As the earth’s seasons ignite and fade, so goes Asheville’s most fearless performance-art crew, the Sireal Sirqus (that’s Surreal Circus, for the phonetically challenged).
“We work a lot with natural holidays — the equinoxes and the solstices,” says member Jim Genaro.
The Sirqus’ first public event — held shortly after the group’s inception in October 1996 — celebrated the traditional Celtic holiday Samhain. Since then, the troupe has purposefully held its annual Arts Festival on the Saturday before Halloween.
“Using Samhain is significant to us, [in that] there’s a strong element of ritual to our shows,” explains Genaro. “In terms of frequency and size, our performances tend to fall off after October and start up again in the spring. … This holiday ends a long season of shows and signifies a dying and rebirthing for the Sirqus.”
In the beginning, the troupe fueled itself on pure improvisation. Its kickoff show — which featured poetry, dancing and a musical jam — was “completely off the cuff,” Genaro admits. Even at that tender stage, though, the Sirqus’ devotion to highlighting local talent (its perennial mission) was incontestable: That virgin festival spanned a full eight hours.
Today, a sort of well-conceived chaos rules the group’s internal proceedings. The very spelling of the Sirqus’ name tends to reinvent itself with a rather dizzying frequency — and, as yet, no official director governs the troupe’s doings: “Nobody is in charge,” notes Genaro. “If [a member] has a vision about something, that person brings it to the group. If the group likes it and wants to do it, then that person would direct the piece. … We’re trying to encourage everyone to take a more active role. … It’s not like a director/cast-member situation at all.”
Still, a strong measure of natural order has arisen to shape the Sirqus’ current pieces.
“For a long time, it was all improvisational, but now it’s gotten a lot more choreographed, less of a free-form jam,” Genaro reveals. “I’d say it’s gotten tighter, definitely. A lot of it has been [because] we’ve had the same basic group for three years,” he points out.
What can one expect of the present Sirqus?
“Music is a pretty heavy factor,” Genaro explains. “I play keyboards and Chinese hammered dulcimer, and we also have a bass and other instruments that join on. We have a violin player who comes in sometimes, a clarinet player, two percussionists, didjeridoo and flutes — a pretty wide range, though not a lot of vocals. … Sometimes we have DJs who join us and put in samples.”
Dance, he continues, “has become more and more of a factor. It used to be more free-form, modern dance, but we’re getting into more choreography, gymnastics, dancers twirling fire on chains.
“[We perform] lots of fire tricks,” he emphasizes.
In fact, the troupe’s affection for flame has become a sort of calling card. Though each piece the Sirqus performs — and every show features a new piece — now plays off a pre-determined, often-intellectual theme, the methods used to dispense the madness can be as unpredictable as, well, rubbing two sticks together.
“With just about everything we do, we’re pretty much starting from scratch, in a way,” Genaro notes. “Even though a lot of us have different backgrounds in the arts, not a lot of us come from normal theater backgrounds, if you will. … The fire people make their own equipment. Liam, one of our drummers, makes finger torches by bending copper wire. It takes experimenting, trial and error.
“But we definitely have a good awareness of safety,” he adds with a smile.
The Sirqus’ core group of 10 (whose members range in age from 14 to 50-something) can swell to as many as 25 — sometimes in a matter of hours.
“We have people in Atlanta and other cities that come up for shows, so the amount of people performing does tend to vary from show to show,” admits Genaro. “When a piece is begun, we see how many people are interested, and then see how many people we need, and we try to work with that. But sometimes people just show up, and we’ve developed enough of a communication where it’s possible for people to show up the day of the show and be [worked] in. We’re always open to surprises.”
Not so some other folks — specifically,those with quaint, old-fashioned notions about what a circus should be.
“People hear the word ‘circus,’ and they think it’s a show for children,” Genaro confesses. “And usually that’s OK; usually our shows are something that would be fine for your kids to watch. But we did get into a little trouble recently at The Farm [a popular live-music venue near Nashville]. We did this show that was largely about the presenting of different things that cause reactions, or preconditioned responses, in people. It all started from an argument we were having about whether the circus could be quote-unquote ‘political,’ and what that meant. We all felt our strings being pulled a lot [by that idea], and what evolved from it was this piece where we had giant puppets — 20-foot-tall puppets — that were manipulating the strings of human beings, so that the puppets were the puppeteers and the humans were the puppets. … Another part of that piece involved nudity, and some off-color humor” — but, alas, did not include any of the clowns, trick animals, or other traditional-circus accoutrements the 50-odd children perched in the front row were apparently expecting.
“Let’s just say that we pulled the strings of some parents, and we’re not allowed to go back to The Farm anymore,” he concludes sheepishly.
Provoking one another, on the other hand, is part of the Sirqus’ very essence.
“It’s a necessary part of the [creative] process,” says Genaro. “That’s one of the really wonderful things about the Sirqus, and one of the difficult things — it functions like a family, and it dysfunctions like a family. There’s always bickering, sibling rivalry. But it’s worth it.”
Although the troupe has yet to establish any formal criteria for evaluating potential members, a healthy dose of natural selection does appear to hold sway. As Genaro reveals, “What tends to happen is … people will get interested and then come and see if it’s right for them. Usually, if it’s not right for them, that becomes obvious right away. Some people have come in and you instantly know they’re right, and [with] some people it takes a little while. But generally, if you survive three shows, then you’re going to work out.”
A monument to art
The fourth annual Sireal Sirqus Arts Festival takes place on Saturday, Oct. 30, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. at Pack Square. It will feature more than a dozen live acts (all local), a bartering table, an acoustic open-mike stage, plus assorted vendors. The Sireal Sirqus will debut a sunset show centered on the theme of humanity’s transition from a spiritual, nature-based culture to a materialistic one — brought to life via fire tricks, swordplay and music. Also featured, in order, are: DJ Vitamin C; DJ Jon 7; bass-drum duo Greenwich Mean; funk outfit Strut; DJs Kri and Tamos; jazz band The Reach; powerful pop warriors The Asteroids; performance-art group Beaufort Scale; theater group Spare Change, with the Praboo Puppets; dance group Tribe of Om; DJ Rhymes; and late-night act Veterans of Future Wars, an industrial/techno band.
The festival will take place at and around the Vance Monument — no random choice, according to troupe member Jim Genaro. That controversial spot — long the battleground for the Asheville Police Department vs. the local youth culture — was also once the stage for other local circuses, he divulges.
“In the early 1900s, all these great circuses played at the Vance Monument, and so there’s a tradition of that area being used as a public square for arts and creative expression,” Genaro explains. “Part of our reason in having the festival there is to encourage the city to see that it really is the ideal place for people to come together creatively — that [such activity] doesn’t scare tourists away, but draws them in.
“And then there’s the whole fact about trying to use the Vance Monument as an antenna to transmit our intentions to the world,” he concludes matter-of-factly.