Chris Lashua was steampunk before steampunk was popular.
His performance troupe, Cirque Mechanics, was founded in 2004, but its roots date back more than a decade before, when he came up with a BMX bike/German Wheel act for Cirque du Soleil in 1992. That act helped jumpstart “his reputation as a visionary of circus gadgetry,” according to the Cirque Mechanics website, and Cirque Mechanics is the end result: a big top-style combination of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, contortionists, strongmen and mechanical beasts that comes to the Clayton Center for the Arts on Sunday.
“We were doing this before steampunk was a word that people understood what it meant,” Lashua told The Daily Times recently. “I remember we were doing a show around 10 years ago when someone came up and said, ‘That’s so steampunk!’ And I was like, ‘Steampunk? What is that?’ So I looked it up and realized that it’s a fictional aesthetic in which Jules Verne meets H.G. Wells meets this conception of what the future might have been had we gone down the road of steam instead of internal combustion.
“So yes, what we’re doing is steampunk in the sense that, yes, mechanics are the thing, and we think they’re beautiful, and we want to show them off, but what we’re doing is live performance and more real than what steampunk is. In some ways, steampunk is an aesthetic, but it’s not practical. The gears and machinery of steampunk are created to be beautiful, but they don’t really do anything. In our case, everything is designed to function in a way that makes our show more authentic.”
It’s difficult to describe in words just how dazzling the Cirque Mechanics show coming to Maryville is. Titled “42FT — A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels,” it’s billed as “a mechanical interpretation of the traditional, and its story full of the lore of the historic one-ring circus” that’s full of “theatricality and a modern sensibility, showcasing a galloping mechanical metal horse and a rotating tent frame for strongmen, acrobats and aerialists.” The title, Lashua said, refers to the diameter of the classic one-ring circus performance area.
“Forty-two feet is the magic number that a rider can stay on horseback at full gallop and perform a trick,” he said. “We’re bringing in elements of that classic American show — sword-swallowing, contortionists, a strongman, acrobatics — and we’ve got a storyline that ties it all together.”
The circus has been a magical place for Lashua since he was a child, when he fell in love with both the spectacle and the accomplishment of it.
“I remember being blown away by how, when the lights would come back on, everything would be in a different place and the colors would change and there would be something new, like a cage set up with a tiger in it,” he said. “My experience with the circus was like that of most people: Some were big shows, like the three-ring Ringling Bros., with animals, and some were smaller shows that integrated classic acts like the flying trapeze or aerialists or clowns.
“Circuses juxtapose all the things you wouldn’t normally see together — a ballerina on horseback, for example. It’s where all of these elements, all of these disparate disciplines, come together, and we have all of that in our show, except we have contraptions that are mechanical. Our central element is the carousel, which is a curved truss structure that’s round like a circus ring on the bottom, and the archway mimics a circus tent. It supports the show scenically, but the rigging is on that piece, and when we rotate that, we can show off what goes on behind the scenes.
“The movement of that piece is part of the show,” he added. “We want to show off the relationship between the mechanical world and the acrobats with these devices that become part of the show.”
In other words, how it’s done is as important to Cirque Mechanics as what’s being done: The machinery is another element, and together the mechanical and the humanity combine for a retro-futuristic blend of classic entertainment and engineering genius. As the unofficial ringmaster, Lashua is in his element when art forms are blended together, and because “42FT” integrates everything from theatricality to choreography to extreme sports daredevilry, it has something for everyone.
“We get families who come, and the dad wants to talk about the engineering — ‘How does that device work?’ — and the kids are saying, ‘I like the girl juggling on the mechanical horse, and someone else will appreciate the storyline of the guy who wants to run away and joint he circus,” he said. “In any kind of successful production, you want to have layers that people can key into or not. That’s one of the things that makes what we’re doing kind of special: We give people something to engage with, but everybody sees the same show and the same storyline.”
And when that storyline is set in such an iconic place of American popular culture, it taps into a primal nostalgia that audience members remember from their own childhoods. There’s a reason, Lashua pointed out, that the old saw about running away and joining the circus is still a part of the lexicon.
“We’re paying tribute to that period in the American circus that is gone,” he said. “It’s very rare to see a one-ring show with animals in it, but in our show, we have a mechanical horse, because the circus wouldn’t exist without the equestrian performance of a rider on horseback. What we do is directly delineated from this age-old thing that just transcends time, and I think people really appreciate that.”