Let’s set up a beer garden, pitch a tent and do a variety show, one entrepreneur said to another, and they went about doing so — in lower Manhattan, which is not home to many wide open spaces. Two — count ’em — two separate acrobatical-burlesque mini-circus programs share the space through summer at Spiegelworld, on an East River dock at South Street Seaport. “Absinthe,” which inaugurated the venue last year, returns with a new edition opening today. Preceding it by a day was “La Vie,” created specifically for Spiegelworld by Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a group of Cirque du Soleil graduates living together in a former nunnery in Montreal.
A stroll down a former fish market alley past lined-up garbage bins takes you to an enchanting only-in-Manhattan spot, with perhaps the city’s finest unobstructed view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Outdoor tables and a bar operated by Heartland Brewery lead to an authentic Spiegeltent (an elaborate wood-paneled mirror-tent), imported from the Continent for the occasion.
This is a one-ring affair, with a mere six rows of seats plus banquettes along the perimeter. Proximity makes it a reach-out-and-touch-them presentation; or, rather, sit back and get sprinkled with sweat. The many aerial acts swing right above the audience members’ heads; trance-like performers go catapulting off the circular stage, with nothing to stop them other than the people ringed in the front row.
“La Vie” is loosely plotted, with a master of ceremonies (Sebastien Soldevila) pulling a supposed patron (Patrick Leonard) out of the audience. Patrick is dead — as is everyone in the tent, we’re told, including the audience — and we are thus taken on a tour of taboos and secrets hosted from the afterlife. That’s the premise, anyway; in actuality, the show is a stylish parade of circus acts.
There’s a fellow (Samuel Tetreault) liberated from a wheelchair to do some impressive hand-balancing; a woman (Faon Shane) who does an aerial act hanging from chains; a flight attendant (Shana Carroll) — there are constant references to an airplane — who does a trapeze act; a highly likable contortionist (Isabelle Chasse) who does an impressive routine while bound in a straitjacket; and a rather remarkable apache dance by Soldevila and Emilie Bonnavand. This last is astounding in that they do it with Bonnavand frequently off the ground, balanced literally in the palm of Soldevila’s hand.
Recorded music is supplemented by the eighth member of the Seven Fingers, DJ Pocket, who provides sound effects both machine-made and emanating from his vocal-chords. (He calls himself a human beat box.) Pocket has a second-act spot where he transfers sounds to balls of clay, tosses them around a record turntable/potter’s wheel, and makes a sculpture (which — due to interference from the girls — turns phallic). Late in the evening, troupe co-founders Soldevila and Leonard do an amazing duo juggling act, and Leonard finds the opportunity briefly to lose all his clothes.
As impressive as some of the individual acts are, “La Vie” tends to get repetitive; after a while, even remarkable aerialists and strongmen can wear you down. Spiegelworld’s producers Ross Mollison (“Slava’s Snowshow”) and Vallejo Gantner (a.d. of P.S. 122) are clearly banking on last summer’s word-of-mouth to bring crowds of hip, downtown dwellers to South Street. “La Vie” just might fill the bill. At least, the beer garden should serve as a late-night magnet.