show was amazing. Because it was a very long show. And without a structured story. So it is difficult to keep an audience seated down like that for 1 hour and 40 minutes. So the rhythm was amazing.

And the meta-theater aspect was interesting too. To show the show being made was amazing.

Q. You mean when they were fake hiding the members of the cast and crew with screens as they came out to set up the props, pretending that they were not there, etc.? But much of the show was “meta” stuff. It is external appreciation of what was being done, as opposed to really entering into the character, no? How much were you involved personally in the character?

A. I can honestly say to you that I was moved. As I am moved every time that I work with Claudio Madia in Milan and he really becomes a child, and the tenderness, and the innocence comes out….  At that moment I am completely with the character and I am moved. Because the theme of the innocence of childhood is personally something that touches me a lot. Was I with the character? Yes.

Q. We are living in a world where anything is technically possible in film, on the internet, in YouTube, and here is James Thierrée’s show with traditional gags, the flesh-and-blood live performance of an individual, and nothing that you can see in the way of the technological achievements that even a knowledgeable home video editor can do. What place does a show like this have in today’s world where our senses have been numbed by anything being visually possible on YouTube?

A. I think, honestly, that shows like this, and not even just this kind in particular, but the theater in general has a very important place in our contemporary world. I really believe that it is the future of this world. Theater is a meeting. But for real it is a meeting. It is a meeting between the audience and the actors and it is a meeting between the daily life of the audience and the life of the show, of the stories of the show. It is a meeting between the audience and the audience. It is work that you do in a team. When you are working in a show you are not alone. Your show depends on other people. So theater is a meeting, and it is made by people for people. And it is the future. And its place in our contemporary world is very, very important. Wherever there are two people in the same spot that want to listen to each other, there is theater. It is up to theater today to save human relationships and humanity.

The Rush Open Mic Rushes Over to The Bootleg Bar in the Bastille

February 16, 2018

The Bootleg Bar

The Bootleg Bar

PARIS – Successful open mics sit on a very fine line of balance between the dynamic of the location of a bar and the shape of its room, the person who runs the open mic and the owner/manager of the bar. At the most successful open mics, all those elements fit together in a perfect harmony that mesmerises audiences into attending. One of the best recent open mics in Paris took place at the Rush bar. The ownership just changed, and now the open mic MC, the bar manager and pretty much the entire audience and participants have moved over to another bar location, at The Bootleg Bar in the Bastille area. Will it be the same rush as the Rush?

Monday was the second edition at this new locale. I prefer the Bastille, rue de la Roquette address where it is now taking place to the previous address, near the Cirque d’Hiver, but which for me feels like a slightly dead neighborhood. This bar is much smaller, but it has an absolutely fabulous basement room that could be a perfect setting for the open mic, which now takes place on the ground floor.

First at Bootleg
For smokers, there is a smoking room in the front of the bar, so that means no freezing in winter time, and you can still hear the performer through the smoke-room glass – and butt out your cigarette if the performer is enticing enough. at Bootleg
As to the performers, there were many familiar faces and sounds as you will hear on my few little videos I made of the evening. And the MCing is as great as usual, by Charlie Seymour. There is no doubt that this place has at least two of the required elements to make it a successful open mic: The MC and the bar manager. Only time will tell if the room itself attracts the same kind of loyalty that the Rush bar did. But apparently there was a very popular jam session that used to be held in the cellar of this place, so I suppos all of the ingredients are there….

Third at Bootleg
Oh, yes, and in principle, it is my understanding that a Rush bar open mic will continue. Although not with the same crew, no doubt.

Watching the Circus Evolve, at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (World Circus Festival of Tomorrow) in Paris

February 11, 2018

cirque de demain prize giving

cirque de demain prize giving

PARIS – I could not believe it when I calculated that the last time I had attended the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was 23 years ago. I did this calculation last Sunday while attending the 39th edition of this circus festival, at the Cirque Phénix on the Pelouse de Reuilly in Paris. The last time I had attended it took place in Paris’s fabulous indoor circus building, the Cirque d’Hiver, and the change of location defined a big part of the growth of the festival. But it was above all in seeing how the acts themselves had changed, transformed, grown, that defined the passage of time over those years. The only thing that remained the same was the clear, undeniable importance and innovative nature of this, one of the world’s greatest circus festivals.

In December 1994, the festival was already one of the foremost circus festivals, but was it was still fighting for a reputation, I think, and I did quite a long report on it in my newspaper, along with a focus on the history of the Cirque d’Hiver. Then, as now, the festival was all about the young, up and coming circus talents from around the world. And usually about the avant garde acts they were creating.

Cirque de Demain Taiwanese diabolo troupe

But it is the sheer baffling talent that awes at this festival today as in the past. The circus arts often are thought of us something slightly tawdry, and often not really a true art, but a cheap thrill obtained through buffoonery or minor skills of juggling and gymnastics. This festival shows how high an achievement, how much discipline mental, spiritual and physical it takes to achieve the highest level of the circus arts. Today it seems a circus artist can no longer be content to master one thing: A juggler has to be something of a gymnast, dancer, clown, tumbler, and have enough imagination to be able to communicate with the audience through more than just wowing them with throwing objects into the air.

Cirque de demain diabolo solo
Same for the trapeze artists, the tumblers, and others: Multitalented consummate artists who absolutely send shivers of emotion through us at their multifaceted shows and skills. Anyone interested in going into the circus profession as an artist, really must check out this festival to see how high the bar – literally and figuratively – may be set for the very highest levels of the art.

Cirque de demain chairs gymnast

Aside from this clear development since the early 1990s, another of the biggest developments I noticed this year compared 23 years ago was that at that time, the dominant acts, most of the acts, came from the former Soviet countries, from Russia, Ukraine, all over Eastern Europe, as well as from China. All of those communist states that had for decades poured money into developing the circus arts.

Cirque de Demain trapeze shadows

This year, act after act came from Western countries, or a large number of the performers no matter where they were from had trained in the West. Much to my delight and surprise, that included many of them having trained at the National Circus School in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 1981, that school would not have had the time by 1994 to have produced such a large quantity of performers, I suspect. But what was also interesting was that some of these performers seemed – if I understood correctly – to have come from other countries to study there.

Cirque de demain Bar Russe
There were plenty of West European performers as well, of high quality. In all, my favorite performances came from the two diabolo juggling acts, the solo artist, Arata Urawa, in the early part of the show and the group of four jugglers from Taiwan called Diaboloism. I loved the hand-to-hand performances of Tristan & Eve, as well as those of the other such performers, i.e., Julius & César. And I enjoyed the huge hoop, or Roue Cyr, performance by Vincent Bruyninckx of Belgium. The various trapeze artists took my breath away and raised my heart rate permanently as I feared for their lives so high above the stage.
Cirque de demain hoop

The festival has grown vastly in its public success as well in the last 23 years, and since it was founded by Dominique Mauclair – who died recently – in 1977. Although the Cirque d’Hiver remains myself favorite circus location, the move to a big tent like the Cirque Phénix brings a whole different dimension to this international competition – there were some 20 countries represented – with an audience on the third day of the show for the finale (which is what I attended) reaching something like 5 to 6,000 spectators. It was, in fact, the record of audience size for the festival.

Cirque de demain flippers
Another constant between 1994 and today, was that there is nevertheless a common feel to these acts with avant garde music and the effort to raise a circus act to the level of high art. That is one of the distinguishing aspects of this festival. This is not really for young children. Lasting nearly three hours and consisting of the finest, most artistic acts around, it lacks the big gut-splitting sort of act of that lower kind that children – and adults too – really love to see. But that is not, either, the purpose of this festival. It is more competition, showcase, career launching board than at strict family show.

Cirque de demain flags
Oh, yes, and on that point, it is also worth pointing out that there are no animal acts. This is purely the side of the circus that is involved in great human achievement, not the P.T. Barnum fascination with animals and oddities. Speaking of which, as I left the festival, I wondered to myself how it is that with the health of the circus act so clearly incredibly high – higher than ever before, dare I say? – how is it that over the past year one of the greatest of all circuses with more than a century of tradition, still was unable to succeed and had to close down forever? Did Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey depend too much on the old idea of the circus? In any case, my feeling is that the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, after 39 years, still has decades more to go, and I can’t wait to see how it all evolves in the future….

A Quick Drop-in to the Still Thriving Kararocké at the Bus Palladium

February 7, 2018

Nicholas Ullmann as...

Nicholas Ullmann as…

PARIS – I have no idea how many years it has now been that Nicholas Ullmann has been hosting his Kararocké at the Bus Palladium, but I do believe I discovered it in 2010, and have been going occasionally ever since. I returned on Saturday evening – it runs every first Saturday of the month – to find his institution still alive and more than well. And this, despite the recent sad death due to cancer of the regular bass guitarist of the band, Erik Fostinelli, also known as Guy Pop.

In fact, I believe the Kararocké has been more than a decade that this formula has been working for Ullmann, the master of many disguises and above all, master MC. (Master master of ceremonies!!??) That the formula works is no surprise: It is a super karaoke, with a live band on a large stage in a large room with great sound, spotlights, and just absolutely everything to make the spectators that get on stage feel as if they are rock stars for a night.

Additionally, Ullmann has a habit of attracting some of France’s top musical talent to make cameo roles, such as Yarol Poupaud, Dave, Keziah Jones, Raphael, Dany Boon, Arthur H, Izia, Alain Chabat, Elie Semoun, Marion Cotillard, and even Michel Gondry, whom I once saw on drums at the kararocké.

On Saturday night, it was the turn of Yann Destal, known for his hit song, Lady (Hear Me Tonight), which was a worldwide success in 2000 when he was just 20 years old and in his band then called Modjo. Yann continues a strong musical career, but one that is out of the limelight compared to the days of early success. He plays around Paris all the time, and recently even starred in a musical about Woodstock.

Lady by Modjo (Yann Destal)

On Saturday, he played as one of the band throughout the whole show, and performed a solo singing “Say It Ain’t So Joe,” by the Murray Head, a song that perfectly fits his voice.

Say It Ain’t So Joe, sung by Yann Destal at the Bus Palladium

I myself did not even try to get on stage, for two or three reasons: 1) I am usually crap at doing Karaoke because when I play and sing cover songs, I usually do it with my guitar in my hands, and I do it my own way, (they call this “interpretation,” but I prefer to think of it as making felicitous mistakes when it works, as I inevitably try to imitate the real thing but fail); 2) I did sing once with success at this kararocké, when somehow the band played “What’s Up” in my key, but I made a horrible failure of singing an Arthur H. song just a few weeks later, as it was neither in my key, nor a style I can do!, and 3), in fact, I was wearing my contact lenses and cannot read with them, so I’d have to know all the lyrics by heart! Oh there was another reason too: Ullmann, in his fair way, was asking all night long only for singers who had never before sung at the kararocké. And I did not fit that category, obviously.

Hellish imitator at the Kararocké

This was a beautifully chosen song for the night, because it was written in protest and disbelief of the horrible American politics of the day…plus ça change….

But it was well worth the night. On the less good nights of this formula the music has tended to be too much hard rock. But on Saturday there was a broad, broad cross-section of sounds. I regretted enormously not having brought my Zoom recorder in order to get great sound, as we have to settle for the terrible sound of my Galaxy S8….

Dock of the whatever at the Kararocké
I will return to the Kararocké again, that’s for sure.

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