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They’ve got Balls

by B.A. Nilsson on January 26, 2011

THE Flying Karamazov Brothers

For a long time I considered juggling the only worthy face of mime: deft jugglers obviously earned their money with a skill that the fumble-thumbed such as I never will achieve.

Then I saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers quartet perform a routine they call Jazz, in which three of them face off the fourth, each armed with three juggling clubs, and erupt into a fountain of flying projectiles. It’s not enough to regard this from the sense of I-can’t-do-that. There’s an impressive aesthetic about those clubs in the air, as they repattern a fast-changing stage picture in colors of kineticism—if motion can be tied to synesthesia.

What’s important to realize is that it’s not a planned routine. Calling it Jazz is appropriate because each juggler works within a defined set of movements, each pass and chop and shower equivalent to the chord changes in music. Some combinations, I suspect, are routined, but others are spontaneous moves that the others instantly accommodate.
And there’s a verbal element, a constant and largely improvised patter that riffed on current events, Schenectady (easy target) and the audience. This is the group at its best, relaxed and joyful, their beautiful club-work almost an afterthought.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers debuted in 1973. Ten years later, the FKB were juggling their way through an acclaimed (and PBS-televised) version of The Comedy of Errors. They’ve been on Broadway and the West End; they’ve been all over the world. They’ve never looked back, except to retrieve the occasional dropped club.

The modest set at the Proctors show consisted of towers of differently sized cardboard boxes, and the show opened with ever more complicated shifting and stacking of those boxes to the insistent strains of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” An homage to Japan’s Taiko Festival turned a bunch of those boxes into drums and, not surprisingly, they soon were destroyed with the vigor of grade-schoolers running wild.

Which is at the heart of the FKB ethos: these shows are almost pure id, dressed in puns and other verbal byplay that suggest little kids in grown-ups’ costumes, taking it not at all seriously. No wonder their outfits featured kilts.

Until they swapped those skirts for tutus and ran Ballet Trockadero into the ground with a sequence, set to a lighthearted Rossini accompaniment, that was far less awkward than I would have predicted. They hit all the classic ballet marks without taxing their own not-necessarily-young bodies.

These guys ooze talent. Stephen Bent, whose ensemble alias is Zossima, played Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 while Mark Ettinger (Alexei) and Andy Sapora (Nikita) deconstructed a passing routine. Harry Levine (Kuzma) also took turns at the Steinway when he wasn’t playing guitar. These were the four out of eight listed “brothers” who performed at the Proctors show, all of them well entrenched in the Karamazov style. Although Ettinger started the evening with more than the usual number of missed clubs, he pulled himself into shape by the second half, which is even more difficult, sometimes, than merely being excellent throughout.

The high point of each show is an audience-participation routine in which the performers collect objects—weighing between one and ten ounces, and no bigger than a breadbox—that the crowd was invited to bring. From a flurry of boots and belts and (disqualified—too light) balloons the crowd applause-voted for three things for Sapora to keep aloft for a count of ten: a loaf of bread, a fish (dead but slimy) and a pile of bright-yellow constantly oozing putty.

It was Sapora’s undoing. He’s allowed to make modifications—the bread, ironically, was deemed to be bigger than a bread box, and was eaten smaller—and even wrapping the canary slime in paper toweling failed to keep it from seeping onto the stage. It’s the first time in several performances I’ve seen the champ lose and get the promised pie in the face.

But they redeemed themselves at the finish by juggling nine nasty objects assembled one by one throughout the show, most potentially damaging of which were a large, sharp meat cleaver, a chunk of steamy dry ice, and a bottle of cheap champagne sans protective cork cage. Did they send these objects acrobatically airborne, cracking jokes all the while? Of course they did. That’s what this fearless foursome is all about.