Wind has powered human achievement for thousands of years and, as the energy that comes on a breeze plays a role in efforts to reach carbon emissions neutrality around the world, it’s likely going to remain prominent for many generations to come.
Cirque Mechanics, a circus act company founded by a former contributor to Cirque du Soleil, will celebrate that relationship with “Zephyr, a Whirlwind of Circus,” a show that brings a multifunctional windmill to generate acrobatic storytelling. It will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at Escher Auditorium on the campus of the College of Saint Benedict.
Cirque Mechanics grew from the mind of Chris Lashua, who once worked for Cirque du Soleil, and ultimately founded his own company based in Las Vegas. In 2002, he and Aloysia Gavre devised an aerial apparatus that combined a “German Wheel” that Lashua designed for Cirque du Soleil with other machines that showcase the relationship between acrobatic and mechanical worlds. With collaboration from several other performers, the group produced a show that came to be called “Birdhouse Factory.” It toured for 10 years, visiting 10 countries on five continents. During the past 20 years, the crew has gone on to create five other shows. In 2019, Cirque Mechanics sold out Escher Auditorium for “42ft, a menagerie of mechanical marvels” – a menagerie of mechanical marvels. Now the company blows back into St. Joseph, Minnesota, with a new production.
“Zephyr has a relationship that is based on a physical representation of the wind and takes place in England,” said Wes Hatfield, who has been part of the Cirque Mechanics production team for 18 years and serves as head rigger in addition to being one of the performers. “What you see on stage is made possible by mechanical action of machinery powered by human ability. There’s a storyline that’s very grounded in characters on stage that play specific roles in this community.”
While Hatfield says there is no spoken word, the participants are actors in addition to acrobats. It’s work that’s all he’s ever known. Born in California, his missionary parents raised him in Germany, where he was first introduced to gymnastics. They later moved to Colorado, and as a teen he gravitated toward using a trampoline and winning state and national championships for his ability. By the time he was an adult, he decided to try to make a living from his skills.
“I moved out of the house when I was 18,” said Hatfield, now 37. “In trying to figure out what to do with myself, someone offered me a job to do something I’d been doing for many years. My parents can literally say ‘My son ran away and joined the circus.’ I knew adventure and traveling the world. I’ve always done things by flying by the seat of my pants.”
He got a phone call urging him to try a summer job at a theme park. That led to another call, offering him the chance to move to Florida and perform on a trampoline wall, which is just what it sounds like. A rectangular, Olympic trampoline based near a wall structure allowed Hatfield to perform all sorts of acrobatics as he bounced up and down, in part making it appear as though he was running up the wall – sometimes with just the right energy for him to walk onto a platform at the top.
“Trampoline had been my main discipline and it just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Hatfield said. “It was working, so I kept doing it. And I met people over all these years and I’m still going.”
Hatfield’s work brought him to Las Vegas, where he met Lashua and was offered the chance to join Cirque Mechanics.
“It’s like my family,” Hatfield said. “We spend our entire lives training.”
And traveling. The 2022-23 schedule for Zephyr includes 25 different venues, from Alaska to Mississippi and New York to California. The group includes 10 on-stage performers, a stage manager, lighting specialist and a merchandise salesperson who also drives their 24-foot box truck with all the contraptions Lashua has created in concert with an engineer in Canada and a welder and metal worker in Las Vegas. The entire structure for Zephyr weighs as much as a Mini Cooper and will be entirely off the ground at the show.
“Part of the evolution of what we do is learning how to be more and more efficient,” Hatfield said. “It’s like adult Tetris for us to pack everything from one place to the next.”
So, while Cirque Mechanics is about entertainment and acrobatics, its antics also may intrigue viewers with interest in engineering and physics.
“Absolutely,” Hatfield said. “When you look at what we have, it’s dealing with a giant lever and counterweighting with our body weight. People may look at it and go, ‘Wow. How is that thing being powered?’ As you look longer, you see there’s a body on one end and two bodies on this other end and they’re moving back and forth, allowing the whole thing to operate. There are no motors. There’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s analog. You can see the direct relationship between any of the machines and what’s happening onstage.”
Tickets, ranging from $8 for CSB and SJU students to $44 for regular admission, are available at https://www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances. The show is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. The National Endowment for the Arts and the New England Foundation for the Arts also contributed to funding for the show.