Arts and Culture

Cirque Voltaire: Blitzkrieg's uniquely stylistic circus brings out the bizarre at The Oriental

When I parked the car on Tennyson Street Friday night, I was still two blocks away from the Oriental Theater -- and I could already hear the Whomp Truck thundering bass-heavy music into the night air as a prelulde to Cirque Voltaire III: Blitzkrieg. And as I walked to the theater, other pedestrians dressed like extras from an surrealistic French film -- striped stockings, lace bodices, top hats, capes -- passed me by. I was seriously under-dressed.

Those who attended the event were encouraged to dress in full costume, and many did. According to co-creator Brandan Styles, the style, which is mirrored in the show's costume design, is influenced partly by nostalgia, and partly by modernist art.

'I'd say the costumes are influenced by the American Dust Bowl," he says. "The 1930s circus. During the Depression, one thing American did really well was the circus. There were some really cool, darker clowns, not just hobo clowns."

It's not Steampunk, and it's not goth, even though there are both vintage and dark elements to the style of those who attend and perform at Cirque Voltaire. The best way to describe the tone of the aesthetic is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec meets a French bazaar. If it's hard to explain or place, that may be because the style isn't like anything mainstream, at least in Denver, says co-creater Ellie Rusinova.

"On the West Coast, these types of costumes and fashions have been happening for six or even seven years now," she says. "But here, not so much. We wanted to move here, though. So we thought we'd bring it with us."

Rusinova and Style brought their vision to Denver through their art, as well as their circus. Rusanova and Styles are also known as the art duo Mad Tatters. The two came up with an idea to have a street and theater circus show that melds together visual art, music, stage and performance. Friday's event marked the third show in Denver, and the second at the Oriental. The street was blocked off in front of the theater, and food trucks lined the sidewalks as Sophia Rose painted faces, and people danced and "swung poi," which is an electronica version of the Polynesian fire twirling (also called poi). Inside and out, other local artists showed their work, including street artist Impossible Winterbourne and Snodgrass Jones, and there were street vendors selling jewelry, too. But the night's focal point was inside the theater. The stage show, a vaudevillian, noir, multi-act performance, featured arial acrobatics by Paige Taber, Larissa Kirkland and Heather Booth; solo performance pieces, including a strange, black-lighted "indescribable" musical performance by Solo Tri Mono; and an ongoing story about a traveling circus troupe that comes to a town overrun by a dictator, written by Styles and Rusinova, along with their cohorts Nicole White and Connor Boyle, and acted out by many of the solo performers and visual artists. Good versus evil hijinks ensued, during which an aerial dogfight took place between two dancers on silks, and confetti cannons pummeled the crowd with ribbons.

In writing the show, the artists took inspiration from the past. "My favorite time period is the 1920s, Dadaist, Berlin time period," says Styles. "I've also always been a huge fan of Pink Floyd and The Wall. That's one of my biggest influences."

Rusinova says the fight between dark and evil is one that she and Styles play with a lot, particularly in their artwork: "We always have the two sides battling each other. And I always wanted there to be a death on the stage, and when she slid down the silks, that was really beautiful."

After the show ended and before Widow's Bane took the stage, everyone cleared the auditorium for intermission. The costumes of some spectators were so well-done it was sometimes hard to tell who was in the show, and who came to watch. That costumed community is one of the main reasons for Cirque Voltaire, Rusinova says.

"With the circus, we really just want to unite all the mediums that have to do with our main themes," says Rusinova. "We knew so many people who like surreal, kind of dark things, but they didn't really know each other, and we just wanted to foster that scene by having events in which all of them could participate and meet each other."

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Tiffany Fitzgerald