Balancing Act Troupe Vertigo
Set to the live indie rock of Nightmare & the Cat, the mind-boggling movements
of a new kind of street circus will make watchers wonder, How is that possible?
by BAILEY SHIFFLER / photographs by ANDREW MACPHERSON / styling by BRANDON PALAS
Nestled on a tattered strip of Hollywood Boulevard between a nail salon and a marijuana dispensary is an iron-gated alley that ends at a large raspberry-red door.
It’s nondescript signage at best, but what takes place inside may be one of the city’s best kept secrets—Cirque School. Still stunning but no longer surprising acts need not apply here. This cavernous space is the home of Troupe Vertigo, whose dizzying acts defy gravity and leave its few, lucky audiences in awe. It’s a far cry from Ringling Bros., and yet it’s not Cirque du Soleil. It’s a genre all its own—a yet to be defined branch of a centuries-old circus culture.
The warehouse turned gymnasium has been retrofitted as a practice facility for this boundary-breaking urban company. Exposed brick walls house dangling trapezes, steel hoops and brightly hued ropes, which serve as the apparatuses for the elite group’s jaw-dropping acrobatics.
Troupe Vertigo was conceived two years ago by circus gurus and life partners Aloysia Gavre and Rex Camphuis, in keeping with their dream of a more impactful form of circus. Gone are the masks, costumes and grandiose showmanship that have defined circus for generations, replaced by rhythmic dance and aerobatics, feats of athleticism and true human power stripped of artifice.
Gavre’s résumé includes the Pickle Family Circus and a longtime alliance with the grande dame of alt circuses, Cirque du Soleil. Seeking an alternative to the mega-performance, she choreographs tableaus. “I, as a lover of movement, was bored,” she says. “Audiences have seen it all, so what else could we layer on that would invite people in?”
A September performance at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre—the result of a partnership with the L.A. County Arts Commission—showed exactly that. A crowd came not knowing what to expect but left astonished.
In one scene, contortionist Gana Oyunchimeg, poised atop the shell of a beat-up car, tantalized suitors with a rarely seen level of flexibility. Turning her torso a full 360 degrees, she drank from a glass she held with her feet—backwards. How can she do that?! was written on the faces of everyone watching. The movements were stunning—her bones seemed truly elastic—but placing them in an ever so loose storyline brought a relatability to a completely unrelatable maneuver.
“It’s a far cry from Ringling Bros., and it’s not Cirque du Soleil. It’s a yet to be defined branch of a centuries-old circus culture.”
“We’re at the beginning of a new movement of circus culture,” Camphuis says. Along with a novel way of approaching choreography, he and Gavre are experimenting with the music to which circus acts are typically set. Rather than Sousa-esque oompah tunes or new-agey instrumentals, Vertigo’s sensual routines are backed by the pop-rock-jazz-blues of theindie band Nightmare & the Cat.
It’s this amalgamation that fashions a never-ending flow of creative expression and serves as the basis for this unpretentious new genre Troupe Vertigo has set out to create. The result is a fusion of rock and circus, with the result somehow hipper and more accessible—more “street,” if you will.
Lead vocalist Django Stewart, who founded Nightmare & the Cat with guitarist brother Sam—they are sons of musicians Dave Stewart and Siobhan Fahey—and L.A. native Claire Acey, says the collaboration is organic, sparked at a Cirque School class Django was taking.
“It’s not music with a circus, and it’s not a circus set to music,” Camphuis explains. “It’s a balance.” Sam Stewart concurs, saying the band is inspired by the troupe, but the performers are, in turn, equally inspired by Nightmare’s music.
Practicing an aerial fabric routine to Nightmare’s “Desert Air,” Brett Womack embodies the juxtaposition sought by the group’s founders. Trading the graceful, classic transitions synonymous with his apparatus for rough and raw to-the-beat moves, Womack’s gestures appear to be effortless, evoking wonder even as the audience rocks to NMC’s knotty beat.
Viktoria Grimmy, a hula-hooping acrobat and contortionist, has worked in circus for 18 years on large and small stages. She thought she had seen it all until she started working with Gavre and Camphuis: “This place brings out the colors in people.”
The troupe funds its endeavors through the school and by performing at private events. Gavre and Camphuis say they hope to fill their slate with independent shows in the new year. Keep checking their Website for news of upcoming dates.