West Hyler Directs the World Into a Big Apple Circus

Big Apple Circus director West Hyler
West Hyler

The latest edition of the Big Apple Circus is called Metamorphosis — a distinctly appropriate word for an enduring art form devoted to illusions, tricks and acts. When perusing press materials for the show, though, a question popped into our minds: Who decides the order of the acts? Who ties things into a thematic whole? Who oversees all the tiny details: which way the performers face, how they acknowledge the eyes upon them when quiet and concentration is critical, which hijinks the clown trots out and when, which way does everyone just enter and exit? Who, putting it in short, stages the circus?

Why, the director, of course. And for Metamorphosis, he is West Hyler — this is his second assignment for long-running, high-flying institution. We learned that Hyler’s tasks are similar to, yet considerably different from, his more traditional theatre work for such groups as Primary Stages, Ars Nova, York Theater Company, HERE and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Circus being circus, the acts naturally tend to be more epic, more see-it-to-believe-it, more did-you-catch-that?, more inherently dangerous. Moreover, Hyler is denied a proscenium setting to give the audience a bit of distance and perspective, for the Big Apple Circus famously takes place under one single tent, and no seat is ever more than 50 feet away from any one act. In performance terms, this is practically on top of the patrons. So when Tatevil Seyranyan hoists herself, slowly and carefully, atop the immensely challenging Rolla Bolla, she’s 50 feet or less from everybody at all times. And when Jenny Vidbel appears with the animals she trains, coaxes and displays — llamas, horses, camels and dogs — it’s the same 50 feet. When the impossibly limber Anastasini brothers defy gravity with their acrobatics, or when the Aniskin troupe, at the finale, soar far above everyone’s heads on the trapeze, yes, you’re craning your neck, but they literally on top of everyone. And therein lies the thrill and the challenge of Hyler’s job.

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Metamorphosis, we should note, is actually Hyler’s second Big Apple Circus gig: he also staged Legendarium in 2012.

For tickets to Metamorphosis, running at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park through Jan. 11, click here.

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And now, 5 questions West Hyler has never been asked.

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What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Someone once asked me, “How do you work a story into a circus?” It’s a wonderful question because it both acknowledges the goal I’m trying to achieve in every circus I direct, and contains within it the implication that circus tradition is anti-narrative. I do have to be sensitive about working with circus artists who are accustomed to classic circus tradition and remember that acrobats are not actors, yet having said that I’ve found again and again that circus artists crave storytelling. In each individual act there is usually a beginning, middle and end. Oftentimes they will create character and conflict (such as a couple fighting for the spotlight, or a group of suitors vying for the attention of a female, or an artist trying to tame the apparatus with which he performs) and though their stories are often more implicit than explicit, they always relish the acting moments in between physical feats. By being attuned to what story they are trying to tell, I can weave their own narratives into the theme or story we’re creating for the whole production.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked about your work?
The unfortunately-too-frequent “How do they learn all those lines?” Admittedly, this is more common when I’m directing a play, especially a piece by Shakespeare, but it could apply to circus text which mostly spoken by the ringmaster. The problem with the question is there is only one answer: “By memorizing them.” Perhaps “idiotic” is too strong a word, especially since today’s audience members have Internet search engines in their pockets and memorization skill is at an all time low. Nevertheless, the text should be never be more than a window through which are presented human truths. By focusing on the lens rather than the image behind it, people who ask this question are missing the most basic experience. It would be equivalent to visiting the Met and asking about the paintings, “How do they stretch those canvases so tight?”

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Jenny Vidbel guides her beloved animal friends. Photo: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus.
Jenny Vidbel guides her beloved animal friends. Photo: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“How do you direct the animals?” A funny question, but admittedly odd. I should first point out the Big Apple Circus has an extremely sensitive animal use policy that doesn’t include exotic animals or animals performing unnatural activities. Although I come from seven generations of farmers and grew up on family farms in Kentucky and have often spent time around horses and farm animals, I wouldn’t know the first thing about training them and always work with a professional animal trainer, Jenny Vidbel. She is a wonderfully kind and loving trainer who teaches through rewards and has a magic sixth sense to communicate with her horses and dogs. Jenny and I begin discussing animal acts two years before first rehearsal of a new production and she’ll begin work soon after either on her farm or at the circus, spending years with her animals to create an act uniquely designed for the new production. Having watched her over many years, I am consistently amazed by her bottomless love and limitless patience that allows animals to do wonderful things.

As a popular art form, circus clearly has a long, important history. Which perceptions of circus must you keep in mind when directing one? What are some of the big misconceptions about how circuses are produced, directed and presented?
When I was first approached about directing a circus, I delved into the history and became fascinated by the early circus pioneers and shocked by the extreme changes in form that circus has undergone over the past 300 years. It’s important to know that circus began with horses and that its initial popularity had much to do with how commonplace equestrianism was at the time. People appreciate skill most when they have direct experience of the difficulty, which is why I always try to include an act on a commonplace apparatus of today, such as a bicycle or a trampoline. The beginnings of circus also explain why the ringmaster had a riding crop and equestrian jacket. Today, the animal trainer and ringmaster are separate individuals and so the iconic silhouettes need to be reinvented for contemporary relevance. Most recently, circus went through a metamorphosis in the 1980s with the “Nouveau Cirque” movement, which injected awareness into so that the acts became more narrative, political, sexual, thematic and/or poetic. It also broke free from the brass band sound and opened circus up to amplified music, such as rock and hip-hop. I like to think of the Big Apple Circus as a classic European circus influenced by Nouveau Cirque. It uses the present to reimagine the past, much like steampunk has done for the Victorian era, and creates a circus experience that is both modern and classic at the same time.

The greatest misconception is that a Big Apple Circus production is a variety show rather than a unified work of art. We begin work on a new production three years out, when the theme and story are decided. Guillaume Dufresnoy, the Artistic Director, and I will travel the globe searching for great circus artists who fit within the production’s aesthetic. Top-notch writers and composers create a script and score; world-renowned, award-winning designers create costumes, sets and lights. Each year has an entirely new creative team and cast, and this year we expanded the team to include the brilliant illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer. Once the show is written, designed and cast, we’ll rehearse out of town at the Big Apple Circus facility in Walden, New York, before traveling to Washington, D.C., to finish technical rehearsals. Only after those years of meetings and rehearsals is the show is ready for its Lincoln Center opening.

Tatevik Seyranyan eludes the laws of gravity in the Rolla-Bolla balancing act.
Tatevik Seyranyan eludes gravity in the Rolla-Bolla balancing act.

In terms of specific Big Apple Circus performers, and knowing you likely don’t wish to play favorites, can you identify a few performers whose talents truly knock you out each time you see them perform? Are any of their physical talents so extraordinary that they create a challenge for you in directing them? How did you face those challenges?
This year’s show has a very special performer at the heart of it named Tatevik Seyranyan. The theme is “Metamorphosis” and the story is about magic and aspiration; the idea is that when you go to the circus, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and everyday people perform feats beyond the edge of human possibility. Our token image is of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, and Tatevik is the personification of this magical metamorphosis. We meet her as an “adorkable” and unassuming girl-next-door, but over the course of the show she sneaks into several acts and performs a series of completely unbelievable feats. All of which leads to her performing a signature move on the dangerous Rolla Bolla apparatus, which has to be seen to be believed. The nerdy assistant from the top of the show becomes an extraordinary superhero by the finale, and she presents a metamorphosis possible only under the Big Top.

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In the circus of the future, the size and availability of your performance space will be absolutely unlimited and the law of gravity will be repealed. Describe what your ideal circus would look like and what you, as a director, would seek to accomplish with it. How far-fetched is your imagination?
I would love to present a circus in space, somewhere between the Earth and the Moon with the stars and outer planets as the backdrop. Because the circus is all about human potential and pushing the boundaries of physical possibility, it would be extraordinary to see bodies performing these physical feats at the literal edge of humanity’s reach. As witnessed in Cuarón’s film Gravity, there would be acrobatic feats of spinning and catching, throwing and flying inside the massive emptiness of space, with a net pulled tight between International Space Stations to protect the artists from drifting into outer space. We would also include contortionists climbing inside the hollow of a tiny meteor and jugglers manipulating thousands of objects in full orbits around the Moon. The clowns would be on stilts reaching to the lunar surface and the ringmaster would wear a jet-pack to dart between the various performance locales. The theme would, of course, be “Limitless,” and the story would be how humankind can surpass physical and mental boundaries. Someday maybe such a circus will be reality. Until then, the Big Top is the next best thing.

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