American UniverSoul circus boasts US-African roots

Updated 22 June 2013
0

American UniverSoul circus boasts US-African roots

Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Makeba Gabriel imagined to be a part of Carnival activities. Running away with the circus never crossed her mind.
“That was my dream, to be a performer,” said the 31-year-old star of the UniverSoul circus who thinks nothing of bending over backwards to crawl under five rows of open flames 10 inches (25 centimeters) off the ground.
“It wasn’t to be with a circus. But it just so happens that I’ve been with the circus for seven years, and it is a pleasure. It’s really fun and enjoyable,” she said.
UniverSoul is among dozens of circuses that criss-cross the United States every summer, sustaining a form of live entertainment that dates back to the late 18th century.
“If you live anywhere in the United States within 30 or 40 miles of any primary or secondary market, you will find a circus,” circus historian Rodney Huey told AFP.
The grandest and most historic is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, the self-styled “greatest show on Earth,” while the Canadian-based Cirque de Soleil enjoys a strong following.
UniverSoul is a smaller one-ring affair, but its heritage makes it unique. Founded in 1994 by pioneering music concert producer Cedric Walker, whose hip-hop tours helped to make Run-D.M.C. and Salt-n-Pepa household names, it is the only modern circus with African-American roots.
“It was an opportunity whose time had come,” Walker told AFP outside the UniverSoul big top on a breezy plateau overlooking the Potomac River outside Washington, where the circus is performing this month.
“There wasn’t a family attraction I saw that reflected the urban lifestyle, the energy, the music” of contemporary African-American culture, he said.
“It was pretty exciting and a lot of people did turn on to the idea of an urban show that was kind of funky, that had the fashion and the style and the cross-culture thing.”
UniverSoul has two units on the road hitting about 35 cities this year, with the one at National Harbor employing a cast of 150 entertainers and backstage crew, not to mention a menagerie of elephants, tigers and horses.
While the 2,300-member audience at one recent Sunday show was predominantly African-American, drawn from Washington and its sprawling suburbs, the cast was truly international.
Johannesburg native Daniel “Lucky” Malatsi, now 24, was nine years old, playing the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town, when he joined UniverSoul. Today he’s one of the co-hosts as well as a dancer and acrobat.
“When I first started off I was an acrobat and a contortionist, and I’ve done numerous things ever since,” he said.
“That’s one of the great things with the UniverSoul circus. It taught me to evolve and not always be one thing.” He travels with his wife, a former circus showgirl, and their three-year-old son, who he proudly reveals is “on his way to becoming an acrobat.”
“It’s a fun life, traveling from city to city,” he said. “I have my family with me, so I have everything I need.” His advice to those who relish running away with the circus: “Get an education. Like me, I had to finish my schooling even when I was on tour... Then if you have talent, come on and join the circus.”
Gabriel regards her troupe as her family for most of the year.
Born into a Vietnamese circus family, the muscular Giang Brothers — Quoc Nghiep, 24, and Quoc Co, 29 — are hand-to-hand acrobats who studied circus arts in their native Ho Chi Minh City.
Their crowd-pleasing signature stunt is a “head-to-head” balancing act, with one sibling inverted atop the head of the other.
Young veterans of the European circus circuit, and award-winners at festivals in Italy and Cuba, UniverSoul is the duo’s introduction to life on the American road.
“I think we will have a long time to stay here,” said Giang Quoc Nghiep in halting English, his smiling brother nodding in agreement. “This is a good country. Very nice. I like it.”


In emotional reunion, Spielberg revisits ‘Schindler’s List’

Updated 27 April 2018
0

In emotional reunion, Spielberg revisits ‘Schindler’s List’

  • It was the first time Steven Spielberg had watched “Schindler’s List” with an audience since it was released in 1993
  • Spielberg initially shied away from “Schindler’s List,” scripted by Steven Zaillian and based on Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s Arkansas”

NEW YORK: Steven Spielberg says no film has affected him the way “Schindler’s List” did.
Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and others reunited for a 25th anniversary screening of “Schindler’s List” at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, in an evening that had obvious meaning to Spielberg and the hushed, awed crowd that packed New York’s Beacon Theater. In a Q&A following the film, Spielberg said it was the first time he had watched “Schindler’s List” with an audience since it was released in 1993.
“I have never felt since ‘Schindler’s List’ the kind of pride and satisfaction and sense of real, meaningful accomplishment — I haven’t felt that in any film post-’Schindler’s List,’” Spielberg said.
The reunion was a chance for Spielberg and the cast to reflect on the singular experience of making an acknowledged masterwork that time has done little to dull the horror of, nor its necessity. “It feels like five years ago,” Spielberg said of making the film.
Spielberg shot the film in Krakow, Poland, in black-and-white and without storyboards, instead often using hand-held cameras to create a more documentary-like realism. Neeson remembered Spielberg running with a camera and, on the fly, directing him and Kingsley down Krakow streets. “It was exciting. It was dangerous and unforgettable,” Neeson said.
“Schindler’s List,” made for just $22 million (Spielberg declined a pay check), grossed $321 million worldwide and won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. It also did much to educate the American public on the Holocaust. After the film, Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation, which took the testimony of 52,000 Holocaust survivors.
More needs to be done for Holocaust education, Spielberg said: “It’s not a pre-requisite to graduate high school, as it should be. It should be part of the social science, social studies curriculum in every public high school in this country.”
Making “Schindler’s List” was a profound, emotional and fraught experience for many of those involved. Kingsley recalled confronting a man for anti-Semitism during production. Spielberg said swastikas were sometimes painted overnight. Recreating scenes like those in the Krakow ghetto and at Auschwitz were, Spielberg said, very difficult for most of those involved. Two young Israeli actors, he said, had breakdowns after shooting a shower scene at the concentration camp.
“That aesthetic distance we always talk about between audience and experience? That was gone. And that was trauma,” said Spielberg. “There was trauma everywhere. And we captured the trauma. You can’t fake that. (The scene) where everyone takes off their clothes was probably the most traumatic day of my entire career — having to see what it meant to strip down to nothing and then completely imagine this could be your last day on earth.
“There were whole sections that go beyond anything I’ve ever experienced or seen people in front of the camera experience,” the 71-year-old filmmaker added.
Spielberg actually released two movies in 1993. “Jurassic Park” came out in June, and “Schindler’s List” followed in November. While he was shooting in Poland, Spielberg made several weekly satellite phone calls with the special effects house Industrial Light & Magic to go over Tyrannosaurus Rex shots — a distraction he abhorred.
“It built a tremendous amount of anger and resentment that I had to do this, that I actually had to go from what you experienced to dinosaurs chasing jeeps,” Spielberg told the audience. “I was very grateful later in June, though. But until then, it was a burden. This was all I cared about.”
“Schindler’s List” was a redefining film for Spielberg, who up until then was mostly considered an “entertainer,” associated with fantasy and escapism. Since, he has largely gravitated toward more dramatic and historical material like “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” “Lincoln” and last year’s “The Post.”
But Spielberg initially shied away from “Schindler’s List,” scripted by Steven Zaillian and based on Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s Arkansas”. He urged Roman Polanski, whose mother was killed at Auschwitz, to make it. Martin Scorsese was once attached to direct.
Yet the making of “Schindler’s List” prompted an awakening for Spielberg, who has said his “Jewish life came pouring back into my heart.” On Thursday, the director said he wanted to make the film about “the banality of the deepest evil” and “stay on the march to murder, itself.”
To keep his sanity while shooting in Poland, he watched “Saturday Night Live” on Betamax and relied on weekly calls from Robin Williams.
“He would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” said Spielberg. “I would laugh hysterically because I had to release so much. But the way Robin is on the telephone, he would always hang up on you on the loudest, best laugh you’d give him.”