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LA BESTIA – The Dark Side of The Circus
NOUVEAU SUD CIRCUS PROJECT’S LATEST, LA BESTIA, TRACES MIGRANTS’ DESPERATE JOURNEY TO AMERICAby Page Leggett on July 8, 2021
To a kid, the circus is magical.
But at some point, you realize the circus is really … well, sad. Animals aren’t meant to serve as entertainment for a couple of hours and live in cages, onboard a truck, for the time they’re not being forced to perform.
The Nouveau Sud Circus Project, UNC Charlotte Associate Professor Carlos Alexis Cruz’s version of a circus, takes what’s most exciting about the spectacle – the human feats of daring – and replaces the ugliness and inhumanity with unbelievable athleticism and beautiful, artistic performances.
There’s something a little melancholy about Nouveau Sud’s “circus,” too. Children won’t pick up on it – just as we weren’t aware that elephants and tigers weren’t happy to jump through hoops and stand on their hind legs in exchange for applause.
But teens and adults will see a story beneath the spectacle.
In LA BESTIA: A Circus Journey, Nouveau Sud’s fifth original production since its founding in 2014, the audience follows the immigrant journey from Central and Latin America to the United States. It’s a dangerous, harrowing trip, and not everyone who sets out will make it.
A beautiful exploration of a beastly journey
La Bestia is Spanish for “The Beast,” but in this case, it’s not referring to an elephant or tiger. It’s a synonym for what’s known as “The Death Train” (El tren de la muerte), a network of Mexican freight trains that U.S.-bound migrants use to try to hasten the journey. These migrants are so desperate for a new life, they ride on top of cargo trains.
“We’re paying homage [to the people who make this journey],” Cruz said.
“And we’re trying to shine a light on their situations. We tend to judge people without understanding the journeys they’ve gone through. So, we’re demystifying the journey. Migrants … risk their lives to come here, but … we tend to immediately put that ‘illegal’ label onto migrants in the Latinx community.”
Given the subject, the production could be bleak. Nouveau Sud walks a metaphorical tightrope. It’s what Artistic Director of Creation Houston Odum, who’s co-directing LA BESTIA, calls “the perfect balance between lightness and darkness.”
Odum joined “the circus” in 2019 to co-create and co-direct REVOL: The Story of a Flag, a performance centered on the Confederate flag. Musicians are part of the team, too. Music Directors Sean Mulcahy and Mat Tully, along with Composer Sarah Dressel, do their homework for each show.
“There is a research aspect that goes into their work,” Cruz said. “For REVOL, they researched music from the Civil War era.” They’ve also composed an original score for LA BESTIA.
Land of the free?
There’s a veneer to the circus – a shiny coating on something that’s more dangerous than we want to admit. America has a veneer, too.
The U.S. isn’t a land of opportunity or a safe haven – for everyone. “Getting to this country – … is not necessarily the beginning of something easier,” Cruz said. “It might actually be harder than you thought.”
“It’s interesting we are having this interview right after the Fourth of July,” he continued. “We are celebrating being ‘the land of the free,’ but who’s really free?”
Cruz was born in Puerto Rico (which makes him American, by the way) and said some Puerto Ricans are conflicted about Independence Day. “We often say: We’re not independent,” he said.
“There’s a sector in Puerto Rico that doesn’t celebrate the United States’ independence. We all want an excuse to have a cookout. But I think [in recent years] there’s been a lot of reflection going on – an appreciation for our very complex history. We’re in a moment in which we are examining the ways in which some people’s history has been stolen, cultures have been erased.”
The circus was meant to travel
The New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) awarded LA BESTIA a $70,000 creation and touring grant, so the show will travel after its Charlotte premiere.
“Masks, acrobatics and the ﬂying image of a train will serve as guiding light for our audiences,” according to Nouveau Sud’s grant application. “LA BESTIA is an interactive experience on and off the stage; site-specific pop-ups, community workshops and post-show conversations are included.”
And Charlotte audiences can have a hand in shaping the show. A sneak preview of the first iteration is happening July 15, 16 and 17 at the Booth Playhouse. Audience feedback will help Cruz and company make adjustments before the October premiere and subsequent tour.
Cruz is thrilled to take this show on the road, but said Charlotte will always be home. “This company started from the ground up here,” he said. “And in our fifth show we achieved recognition on the national level. This is a very special moment for us. But we will always be of Charlotte, about Charlotte and representing Charlotte.”
An academic acrobat
Cruz is an acrobat, a performer and an academic. He holds an MFA from the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. He’s not an immigrant, but he has been treated like someone who doesn’t belong.
“I moved from Puerto Rico to Northern California when George W. was president and Arnold was governor,” he said. “It was really tough to be Latino there. I was asked for papers constantly. I didn’t know I was brown until I moved here.”
He’s not down on America. He wants his country to live up to its potential: “This country has given us great things, but also there’s a lot that could be more equitable.”
There’s light along with the darkness
Cruz and Odom are always striving for the right mix of light and dark, joy and pain.
“We’re giving the audience a beautiful experience and not just something that’s going to bog you down,” Odum said. “But we also recognize that you can’t have a show that’s all one thing. It can’t always be joy; you have to have some tears in there. You have to find that balance.”
Part of that balance comes in sharing not just the risky journey – but the occasional realization of the American dream. Cruz said, “There are struggles in the journey to get here, but there are successes, too. We want to celebrate those successes and hopefully have the audience on the edge of their literal theater seats.”
Dramatic tension is inherent in the circus arts.
“When you have somebody 20 feet in the air, and they’re holding onto a rope, and they’re struggling, and they’re putting in all their effort – that’s real, you know?” Odum said. “That’s never going to be faked; they’re not acting. We’re trying to find where those moments can play into the arc of the show.”
Cruz added: “People come to shows to be entertained. But we’re also asking questions we hope resonate.”
Come to the big top. Nouveau Sud’s LA BESTIA (the first iteration) will be performed July 15-17 at the Booth Playhouse at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. General admission tickets are $10. Learn more at nouveausud.org. Purchase tickets at carolinatix.org.
Follow the light and dark.
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