Illustrious circus

With a half-dozen wide-eyed toddlers in tow, neighborhood families and friends formed a damp but eager congregation outside Rockefeller Chapel Friday evening. The overcast Chicago sky had made good on its threatening appearance, showering the crowd of around 200 as they hurried through the doors for the production “Illustre”–the culmination of a year’s work for the University of Chicago circus troupe Le Vorris & Vox. In the center of the chapel’s northern nave, the group had propped up an aerial rig that, with the church’s stained glass facade, served as a stunning backdrop to the stylized baroque circus entertainment. But the chapel’s ambience came with a price: “There’s not going to be any fire, unfortunately, because we’re inside,” fire-spinner Nicholas Casselman announced to the audience. “But we have plenty to show you.”

As the fire dancers spun their fake-fire poi and staffs with glued-on orange fabric to start the show, the troupe was perhaps lacking some of the danger and flair of the typical circus. The audience sat mesmerized, though,with the performers avoiding even the slightest touch of the fabric flames while twirling the staffs using nothing but their neck and shoulders. As the fire-spinners moved towards the side organ, a few troupe members clad in all-black spandex began to gyrate before the congregation. To add to the absurdity of the picture, a few introductory Shakespearean lines, Venetian mask swapping, and mild inter-carnie groping in the background linked these first pieces–oh, and this all set to a dubstep remix of Nancy Sinatra no less.

Playing on the theme of “light and dark spirits” in a dance-filled afterlife, jester Steffi Carter connected each act with a script fit for both a surreal cirque and grand church. Her bone-chilling laughter bounced down from the lectern and echoed through the pews in the transitions. The even darker side of the circus shone through in the intense hula-hoop performance of Edward Menéndez, whose bejeweled hoop seemed to magically levitate around his decorated but tragic face. Equally transfixing was the fantastical tissu performance, as the striking aerial ribbonist hung fifteen feet above the floor in a direct line with Rockefeller’s ornate stained glass.

The more traditional circus bits of juggling and stilt-walking roared through the center aisle by the tail end of the evening. The dancers back flipped between stilts while an eight-piece orchestra played a more delicate musical arrangement by head-carnie and musician Lucy Little. As the applause echoed through Rockefeller, the congregation was left with images of the masked performers celebrating by the choir pews. An absurd ending to an absurd evening, but when the circus comes to God’s house it would be mistaken to expect anything less.